All right, the teams are starting to get a bit better in the countdown, and the fan bases are starting to get a little more sensitive (here’s looking at you, Penn State).
But these five schools are ranked about right, and the middle three in particular are worth catching a glimpse of if you get the opportunity.
25. Michigan. Wait —- Rich Rodriguez is actually going to make headlines for his team rather than for wrangling for dollars with his former employer? No way.
The Wolverines will take a step back this season as Rodriguez implements his own schemes and the long lineage of Bo Schembechler and his former assistants fade away. They’ll long be remembered, and all those Big Ten titles of the last 40 years will loom over Rodriguez until he gets one or two of his own.
If Michigan can (a) survive its opener against Utah and (b) toss up five wins in the Big Ten, this probably won’t be too much of a headache. But if not, missing a bowl for the first time since 1974 is not impossible.
24. Fresno State. The second-best of the non-BCS programs, the Bulldogs have a way of poaching big-name game (or, at the very least, nearly doing so).
That’s why Rutgers, UCLA and Wisconsin are all in some trouble.
Bold prediction No. 1 for the Valley’s team: Two of those power conference programs will lose to Fresno State.
Bold prediction No. 2 for the Valley’s team: If the Oakland Raiders’ job comes open at the end of the season, coach Pat Hill‘s name will be floated out as a candidate. Not necessarily for any good reason, and not necessarily because of Hill’s ability (which is quite considerable).
Mainly, it’s because Al Davis seems to be either operating a McNugget short of a Happy Meal or trying out for a starring role as the presenter of “Tales from the Crypt” these days (or both), and whenever he gets around to firing Lane Kiffin, just about anyone within 300 miles of Oakland with any established football acumen is probably going to get a look. And that includes Hill.
23. Cincinnati. Meet the guy who would have had Michigan in a national title game in three years had the Wolverines looked his way. Yes, that’s how good a coach Brian Kelly is.
But rather than dwelling on what coulda been and isn’t, let’s look at what is. Kelly won national titles and Grand Valley State, quickly turned around Central Michigan and got Cincinnati its first 10-win season since 1951 in his first year on the job.
Sure, former coach Mark Dantonio deserves some credit for that, but Kelly is the real deal. He won with Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk last year, and he’ll do just fine with Dustin Grutza under center this year.
There is a very short list of coaches you really don’t want to underestimate. Kelly is definitely on that list, and that’s why the Bearcats crack this top 25 when a lot of other folks don’t seem them finishing in the top half of the Big East.
22. Wake Forest. Speaking of coaches you don’t want to underestimate, Jim Grobe is also on the list. While he doesn’t deserve exalted miracle worker status like former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, Grobe is getting there.
No school has capitalized on the relative mediocrity of the post-expansion ACC than the Demon Deacons. They have a system. They have a philosophy. They have a stable coaching staff (though it’s starting to be poached after back-to-back bowl berths).
Now, Wake is actually a destination. With inroads in Florida (no other ACC school outside the Sunshine State has many Floridians on its roster) and Grobe’s willingness to stick around, the Demon Deacons won’t fall off the map anytime soon.
Wake probably isn’t as good as Clemson or Virginia Tech. But that doesn’t mean the Deacons can’t beat the former in the regular season and the latter in the ACC title game.
21. Oregon. The Heisman Trophy goes to the best player in college football. But if there was an MVP award in the sport, it would no doubt have gone to Dennis Dixon last year.
The bad news is Dixon is gone. The bizarrely good news is the Ducks have an idea what it’s like to play without him, losing three straight at the end of the regular season with Dixon either limited or out altogether before rebounding to pulverize South Florida in the Sun Bowl.
If there’s one thing Oregon can be certain of, it will score points. The Ducks are probably the Pac-10’s third-best team, and if their defense advances from mediocre to somewhat above average, a 10-win season isn’t out of reach.
—- Patrick Stevens