The Washington Times - August 7, 2011, 10:42AM

Just four more installments of the countdown left. Included in this segment: Two programs rocked by NCAA investigations in the last few years. …

20. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

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There really was no way to know how the Trojans would do in 2010, and it was worth saying as much around this time last year.

In that sense, the 8-5 record tossed up isn’t out of the ordinary in the last. Three close setbacks, a blowout defeat at the hands of Oregon and Southern California’s biannual loss at Oregon State were all tossed in. Even without the chance to fight on in the postseason, the Trojans were plenty capable offensively and gallingly middling (by USC’s recent standards) on defense.

The bowl ban (as well as a Pac-12 title game prohibition) remains in effect for another year, so there’s the same question as last fall: What happens when the Trojans lose a game or two and start running out of accomplishments they can reach? They remained competitive to the end in 2010, and there’s no reason to think that won’t occur again.

Quarterback Matt Barkley solves a lot of problems, but Southern Cal does need improvement on the other side of the ball. This is not the sort of ridiculously deep roster that came to be considered the norm during the Pete Carroll heyday. There’s still talent, but Lane Kiffin is working with a lot less margin for error.

For a team facing Notre Dame, Oregon and Stanford (as well as crosstown rival UCLA), the Trojans’ most important game might actually be a trip to Arizona State in late September. Win that, and they’ll be the favorites to “win” the Pac-12 South even though they can’t represent the division in the league championship. A de facto division crown is attainable, and would provide a building block for down the road as Southern Cal continues wandering through the NCAA-imposed wilderness.

19. OHIO STATE

Lost in the dissection of Terrelle Pryor’s tattoos and Jim Tressel’s e-mails and Gordon Gee’s penchant for absurd quotes is a long-term impact few seem to fully recognize.

Tressel was a ridiculously exceptional coach, and the Buckeyes will find it difficult to adequately replace him. They obviously won’t do so this year, with assistant Luke Fickell given an interim tag and asked to navigate Ohio State through a tricky year.

That’s no knock on Fickell, and it also doesn’t ignore the reality the word “shady” is now a perfectly legitimate adjective to describe Tressel. But when a guy churns out 10 wins in eight of nine years (pre-NCAA penalties), he’s going to be difficult to replace.

This isn’t completely uncharted territory (Joe Lee Dunn, for instance, was Mississippi’s interim coach in 1994), but it isn’t a fairly common spot, either. Already down their star quarterback and their coach, the Buckeyes also will have a search for a new program CEO hanging over the season. Plus, there’s three offensive starters suspended for the first five games.

Ohio State’s cross-divisional schedule is punishing (Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan), and an early trip to Miami won’t be easy, either. With so much of last year’s elite defense gone and enough off-field issues to contend with, it’s tough to believe the Buckeyes will be great at much of anything. Enough talent remains, though, for them to be pretty good and maybe spoil someone else’s season along the way.

18. FLORIDA

Another team in transition, this ranking is more an affirmation of talent present and accounted for in Gainesville than a fervent belief the Gators will win a bunch of games in 2011.

Florida’s offense reverted to pre-Tebow levels last season as John Brantley did not thrive to the degree expected. Some of that might be on the quarterback, some of it on the offensive coordinator. No matter; one variable will change and it’ll be easier to make sense of that situation by the time things play out this fall.

In the interim, the Gators have a new head coach (Will Muschamp), new coordinators, new schemes and a ton of new starters. The potential is there for a Texas 2010-like season, though clearly the fall wouldn’t be quite so precipitous.

The more likely outcome, though, is a third-place finish in the SEC East and a solid (if unglamorous by Florida’s recent standards) bowl bid that would come with it. Brantley is better situated with Charlie Weis on board rather than being shoved into fitting as best he could into an offense built to Tebow’s strengths.

In many ways, this season will teach more about Muschamp than any of the players he inherited. A coveted young coaching commodity for several years, he’ll learn on the job at one of the country’s best programs. How well he handles the crucible will reveal as much about the Gators’ long-term prognosis as how much he can extract from a team with only a handful of starters back on both sides of the ball.

17. OKLAHOMA STATE

Scary-good offense. Scary-leaky defense. That about sums up the Cowboys.

Even with former offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen now running his own show at West Virginia, it’s safe to say the Cowboys will be fine at moving the ball. Running back Kendall Hunter is gone, but the rest of Oklahoma State’s starters from last year are back. That includes five offensive linemen, including four seniors. The Pokes should be well-acquainted with the end zone all season.

It’s all well and good to drop 40-plus a night on chumps, but legitimately good teams have a strong history in recent years of being able to match the Cowboys touchdown for touchdown.

Oklahoma State faced 15 ranked teams over the last four seasons; 11 of them managed 35 points, and the Pokes were 1-10 in those games (the lone victim was 2007 Kansas State).

This really isn’t much unlike two years ago, when Oklahoma State received some preseason buzz. By the second week of the season, Houston exposed the defense with a 45-point bombing, and the Cowboys spent the rest of the regular season in the second 10.

Things are actually a little rosier now. The offense should be in stable hands with veteran Brandon Weeden, a 27-year-old senior, who threw for 4,277 yards and 34 touchdowns last fall. He’ll ensure Oklahoma State has a chance to make a run at another 11-win season, but it will be on the defense to push the Cowboys to something better.

16. TEXAS CHRISTIAN

Expecting the Horned Frogs to go anywhere? Think again.

Yes, Texas Christian lost oodles of talent off its 13-0 run from a year ago. And chances are, there will be a stumble or two somewhere along the way. Trips to Baylor, Air Force, San Diego State and Boise State all await the Horned Frogs.

But TCU isn’t going to fade considerably. This is a program with three straight 10-win seasons. That same plateau was reached five of the last six years and seven out of the last nine. There’s more to the Horned Frogs than a cute Rose Bowl logo.

Consider for a minute the presence of Gary Patterson’s program on this list (recycled from last year’s preview but still worth presenting):

TOP TOTAL DEFENSES, 2000-10

217.8: 2008 Texas Christian
219.5: 2006 Virginia Tech

221.4: 2004 N.C. State
221.8: 2008 Southern California
228.5: 2010 Texas Christian

233.0: 2007 Ohio State
234.9: 2006 Texas Christian
236.2: 2001 Texas
237.9: 2001 Virginia Tech
239.7: 2009 Texas Christian

240.3: 2002 Texas Christian
242.8: 2006 Louisiana State
244.1: 2009 Alabama
245.0: 2000 Texas Christian
245.5: 2004 Alabama
247.6: 2005 Virginia Tech
249.0: 2002 Kansas State

The Horned Frogs have six of the top 14 total defenses since Y2K. Pin some of that on strength of schedule if you care, but much of the credit goes to great scheming and talent evaluation.

TCU returns six defensive starters, which suggests some regression could occur. Of course, the 2006 team also brought back six defensive starters and did fine. The 2009 edition returned four and remained stout.

The more pressing concern is how to handle going without quarterback Andy Dalton and three of his favorite targets. TCU will probably cope by trying to grind up yardage on the ground, and will mostly succeed.

No one should be shocked if the offense is merely above average as opposed to ranking among the top 10 percent nationally. That could be the difference between pushing for another BCS berth or “only” managing a 10-3 season. No matter. The Horned Frogs won’t be pushovers, and will crank out another ranked team before moving along to the Big East in 2012.

Patrick Stevens