The Washington Times - August 4, 2011, 10:04AM

Time to hedge some bets on some teams that could wind up in the top 25, but also have the potential for trying seasons thanks to a variety of issues.

The least likely of this bunch to stumble? It is the first team on this morning’s segment …

SEE RELATED:


35. TEXAS TECH

The hilarious on-field postscript to Texas Tech’s decision to overthrow the Pirate King? The Red Raiders’ offense regressed only slightly while its defense gave up its most points since 2003 and 100 extra yards a game compared with 2009.

The on-field results, though, remained as stable as ever.

For all his teams’ offensive pyrotechnics and his own brand of pizazz, Mike Leach’s teams were as consistent as can be. Over his last eight seasons, the Red Raiders won eight or nine games in all but one year (the 11-2 breakout in 2008). And in Tommy Tuberville’s first year, Texas Tech won eight games.

Out go many of the leftover skill position stars from the Leach era. Sticking around in Lubbock for another year are five incumbent starters on the offensive line. Expect the transition to a new quarterback to be smooth.

The nonconference schedule works in the Red Raiders’ favor, and they face Kansas and Kansas State in their first two league games. A home date with Texas A&M will be telling; if Texas Tech can win that Oct. 8 game, it could generate serious buzz entering an Oct. 22 visit to Oklahoma. If not, just settle in for a ride to eight wins and a mid-tier bowl invitation. Some things (almost) never change.

34. NORTH CAROLINA

Butch Davis the coach is gone from Chapel Hill, a belated casualty of an investigation into the Tar Heels’ off-field activities under his watch. North Carolina will feel the effects of his tenure for some time, especially with an NCAA hearing on nine major violations coming up later this year.

Davis was kicked to the curb barely a week before preseason practice and after he was trotted out to two separate media days (one a local kickoff in the Triangle, the other at the ACC’s annual event), making his departure just the latest bizarre twist in the saga. Defensive Everett Withers takes over for this year, with expectations tempered under the unusual conditions.

Yet the other legacy Davis leaves is his players. Think whatever you wish about his control of his program or his abilities as an in-game tactician, but Davis’ skills as a talent evaluator are superb. And many of the star defensive players he recruited to Carolina will populate the Tar Heels’ front seven this year.

That lends some curiosity to a team that figures to step back a bit offensively as the Tar Heels try to replace quarterback T.J. Yates (who belongs near the top of the list of recent college seniors who did the most to change their respective legacies in their final season). Even with the tumult, there’s enough talent to suggest the Tar Heels will be a difficult out.

Then there’s the schedule. Carolina won’t face a team that won more than seven games in 2010 until November. It doesn’t have to deal with Florida State or Maryland. Even with the offensive questions, a 7-2ish start cannot be discounted.

That, of course, would strengthen Withers’ credentials to take over full-time – if Carolina is so inclined to hire a Davis assistant. The mere mention of the Tar Heels’ looming coaching search now hints at how much it will hang over the season. Davis perfected the art of an 8-5 season (or, as the ever-insightful Joe Giglio would note, a Chan Plus One), and he’s left enough pieces behind that Withers can duplicate the results of the last three years.

33. MIAMI

It might not be an oversimplification to say turnovers doomed the Randy Shannon era.

In the last three seasons – all years capped with a bowl appearance – Miami played 20 games when it had a negative turnover margin and 19 when it broke even or better (positive in 11, a push in eight more). The Hurricanes were 7-13 when it committed more turnovers than opponents, 16-3 when it broke even or better.

Those losses were to 2008 Florida (national champs), 2008 Florida State (9-4 and the game was played in a monsoon) and 2009 Wisconsin (10-3) – good teams all. For the most part, Miami was just fine whenever it didn’t get in its own way.

Alas, there are no points tacked on at the end of games for degree of difficulty, and Shannon was ushered out after losing his last two games (and, based on the crowds at Sun Life Stadium, many of Miami’s notoriously fair-weather fans). In steps Al Golden, who takes over a far better situation than he did at Temple five years ago and inherits far greater expectations as well.

He also inherits a quarterback competition with senior Jacory Harris and sophomore Stephen Morris (seven TDs/nine INTs last year).

Golden’s teams at Temple ran and then ran and then ran some more, so the likes of Lamar Miller and Mike James could be busy. Shannon collected enough talent early on (especially on defense) that the Hurricanes could easily contend for a Coastal Division crown in 2011.

The key will be limiting turnovers, and maybe that will mean less patience for Harris, who has 50 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in his up-and-down career. But other ACC QBs with strong defenses have been known to break out in their final year – Yates had 39 TDs and 37 INTs before his 19/9 split last year. If whoever plays quarterback for the Canes can do the same, they’ll exceed this preseason ranking.

32. AUBURN

The Tigers were not a one-man show last season, but they had a couple of near-irreplaceable pieces in Cam Newton and Nick Fairley. But chances are, most folks on the Plains will accept a pedestrian 8-5ish season as the price for massive defections after a national title run.

It was a remarkable 14-game burst, but it’s easy to forget the Tigers won four of their first six (and five of their first eight) by eight points or less. But then Newton shredded Arkansas and Louisiana State on the ground, rallied Auburn past Alabama in the Iron Bowl, dissected South Carolina in the SEC title game and then led the Tigers past Oregon.

It was all Newton, all the time, from on-field highlights to off-field accusations. But what happens now? The inevitable reset, accompanied by a hellish schedule even by SEC standards.

The Tigers lose their quarterback (and leading rusher), their top two receivers and six of their top seven tacklers. They also don’t get to play Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt this year – otherwise known as three of the four SEC teams least likely to crack the national rankings. Ouch.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn didn’t leave after last season, but if he works his magic again and Auburn sniffs nine wins, he’ll be a highly coveted commodity (even moreso than he already is).

Chances are, the Tigers endure an understandable post-Newton regression on offense and come nowhere close to last year’s 7-0 record in games decided by single digits. There’s talent in place, but it’ll be a slog to remain in the top half of the SEC West.

31. WEST VIRGINIA

If only someone was filming a reality show about this program since December …

Alas, that isn’t happening (so far as anyone knows). Long story short: Athletic director Oliver Luck essentially fired Bill Stewart with a year’s notice and brought in Stewart’s replacement as offensive coordinator (Dana Holgorsen). Oh, and Holgorsen got to bring in his own offensive staff. In an era of dubious coach-in-waiting arrangements, this was the most awkward from the start.

Sure enough, the arrangement disintegrated over the summer in spectacular fashion, with Stewart departing and Holgorsen getting an early start on handling the entire program instead of just installing his pinball offense.

Such instability brings West Virginia’s short-term prognosis into question. After three straight 9-4 seasons under Stewart, there’s enough in place to believe the Mountaineers will contend for a Big East title. Yet a good chunk of a standout defense is gone, and how well West Virginia’s personnel first into Holgorsen’s plans remains to be seen.

How the Mountaineers handle all the tumult remains to be seen. Best guess: They’re predictably frazzled early and lose twice before September ends.

Ultimately, though, they’ll be judged on whether they win the Big East, which means they’ll mostly be judged on their final two games. If Holgorsen has things clicking by the time dates with Pittsburgh and South Florida roll around, West Virginia could head to a BCS game for the first time since 2007.

Patrick Stevens