College Football Countdown: Nos. 1-5

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It’s the final (part of the) countdown …

No. 5 OREGON

Ducks fans probably heard Willie Lyles‘ name more than LaMichael James‘ this summer, and that’s obviously not a good thing. At best, the specter of NCAA punishment will loom over Nike U. for a while. At worst, time is ticking on coach Chip Kelly much like it was on his counterparts at Ohio State and North Carolina over the last year.

For now, though, the Ducks are still a possible national title contender in a league not exactly teeming with top-25 possibilities. Conveniently enough, two of three best non-Oregon outfits (Arizona State and Southern California) visit Eugene, as does annual overachiever (other than last year) Oregon State.

Kelly hasn’t made a habit of losing to chumps in his two seasons; 2009 Boise State (14-0), 2009 Stanford (8-5), 2009 Ohio State (11-2) and 2010 Auburn (14-0) combined for a healthy 47-7 mark. Chances are, if the Ducks trip up this year, it will be against Louisiana State, Stanford or a BCS bowl opponent to be determined in December.

He also has some leftovers from one of the best offenses in recent memory (major college football’s seventh-best scoring offense since 2000).

Unsurprisingly, none of the other teams that averaged 45 points in a season in that span got better at scoring the next season:

YearSchoolPPGNext Yr. PPG    
Pct. Change     
2001Brigham Young   
46.822.7-51.5%
2002Boise State
45.643.0-5.7%
2004Louisville49.843.4-12.9%
2004Boise State
48.936.1-26.2%
2004Utah45.330.0-33.8%
2005Texas50.235.9-28.5%
2005Southern Cal
49.130.5-37.9%
2006Hawaii46.943.4-7.5%
2008Oklahoma51.131.1-39.1%
2008Tulsa47.229.3-37.9%
2010Oregon47.0
2010   
Boise State
45.1   

 

Some of the more precipitous declines have come, predictably, when a quarterback departs (or, in the case of 2009 Oklahoma and Sam Bradford, gets hurt). Both 2002 Boise State (Ryan Dinwiddie) and 2006 Hawaii (Colt Brennan) returned their QBs.

So does Oregon, with Darron Thomas returning for his second year as a starter.

For as much as the Ducks destroy opponents with tempo and the rushing game, the quarterback matters in this offense as much as any. Expect a revamped offensive line and improved adaptations by opponents to prevent Oregon from destroying scoreboards with quite the same gusto. But the Ducks are still the Pac-12 favorites, and should be unbeaten heading into November if they win their opener against Louisiana State.

No. 4 BOISE STATE

Besides talent, the No. 1 reason Boise State could earn a third BCS invitation in six years is its schedule.

And the No. 1 reason the Broncos probably won’t play for a national title is its schedule.

Things line up fairly well for Boise to make an unbeaten run. Perhaps its toughest game on paper (against Georgia in Atlanta) is the opener, and thus provides plenty of prep time. The other contender for toughest foe (Texas Christian) is at home and after a two-week stretch that features a bye and a trip to UNLV.

One thing seems clear: There won’t be a late-season heartbreak; Wyoming and New Mexico come calling to Boise in the regular season’s final two weeks. Neither is a threat to pull off what Nevada did last November in Reno.

But while the cupcakes in the Mountain West aren’t quite the same level of pushovers as the WAC’s bottom-feeders (besides New Mexico, anyway), a 12-0 Boise State team isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt from voters to be ranked in the top two compared to, say, a 12-1 SEC champion or even an 11-1 Oklahoma outfit that loses to, say, Florida State early in the season.

Not saying it’s right or wrong. But realistically, it’s a correct analysis, no matter how many touchdowns  Kellen Moore throws for in a dozen games. The nonconference schedule is actually stronger than many folks will give it credit for, but the Broncos most likely outcome is either a 12-0 or 11-1 season, a Mountain West crown and an increasingly gaudy record for coach Chris Petersen.

No. 3 LOUISIANA STATE

Any other team with the Tigers’ profile from a year ago – erratic quarterback, fairly modest yardage advantage, five wins by six points or less – would be due a regression, even with a decent number of starters coming back.

Any other team wouldn’t be coached by Les Miles, a man who can befuddle with the best of them and yet still manages to coax quality seasons out of his team.

