The Washington Times - August 6, 2011, 02:57PM

The popular Big East title picks are the predictable ones: Pittsburgh and West Virginia, West Virginia and Pittsburgh.

Checking in just inside the top 25 is a bit of a curveball. …

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No. 25 SOUTH FLORIDA

A D1scourse-brand analysis from very early this year delved into how exactly a program that is not elite somehow becomes a relatively consistent top-tier team. The general outcome of that extensive breakdown is there are four ways to do that:

1. Exploit geographical advantages
2. Exploit a competitive vacuum
3. Gradually grind away and build through stability and smarts (a la Wisconsin and Virginia Tech)
4. Cheat profusely

Ignoring the last item (which usually boomerangs back at schools at some point), there’s three established  ways to become elite. And all three are working in South Florida’s favor as it ventures deeper into the Teens.

Any school in Florida, Texas or southern California has a built-in advantage. And with no obvious showstopper in the Big East, the opportunity exists for someone to rise up and emerge as a steady top-15 team if they do things the right way.

That leads to second-year coach Skip Holtz, a plenty competent fellow with a fine pedigree whose background is littered with varying degrees of success.

The first step, though, is to make a BCS game. That could happen this year if quarterback B.J. Daniels can suppress his inner Mr. Hyde. No one would describe his sophomore year as great, yet the Bulls lost only twice by more than a touchdown (at Florida and at West Virginia).

The defense will be strong, just as it has throughout South Florida’s stint in the Big East. The Bulls have the greatest upside over the long haul of anyone in the conference. Winning the league will only get the ball rolling toward achieving that sort of outcome plenty in the years to come.

No. 24 MISSOURI

Some teams look better and better the more you analyze them. Missouri is very much in that category.

Sure, a first-round NFL draft pick under center (Blaine Gabbert) is gone. Nearly everyone else on offense is back. And it was a solid offense, though one that slowed at the tail end of the regular season.

Meanwhile, the defense had some bend-but-don’t-break qualities to it, ranking 47th nationally in total defense and sixth in scoring defense. The former number should improve simply because Nebraska isn’t around to stampede the Tigers again in Big 12 play.

This was a 10-3 team a year ago that won only two games by less than 10 points (and anyone who saw parts of the nine-point defeat of Oklahoma knows that game wasn’t remotely close). There was nothing fraudulent about the record.

The question comes down to whether the Tigers can find a stable quarterback. James Franklin is the heir apparent, and whether Missouri challenges for a Big 12 title is dependent on his ability to step in and succeed.

No. 23 MISSISSIPPI STATE

Things will be different in Starkville this year. Indeed, the Bulldogs are likely to have expectations to live up to heading into the fall.

LONGEST DROUGHT SINCE APPEARING IN A PRESEASON AP POLL, AQ LEAGUE TEAMS

Never: Cincinnati
Never: Connecticut
Never: Vanderbilt

1962: Duke

1969: Indiana

1978: Iowa State
1978: Kentucky

1986: Baylor

1997: Stanford

1998: Syracuse

1999: Arizona

2001: Mississippi State
2001: Northwestern

Stanford’s streak will surely end this month, but so could Mississippi State’s. Go ahead and thank the offense, coach Dan Mullen’s speciality, for elevating hopes. Not to be overlooked, though, is a defense especially stingy against the run.

The curiosity here is whether the Bulldogs can get some traction if they happen to stumble three times by Oct. 1. It’s definitely possible with Auburn and Louisiana State in a six-day stretch, and later a trip to Georgia.

If they don’t, then the Bulldogs will probably settle in for a run at fourth place in the SEC West behind Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana State.

If they do, then bank on Mullen emerging as the second-biggest coaching commodity (behind his old boss at Florida, Urban Meyer) when the coaching carousel ignites in late fall.

No Mississippi State coach has surpassed Mullen’s 14-win total in his first two seasons since World War II (though Jackie Sherrill matched it). Only one has ever surpassed 20 victories in three seasons (Allyn McKeen with 26 between 1939 and 1941). If Mullen continues to thrive (and he very well may), he’ll draw plenty of attention. As he should.

22. MICHIGAN STATE

It never made a whole lot of sense (besides the favorable non-league slate and the absence of Ohio State from the schedule). The Spartans slightly regressed on offense, improved to some extent on defense and went from a slightly bad to slightly good turnover team.

That was enough to go from 6-7 to 11-2.

More likely than anything, Michigan State will regress back to something a bit more predictable. The Spartans weren’t as bad as they showed on New Year’s Day against Alabama (though on that day, they were every bit deserving of the outcome they got).

Thing is, life could get miserable in a hurry in East Lansing with a little lousy luck. Michigan State opens Big Ten play with Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska – and that after playing Notre Dame on the road. Reaching November at 4-4 would be a commendable accomplishment.

In 2010, Michigan State wasn’t quite as good as its record suggested. This fall, the Spartans will have a comparable team and probably end up with fewer wins than a team of their caliber should collect. A nine-win season would make Mark Dantonio a fine candidate for Big Ten coach of the year for the second straight season.

21. TEXAS

Last year’s 5-7 stands out amid a sea of 10-win seasons under Mack Brown. For certain, Longhorns fans probably spent the tail end of their Saturdays popping in DVDs of Brent Musburger waxing eloquently about the friendship between Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley.

Brown did a bit of a housecleaning, refurbishing his offensive staff while finding a new defensive coordinator after Will Muschamp’s departure for Florida. But the one thing he really needs to find is a quarterback who won’t throw 17 interceptions and only 10 touchdowns.

Indeed, Garrett Gilbert struggled mightily as a first-year starter, but this is still Texas, and there’s still a ton of talent in the pipeline. Maybe not as much as before – and perhaps there was a greater sense of entitlement as well. But the Longhorns still won in Lubbock, still beat Nebraska like they always do and probably still looked good coming off the bus.

While 5-7 wouldn’t be rock bottom for many programs, it’s pretty much the floor at Texas. And realistically, with some of the stars from a still-elite defense back in the fold, it’ll be on the offense to right itself and get Texas close to 10-win territory again,

Expect it to happen, especially with four of the first five conference games inside the Lone Star State borders. The Longhorns probably won’t push Oklahoma for a league title, but look for them to knock off at least one of Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas A&M as part of the scrum that fills up the rest of the top half of the Big 12. Even after last season, something worse than 9-4 would probably be a disappointment.

Patrick Stevens