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College Football Countdown: Nos. 31-35

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The preseason top 25 is nearly here. But tonight, you’ll have to settle for five teams that could find their way into the spotlight with a couple big victories. …

No. 35: EAST CAROLINA

The Pirates, the D1scourse preseason favorites to capture a second straight Conference USA title, were an odd bunch a year ago.

They beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia, lost badly to Houston and Southern Mississippi and barely ended up outgaining its opposition for the season.

Skip Holtz, once a sure thing to bolt after the season, instead remained in Greenville. Maybe the jump comes next year, since East Carolina returns nearly its entire offense.

The ranking might be a tick high, but at the same time the Pirates have improved their record for five straight seasons. If they do it again, East Carolina will enjoy its first 10-win season since the magical Jeff Blake years.

But will it happen? Chances are, it will require an upset of West Virginia, North Carolina or Virginia Tech. It’s doable, but another 9-5 is probably more likely.

No. 34: SOUTH CAROLINA

No, the Ol’ Ball Coach hasn’t won a national title or tutored a Heisman winner. But not only has he kicked Tennessee when it was down, he’s also authored all but one year in a five-season stretch of .500 or better seasons for the Gamecocks.

And should Steve Spurrier coax another seven wins out of South Carolina, he’ll be the first coach to manage five consecutive .500 or better seasons on his own since Billy Laval did it from 1928 to 1934.

In short, Spurrier is overseeing a golden age in Gamecocks football – and he has a 28-22 record (15-17 in the SEC) to show for it.

Other programs are unlucky. The Gamecocks, despite the loyalty shown by the 80,000 who pack Williams-Brice Stadium each week, might actually be cursed. Residing in the same cul-de-sac as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee helps not in the slightest, and even after modest success with Spurrier and Lou Holtz it is becoming clear there is a blatant ceiling for the program.

That’s why calling for an 8-4 season is realistic, yet anything greater is a reach. The Gamecocks can be a bottom-of-the-top-25 team, but it’s difficult to see things getting much better than that.

No. 33: PITTSBURGH

The Panthers will indeed miss tailback LeSean McCoy, and could be hurting without linebacker Scott McKillop even more.

Still, think about those losses. As good as McCoy and McKillop are, they play positions where talent is more plentiful than at others. And for that reason, the Panthers have a chance to contend for a Big East crown.

It’s not a perfect team, mind you, and Pittsburgh’s opening (home loss to Bowling Green) and closing (3-0 bowl setback to Oregon State) are ignominious bookends to an otherwise impressive season in 2008.

But the opportunity for a fast start exists, especially if the Panthers spring a surprise at N.C. State in late September.

Pittsburgh was overrated entering last season, but seem like an undervalued team right now. No one in the Big East is a sure thing (well, except for the certainty of Syracuse not being too good), so a BCS berth certainly isn’t out of the question.

No. 32: NOTRE DAME

The offense got better, as did the defense, and – voila! Remotely respectable Fighting Irish football.

Now, the folks in South Bend are paying for more than “remotely respectable.” And that’s why Charlie Weis will rightfully receive a lot of scrutiny if he can’t lift the Irish back to the 10-win neighborhood after two mediocre seasons.

It’s a legitimate possibility, assuming the Jimmy Clausen-led offense makes another leap this year. Besides the visit from Southern California, nothing looks unwinnable. Boston College and Michigan State both visit South Bend, and the trip to Pittsburgh is a pure toss-up game.

The Irish also play both Washington schools and Stanford, not to mention Nevada. At this point, maybe the Irish should join the Pac-10.

Obviously, that isn’t happening. What could, though, is a 9-3 season and Gator Bowl berth that restore some of the shine to a Golden Dome tarnished by 3-9 and 7-6 records the last two years.

No. 31: MIAMI

Coach Randy Shannon was asked over and over again about the brutal opening stretch (at Florida State, Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech, Oklahoma) awaiting his team during Monday’s ACC Kickoff media session.

And why not? The Hurricanes join Georgia as the only schools to open with at least four straight games against opponents from BCS conferences.

Miami figures to improve on last year’s 7-6 – at least after that opening third. The Hurricanes committed far too many turnovers last year, rotated quarterbacks and melted down with a young roster late in the season.

This time, the odds suggest turnovers won’t be as much of a problem, Jacory Harris is firm installed under center with Robert Marve gone and a valuable extra year of wisdom is in place.

The start is scary, no question. If Miami salvages a split (taking two of those first three ACC games while losing to Oklahoma) then it’ll be time to start talking about “The U” again – at least in terms of emerging as a conference contender.

Patrick Stevens

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