The Washington Times - August 21, 2012, 02:14PM

Into the top 25, at long last. …

25. FLORIDA

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Know where Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is right now? You now, embattled, affixed to a hot seat, etc.? Could Will Muschamp be there at this time next year.

Florida fans do have a history of impatience; after all, it was a fan of the Gainesville school that pioneered the “Fire[YourCoach’sNameHere].com” during the Ron Zook years.

But realistically, the defense should keep things afloat and let the Gators do a bit better than 7-6. Maybe not much better, but better.

While Florida’s defense is not at scary 2006, 2008 and 2009 levels, it still only yielded 300 yards per game last year, and most of the major pieces of that unit are back.

So, yes, there are questions about the offense, which has cratered in the post-Tebow years. The schedule does the Gators some favors (the only true road games in SEC play are at Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt), and that should be enough to yield some improvement and slightly fewer headaches or Muschamp.

24. STANFORD

Without question, the Cardinal will be one of the nation’s most interesting teams now that they’re out of (Andrew) Luck. Think about, for a moment, how many people get put under a microscope.

There’s Luck’s successor, whoever that turns out to be.

There’s  the Cardinal rushing game, which was strong pre-Luck and devastatingly good during his run at QB.

Then there’s coach David Shaw who, rightly or wrongly, will probably have to deal with “But he didn’t win without Andrew Luck” derision if he doesn’t win without Andrew Luck.

Chances are, the Cardinal won’t win at quite the level they did with Luck, for the simple reason that going 23-3 over a two-year span is not easy. A 10-win season would be a fine accomplishment this fall, but it’s just as plausible Stanford winds up around eight wins. That’s good by historical standards in Palo Alto, but a step down from the Luck years.

23. LOUISVILLE

Well, somebody’s got to win the Big East, and Louisville’s as good a candidate as any.

Six years after getting Petrinoed (well, the old version of Petrinoed, which means getting left in the rear-view mirror for a new coaching job) and three years after they were done getting Kragthorped (surprisingly gutted over a disappointing three-year run), the Cardinals are in prime position to get Stronged (winning a conference title outside the SEC with an SEC philosophy).

And then, maybe, they’ll get Petrinoed (again, old definition) when Strong draws heavy interest.

Strong maximized what he had during his first year in the ‘Ville, taking Steve Kragthorpe’s leftovers and going 7-6. After a jarring 2-4 start, he maximized again and got the Cardinals a share of a conference title.

This year? Expect the offense to be better after a midseason coordinator change last season, while a defense with plenty back should continue to be among the conference’s best.

And if things go really well – say, a victory over North Carolina followed by a three-game sweep of Florida International, Southern Mississippi and Pittsburgh – there’s a teensy chance the Cardinals are mentioned in the national title picture come October.

22. TEXAS CHRISTIAN

The talking point of “now the Horned Frogs will really prove themselves” now that they’re in the Big 12 is insulting to everyone involved – and mostly Texas Christian.

TCU has eight 10-win seasons in the last decade, and nine in the last 12 years. It is 5-3 against ranked teams over the last four years. It has exported players to the pros. It has won a Rose Bowl.

The Horned Frogs are an imposing program, very much worthy if a preseason top-25 ranking regardless of its league.

But there is going to be a different grind. No more games against New Mexico. No more games against UNLV. Granted, Kansas isn’t exactly a power, but there will be less margin for error.

Then again, only 10 of the Horned Frogs’ 47 victories since 2008 came by 10 points or less. TCU didn’t need much margin for error as it was. Still, the back half of the schedule would be a bear for any time, which is why a mid-pack Big 12 finish this year seems about right for now.

21. NOTRE DAME

If Brian Kelly really is magic – as it seemed he was in his previous stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati – it’s getting close to the time to demonstrate it.

Kelly seemed like a no-brainer hire after the 2009 season, and the results have at least been better than what Charlie Weis cobbled together in his final years in South Bend. The Fighting Irish are coming off back-to-back 8-5s, which was wonderful news for the Sun and Champs Sports Bowls the last two years.

Of course, Notre Dame football was not built on the foundation of glorious New Year’s Eve triumphs in El Paso against teams with interim coaches, but that has been one of the high tides of late.

Kelly still warrants some time (he has won and won big everywhere he’s been), but it’s a bit troubling that likely starting quarterback Tommy Rees, he of the 14 interceptions last year, will sit out the opener as punishment for an offseason arrest.

A good first step for the Irish would be a decent start, which could in time lead to actual on-field relevance. Notre Dame hasn’t won its first three games since 2002 and it last played a game as a top-10 team in the 2006 regular season finale. It wouldn’t be a magical accomplishment to be unbeaten entering a home date with Michigan or to crack the top 10, but it would certainly possess more substance than anything else Notre Dame has done the last two years.

Patrick Stevens