- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

For the first time in more than a decade college football has no preseason powerhouse.

From Florida State to Nebraska to Miami, the last dozen seasons were defined by a series of mini-dynasties, leaving one or occasionally a pair of near-flawless title-game favorites glaring down at their inferior peers.

Not this season.

Six different teams received first-place votes in the preseason Associated Press poll, the most since the advent of the survey in 1936. Don’t bother searching for a prohibitive favorite, a consensus pick to earn an invite to the season-ending Sugar Bowl soiree. Less than a week before the scrap for a BCS bowl berth begins in earnest, there isn’t an obvious gridiron goliath on the college landscape.

“Yeah, there’s not that one team that everybody’s sort of looking up at this year, and that is unusual,” said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden last week. “The last couple of seasons, Miami was clearly the team to beat. Nebraska had that aura for a while, and we’ve started our share of seasons wearing the target. This year, it looks like we have a lot of very good teams, but maybe not any real great ones. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a great team by the end of the season. But here at the start, we all seem to have some substantial issues.”

From Maurice Clarett’s suspension at Ohio State to Oklahoma’s offense, college football’s pole-sitters never started a season facing such ominous question marks. Here is a closer look at the preseason top five, and the major concerns that could easily turn Big Easy dreams into a big-time bust.

No. 1 Oklahoma

Few would disagree that Bob Stoops’ Sooners have the nation’s premier defense. With three returning All-Americans on the Butkus side of the football (tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Teddy Lehman and safety Brandon Everage), the Oklahoma defense should be stiffer than granddad’s Sunday shirt.

But the Sooners offense could put a cup of coffee to sleep. You still have to score to win a game. Gone are starting quarterback Nate Hybl, one-man arsenal Quentin Griffin (1,884 yards rushing last season) and four of last season’s five leading receivers, including top target Trent Smith.

None of their replacements qualify as upgrades, though Stoops would say senior quarterback Jason White won the starting job over Hybl in each of the last two seasons before blowing out first one knee and then the other in consecutive seasons. When healthy, White was effective, completing more than 63 percent of his passes and giving the Sooners an added dimension with his scrambling ability. But the only thing in Norman flimsier than White’s knees is Barry Switzer’s integrity.

“It’s tough, because everybody in the media has the same questions about Jason’s durability,” said Lehman at OU media day. “We know what a tough guy he is, but I guess he still has a lot to prove to outsiders.”

Stoops is so ecstatic about his defense that he seems almost unconcerned about White and the offense. Pressed on the subject at Big 12 media day, Stoops replied, “You don’t have to have a great quarterback to win a national championship.”

Stoops should know. After all, he won a title in 2000 with Josh Heupel, a limp-armed lefty who couldn’t pierce a paper towel at 20 paces. But at least Heupel wasn’t best pals with a pair of crutches.

No. 2 Ohio State

The good news is that the defending champs return 10 players on offense. The bad news is that the lone missing cog is standout tailback Maurice Clarett. The 6-foot, 230-pounder with 4.5 speed and every meaningful Ohio State freshman rushing record (1,237 yards, 16 TDs, 5.6 yards per carry) was suspended for at least the first six games of the season.

Clarett falsified the value of items burglarized in April from a 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo he was “borrowing” from a Columbus dealership. Apparently, Clarett told campus police more than $10,000-worth of his property was pilfered from the vehicle, only to later retract the claim. Actually, compared with his possession of the car in the first place, his reputed fondness for oral exams and his bizarre relationship with Hall of Famer cum malcontent Jim Brown, a five-digit exaggeration seems like a relatively minor offense.

Whatever the case, the staggeringly good karma that defined the Buckeyes title run last season seems to have soured. And Ohio State will be without Clarett’s services until at least mid-October.

“We proved last year we could win no matter who was back there,” said Maurice Hall, one of the two junior tailbacks (along with Lydell Ross) who will attempt to replace the wrecking ball behind last season’s run to the national title.

Hall apparently was referring to the five games last season in which Clarett either did not play or played sparingly thanks to a bum shoulder. A closer look at those games shows Hall and Ross combined to run for 104.8 yards on 3.9 yards per carry vs. Cincinnati, Penn State, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois. With the lone exception a drubbing of the Golden Gophers, the Buckeyes needed near-miracles to win each of those games.

