College Football Countdown: Nos. 21-25

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Finally into the top 25. Finally.

Which means there’s only five more installments of the countdown to go.

And here’s one of them …

No. 25: CINCINNATI

This is a ranking based as much on faith in coach Brian Kelly’s ability to maximize what he has at his disposal than anything else.

For as much as experience can be overrated, it is difficult to envision the Bearcats not enduring some hiccups on defense. They bring back one starter, brought in a new coordinator (Bob Diaco from Virginia) and installed a new scheme.

So that’s sort of a problem.

Fortunately for Kelly, his offense should be modestly better after deploying four quarterbacks last year, and the Bearcats’ penchant for turnovers should decline a bit.

Clearly, calling a second straight Big East title for Cincinnati is going out on a limb. But Kelly’s last three teams all rolled up 10 wins, and the guy clearly knows what he’s doing. The Bearcats might not be great, but they’ll flummox a lot of folks in the second half of the season.

No. 24: TEXAS TECH

It’s the system, folks – the Red Raiders can lose just about everyone from their offense and still keep humming along nicely.

That’s a credit to coach/pirate aficionado Mike Leach, who managed an 11-2 season with his most talented bunch last year.

Of course, that 11-win season is an outlier. The previous six seasons, Texas Tech hauled in eight or nine wins, its defense betraying it against elite opponents.

And that sounds about like what will happen this year.

The Red Raiders play only three Big 12 road games, but they happen to be at Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas. Then there’s the matter of playing Oklahoma, as well.

Texas Tech won’t disappear. It’s just they won’t be in the national title picture deep into November this time around.

No. 23: UTAH

Another team that isn’t just going to go into hiding, the Utes are also not poised to repeat last year’s magical 13-0 run.

Utah needs new receivers. It’ll break in a new quarterback. It has to play at Oregon, Texas Christian and Brigham Young.

But the Utes will still be good.

Here, by the way, is a look at how the last 20 unbeaten major-college teams fared in the ensuing season:

2007 Boise State: 10-3
2006 Texas: 10-3
2005 Southern California: 12-1
2005 Auburn: 9-3
2005 Utah: 7-5
2003 Ohio State: 11-2
2002 Miami: 12-1
2001 Oklahoma: 11-2
2000 Florida State: 11-2
2000 Marshall: 8-5
1999 Tennessee: 9-3
1999 Tulane: 3-8
1998 Michigan: 10-3
1998 Nebraska: 9-4
1996 Nebraska: 11-2
1995 Nebraska: 12-0
1995 Penn State: 9-3
1994 Auburn: 9-1-1
1993 Alabama: 9-3-1
1993 Michigan: 8-4

No. 22: MICHIGAN STATE

Perpetually a program doomed to shoot itself in the foot, Sparty had a rather impressive accounting in 2008.

Sure, they lost at California and Penn State, at home to Ohio State and in the Capital One Bowl to Georgia.

But … how to put this nicely? Michigan State was supposed to lose those games.

But if we are to the point that the Spartans aren’t going to beat themselves, then this ranking could be a little low.

After all, they get Penn State at home. Iowa at home. Michigan at home. And there’s no sign of Ohio State.

Sparty will break in new starters at tailback and quarterback. They’re in great shape everywhere else. If those two holes are filled, there might be a stealth run at a Rose Bowl berth in Michigan State’s near future.

No. 21: FLORIDA STATE

For some reason unknown to me, the more I think about Florida State, the less I really like them this season and just merely think highly of them.

(This is especially puzzling since the last time I saw the Seminoles, they hammered Maryland 37-3 and gave the distinct impression of one their early 1990s teams).

Maybe it’s the losses on defense. Maybe it’s the questions at wideout and kicker (which always warrants a mention when this program is involved).

And maybe it’s just because Florida State has lost at least three games in each of the last eight years, thus finally providing a large enough buffer that it isn’t assumed the Seminoles will even be a top 15 or top 20 team each season.

Bobby Bowden’s team will be good. It will go to a bowl game. It has the pieces to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2005.

The Seminoles are a good bet for a spot in the top tier of ACC bowls (Orange/Chick-Fil-A/Gator); Bowden’s presence alone makes them appealing. But a payoff as a league champion? There’s just enough concerns (including a tough schedule) to create some serious doubt as to whether Florida State can win 10 games.

Patrick Stevens

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