The college football season begins in 5 days, so its high time I put together a little preview. This preview is nowhere near as in depth as Phil Steele, The Sporting News, CNNSI, ESPN, College Football News, etc. al, but I think you will find some nuggets of knowledge that those guys may have left out. What follows is a conference-by-conference preview with the exception of th MAC (too many teams that I know nothing about), the Sun Belt (call me an elitist, but I just don't care that much who loses the New Orleans Bowl to a Conference USA squad), and Independents (because there's just 4 of them). I'll list my division/conference winners, one team guaranteed to be better than expected (Angels and Demons team), one team guaranteed to be worse than expected (Da Vinci Code team), and one interesting stat for each conference.
Coastal Winner: Miami
The Canes crushing loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl was an aberration. Before that game Miami had given up more than 20 points only once all season (in a triple OT game against Clemson). They get their toughest conference games (Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Boston College) at home. The only concern I have is the relative inexperience of the offensive line.
Atlantic Winner: Florida State
The Noles do have to travel to Miami and perennial thorn in the side NC State, but they get their two main division rivals (Clemson and Boston College) in Tallahassee. Quarterback Drew Weatherford was erratic at times last season, but should improve in his second year as the starter.
If Miami wins the conference, it probably means they beat the Noles twice. While this may be tough to do, it actually happened just three seasons ago.
Angels and Demons Team: Boston College
While no one is predicting a serious downturn for BC, most believe Clesmson and possibly even Maryland will usurp their position of Ed McMahon to Florida State's Johnny Carson in the Atlantic Division. It won't happen. BC gets both the aforementioned teams at home in Chestnut, and while they didn't get any favors from the scheduling gods (drawing Virginia Tech and Miami from the Coastal Division), three conference losses will have them sitting in second place all over again.
Da Vinci Code Team: Clemson
Its not that I think Clemson will be bad, I'm just not buying the hype of the Tigers possibly winning the Atlantic Division. Conference road games at Florida State, Boston College, Virginia Tech, and always tough Wake Forest, plus no real easy home dates (North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and NC State) add up to at least 4 conference losses in my book.
Important Stat: Wake Forest has gone an amazing 4-8 in close games (8 points or less) the past two seasons. With a little bit of luck the Deacons could be bowling over the holidays for the first time in 4 years.
The Ville has only three conference road games with the only real challenge coming at Pitt. They return quarterback Brian Brohm and the other Bush (running back Michael) to one of the nation's best offenses. The do lose pass rush specialist Elvis Dumervil on th defensive line, but actually return their entire secondary and all but one member of the linebacking corps.
Angels and Demons Team: Connecticut
I definitely think Pitt has a chance to win the conference, but a multitude of other analysts also agree. So I'll take a team further down the standings that many are sleeping on...the UConn Huskies. The Huskies have an exciting player in quarterback DJ Hernandez. He played significantly in only two games as a true freshman (against Cincinnati and Louisville), but managed 5 touchdown passes and just 1 interception in those games. He is also a good runner who can make plays with his feet. In addition to this, the Huskies had 7 Pythagorean wins (as opposed to 5 actual wins) last season, so if things break their way they could be headed back to a bowl game.
Da Vinci Code Team: West Virginia
Forget about the team that squeaked by Georgia after nearly blowing a big lead in the Sugar Bowl and remember the team that got pasted by 17 at home against Virginia Tech. West Virginia was good last year, but not 11-1 good. With road tests at Louisville and Pitt the Mountaineers will not repeat as Big East champs.
Important Stat: Luck was certainly not evenly distributed in the Big East last season. West Virginia and Cincinnati went a combined 7-0 in close games, while Pitt, South Florida, and Syracuse went a combined 0-7. Look for West Virginia and Cincinnati to regress and fall in the standings. Pitt, South Florida, and Syracuse should have some better luck and impove their records this season.
A 7-5 year was probably disappointing for most Hawkeyes fans, but lets examine the past two seasons. In 2004, Iowa went 10-2. However, their Pythagorean record was only 8.2-3.8. They were an amazing 5-0 in close games and were +13 in turnover differential. In 2005, they went 7-5, but actually had a better Pythagorean record than the season before (8.68-3.32). However, they were now 0-3 in close games and -1 in turnover differential. This season, the Hawkeyes get Ohio State at home and of their road games, only against Michigan should they be an underdog. They also return their entire backfield and 3/5 of the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, they have all their defensive linemen coming back. This season is tailor-made for Iowa to make some real noise.
Angels and Demons Team: Michigan State
There's not a more appropos moniker for a team like Michigan State. The epitome of helter-skelter. In 2004 they drubbed ranked teams Minnesota and Wisconsin while falling to Rutgers and Hawaii. In 2005, they upset Notre Dame early on, and then proceeded to lose by 35 to Northwestern. I think they put it all together this season. By that I mean have a solid, if unspectacular bowl team (say 8-5 or 9-4).
