- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

BUY LOW

Baylor

No, the Bears won’t give Oklahoma and Texas a run for a division title. But they will be relevant — and an absolute pain to deal with for a few more years. Credit quarterback Robert Griffin, whose track speed and crafty play helped Baylor cobble together the most welcome 4-8 season in the country last year.

Houston

This year’s Tulsa, the Cougars will score in bunches - they bring back most of their skill position stars in an offense that averaged nearly 41 points last year. Case Keenum threw for more than 5,000 yards a season ago, and with even half of that he’ll pass David Klingler for second on the school’s passing list. Maybe the defense doesn’t hold up, but a Sept. 12 visit to Oklahoma State will be interesting.

Michigan

The one reason for Wolverines fans to remain optimistic despite the program’s 2008 debacle was the Rich Rodriguez effect at West Virginia earlier in the decade. Rodriguez took over a bowl team and proceeded to go 3-8 in 2001, then rattled off a series of seasons with at least eight wins. Of course, he wasn’t accused of massive NCAA violations in Morgantown. That makes Michigan a wild card but one still worth monitoring.

N.C. State

After two years invested in reviving the program, it’s time for the Tom O’Brien Effect to take hold. The former Boston College coach has a habit of churning out eight- and nine-win seasons, and the Wolfpack could reach that level in the up-for-grabs ACC Atlantic. Linebacker Nate Irving’s injuries from a June car crash hurt the defense, but N.C. State should take another step forward.

Oregon State

Perennially underrated, the Beavers always find a way to play as well as anyone once the frost is on the pumpkin. The past three seasons, Oregon State is 22-5 after Oct. 1. With that in mind, anticipate a bumpy September - the Beavers replace a school-record seven NFL draft picks - before Mike Riley’s team re-emerges as a sneaky Pac-10 title threat.

Rutgers

Yes, the Mike Teel-to-Kenny Britt combo will be missed. But the Big East is wide open, and the Scarlet Knights couldn’t ask for a more accommodating nonconference schedule. Rutgers was emphatically better than nearly all of its opponents in a season-ending seven-game winning streak, and the return of nearly every relevant offensive lineman will help ease the quarterback transition.

SELL HIGH

California

The Golden Bears are well known for tailback Jahvid Best, but last year’s up-and-down play for the entire team has to be modestly troubling. California didn’t win three straight until the end of the year, and it lost two crucial pieces from its offensive line. The Bears also went 1-7 against Southern Cal and Oregon State the past four years.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes were just another midpack Big Ten team playing mostly close games against other midpack teams until they upset Penn State on a last-second field goal. That sparked a season-ending four-game winning streak and bumped Iowa into top-25 consideration this year. But the Hawkeyes’ defense will take a hit with the loss of two tackles.

Mississippi

On paper, the Rebels aren’t overrated. Houston Nutt arrived last season and exploited the oodles of talent assembled by Ed Orgeron. The schedule this year is favorable, Jevan Snead is a capable QB and the Rebels played well even in their losses last year. Still, there should be some reluctance to jump on the bandwagon of a team that came out of nowhere in 2008.

North Carolina

The ultimate gridiron soldiers of (good) fortune, the Tar Heels were outgained by nearly 600 yards last season and still went 8-5. Those figures do not compute. Coach Butch Davis has revitalized Carolina, and another bowl berth seems likely despite the loss of Hakeem Nicks. But this bunch could be better and still wind up with a worse record simply because last year’s luck probably will prove fleeting.

Oklahoma State

One of the nation’s top wideouts (Dez Bryant) headlines a potent offense pundits swoon over. But… don’t the Cowboys still have to beat Oklahoma and Texas? Oklahoma State lost its past 12 against those two powerhouses, and its defensive flops late in the season should prompt concern.

Utah

So you heard about that unbeaten team that crushed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl? Well, it must be good again this year, right? Sure, but it’s all relative. The Utes’ second unbeaten season this decade will generate some preseason attention, but it’ll be a few more years before the Mountain West heavyweights can be that good again.

SIX GAMES TO ANTICIPATE

Oregon at Boise State, Thursday

The Broncos lured a big name to the Smurf Turf, and now it’s time to demonstrate worthiness for a lofty ranking. Few teams have more riding on the first week than Boise State.

Georgia at Oklahoma State, Saturday

Maybe Oklahoma State is a legitimate top-10 team. The good thing is everyone will find out soon enough when the post-Matthew Stafford Bulldogs visit Billionaire Oil Baron Stadium.

Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, Saturday

A year ago, the Crimson Tide exposed Clemson as a pretender in a season opener in Atlanta. This year, it’s Virginia Tech’s turn.

Southern Cal at Ohio State, Sept. 12

The questions either end or continue loudly for the Buckeyes, whose performance against elite teams in recent years leaves much to be desired.

Florida at LSU, Oct. 10

The Tigers probably have the best chance to upend the Blessed Tebow, but all those fans in Death Valley won’t make Florida’s defense any less scary.

Oklahoma vs. Texas, Oct. 17

The showdown at the Texas State Fair was a matchup of top-five teams with Heisman contenders at quarterback in 2008, and it probably will be again.

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