Know how to tell when you’ve entrenched yourself among the national elite without ever raising a crystal trophy after the last game of the season?
Being ranked 20th in what could be construed as a slightly down year is certainly one way …
20. VIRGINIA TECH
There’s no program you can set you watch to quite like the Hokies.
There’s the eight straight 10-win seasons. There’s the 10 finishes in the top 21 of the AP poll over the last 11 seasons – but never higher than seventh in that span.
So, yes, the Hokies will be good again. They’ll rule the Coastal Division again. And they’ll have an immovable tank in Logan Thomas doing all sorts of unusual things at quarterback, because ultra-athletic 6-foot-6, 262-pounders have a way of doing unusual things when they play quarterback.
But will he get protection? Will the reserves wideouts who now step into larger roles be able to handle a bigger spotlight? Will a depleted offensive line hold up?
The Hokies do have their typically elite defense, which rebounded from an unusually sluggish (for them) 2010 to limit opponents to a little more than 300 yards per game. With nine starters back, it will be the defense that carries Virginia Tech to a few 20-7 or 21-10 victories along the way. It might not be all that visually appealing, but it should keep the Hokies in the ACC title chase.
19. MICHIGAN STATE
Is it weird to not fully trust the Spartans even though they’ve been superb for the last two years?
The thinking here is no. Michigan State has a lot to figure out on offense, especially at quarterback where Kirk Cousins handled things in recent years. Its defense should remain strong, probably the best in the Big Ten again.
Here’s a number that stands out about Sparty’s two-year 22-5 spurt – a 9-1 mark in games decided by 10 points or less (the lone outlier was the Big Ten title game loss to Wisconsin last year). It’s a record that is due a little regression to the mean.
Michigan State partisans might suggest their team is well-coached, which it is. It might also make the case it’s a matter of “knowing how to win,” which long-time loyal readers know is not considered a substantive argument in this particular corner of Al Gore’s Invention.
There’s a lot to like about the defense, and Michigan State has the look of a team that will scratch out nine wins in a manner similar to the way Virginia Tech goes about its business. But with Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska all on tap in the first 10 weeks, it’s tough to see the Spartans making it through without some blemishes.
18. BOISE STATE
Here’s a funny thought. While trying to sort out this season’s lookahead rankings, the Broncos kept drifting upward. Up from 24. Up from 21. Up from 19.
The beauty of a preseason ranking is that it doesn’t need immediate evidence to back it up. Soon enough, the Broncos will play a schedule with enough chumps that it will limit their upward mobility in the national rankings no matter what they do.
But even with a bunch of departures, No. 18 seems a bit modest for a team that’s 73-6 over the last six years. There was only mild relief to see only three AP poll voters have Boise any higher than this.
On the flip side, shouldn’t we all know better by now? Yes, Kellen Moore’s gone. Yes, Doug Martin’s gone. Yes, nearly every defensive starter is gone. Boise just reloads, over and over, and dominates its weaker conference cousins.
It’s a beautiful thing in some ways, and the Broncos’ penchant for noteworthy opening week triumphs (Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in 2010, Georgia in 2011) will be tested with a visit to Michigan State. Win that one, and the Boise bandwagon will probably start filling up again.
The Cornhuskers have lost four games – but no more – in four consecutive seasons under Bo Pelini.
This is a mixed bag in the land of the Blackshirts. Pelini is no Bill Callahan. That’s a good thing.
He’s also no Tom Osborne, which isn’t a crime. There aren’t many Tom Osbornes.
So Nebraska is back to being a reliable top-25 team. It spent all of last year in the national rankings. It spent all of the year before that in the national rankings. It’s also spent exactly one week in the top five nationally over the last 10 years.
This year’s Cornhuskers figure to exist somewhere inside the parameters as well. The nonconference schedule is manageable. There’s no sign of Illinois or Indiana from the other Big Ten division. And Taylor Martinez’s special brand of on-field chaos ensures boredom won’t set in. Nebraska could contend for a spot in the league title game, but having to face Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in a six-week span probably limits the Huskers’ upside this year.
Because, really, is there any way you can credibly rank Nebraska ahead of Texas after all those wrenching losses during their shared time in the Big 12 (just kidding).
No, the Longhorns are in this ballpark for a reason. Much like Michigan State and Virginia Tech, Texas will be stout defensively. Even when they’ve been middling the last couple years, the Longhorns remain a solid defense. Well, at least when Robert Griffin III wasn’t carving them up.
As for the offense … well, it hasn’t been at Vince Young levels the last two years. Or Colt McCoy levels. And the Longhorns have had a long-running search for their next quarterback of the future, whoever that might be.
The Longhorns should be back as a full-time top 25 team after one extremely lean year and another when it couldn’t have been more clear they weren’t a Big 12 contender. They might not be one of the three best Big 12 teams this year.
The way to fix it? Find a QB, make sure he’s good and just stick with him. Whether David Ash and Case McCoy can be that guy remains to be seen. If one of them blossoms this year, the Longhorns might even be able to sniff the top 10.