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June 29, 2007

Mailbag: Finding the fool's gold

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
June 14: Snake bitten
June 8: Odd man out
June 1: Razorbacks turmoil

Some football games are played on natural grass and some on artificial turf, but none have been played on paper.

That's why some college football teams expected to be powerful turn out pitiful.

While considering the previous year's success, number of returning starters and the strength (or weakness) of schedule, the media will try to identify teams on the verge of breakout seasons.

Many break down, instead.

Take the 1999 Arizona Wildcats. They were riding the momentum of a stellar 12-1 finish, which included a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska the previous year. Running back Trung Canidate returned. So did quarterback Keith Smith and receiver Dennis Northcutt. The defense was in the midst of the 'Desert Swarm' glory years, having held eight opponents to 20 or fewer points in 1998.

Arizona opened the season ranked fourth in the country and promptly was blown out 41-7 by Penn State in the season-opener. The Wildcats limped to a 6-6 finish and haven't had a winning season since.

The Wildcats aren't alone. It's not uncommon for preseason hype to give way to postseason hurt.

Ranked No. 1 in the 1964 preseason Associated Press poll, Mississippi was upset by Kentucky in the second game of the season and finished the year 5-5-1.

The Tennessee Volunteers of 2005, which opened the season ranked No. 3, crawled to a disappointing 5-6 finish that included a rare loss to Vanderbilt.

Though the collapse wasn't as great, Auburn was No. 3 in 2003. The Tigers lost their first two games and ended up 8-5.

Then there was Oregon State, coming off a one-sided Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. The Beavers opened at No. 11 in 2001, lost three of their first four and stumbled to a 5-6 record.

Folks in Austin, Texas, won't forget the 1997 season in which the Longhorns started No. 12, climbed to No. 11 and then were destroyed at home by UCLA, 66-3. The 'Horns then spiraled out of control and crashed at 4-7.

However, there was a silver lining. John Mackovic was fired, Mack Brown was named his replacement and the Longhorns have not posted fewer than nine victories in any season since.

All this suggests that at least one team will be grossly overrated. But who?

A displaced Oklahoma fan seems to be offering an opinion to start this week's mailbag.

Overhyped 'Horns?

Why do people overhype Texas?

USC? Yes. LSU? Yes. Texas? No.

They have played in two BCS games in the last 10 years and they only made the first one because the coach cried on TV. They won a championship under the leadership of Vince Young, but other than that what have they done? They struggle to get 10 wins a year and only have two conference titles in the Big 12. Stop hyping the Horns for beating a 6-7 Iowa team in the Alamo Bowl (which is basically a home game for Texas) by less than a touchdown.

Sean in Fort Hood, Tex.

Well, the Longhorns have posted double-digit victory totals in each of the last six seasons. They also have three consecutive bowl victories and are 5-1 in their last six bowl games.

Three years ago Mack Brown did politic for the Longhorns to be included in a BCS bowl game, much the way that Urban Meyer campaigned for the Florida Gators to get into the national championship game last year.

Brown shouldn't be criticized for that, especially considering the Longhorns beat Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl. Cal (the team that was snubbed in favor of Texas) was beaten handily by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

In 2003, 10-2 Texas appeared headed to the Fiesta Bowl but was knocked out when Kansas State upset Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. Clearly, Texas has been among the nation's most successful teams in recent years.

It's true the Longhorns slumped at the end of last season. But they still beat Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State (all bowl teams) en route to 10 victories.

Of course, that doesn't have much to do with the upcoming season, except that Brown has consistently fielded strong teams and figures to do so again in 2007.

Texas returns QB Colt McCoy, who was excellent as a redshirt freshman last season. Also back are running back Jamaal Charles, WRs Limas Sweed, Quan Cosby and Billy Pittman, three offensive linemen with starting experience and a veteran defensive line.

The Longhorns' pass defense has to improve after an abysmal 2006, and issues in the secondary could set up a downfall. But overall, the Longhorns look like a team that's again capable of making a run at 10 victories.

A house divided

My wife went to Florida and I went to Georgia. I am so tired of hearing her trash talk. Will Georgia beat Florida this year in Jacksonville?

FYI: We go to the game every year but NEVER sit together.

Dave in Georgia

The Bible told us lambs and lions would lie down together, but Bulldogs and Gators, too?

A wise man once told me that when dealing with women it's best to pick your battles. Judgmental types would say you deserve the misery by marrying a Gainesville girl in the first place. Not me. I'm here to encourage.

In the spring, Georgia sophomore Matthew Stafford showed all the signs of taking the next step in the progression to becoming an All-SEC caliber quarterback. Also, next season the Bulldogs figure to be much deeper in the offensive line than in recent years. Given sufficient carries, Kregg Lumpkin should be a 1,000-yard back.

Losing Paul Oliver will definitely hurt the defense, but Georgia has a ton of gifted athletes in the secondary. Brandon Miller looked promising this spring at middle linebacker.

Furthermore, don't forget the Bulldogs defeated three consecutive ranked teams to end the 2006 season. That provides a lot of momentum entering the 2007 season.

