We're at the point in the college football offseason where nearly all news is bad news, save for recruiting. Spring practice is long gone, but fall camp is another two months away, which means that pretty much all that can happen is bad, from national championship game quarterbacks getting booted to recruiting violations to arrests.
Without the aid of fresh football news, we're in the midst of narrative-building season. The preseason college football magazines are hitting the shelves, and we have plenty of down time to wildly guess the course of the season and form solid opinions on everyone. We're here to sort out the June noise, separate the hope from the hype, the overlooked teams that could surprise from the names and storylines that may disappoint. Here are 10 of the biggest statements to ponder:
Hope: LSU overcoming its absurd number of early departures.
The rapid, panicked response to LSU's startling number of early entrees into the NFL draft in January was understandable. LSU, a team that has built itself around defense throughout the Les Miles era, lost six underclassmen defenders from last year's team (plus Tyrann Mathieu), in addition to the seniors and everyone's favorite punter, Brad Wing, who was a great weapon for a team reliant on winning the field-position battle. So, yes, having so many holes to fill on defense is a concern, but there are two teams better equipped than anyone else to quickly reload on defense: Alabama and LSU.
With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson anchoring the line and an underrated secondary, the Tigers have talent to build around defensively. They've ranked in the top 12 in scoring defense for four straight seasons, and they're not likely to stray far from that trend. And even if the defense takes a small step back, the LSU offense behind improving QB Zach Mettenberger could be the best we've seen in Baton Rouge in several years. This is a BCS caliber team; the problem, of course is the competition. LSU faces a brutal schedule, as the Tigers visit Alabama and draw both Georgia and Florida from the East, in addition to an intriguing matchup with TCU to open the season at Cowboys Stadium. But it may not matter because it's quite possibly that, despite all the January panic, LSU will be the second-best team in the SEC.
Hype: Florida repeating its 2012 success with its win-ugly philosophy.
Watching Florida football in the 2010s can be an excruciating experience. As much as Nick Saban gets labeled as the preeminent old-school, robot-like coach, nobody can top Will Muschamp, whose Florida team last year won with defense, punting and good ol' fashioned sideline anger. Florida may very well win 10 games again, but for all its success last year, it still needed all the help it could get to beat Louisiana-Lafayette, still scored 14 points against Missouri, still struggled with Bowling Green in its opener, still was rattled by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
Florida, of course, recruits well and is capable of reloading, but the transition won't be as seamless as at LSU, even with returning All-America caliber talent like lineman Dominique Easley and cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy -- plus Kyle Christy, the nation's best punter. What Florida mostly lacks is any sort of playmaker on offense, which leaves little margin for error for the notoriously inconsistent Jeff Driskel at quarterback. Throw in a brutal schedule that includes only six home games (none consecutively until the last two weeks of the season), with road trips to Miami, LSU and South Carolina plus the neutral game against Georgia, and Florida is likely heading toward a third-place finish in the SEC East after nearly sneaking into the national title game last year. It's not that Muschamp's style of football can't win, but there's a problem when the team's only notable playmaker (Purifoy) is playing cornerback.
Hope: Kansas State staying relevant after losing Collin Klein.
Rules of College Football: Don't doubt Bill Snyder. Not that Snyder has been infallible at Kansas State. The Wildcats went 4-7 and 5-6 before he retired following the 2005 season, but upon returning to resurrect the program that he essentially created, the Wildcats have improved from 6-6 to 7-6 to 10-3 to 11-2. Yes, those two great years that resulted in Cotton Bowl and Fiesta Bowl losses were done behind the brilliant play of Collin Klein at quarterback, and he's gone now. But the foundation remains for Kansas State to remain in the top half of the Big 12, even after several key losses on defense.
Mostly, it's reasonable to think the Wildcats will continue having no trouble on offense, where they scored 38.9 points per game last year. Both juco transfer Jake Waters and athletic sophomore Daniel Sams have been praised throughout the offseason at quarterback, and it wouldn't be surprising to see K-State find a way to use both effectively, along with an experienced offensive line, a tough runner in John Hubert and a reliable receiver in Tyler Lockett. The Big 12 is talented but lacks a clear favorite, meaning a bunch of teams could be stacked around the 9-3 mark. They'll take a step back, but they'll stay right in the mix.
