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July 6, 2007

Mailbag: Serious fans dream big

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of Fall practice.
Previous mailbags
June 29: The fool's gold
June 14: No luck at all
June 8: Second in Florida
June 1: Razorbacks in turnoil

Growing up an hour from Shreveport - and often visiting Baton Rouge and New Orleans - offered frequent opportunities to meet folks from Louisiana.

As a rule, I almost always found them to be extremely friendly.

Oh sure, there was the 1994 trip to Baton Rouge to cover the LSU-Texas A&M season opener. On the slow drive through crowded streets leading to Tiger Stadium, dozens of LSU fans saw the Texas license plates and promptly spat all over the hood of my car.

What did I care? It was a rental.

Over the years I've been invited by Louisianans to crawfish boils, Mardi Gras celebrations, casino trips and days at the horse races. I would gladly toast their hospitality with a bottle of Abita beer.

Marvin Dugas, aka "The Big Ragoo" and the leader of "The Krewe of Ragoo" - the world tailgating champions - once invited me to join a tailgate party before the 2003 Cotton Bowl. The game was scheduled for a 10:30 a.m. kickoff.

"We start tailgating at 7 a.m.," Dugas told me.

"What time do you start for a night game?" I wondered.

"We start tailgating at 7 a.m.," he repeated.

That's just another example of how Louisianans are quick to extend a hand in friendship.

But if you suggest the LSU Tigers shared the 2003 national championship with Southern California, those same friendly people would rather extend a fist in the mouth.

That's a sore subject down there. LSU fans waited 45 years between national championships, and once they got one they didn't want to share.

It matters not to them that USC was voted national champion by the Associated Press. The BCS system put LSU and Oklahoma in the championship game that season, and LSU won 21-14.

Case closed.

Well, that is subject to debate. Two years ago, LSU fans had their ire raised each time it was mentioned that USC was seeking its third consecutive national crown.

The 2003 championship game should have matched LSU and USC rather than Oklahoma, which was allowed to play for the crown despite getting blown out by Kansas State 35-7 in the Big 12 championship game.

Instead, we can only wonder which was the better team. This year we might not be forced to speculate.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Still a great matchup

LSU is loaded this year. Do you see them playing USC for the national championship?

- Jeff in Denham Springs, La.
-----

What a great matchup that would be, and what a great matchup that would've been four years ago.

Southern California is one of my personal picks to reach the championship game because it has a stingy, experienced defense and a proven quarterback.

LSU might have the best defense in the nation with tackle Glenn Dorsey, end Tyson Jackson and linebackers Ali Highsmith and Darry Beckwith heading a list of eight returning starters. The unit ranked third nationally a year ago.

The offense lost three players who were first-round draft choices - QB JaMarcus Russell, WR Dwayne Bowe and WR Craig Davis - so that causes some apprehension.

However, the main reason I'd hesitate to project the Tigers in the national championship game is a schedule that includes Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas. If the Tigers can go unbeaten - or sustain just one loss - against that kind of schedule, they would certainly deserve a shot at playing for the national championship.

But as we often see, including in 2003, deserving teams don't necessarily get a chance to play for the championship.

Not so fast 'Huskers fans

Why are some magazines picking Missouri to win the (Big 12) North? Their offense will be potent, but their defense is lacking. Last year I think Nebraska held them to season lows on offense. I know (the game) is in Columbia this year, but I don't think that's going to matter. Sam Keller is the truth, and will lead Nebraska past USC through Texas and whoever else is in the way to a champion trophy.

- Sam in North Platte, Neb.
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Sam, I was with you until you picked Nebraska over USC and predicted a national championship for the Huskers.

I'm on record in predicting Nebraska to win the Big 12 North. There is certainly good reason to pick Missouri, and not just because the Oct. 6 game will be played in Columbia.

Missouri, which ranked eighth nationally in total offense last season, again should have one of the country's most productive offenses. The return of quarterback Chase Daniel, running back Tony Temple, receiver Will Franklin and tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker should ensure that.

True, the Huskers held Missouri to 20 points last season. However, that Nebraska defense included DE Adam Carriker, DE Jay Moore and LB Stewart Bradley. All were NFL Draft picks, and three other starters are no longer on the roster.

Of course, Missouri also took some significant losses on defense. The guess here is the Tigers will have difficulty slowing the Nebraska offense, which figures to be very good with Sam Keller at quarterback.

That projects to a high-scoring game. As of now, I'd guess Nebraska would win a 42-35 shootout. But it would be a mistake to completely dismiss Missouri's chances.

I believe Missouri will be too good to overlook, and Nebraska won't be good enough to take victories for granted.

