August 24, 2007

Olin's Mailbag: The fight at the top

MORE: COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF ARCHIVE

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
August 17: Dreams of youth
August 11: The cost of losing
August 3: Immediate returns
July 27: August turns up the heat
July 20: The next star

The teams ranked in college football's preseason top 10 should be a bit paranoid.

History indicates that one of them won't be ranked at all by midseason.

In the last 10 years, eight teams that were ranked among the Associated Press' preseason top 10 were unranked before the midway point of the season.

The most recent team to experience the freefall was Oklahoma, which opened the 2005 ranked No. 7.

The Sooners fell to No. 18 after losing 17-10 to TCU in the season opener. Two weeks later, they lost to UCLA and dropped out of the top 25.

Auburn endured a similar collapse after opening No. 6 in 2003. It lost to Southern California and Georgia Tech in its first two games. A month later the Tigers resurfaced in the rankings at No. 18, but were immediately knocked out after losing to LSU.

Perhaps the most startling collapse in that span was in 2000 when Alabama, fresh off a 10-3 finish and SEC Championship the previous year, opened at No. 3.

The Crimson Tide lost three of its first four games and finished 3-8.

The other teams in the last decade to go from riches to rags are Colorado (No. 7 in 2002), Nebraska (No. 10 in 2002), Arizona (No. 4 in 1999), Michigan (No. 5 in 1998) and Arizona State (No. 9 in 1998).

So, fans of the preseason top 10 teams may be nervously looking around and wondering if their favorite school might become a statistic.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Targets at the top

In your opinion, what team in the top 10 will not be in the top 25 by Week Five of the season? Every year it seems there is at least one top-10 team that falls like Wylie Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. My guess is LSU, which will take Mississippi State too lightly, lose to the Bulldogs and never recover. What say you?

David in Skyline, Ala.
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The AP top 10 consists of USC, LSU, West Virginia, Texas, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Louisville. Falling out of the national rankings would likely require at least two losses maybe more.

For example, three of Florida's first six games are against Tennessee, Auburn and LSU, which are all highly ranked. If the Gators lost by close margins, they may not fall all the way out of the rankings.

Of course, that's not what you asked.

I don't think any of those teams will be out of the Top 25 midway through the season, but if pressed to choose one I'd guess Florida or Texas.

Florida is rebuilding its defense, has a new quarterback and - as mentioned some tough opponents early.

Texas also is making major changes on its defense and has to shore up a pass defense which was among one of the worst in the country last year.

Two of the Longhorns' first five games are against highly regarded TCU and Kansas State, which beat Texas last year.

But I'd expect Florida and Texas will still be ranked midway through the season.

The second time around

Is there any possibility of Florida seeing back-to-back national championships for football this year? Is Tim Tebow a worthy enough quarterback to step up? I think he may not make the real difference, so who will? Chris Leak wasn't anything special last year, so why should Tebow need to be?

Brandon in Pierson, Fla.
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Of course, there is always the chance Florida could win consecutive national championships. However, it hasn't happened in the BCS championship era (USC's 2003 championship was voted by the AP), and it's not likely to happen.

The last team to win a national championship with a first-year starter at quarterback was Tennessee in 1998 with Tee Martin, the successor to Peyton Manning.

I believe Tebow will prove to be an exceptional quarterback, but I think a rebuilt defense will prevent the Gators from duplicating their basketball team's feat of claiming back-to-back championships.

The Gators don't figure to have as much talent in the starting lineup after losing six NFL draft choices, including first round picks Reggie Nelson (safety) and Jarvis Moss (end) from their defense. The Gators won't have as much depth, either.

They will still be good - very good. Just not good enough to win the national championship.

Going to the rulebook

What would stop teams from just kicking the ball out of bounds on kickoffs to avoid nifty return men?

Tom in Virginia Beach, Va.
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The kicking team has the option of accepting the ball at the 35-yard line or forcing the kicking team to re-kick from 5 yards farther back.

An intentional illegal kickoff would set up the possibility of a re-kick from the kicking team's 25-yard line.

Comparing Tigers to Hokies

Which team has the best chance of winning its conference, LSU or Virginia Tech?

Eric
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The feeling here is LSU has a better team and will beat the Hokies on Sept. 8 in Baton Rouge. However, Virginia Tech has a better chance to win its conference championship.

Why? Because I think the SEC is stronger than the ACC, so winning an SEC title is more difficult.

The SEC has six teams ranked among the Associated Press preseason Top 25, and No. 2 LSU must play three of them No. 6 Florida, No. 18 Auburn and No. 21 Arkansas.

If they win the SEC West, they would likely play another ranked team in the SEC championship game.

No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 19 Florida State are the only teams in the ACC listed among the preseason rankings.

That doesn't mean the Hokies will have an easy time winning the ACC. They also have to play Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and Boston College - all of which will not be pushovers.

Still, Virginia Tech's defense again will be among the best in the country. The word out of Blacksburg is that quarterback Sean Glennon appears to have made positive strides in his decision making. Also, running back Branden Ore is a good one, so there are a lot of reasons to like the Hokies.

Like Virginia Tech, LSU will have one of the best defenses in the country. However, the Tigers have a new starting quarterback in Matt Flynn. He played well against Miami in the Peach Bowl two years ago, but Flynn has to prove he can perform at a high level week in and week out.

I think he will.

Setting the record straight

You mentioned that Wisconsin might be ahead of OU in the polls because, among other things, the Sooners lost to Boise State the year before. I realize Boise State is in a weak conference, but no one beat them last year. Do feel Wisconsin would have had an easy victory over Boise State?

Zack
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No, I don't think Wisconsin would have won easily had it played Boise State last season. In fact, I don't know that the Badgers would have beaten Boise State, which was clearly better than a lot of people (myself included) believed. I'll admit I thought Oklahoma would beat Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

However, what you're referring to is a question asked last week as to why anyone would rate Wisconsin ahead of Oklahoma.

Both teams have a ton of starters returning from successful seasons in 2006, and both will start new quarterbacks this year Tyler Donovan at Wisconsin and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma.

The point was that it's not outrageous to rate Wisconsin a step ahead of Oklahoma (Rivals.com has Wisconsin eighth and OU ninth in its preseason rankings) because last season the Badgers posted more victories.

That's not a knock on the Sooners. It's just an explanation of why Wisconsin shouldn't be dismissed just because it lost Joe Thomas and John Stocco.

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.

MORE: COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF ARCHIVE



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