But honestly, I don't think that provides as much momentum as winning a national championship. With Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell and Derrick Harvey returning Florida probably wins this year, too.

But don't fret, Dave. There's always basketball season.

Oh, sorry. Your life must be miserable right now.

The Wake or B.C. debate

Only weeks ago you claimed that you thought Boston College would play Virginia Tech for the ACC championship. Could you please attempt to explain why you think it will be Boston College instead of, say, Wake Forest?

Al in North Carolina

Boston College returns 10 starters from a pretty good defense. Seven starters on offense return, including All-ACC quarterback Matt Ryan, from a team which posted 10 victories a year ago.

Also, Ryan was hurt all last season. Now that's he's healthy I anticipate he will be more effective in 2007.

Wake Forest lost six starters from a defense which was the primary reason for its success in 2007. Replacing the production of linebacker Jon Abbate and safety Josh Gattis will be difficult for the Deacons.

I still feel Wake Forest will field a good team. Quarterback Riley Skinner returns, running back Micah Andrews is back from injury and Sam Swank is the ACC's best kicker.

Also, the Deacons play a very favorable schedule. However, that schedule does require Wake to open the season on the road at Boston College, which is one more reason to give the Eagles an edge.

Where does Cal stack up?

It seems to me that with all the news about the Arizona coaches, the UCLA defense, and the USC preseason ranking, Cal isn't being treated as an interesting enough Pac-10 team this year even though the offense that was first in scoring in the Pac-10 last season has nearly everyone returning. Shouldn't they be getting some hype? They're being projected anywhere from 9th to 20th in the rankings. Where do you personally think Cal stands in the rankings and in the Pac-10?

Yuan in San Francisco

California should be a preseason top-15 team with the potential to break into the top 10 if the Bears redeem themselves for last year's season-opening debacle at Tennessee.

Cal's offense should be among the nation's best with quarterback Nate Longshore, running back Justin Forsett and an exceptional group of receivers led by the dangerous DeSean Jackson.

Any doubts about the Bears will be based on a defense that loses six starters, including NFL draft picks Brandon Mebane (DL), Daymeion Hughes (CB) and Desmond Bishop (LB).

The linebacking corps was deep last season, so there probably won't be a major decline there. We'll have to wait and see how new starters in the line and secondary perform.

But with all that offensive talent and excellent special teams, I'd pick the Bears to finish second in the Pac-10. Also, Southern California has to visit Berkeley on Nov. 10. That means Cal should have a legitimate shot to win the Pac-10 championship.

Riverboat gambler

How is the suspension of Ryan Perrilloux going to affect the SEC this year?

Jonah in St. Louis

Not much. I'd bet Perrilloux will be reinstated before August. Besides, Matt Flynn is going to be the starting quarterback. If the Tigers can keep Flynn healthy Perrilloux won't be a factor.

Receiver reloading

Will USC win the Pac-10 despite the loss of their two main targets Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith? I can see them winning the national championship. What do you think?

Kyle in Portland, Ore.

Look for Patrick Turner a Jarrett clone to emerge as the Trojans' next great receiver. If he isn't then it might be Vidal Hazelton. Or David Ausberry. There will be no lack of capable candidates for quarterback John David Booty to find in opposing secondaries.

The return of Booty, who had a fine 2006 season in his first year as a starter, and 10 starters from an excellent defense should ensure USC is a strong contender for the national championship.

Don't expect USC to be as dominant as it was in 2004 when the Trojans defeated nine opponents by double-digit margins, including Oklahoma in the national championship game. The Pac-10 has improved top to bottom, and the Trojans have non-conference road games at Nebraska and Notre Dame. The potential for a loss or two is definitely there.

Still, USC is my preseason pick to win the national championship.

The rugged East

Why are the Gamecocks picked to finish fifth in the SEC East? Besides losing Sidney Rice, the Gamecocks have a significant amount of starters returning this year. With (Steve) Spurrier calling the plays you always have a chance of winning.

Jonathan in North Augusta, Ga.

No argument that Spurrier on the sideline always gives South Carolina a chance to win.

Of course, playing Georgia, Florida and Tennessee always gives them a chance to lose. Kentucky won't be a pushover, either.

Rice's departure to the NFL is a significant loss. QB Blake Mitchell needs to be more consistent, and will probably be better with another year of Spurrier's guidance. The Gamecocks' defense will be good, too.

This is potentially one of the best South Carolina teams ever, which actually isn't that great a compliment at all.

And that's why the Gamecocks are picked in the lower division of the SEC East. Georgia, Tennessee and Florida simply have proven more over time.

Many people like Kentucky because of quarterback Andre' Woodson, but we have UK (38) ranked behind South Carolina (29) in our preseason top 50 countdown.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised if South Carolina made a legitimate challenge in the SEC East. However, the division has so many strong teams that I wouldn't be surprised if the Gamecocks finished fourth.

At this point, that's where I'd guess they will finish in the race.

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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