With uneven play under center, Louisiana State still won 11 games last season. The yardage edge was a nice change of pace; the Tigers were actually outgained by 20 yards a game in 2009 and managed nine wins.

Then there’s Miles’ record in Baton Rouge in games decided by seven points or less: 22-10. Everything comes up Les at a rather frequent rate.

It could happen again. There’s less of a cloud brewing over the Tigers than Oregon heading into the Willie Lyles Bowl. Louisiana State faces Mississippi State on a Thursday night five days after playing Northwestern State; the Bulldogs will get beat up by Auburn heading into that one.

The Tigers get a bye week to prepare for Alabama (though the Crimson Tide will also be coming off an open date). And Arkansas makes its way to Death Valley.

This is a team that could easily wind up 9-4 and play below expectations. But heavens knows Miles can pull off surprises. It’s almost better to get ahead of the curve and enjoy the unintentionally comedic show rather than underestimate the Mad Hatter and feel flummoxed at his seemingly inevitable success.

No. 2 OKLAHOMA

The Landry Jones Heisman checklist is almost perfect.

* Is there a huge early intersectional game during which Jones can make a lasting impression? Yes, at Florida State

* Are there ample other opportunities before stodgy voters make up their mind to see Jones against a credible opponent? Sure, against Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M.

* Was Jones good enough a year ago for him to already be well-known to the average voter? Sure thing, thanks to more than 4,700 yards and 38 touchdowns last year.

* Does Jones play for a blueblood program? Um, yes.

* Will his team be ranked in the top five all season – especially at the end? Probably.

The thing to remember about the Heisman is the shift in voting over the last decade has placed it almost exclusively in the hands of quarterbacks playing for top-five teams. In the 11 years since Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne won their lifetime achievement awards, a QB on a top-five team has accounted for eight Heisman winners.

FINAL AP REGULAR SEASON TEAM RANKINGS FOR HEISMAN WINNERS, 2000-10

2000: QB Chris Weinke, No. 3 Florida State*
2001: QB Eric Crouch, No. 4 Nebraska*
2002: QB Carson Palmer, No. 5 Southern California
2003: QB Jason White, No. 3 Oklahoma*
2004: QB Matt Leinart, No. 1 Southern California*
2005: RB Reggie Bush, No. 1 Southern California*
2006: QB Troy Smith, No. 1 Ohio State*
2007: QB Tim Tebow, No. 9 Florida
2008: QB Sam Bradford, No. 2 Oklahoma*
2009: RB Mark Ingram, No. 1 Alabama*
2010: QB Cam Newton, No. 1 Auburn*

*-played in national title game

The two running backs on the list played on unbeaten teams. The lone player outside the top five was Tebow, who threw for 32 touchdowns and ran for 23 more to emerge as a ridiculous multifaceted threat.

Jones won’t do that, but he will preside over a potent offense and play for a team with the goods to remain entrenched in the top 10 (if not the top five) all season. There’s no better bet than the Oklahoma junior to haul home the stiff-arming statue come December.

No. 1 ALABAMA

It’s already a noteworthy year for Nick Saban, who will match his longest stint at any of his coaching stops (as an assistant or program boss) when he completes his fifth year in Tuscaloosa.

There isn’t much reason to think about leaving, not with a healthy income and star-studded recruiting classes stacked on top of each other. The Crimson Tide is teeming with riches, in much the same way Southern California was in the middle of the last decade and Florida State was in the decade before that.

Before long, there will be another national title trophy to join the one earned for the 2009 season. And it may well be claimed this year.

Saban has enough pieces in place. There’s a snarling defense that figures to be better; a ferocious linebacking corps; an established secondary; oodles of experience on the offensive line; and a capable running back in Trent Richardson.

All that’s missing is an established superstar wideout (alas, Julio Jones will be paid to ply his trade this fall) and an efficient quarterback to make sure the offense runs smoothly.

Alabama gets Arkansas and Louisiana State at home, which will prove important this fall. It will hold the talent advantage in every game this fall, and probably the coaching edge, too. The Tide might stumble once, but here’s guessing they wind up making it the sixth straight year the SEC wins a national championship.

Patrick Stevens

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