Hype: Jadeveon Clowney winning the Heisman Trophy.
Like any good Clowney-fearing American, the image of him dismantling Vincent Smith will never fully escape my mind. He may be the best defensive end prospect to ever enter the NFL draft, and for good reason, given his freakish combination of size, athleticism and all-around skill as a pass rusher. This blurb does in no way call him overrated, overhyped or anything negative, really.
But while there is momentum for a defender to win the Heisman after Ndamukong Suh's fourth-place finish in 2009 and Manti Te'o's runner-up finish last year, this is the wrong year for it to happen, even if Clowney's combination of past production, highlights and name recognition make him the perfect defensive candidate. What stands in the way is the ridiculous amount of quarterback talent returning to college football in 2013. Between defending Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, two-time national champion A.J. McCarron, possible No. 1 draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, Braxton Miller, Aaron Murray, Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd and on and on, basically every national favorite returns a touted quarterback. QBs have won 11 Heismans since 2000, and in a year featuring a surplus of talent at the position, it will continue to be a quarterback's award.
Hope: Miami finally making its first ACC title game appearance.
This year marks the 10th season of ACC play for Miami, a historic power that was supposed to help the league transform into a superconference. But since the start of the ACC Championship Game in 2005, the following teams have played for the league title: Florida State, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Clemson. Technically, the Hurricanes finished in a tie for first in the Coastal last year at 5-3, but they were ineligible for the postseason anyway. By all measures their first decade in the ACC has been a failure.
With Virginia Tech hitting a rough patch, the balance of power in the ACC has shifted to Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic, meaning the Coastal Division is wide open. It's a perfect opportunity for Miami to finally break through again, riding the expected improved play of strong-armed QB Stephen Morris, the home-run hitting ability of tailback Duke Johnson and an experienced offensive line. The Hurricanes must go to North Carolina and Florida State, but they avoid Clemson and have an opportunity to make a statement at home against Florida on Sept. 7. Al Golden has deftly navigated the troubled waters of the NCAA-botched Nevin Shapiro scandal, and, eligible for the postseason again, Miami's first BCS appearance since the 2004 Orange Bowl isn't out of the question. If not, a Coastal title would be a nice step forward in itself.
Hype: Louisville running through its weak schedule undefeated.
I've written about how Louisville may end up overrated before, and here we are again. Let me be clear: The Cardinals are talented, possibly one of the 10 best teams in the country, with Teddy Bridgewater surrounded by a plethora of impact players on both sides of the ball. If Louisville goes undefeated, the problem is that we really won't know how good the Cardinals are, unless they blow everyone out, because they really won't be tested.*
*Louisville fans have emailed me before with the "but nobody will play us" argument, and OK, fine, maybe that's true, but we can't exactly factor that into the polls or computer rankings. All the weak schedule talk is undoubtedly frustrating, but we're dealing with reality here: The schedule is the schedule, and it will likely make the Cardinals hard to evaluate.
But I don't think it's going to happen anyway, so we won't have to worry about that debate in December. After last year's near misses against half the schedule, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Louisville fall in an upset -- say, at UConn or at South Florida -- but it's also easy to envision a scenario in which 11-0 Louisville, fighting for a BCS title bid, blows its chance in the final week at Cincinnati on Dec. 5 and spares everyone the controversy. Even with a coaching change, Cincinnati has won 10 games in four of five seasons, and there's enough talent for the Bearcats to be contenders in an American Athletic Conference that everyone has already handed to Louisville. Whether it's against Cincinnati or someone else, Louisville is talented but hardly invincible.
Hope: Baylor actually having a chance to win the Big 12 title.
