July 29, 2007

Olin's mailbag: August turns up the heat

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of Fall practice.
Previous mailbags
July 20: The next star
July 13: Only time will tell
July 6: Serious fans dream big
June 29: The fool's gold

Heat and expectations typically rise in August.

When it comes to college football, 'heat' and 'expectations' are not always mutually exclusive terms. Demanding boosters and fans put heat on coaches to meet expectations.

The better a program's tradition, the more intense the heat.

With that in mind, here's a heat advisory and forecast for a few college towns around the nation.

Los Angeles: (Fair and sunny): Every day is pleasant in Pete Carroll's world. His Southern California Trojans have posted at least 11 victories in each of the last five seasons. USC has a deep and talented team that is the consensus No. 1 pick.

Gainesville, Fla. (Mild): The heat is often sweltering this time of the year, but a national championship brought a nice cooling trend. Warning to coach Urban Meyer: Cooling trends don't last long down there.

Ann Arbor, Mich. (Uncomfortable): Lloyd Carr, one of the most unappreciated coaches in the country, could get the last laugh with a loaded offense and a schedule that brings most of the heavyweight opponents to Michigan Stadium. However, the temperature won't fall in Ann Arbor until Ohio State does.

College Station, Texas (Muggy): Nine victories, including a big win in Austin last November, significantly reduced the heat on Dennis Franchione. Then a high-pressure system blew in from California. Now the Farmers' Almanac anticipates another heat wave.

Knoxville, Tenn. (Unseasonably warm): On the banks of the Tennessee River, the issue is not so much the heat as the humidity. The Volunteers must sweat out life in the SEC East. Coming off a nine-win season, coach Phillip Fulmer needn't worry. Athletic Director Mike Hamilton has already said Fulmer isn't on a hot seat.

Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Hot): Everyone north of Auburn already loves Nick Saban, and any early losses will likely be blamed on his predecessor. A $4 million-a-year salary will buy almost everything, but it won't buy time. Crimson Tide fans aren't known for their patience (five coaches in eight years). Alabama is expecting an immediate return on its investment.

Fayetteville, Ark. (Torrid): The Razorbacks posted 10 victories and won the SEC West last year, and half the population of Arkansas still wanted coach Houston Nutt fired. So, what happens if the Razorbacks stumble to a mere eight or nine wins?

Louisville, Ky. (Nuclear): There was a time when the mercury didn't climb that high here until basketball season, but Steve Kragthorpe has entered a situation in which he can only win if he doesn't lose. With 14 starters - including quarterback Brian Brohm - returning from a team which was 12-1 a year ago, Cardinals fans are talking national championship. If Louisville falters, guess who will be blamed.

Expectations are more grandiose in some places than others. Still, there is a certain degree of heat on every campus.

Even in Oxford, Mississippi, as we see in this week's mailbag.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Colonel Reb needs upset

I realize this question is a long shot. With such a big, powerful offensive line and running game - and maybe a sound quarterback in Seth Adams this year - do the Ole Miss Rebels have any shot win six games and make it to a bowl? I know they are lacking on defense, which will always be a problem in the SEC.

Aaron in Oxford, Miss.
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A six-win season doesn't seem unreasonable, especially if the Rebels get sound quarterback play as you suggested. However, that's an enormous 'if' because Brent Schaeffer was the most disappointing player in America last season.

Schaeffer didn't arrive in Oxford until last August, so maybe he was unfamiliar with the system and that factored in to his poor showing. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Adams outplayed Schaeffer in the spring. If Adams emerges as the starter, maybe he'll play well enough to take some pressure off BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The running back rushed for 1,000 yards a year ago.

Let's look at this glass as half full. Even with poor quarterback play, the Rebels lost to Georgia by five points, Alabama by three in overtime, Auburn by six and LSU by three in overtime. Had they pulled two of those out they could have gone to a bowl game last season.

Of course Colonel Reb is without star linebacker Patrick Willis now, but every team loses players. Coach Ed Orgeron has recruited well, and perhaps this is the season those efforts bear fruit. Besides, Ole Miss returns nine starters on offense - including a couple of All-SEC types in Green-Ellis and offensive tackle Michael Oher. Ole Miss returns six starters on defense.

Last season the Rebels defeated Memphis, Vanderbilt, Northwestern State and Mississippi State. Duplicate that feat and you're almost there. Also, expect Ole Miss to win at home against Louisiana Tech. That's five.

One upset should get you there.

Now here's the half empty part. That upset would have to come over Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn or LSU.

Good luck.

Overshadowed showdown

Since both teams have been in a downswing of late, I haven't seen much talk about the Miami-Oklahoma game. So I turn to you. Thoughts?

Jordan in Columbia, Mo.
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Oklahoma won the Big 12 championship last season, so the Sooners can hardly be viewed as being in a downswing - unless national championships are the barometer you're using.

But to answer the question, I'd guess one reason the Oklahoma-Miami matchup probably isn't as highly anticipated nationally is it's on Sept. 8. Some of the best non-conference matchups of the season are featured that week. Other games that weekend are Virginia Tech at LSU, Oregon at Michigan, Notre Dame at Penn State, TCU at Texas, Nebraska at Wake Forest, South Florida at Auburn and BYU at UCLA.