Da Vinci Code Team: Ohio State
No way they live up to expectations, especially with that schedule. At Texas in non-conference play, coupled with conference road games against Iowa and always dangerous Michigan State, plus home dates against Michigan and Penn State, equals at least 2 regular season losses. And lest we forget, two starters return on defense.
Important Stat: Over the last two seasons, Northwestern was 10-3 in close games. They gave up over 33 points per game last season. Their quarterback, Brett Basanez, graduated. Losing Randy Walker is a terrible tragedy, but this team would be destined to decline if Bear Bryant was coaching them.
North Winner: Colorado
The Buffs avoid the South's top team (Texas) and get one of the better teams (Texas Tech) at home. In their own division, they get to host one of their biggest threats (Iowa State), but have to hit the road to face the other (Nebraska). With Dan Hawkins at the helm, the Buffs will once again be fodder for the South champion in December.
South Winner: Texas
I wasn't really buying Oklahoma before Rhett Bomar was given the boot primarily because they actually outperformed their Pythagorean record (7.08-4.92) and had a solid record (4-2) in close games. Now I'm definitely all in with the Longhorns for the South title.
It won't be a 70-3 throttling like last season, but the Horns should handle the Buffs in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Angels and Demons Team: Texas A & M
The Aggies could pass Texas Tech in the standings (they get the Red Raiders at home). Plus they have their entire defensive secondary returning (they should improve on the 31 points per game they gave last season) and quarterback Stephen McGee looked like the real deal in the season finale.
Da Vinci Code Team: Missouri
Phil Steele has them third in the North?! No way. They lose their best player in quarterback Brad Smith and were actually better team in 2004. Their Pythagorean record in 2004 was 6.62-4.38. In 2005 it was 6.38-5.62. The prime culprit in their improvement was their record in close games. They improved from 2-2 to 3-1. If they go 3-1 in 2004, they finis 6-5 instead of 5-6 and qualify for a bowl. If they go 2-2 in 2005, they finish 5-6 and South Carolina fans don't have visions of Brad Smith running wild all offseason.
Important Stat: Defense will determine if Texas Tech and Nebraska are as good or better than last season. For all the talk about how the west coast offense is clicking in Nebraska, the Huskers actually scored fewer points per game in 2005 than they did in 2004. Their improvement was tied to their defense allowing 6 points per game fewer. Similarly, Texas Tech did improve their scoring by about 3 points per game, but more importantly their defense held opponents to about 8 points per game fewer in 2005 versus 2004.
Important Stat II: Consecutive 7-5 seasons may fool you into believing that Iowa State did not improve in 2005. But they did. In 2004 the Cyclones finished 7-5. They were outscored by 13 points on the year resulting in a Pythagorean record of only 5.63-6.37. They were a very solid 5-3 in close games. In 2005 they again finished 7-5. They outscored their oponents by 109 points resulting in a Pythagorean record of 8.58-3.42. They were a terrible 1-4 in close games. The only thing that will prevent them from winning the North this season is their schedule. They drew both Oklahoma at Texas for road dates against the South, as well as a home date agaunst Texas Tech. Within their own half, they must travel to Colorado to face the Buffs. Quarterback Bret Meyer, running back Stevie Hicks, and receiver Todd Blythe form a solid core, but the Cyclones have their work cut out for them if they want to finally win the North.
West Division Winner: Tulsa
The western division is set to Tulsa time. Last season's Conference USA champs return 9 starters on defense and 7 on offense including quarterback Paul Smith. In conference play, they get division rival UTEP at home as well as East Division power Southern Miss. The Golden Hurrican were an amazing +19 in turnover margin last season so expect some regression, but not enough to derail another Conference USA title.
East Division Winner: Southern Miss
The Eagles will be breaking in a new quarterback after the departure of Dustin Almond, but return every other starter on offense save right tackle. The Golden Eagles also had some bad luck last season, finishing 1-3 in close games. Their schedule is tough (especially non-conference with dates at Florida and Virginia Tech as well as a home game against NC State), but they will represent the East in the second Conference USA Championship Game.
The Golden Hurricane will take care of the Golden Eagles for the second time on the season in the title game.
Angels and Demons Team: Rice
The Owls were horrible last season as other teams feasted on them by an average margin of almost 18 points per game. New head coach Todd Graham has experience turning teams around with West Virginia and Tulsa. In additon, the Owls had a -17 turnover margin last season. As long as they have warm bodies on the field they should improve upon that number. They won't make it to a bowl game, but they should triple and possibly quadruple last season's win total.
Da Vinci Code Team: Central Florida
George O'Leary deserves tremendous credit for taking the Golden Knights from a winless season in 2004 to an 8-5 record in 2005. However, the Knights allowed just as many points as they scored last season and finished a very good 4-1 in close games. Simple regression will prevent Central Florida from winning the East again.
Important Stat: UAB was 1-5 in close games last season. Without career passing leader DarrellHackney, expect the Blazers to impove on last season's record.