The scary thing for defenses is not that Baylor could have two 1,000-yard running backs. What's scary is the context: Baylor could have two 1,000-yard running backs under an air-raid coach who oversaw the nation's No. 4 passing offense each of the last two seasons. All indications are that new quarterback Bryce Petty will be more than competent -- last year, one-year starter Nick Florence threw for RGIII-like numbers -- and if that's the case then nobody is going to stop the Bears, who will run all over defenses with tailbacks Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin, who powered the nation's No. 14 rushing offense last year and should only be better.
Picking the Bears to actually win a conference title is a difficult step to take, given that they've lost at least five games in 16 of their 17 seasons since joining the Big 12 -- the only exception being a 10-3 season in which their QB won the Heisman. But this program wasn't just about Robert Griffin III. Art Briles is clearly building something, and with a defense that improved significantly late in the season and one of the most complete and explosive offenses in the country, why can't they shake off years of disappointment, win a wide-open Big 12 and get to the Fiesta Bowl? Baylor's as good of a bet as any in the conference.
Hype: Texas capitalizing on its talent for a 2013 resurgence.
As explained last week, Mack Brown is likely on the hot seat -- or at least should be -- heading into the 2013 season. The Longhorns' resources out-pace everyone in the country, but the rest of the state of Texas has caught up or is catching up on the field. The Longhorns have been aimless the last few years, since the 2009 national runner-up season, and this is the season that it needs to come together with a talented and experienced squad on both sides of the ball. I can buy into David Ash's progression at quarterback and someone like Johnathan Gray emerging as a star running back, but the defense under Manny Diaz raised a lot of red flags last year. There's nothing particularly challenging about the schedule -- going to BYU is tricky, Ole Miss is no pushover and trips to TCU and Baylor are tough -- so the season likely hinges on one game: Oklahoma, which has given Texas nightmares the last two seasons. With Oklahoma's uncertain QB situation, perhaps we can label the Red River Rivalry a tossup this year, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Texas drop that, plus another two or three the rest of the way. Solid? Yes. But not the redemption Texas fans are hoping for … unless they're willing to sacrifice a few wins for a new coach.
Hope: Oregon State sticking around as a top-25 team.
Nobody pays them much attention given the success of their in-state neighbors of late, but the Beavers put together a remarkable turnaround last year, rising from a disastrous 3-9 campaign in 2011 to 9-4 with wins over Wisconsin and UCLA. It could have been even better, as three of their four losses were by a total of 11 points (Stanford, Washington and Texas). With 15 starters returning, there's little reason to think the Beavers can't repeat that success, especially if either Cody Vaz or Sean Mannion separates himself at quarterback. Both have proven capable at times, and between running back Storm Woods and receiver Brandin Cooks on offense and end Scott Crichton on defense, the Beavers aren't short on impact players around whoever's under center. With a back-loaded schedule, they could easily start 7-0 before a rough finish that includes Stanford, USC, at Arizona State, Washington and at Oregon. Win two of those, and another nine-win season, in the Pac-12's tougher division, is more than respectable for a program with a forgettable history. In-N-Out for all.
Hype: Someone snapping the SEC's streak of seven straight national titles.
We came so close last season … if only Ohio State wasn't ineligible, Oregon didn't lose to Stanford and Kansas State didn't lose to Baylor. Obviously, based on what happened in the championship game, the right team won, and the fact that we were even close to Alabama getting left out of the national title game shows how damaged the system is, but all it takes is one slip-up by the best team in the SEC for it to get squeezed out. Alabama was great last year, but it also got lucky.
The SEC is now 9-1 in BCS National Championship Games. The only loss? LSU, which lost to Alabama. The only hope this year is if Alabama (or LSU, or South Carolina, or Georgia, or Texas A&M, or Florida) loses a game and two of the Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC champions go undefeated (a one-loss SEC champion would probably pass an undefeated Louisville). Given the Big 12's wide-open nature, the pressure could fall on Stanford, Oregon and Ohio State. That's about it. The disparity between the SEC as a whole and the rest of the top leagues may get overstated, but the top of the league is simply better than everyone else. It's basically a six-team league in 2013, but all six of those teams could and maybe should be ranked in the top 10. Whether it's undefeated or has one loss, the SEC champion is going back to the title game this year, and it's probably going to win it too.
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