Five teams that should be exceptional this season – but maybe not quite good enough to contend for a national title. …
No. 15: GEORGIA TECH
The best thing about the Yellow Jackets this year? There is no lingering doubt as to whether the triple option will work in the ACC.
Last season – Paul Johnson’s first in Atlanta – took care of those concerns. Now, the only lingering doubts is whether Jonathan Dwyer can be even better as a junior than he was last season (1,395 yards, 12 TD).
The Yellow Jackets will be interesting to watch early, with meetings with Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech all wedged into the first seven games.
No matter. Georgia Tech will wind up with eight or nine wins. Johnson’s teams always do.
One other quirky Yellow Jacket-related fact: Georgia Tech joins Clemson and Florida as the only schools to play their entire regular season schedule on grass this season.
No. 14: OREGON STATE
Yet another example of a team surviving quite nicely despite a lack of experience, the Beavers’ overall defense was nearly as good in 2008 as it was in ‘07 (though not quite the same monsters they were in stopping the run).
This despite losing eight starters.
It’s happened again after yet another 9-4 season, this one culminating with the program’s fifth bowl victory in six years during coach Mike Riley’s second go-round in Corvallis.
His forgettable stint with the San Diego Chargers aside, Riley really is one of the most underrated coaching commodities in the country. And perhaps most telling is how much the Beavers improve as each season unfolds.
Over the last three seasons, Oregon State has gotten off to plodding starts, combining to go 6-7 in September. Afterward, the Beavers are 22-5. As a point of comparison, Southern California is 24-4 after Oct. 1 in that same stretch.
The Beavers bring back two veteran quarterbacks, sizzling tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and a reputation as one of the Pac-10’s steadiest teams. Maybe Oregon State doesn’t belong this high now, but chances are the Beavers will warrant serious consideration for a top-15 spot by the end of the season.
No. 13: MISSISSIPPI
After three years in an ugly wilderness presided over by Ed Orgeron, Rebels fans learned something quite valuable last year once Coach O had been deposed.
Namely, that the sometimes crazy Hummer hawker sure could recruit.
Houston Nutt didn’t need to offer up an extreme makeover upon safe-landing in Oxford, just to deploy the talent Orgeron so expertly assembled. And deploy it he did, rolling up a 9-4 record while the Rebels joined 2007 Auburn as the only teams to deal the Blessed Tebow a home loss in his career.
Now comes the tough part: Managing sky-high expectations thanks to a boatload of returning talent led by quarterback Jevan Snead (a favorite of a Steve Spurrier underling) and tailback Dexter McCluster (a lock for a backfield spot in the all-name team).
It’s tempting to be leery of this situation, but absolutely nothing stands out to suggest last year is an utter fluke. The Rebels had a negative turnover margin for the season and were +3 in just one game (Auburn). All four of their losses came by a touchdown or less, and just two of their victories came by single digits (Florida and Arkansas).
In short, they were just really, really good. And ought to be again.
And then there’s the schedule. Florida is nowhere in sight. Neither is Georgia. Alabama, Louisiana State and Tennessee all pay visits to the Grove.
It’s a remarkably promising alignment. You can’t help but be wary of a program nearly a half-century removed from its last back-to-back nine-win seasons. But as a chic pick, Mississippi is a far better bet than fellow preseason buzz darling Oklahoma State.
No. 12: CALIFORNIA
The second-best thing going for the Golden Bears’ hopes of cracking the national title discussion is there isn’t the chance to foolishly fly to the East Coast the day before a noon game again.
The best thing going for the Golden Bears is tailback Jahvid Best.
Yes, some of it is the system; J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett did rather well preceding Best as Cal’s featured back.
But a system doesn’t create speed, and Best possessed plenty of it. He enters the season with 1,801 yards rushing, putting him within reach of Russell White’s school record of 3,367.
Best of all, Maryland’s Kevin Barnes has graduated and won’t be around to administer a vomit-inducing hit on Sept. 5.
Overall, Best is one of many reasons Cal could make a run for the Rose Bowl. The nonconference schedule is favorable, and both Oregon State and Southern California come to Berkeley. Maybe the Golden Bears won’t turn out to be a top-10 team, but they’ll be interesting to watch regardless of how things play out.
No. 11: BOISE STATE
The titans of the Smurf Turf will start the season with a true put-up-or-shut-up game for the first time since visiting Georgia in 2005.
Indeed, Oregon makes a return trip to Boise after losing to the Broncos early last season. And folks will know early on how worthy a successor this Boise State bunch is to last year’s 12-1 team that lost to Texas Christian in the Poinsettia Bowl.
The quick breakdown: Quarterback Kellen Moore needs some new receivers, but the Broncos routinely average more than 35 points. That problem will probably solve itself.
Trickier is a depleted defense that allowed only two opponents to score more than 17 points last season. Boise is routinely good on defense, but not great to the levels seen in 2008. Expect a return to usual, which is still pretty solid.
In any case, this is a program that has averaged nearly 11 wins a year since 2000 (98 victories in nine seasons). The Broncos aren’t going anywhere, and might be heading up in that opener against Oregon works out in their favor.