The Washington Times - August 31, 2012, 06:14PM

On the eve of the first Saturday of the season, here’s five national title contenders …

5. OKLAHOMA

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Yep, you got me. In long-ago (well, a month ago) filed rankings that ran in the dead-tree edition this week, the Sooners were No. 3. Why the drop?

Well, losing a pair of starting offensive linemen in August will do that to most teams. Oklahoma is no exception.

In theory, this should be a more manageable Big 12 than in most years. Texas might not be quite back. Oklahoma State should take a hit. Baylor’s no longer so scary. Missouri and Texas A&M are gone. Texas Tech regresses to closer to traditional levels for every year the Pirate King doesn’t live in Lubbock. The only true road games before mid-November are at Texas-El Paso, Texas Tech and Iowa State.

Oh, and Oklahoma has a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Landry Jones.

There’s time to figure out the line, and the trickiest tests are spread out until a closing flourish of West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Christian. This should still be considered the Big 12 favorite, but a misstep is just a bit more likely now than it was a month ago.

4. OREGON

This one doesn’t require much explanation. The nonconference schedule consists of Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Six of the first eight are at home, and Oregon leaves the Pacific Northwest just once before November.

And while an offense that “dipped” to 46.1 points per game has a new quarterback, the Ducks are probably in decent shape on that side of the ball.

So let’s break down the Ducks’ national title hopes to three questions.

One, can they win beat Southern California on the road? Two, can they beat Stanford at home (probably so since they dealt the Cardinal 20+ point losses  when they had Andrew Luck the last two years). Three, can they knock off USC again?

That’s how big the divide seems between Oregon and the non-USC and Stanford programs in the Pac-12. The last time a team outside that group beat the Ducks  was California’s 26-16 victory in 2008, a span of 25 games. Considering Luck’s departure from Palo Alto, any time Oregon loses to someone other than Southern Cal prior to learning its bowl assignment will rank among the season’s biggest stunners.

3. LOUISIANA STATE
2. ALABAMA

Let’s just throw last year’s national title game participants into a pot and figure one of them (at minimum) will be back for another shot at a championship.

They’re both defense-oriented powerhouses and recruiting monsters with multiple national titles in the last decade.

They’re both exceptionally well coached, though heavens knows Nick Saban and Les Miles aren’t exactly perceived the same way.

While they haven’t always completely lorded over the SEC West (the Crimson Tide and Tigers have combined for 12 of the 20 division titles), their showdowns are of great consequence. The loser of their regular season game has gone on to win the SEC West just once (1993).

So Nov. 3 will be interesting, and not just to see if Louisiana State can cross midfield (which proved quite the challenge in the national title game). Both teams will have their tests before then – the Tigers at Florida and (maybe) at home against South Carolina, the Crimson Tide in their opener against Michigan and then in a trip to Arkansas – but both should remain quite relevant when November arrives.

1. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

There’s plenty of reasons this might turn out to be a lousy pick.

The Trojans, still wounded from NCAA sanctions, might not have the needed depth to go 14-0.

They might not be able to knock off Oregon twice, which very well might be a requirement simply to play for a national title.

They haven’t made it even to November without a loss since 2005.

And, let’s face it, Lane Kiffin isn’t exactly a tested coach when it comes to preparing a team for games that carry for them great big-picture meaning. He inherited a bad Oakland Raiders bunch. His lone Tennessee team was 3-4 (though a sprightly competitive 3-4) before scrambling to become bowl eligible. His first two USC teams weren’t eligible for a bowl.

Still, the Trojans have Matt Barkley at quarterback and have surrounded him with all sorts of nifty skill players. The defense won’t put up scary good numbers like it did in 2008, but it should be more than adequate to at least hit the 10-win mark (and probably more).

There’s no guarantees here, and plenty could go wrong. But at the very least, Southern Cal will be interesting and can reasonably reinsert themselves in the national championship conversation for the first time in a few years.

Patrick Stevens