January 30, 2009

Mailbag: The best will still be good in 2009

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Any team with a majority of its starters returning from a successful 2008 season might be polishing up its rendition of "We Are the Champions" in '09. Actually, those teams also would be wise to be humming "Georgia on My Mind."

This time a year ago, the Bulldogs had visions of grandeur. Quarterback Matthew Stafford topped a list of eight returning offensive starters; nine starters were coming back on defense. The Bulldogs had posted 11 victories and won their bowl game in 2007; they also beat archrival Florida.

But team chemistry doesn't necessarily return even if starters do. Once the season arrived, the Bulldogs were ravaged by injuries. Georgia still had a solid year and posted 10 wins, but it fell way short of contending for a national championship.

Any team with an experienced quarterback topping the list of a bunch of returning starters coming off a double-digit victory total, a bowl victory and a win over its archrival should have great aspirations for next season. Don't take anything for granted, though.

Longhorns' worries

From Ryan in Tulsa, Okla.: What are the chances Texas will make the national championship game next season? With a defense that's expected to be the best in the Big 12 and quarterback Colt McCoy returning, shouldn't Texas be favored to go?

Based on the return of nine offensive starters, seven defensive starters and the punter and kicker from a team that went 12-1 this past season, Texas' chances of reaching the BCS Championship Game next season are as good as anybody's and better than most.

The Longhorns definitely have legitimate national championship aspirations, but there are three key factors.

No. 1: They have to defeat Oklahoma. As was learned this season, defeating the Sooners won't even ensure a place in the Big 12 title game. But getting past the archrival is always the first step in attaining greater goals. Texas defeated OU 45-35 this past season, so the Longhorns will surely have a ton of confidence for that game, especially with OU losing four starters from its massive offensive line. But Texas also lost three starters from a defensive line that applied so much pressure. As always, that game won't be an easy win for either team.

No. 2: Texas has to end a recent disturbing trend of becoming an upset victim to inferior opponents late in the season. In '06 the Longhorns were in the national championship discussion until falling at Kansas State and to Texas A&M to close the season. In '07 they lost the regular-season finale to Texas A&M. This past season, they were ranked No. 1 but couldn't hold a late lead and fell to Texas Tech. The 2009 schedule is advantageous for the Longhorns. Other than the game with OU, a Halloween night game at Oklahoma State and a Nov. 21 game against Kansas are potential potholes.

No. 3: The Longhorns likely will need to go unbeaten to reach the national championship game because their schedule is too advantageous. Texas' non-conference opponents are Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, UCF and UTEP. Those teams combined for 17 victories in '08. In addition, the Big 12 doesn't project to be as strong as it was this past season. Against that schedule, the Longhorns will have a tough argument to make for playing in the national championship game if there are multiple one-loss teams.

Bluegrass improvement?

From Ernest in Lexington, Ky.: What do you think of Kentucky improving on its seven-win season and third consecutive bowl victory and moving up in the SEC rankings?

To be honest, Kentucky's seven victories in '08 came as a surprise. The Wildcats lost so much offensive talent after the '07 season that a significant step back from consecutive eight-win finishes was expected.

But the defense continued to get better under second-year coordinator Steve Brown, which was the main reason the Wildcats had another good season. Kentucky held eight opponents to 20 or fewer points.

Look for Brown to continue fielding a respectable defensive unit. And with a second-year starter at quarterback either Mike Hartline or Randall Cobb look for the Wildcats to get more production from an offense that ranked 106th in the nation this past season.

On the flipside, six of Kentucky's seven victories came against teams that finished with losing records. The Wildcats benefited from the SEC being weaker than usual in '08, and the conference overall figures to be better next season.

I'd anticipate the Wildcats would make a strong push at another bowl, but I'd pick them no higher than fourth in the SEC East.

Bias or inferiority complex?