In contrast, Clarett averaged 127.3 yards on 5.6 yards per carry in the nine games in which he was healthy, and Ohio State generally handled the more challenging opponents in these games with considerably more ease. Translation: Hall’s assessment is a comical underestimation of Clarett’s value to the team.

If Ohio State can survive its opening six-pack without Clarett, fancy its chances of bowling on Bourbon Street. But with difficult tests against No.17 Washington, No.16 N.C. State and No.21 Wisconsin on the docket, that early-season stretch could prove to be the most dangerous swing Buckeyes have seen since Woody took up boxing.

No. 3 Miami

The Hurricanes still have more talent on hand than any program in the nation. But the three-season tsunami that savaged opponents by an average score of 42-15 has given way to a sirocco.

First, Miami must replace both of its Heisman Trophy finalists. Quarterback Ken Dorsey might not have been anyone’s NFL prototype, but he left Coral Gables with a 38-2 mark as a starter and virtually every QB U. passing record on his resume. And all tailback Willis McGahee did last season was shatter both the school’s single-season rushing and scoring records (1,753 yards, 28 TDs).

Highly touted replacements Brock Berlin (a transfer from Florida) and Frank Gore (who beat out McGahee before tearing his ACL last spring) aren’t likely to match those achievements, regardless of their bluechip credentials.

Second, the Hurricanes have to replace six of the eight defensive linemen who spent the last three years mocking offensive fronts, stuffing tailbacks and torturing quarterbacks. How good was Miami’s defensive front over the last several seasons? Of the six departing linemen, five were selected in the NFL Draft.

Finally, the Hurricanes face trips to Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, prompting some pundits to pick them to finish third in the Big East, much less the national title hunt.

“That’s fine, doubt us,” said senior linebacker Jonathan Vilma at media day. “Don’t you know all we do here is reload? The old ones teach the young ones how it’s done, and the cycle of dominance continues. There won’t be a dropoff, man.”

If there isn’t some degree of dropoff, Larry Coker should be anointed king of Florida.

No. 4 Michigan

Ever since the Wolverines snapped a 40-year drought by winning the national title in 1997, Lloyd Carr and Co. have made an annual tradition of dropping a semi-shocker at some point during the season. Last year, the Wolverines were mauled in the Big House by Iowa (34-9). Two years ago, they lost at home to unranked Ohio State and then suffered the largest bowl defeat in the history of the program at the hands of Tennessee (45-17). In 2000, the Wolverines gave up 54 points in a loss at Northwestern. In 1999, they lost at home to lowly Illinois, a 24-point underdog. Perhaps, you get the picture.

This season, Michigan returns a pair of senior backfield mates in quarterback John Navarre and tailback Chris Perry. And as usual, they have a talented defense with an especially stout secondary.

But with the notable exceptions of cornerback Marlin Jackson and wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the Wolverines are a team composed of solid but unspectacular talents. The kind of team good enough to finish 9-4 or even 10-3 with a surprise loss at Iowa, Minnesota or Oregon, but not the kind of team that challenges for a national title.

The primary reason Michigan finds itself ranked fourth is the Wolverines don’t have to play a single ranked team on the road this season. The stars would seem to be aligned, as they were in 1997. Unfortunately for the maize and blue, a couple of things have changed in the last five years — John Cooper is no longer coaching in Columbus; and the Big Ten champ no longer gets a postseason pass against a Pac-10 patsy.

No. 5 Texas

Two words for the folks in Austin — Mack Brown. The man could never beat Florida State when he was at North Carolina. And now he has lost three straight to Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops as the head ‘Horn.

“It’s hard to get out of our division, much less or league,” said Brown a few weeks ago, his Oklaphobia prompting him to start making excuses long before the season’s first snap.

Fact is, there’s nothing wrong with the talent in Texas. But when you make a habit of losing by nearly 24 points every time Stoops is on the opposite sideline, you can’t say national championship contender with a straight face.

With such issues clouding the title hopes of the top five, you can well imagine how substantive the objections become for those below them in the poll. Everyone out there this season has at least one glaring weakness, and most teams have enough to make Achilles kick up his heels in glee. But a down year for dominance should yield an up one for intrigue. Buckle up for a wild ride to New Orleans.

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