The Utes came on strong last season by winning four of their last five games. Another season under Kyle Whittingham and the good fortune of getting the other two biggest contenders (TCU and BYU) at home should mean a second Mountain West title in 3 years.
Angels and Demons Team: Wyoming
A lot of folks have the Pokes pegged for last in the Mountain West. I think they could be a surprise mid-level conference team that contends for a bowl. Last season they had terrible luck with fumbles. They didn't fumble extremely often, but when they did they couldn't the ball back. They lost 13 of 15 fumbles. The NCAA average is about 50%. On defense, they recovered only 6 of 27 forced fumbles. A few fortuitous bounces and Wyoming is a 7-5 team this year.
Da Vinci Code Team: TCU
The Horned Frogs are a good team no doubt, but their fans should not have visions of a BCS invite. They were +11 in turnover margin last season, and an amazing 5-0 in close games. Those numbers will come down this season and TCU's record will follow suit.
Important Stat: In 22 seasons at Air Force, Fisher DeBerry has had 4 losing seasons. Half of them have come in 2004 and 2005.
Winner: Southern Cal
The class of the Pac 10 until further notice. If their defense improves over last season, they could win the national championship.
Angels and Demons Team: Oregon State
This was a toss-up between the Beavers and the Cougars from Washington State. In the end, I went with the team that returns 9 starters on offense along with 7 on defense and had a terrible -14 turnover margin last season over the team that could not win a close game in 2005 (1-5).
Da Vinci Code Team: Arizona State
We've been hearing about how the Sun Devils are supposed to break out any year now. Until they play some defense, that won't happen. With only 4 starters returning on that side of the ball, don't expect much improvement this season. The Sun Devils have found the oasis in close games going 6-2 in close games the past two seasons. Any regression and the team could be out of a bowl game. That's the story, morning glory.
Important Stat: UCLA finished 6-2 in conference play last year. They were outscored in those games by 35 points. Expect some serious reversals in luck.
East Winner: Florida
I'm definitely unsure about this pick. Urban Meyer's team usually dramatically improve offensively in his second season. However, Florida's schedule is unbelievably difficult. Aside from the 5 other teams from the East, they play at Auburn and host Alabama and LSU from the West. However, Georgia has Joe Tereshinski (of Cocktail Party fame or infamy as the case may be), Tennessee will still be inconsistent on offense, and South Carolina used a ot of smoke and mirrors last season. So I have to give it to the Gators by default.
West Winner: Auburn
They were probably the SEC's best team last season, and with quarterback Brandon Cox and running back Kenny Irons returning to anchor a powerful offense, they should be the cream of the crop once again.
If they can avoid the slip ups to inferior teams from last season (at home to Georgia Tech and in the bowl game against Wisconsin) the Tigers could win the National Championship.
Angels and Demons Team: Arkansas
They have gotten a lot of love from Phil Steele and I have to agree with him. The Hogs are 1-7 in close games the ast two seasons. That luck has to change. Plus they have a stud runner in Darren McFadden and whoever turns out to be the starting quarterback (freshman Mitch Mustain or sophomore casey Dick) will have a solid season. If Auburn doesn't win the West, Arkansas will.
Da Vinci Code Team: LSU
Don't read too much into the shellacking they laid on Miami. The Tigers were 5-1 in close games in Les Miles' first season. Their four conference road games are against Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, and Tennessee. They will finish no better than third in the West.
Important Stat: Under Spurrier, the Cock N Fire offense averaged roughly a point per game more than the conservative offense run by Lou Holtz. Will Blake Mitchell and Sydney Rice become the next great passing tandem under Spurrier?
Winner: Boise State
Boise gets to host their biggest nemesis, Fresno State this season. Quarterback Jared Zabransky is a senior this season. As long as he doesn't channel Chris Rix as he did against Georgia last season, the Broncos should win the WAC. I can't predict an undefeated season thanks to a road game against Utah and a home date with improving Oregon State, but a WAC title should be in the bag.
Angels and Demons Team: Idaho
To the extreme they rock the dome like a vandal. With a home schedule that includes weaker WAC teams like San Jose State and New Mexico State, along with 9 returning starters o offense and 7 on defense, the Vandals should improve on last seasons 3 wins. A 1-3 record in close games also portends some improvement in the luck department. In addition to this, Dennis Erickson, for all his failures in the pro game, is a helluva college coach.
Da Vinci Code Team: Nevada
The Wolfpack finished last season with a 9-3 record, but only had a Pythagorean record of 6.48-5.52. They went 5-0 in close games last season. Boise and Fresno are the class of the WAC, and if the Wolfpack is not careful, they could be passed by both Hawaii and either Idaho or Louisiana Tech.
Important Stat: Hal Mumme's New Mexico State Aggies were buried at the bottom of Division I last season. A -23 turnover differential is partly to blame, so a little improvement in that area could lead to an extra win or two.