From Aaron in Berkeley, Calif.: Why did your mailbag on what I thought was an article on the ultra-narcissists of the SEC turn so quickly into reinforcing the self-gratifying idiocy that SEC fans constantly spew? If we're talking about best conference top to bottom after the bowls ended, why not mention the only conference that went undefeated, the Pac-10? I and so many other fans are so sick of the East Coast bias in sports. I refuse to believe that football is better just because it is played in the Southeast.

First, let's address the bias issue. I'm from Texas. For the majority of my life, "East Coast" meant Port Arthur. So, there is no bias here.

Second, it's true that SEC fans, by and large, are insufferably narcissistic about their caliber of football. But give credit where credit is due.

Third, while it's true all five teams from the Pac-10 won their bowls, it's also true six SEC teams won bowls. And on any coast, six is more than five.

Also, don't forget that five Pac-10 teams failed to achieve bowl eligibility. How can anyone claim the Pac-10 is the strongest conference when half its teams didn't post winning records?

Still, for argument's sake, let's take a look at the bowl victories for each conference. Five of the SEC bowl victories were over ranked teams, including No. 1 Oklahoma (by Florida) and No. 7 Texas Tech (by Ole Miss). No. 8 Penn State, which lost the Rose Bowl to USC, was the highest-ranked Pac-10 opponent. And bowl results aren't a clear indicator of bowl superiority. They're just one element to be considered. Teams ranked in the final poll also must be taken into account. The SEC had four teams ranked in the final poll, the Pac-10 three.

Pac-10 advocates can argue that they have fewer teams than the SEC, which is true. And every team in the SEC was better than Washington and Washington State.

Money a big motivator

From Troy in Paragould, Ark.: Would Arkansas be better off joining the Big 12? Rivals such as Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri sound pretty good to me.

Joining the Big 12 certainly would be convenient in terms of travel. Yahoo maps shows that Fayetteville, Ark., is 530 miles from Austin, Texas; 236 miles from Norman, Okla.; and 313 miles to Columbia, Mo. Stillwater, Okla., is even closer.

In the SEC, Arkansas' nearest trip is to Oxford, Miss., which is 402 miles. Baton Rouge is a 550-mile trip.

But there is a certain amount of prestige associated with being in the SEC, especially in football. Being a league member is extremely lucrative and will become even more so because of a new ESPN TV deal, so I wouldn't expect the Razorbacks to be looking to leave.

Besides, Arkansas moved to the SEC in 1992. Today's players don't even remember Arkansas being in another conference.

Can Gators recover?

From Rex in Naples, Fla.: Which player do you think will replace Percy Harvin for Florida? And do you think anyone has a chance to beat the Gators next season?

The Gators have won two national championships in the past three seasons, and each time, they had suffered a loss. Of course there is a chance for the Gators to lose.

Florida will be the odds-on-favorite to repeat as national champion, but Harvin's absence is one reason the Gators could be vulnerable. I love Tim Tebow, but the more I watched Florida, the more I thought Harvin was the best player on the team.

Sophomore Deonte Thompson and incoming freshman Andre Debose are crazy fast and will get a chance to replace Harvin in the Florida lineup. But just because they're fast doesn't mean they will replace his production. Harvin was special.

Winning helps a lot

From Samuel in Rochester, N.Y.: Do you think California will start Kevin Riley at quarterback next season? Can the Golden Bears win the Pac-10?

USC again will be the popular pick to win the Pac-10. But with so many starters gone from that awesome Trojans defense and quarterback Mark Sanchez leaving early for the NFL, the Pac-10 race in '09 looks wide open to me. An experienced Cal team coming off a nine-win season and featuring blazing running back Jahvid Best surely will be a factor in the race.

Riley, who has 10 starts under his belt, projects as the probable starter, though he'll have to beat out sophomore Brock Mansion. If Riley plays as well as he did in the '07 Armed Forces Bowl, the Bears will have a chance.

In recent seasons, Cal has been one of the nation's biggest teases. The Bears typically start fast, then struggle in November. Obviously, they have to break that habit before they're taken seriously as championship contenders.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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