Aggies have something to prove

With Texas A&M's upset of Texas last year, do you see a possible shift in the Big 12 South landscape?

- Roger in Montgomery, Ala.
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That certainly is possible. Either Texas or Oklahoma has won the Big 12 South the last eight years. However, the Longhorns had to rebuild their secondary and the Sooners have uncertainty at quarterback.

In fact, on Dec. 28 of last year I was considering that Texas A&M would return nine offensive and seven defensive starters and was projecting the Aggies as the South Division favorite in 2007.

But later that night California riddled the A&M pass defense, which made me question just how much the Aggies have actually improved.

Oklahoma State also returns a list of nine offensive and seven defensive starters, including some of the Big 12's most explosive players in receiver Adarius Bowman, running back Dantrell Savage and quarterback Bobby Reid. The Cowboys could make a challenge.

Texas Tech is always dangerous and figures to be better next season with quarterback Graham Harrell in his second season as a starter.

That said, I would still stick with Texas or Oklahoma until another team proves me wrong.

'Cats still lack teeth

If Kentucky can tighten up on defense do you think they have a chance of winning the SEC East?

- Craig in Frankfort
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Well, it would have to get tighter than Christina Aguilera's jeans.

I have a lot of respect for new defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who was an All-American cornerback during his playing days at Oregon. Unfortunately he can't play corner for the Wildcats, although he still might be the best one in Lexington.

Last season the Wildcats ranked 118th out of 119 Division I-A teams in total defense, so obviously the personnel has to be upgraded. A new coach can only do so much.

That said, the Wildcats' offense has the potential to put up big numbers with QB Andre' Woodson, RB Rafael Little and WR Keenan Burton returning. That means the UK defense doesn't necessarily have to be spectacular for Kentucky to have another successful year.

I think the Wildcats have a good chance to post seven or eight victories, but I don't see them winning the SEC East. A fourth or fifth place finish is more realistic. With a few breaks, they might be able to creep up to third.

Newcomers all the rage in ACC

Name a player that no one is talking about (perhaps a three-star recruit) that's going to come in this season and turn heads in the ACC.

- Cedric in Jacksonville
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I put this question to our crack recruiting analyst J.C. Shurburtt, who suggested Clemson WR Xavier Dye fits the bill.

The 6-foot-4 Dye has 4.5 speed and will get a shot to get into the wide receiver rotation, which could use some help with the loss of Chansi Stucky.

The Tigers' top returning receiver is Aaron Kelly, who had 30 catches in 2006.

Just keep winning

The Mountain West is expected to be pretty deep this year with most of the teams getting their key players back (notably TCU and Utah) from last year. So, do you think the Mountain West is underrated? What do you think it would take for them to become a legit conference in the BCS system?

- Mike in Ogden, Utah
-----

The Mountain West cannot be considered a legitimate conference until one of its teams wins a national championship.

Wait. BYU did that in 1984.

OK then. It won't be legitimate until one of its teams wins a BCS bowl game.

Oh yeah, Utah defeated Big East champion Pittsburgh in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Well, then, one of its teams must prove it can beat BCS teams more than once a year.

Hmmm TCU defeated the Big 12's Baylor and Texas Tech last season.

Sorry, I still don't think the MWC is underrated.

It's true that TCU, BYU and Utah had good-to-excellent seasons in 2006, and the MWC went 3-1 in bowl games. However, that's a top-heavy league. The Big East still gets criticized even though it went 5-0 in bowl games against much better competition than the MWC teams faced.

Also, TCU, BYU and Utah are the only MWC teams to post winning records in 2006. Four of its nine teams managed just four or fewer wins.

The MWC could make a compelling argument this year if TCU wins at Texas, BYU defeats Arizona and/or UCLA and Utah beats Oregon State and/or UCLA. But until the bottom of the league improves, the legitimacy of the conference will continue to be questioned.

Bowden's boys will move ball

Do you believe all the hype at Florida State with the new coaching staff? What's your prediction for their year with one of the most difficult schedules in the nation?

- Barry in Tallahassee
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Believe the hype. The offense will be better with Jimbo Fisher as the offensive coordinator. I foresee the Seminoles running more often, and RB Antone Smith should have a break-out year. Having Smith in the backfield will help whoever wins the quarterback job. I foresee the offensive line making significant improvement under Coach Rick Trickett.

That said, Florida State does indeed face a tremendous schedule - especially in November. In that month they are at Boston College, at Virginia Tech, at home against Maryland and then at Florida.

If the Seminoles get eight or nine wins it should be considered a good year. If they hit double-digits, call it a great one.

I expect them to have a good year.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.



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