The Washington Times - August 15, 2008, 08:41PM

The countdown isn’t quite to the top 25 just yet. But there are a few teams in this mix that could end up there by season’s end.

35. Colorado. Yes, the Buffaloes went 6-7 last year. And yes, quarterback Cody Hawkins can get lost in the constellation of signal-calling stars in his league.

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But here’s the truth: Colorado isn’t that far away from pushing itself back into Big 12 contention.

The Buffaloes won’t be in the class of Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas this season, and probably not Kansas or Texas Tech, either. But they’re getting close.

This year’s greatest need: Survive an early four-game stretch featuring West Virginia, Florida State, Texas and Kansas. That’s simply brutal, and Colorado couldn’t be too upset if it makes it to the midpoint of the season at 3-3. If the Buffs are any better, watch out – this team has a chance to make noise a year early.

34. Michigan State. It was a good first step for Mark Dantonio, whose team lost six games by a combined 31 points last year. The guy helped turn Cincinnati into a top-25 caliber team (a job Brian Kelly magnificently continued last year), and Sparty isn’t too far from joining that crowd.

The key is the offensive line and a downfield playmaker. Michigan State lost four vital pieces from its offensive line, and wideout Devin Thomas is now catching passes in the Potomac River drainage basin. That’s going to make improvement on offense tough to come by.

But the schedule is backloaded, which means Michigan State is the closest thing anyone will see this year to last season’s Virginia team. After a trip out west (to California), the Spartans get Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic and Notre Dame in East Lansing before going to Indiana, hosting Iowa and visiting Northwestern.

Mark it down: Michigan State will be at least 6-1 and could be unbeaten when Ohio State comes to town on Oct. 18.

33. Utah. Could a season-opening upset be brewing at the Big House? If Appalachian State can do it, so can the Utes. A bit overlooked because of the Brigham Young phenomenon in the Mountain West, Utah could also be very, very good this fall.

When you think of teams from the old and current WAC, you think about offense. But the Utes possess a redoubtable defense, and only three opponents (Louisville, Navy and, oddly, UNLV) managed more than 24 points against them last year. If the Utes can ignite their offense early in the season, a top-25 appearance might not be far away.

One of my favorite games of the season might just be an Oct. 2 tussle in Salt Lake City. On that night, the Utes play host to…

32. Oregon State. It never ceases to amaze just how overlooked the Beavers are. They’re considered in a lot of places a mid-pack Pac-10 team, and they might just have another slow start in them this year. But they’ll be as good as anyone in the conference not named Southern California once late October arrives and will wind up with eight or nine wins again.

Mike Riley is really an unheralded coach, and the accomplishment of winning nine games last year without a consistent quarterback is impressive. Sure, a stout defense (the nation’s best against the run) was gutted by graduation, but the offense should be able to make up for some of it even if Yvenson Bernard no longer will anchor the backfield.

Check back in on the Beavers starting with that Thursday night game at Utah. They might stumble out of it at 2-3, but it shouldn’t stop them from securing an 8-4 record and a trip to another mid-tier bowl.

31. Florida State. The Seminoles probably belong somewhere in the 50s for the talent level they’ll have for their first three games. But once all those guys return from suspensions connected with an academic scandal, Bobby Bowden and Co. will be just fine.

The Official Dot Com Diva has famously questioned the Seminoles’ offensive line, and that’s probably because most of those guys haven’t played significant time. The doubts here are about the secondary. The Seminoles were absolutely shredded through the air last year, and three of the starters from that unit are back.

Florida State’s fortunes will be determined by the pass. If the Seminoles can stop it and settle on an effective quarterback (either incumbent Drew Weatherford or Christian Ponder), they’re going to be fine.

The overriding question looming over the season is whether it will be Bowden’s last. More mediocrity could send the legend out the door. But the luxury of playing Clemson, Florida, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all in Tallahassee will help immensely. Count on the Seminoles to win at least two (maybe three) of those games against top-25 teams.

Patrick Stevens