OU-Miami isn't the marquee game that week, but still will be very interesting and nationally significant.

Miami had the nation's seventh ranked defense last season, and the Hurricanes figure to be even better this year with DE Calais Campbell, CB Randy Phillips and FS Kenny Phillips among seven returning starters.

That defense will pose a huge test for the Sooners. OU has an experienced offensive line, elusive running backs and an acrobat at WR in Malcolm Kelly. However, Oklahoma has uncertainty at the quarterback position.

Miami also has QB issues with Kyle Wright coming off a sub-par year. Wright will continue to try and fend off Kirby Freeman. Oklahoma's defense, which has seven starters returning, also projects to be among the best in the country.

Oklahoma kicker Garrett Hartley is coming off a 2006 season in which he converted 19 of 20 field goals, which would appear to give the Sooners an advantage.

The main reason I'd expect OU to win is because the game is in Norman. The Sooners have only lost twice at home in eight seasons under coach Bob Stoops.

A word from the Big East

How come you never seem to focus on the Big East? I know you are one of the bashers, but don't act like we don't exist. Anyway, I was wondering if you would rank the top running backs in the nation.

Also, as a USF student/fan, I know that Matt Grothe is a top-flight quarterback. How do you compare him to fellow sophomores Colt McCoy, Matt Stafford and Tim Tebow?

Dave in South Florida
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You must not read this feature often, Dave. I've been an advocate of the Big East, and I've got the hate mail from SEC fans to prove it.

Anyway, my list of the nation's top five running backs are: 1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas; 2. Steve Slaton, West Virginia; 3. Ray Rice, Rutgers; 4. Mike Hart, Michigan; 5. Ian Johnson, Boise State. Does that prove my respect for the Big East?

As for quarterback comparisons I'm apprehensive because I have very high opinions of Grothe, Tebow, Stafford and McCoy and personal preferences can be misconstrued as criticism.

However, we're here to serve, so since you asked:

Grothe is very good runner, but I think Tebow is better.

Grothe is also a good passer, but McCoy is more accurate.

Grothe has a bright future, though I think Stafford has more potential and upside.

Grothe certainly is a better bartender than any of them, though.

Buckeyes the blueprint?

I think Michigan is this year's Ohio State. They have arguably the best offense in the country, which includes four possible All-Americans. That's similar or better than what Ohio State had last year.

The Wolverines lost a lot of their defense. The only big differences are that Michigan seems to have better skill players and offensive linemen than last year's Buckeyes. I know Chad Henne is no Troy Smith, but with receivers like (Mario) Manningham and (Adrian) Arrington to throw to he should have a great season. If this is the case, then why aren't the Wolverines rated at least in the top three?

Ethan in Ann Arbor
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The comparison of this year's Michigan to last year's Ohio State is one that's been repeated throughout the offseason, and appears to be legitimate. However, I'm not sure Michigan has better skill players than Ohio State did unless you're comparing Michigan running back Mike Hart to Ohio State's Antonio Pittman - I'd give you that one.

However, I think I'd take Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez as a pair over Manningham and Arrington.

My personal apprehension about Michigan stems from the poor pass defense which was exploited in season-ending losses to Ohio State and Southern California. As you mentioned, that defense is now without CB Leon Hall, DE LaMarr Woodley, DT Alan Branch and LB David Harris, who were all taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

Can we expect Michigan's defense to be better without them?

However, it did work out when Ohio State lost nine starters - including three first-round draft choices.

Ron English is a sharp defensive coordinator, and there is no reason CB Morgan Trent, S Stevie Brown and DE Tim Jamison can't raise their performance level the way so many Ohio State players did a year ago.

However, they had better do it quickly. Michigan plays Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn State in September. If the defense's problems haven't been ironed out, the Wolverines' national championship hopes could come to a quick end.

That isn't likely, though. We have Michigan fourth in the Rivals.com preseason rankings because of its powerful offense and the fact that most of the Wolverines' marquee games will be played in Ann Arbor.

Florida defense still good

Do you think S Tony Joiner and DE Derek Harvey can bring Florida's inexperienced but very talented defense together to be a force in the SEC?

Ben in Floral City, Fla.
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As noted above, Ohio State proved last year that losing a majority of starters doesn't necessarily render a defense ineffective.

Look for Florida to become another example.

Harvey is a dominant end and one of the nation's premier pass rushers. Joiner is an experienced, steadying influence in the secondary.

Also, Javier Estopinan was having a solid year at defensive tackle before hurting his knee last season and he's healthy again.

Another reason not to discount Florida's defense is the fact that the Gators have recruited so well. Ten of their potential starters were no worse than four-star prospects. Like Harvey, sophomore middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was rated a five-star prospect.

Ratings don't guarantee performance, but they do give an indication of potential. So, look Florida defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison to field another solid unit.

The Florida defense won't be as good as it was a year ago, but should still be good enough to ensure the Gators' status as an SEC championship contender.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.



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