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August 31, 2007

Mailbag: Another Big East contender?

MORE: COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF ARCHIVE

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. This week he heads to the West Coast for the big Cal-Tennessee game.
Previous mailbags
August 24: Fight at the top
August 17: Dreams of youth
August 11: The cost of losing

There was a time when seven victories and a win in a bowl game would have been cause for celebration in Tallahassee.

Now, it's cause for concern.

An old-timer can remember back to the 1970s when Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, had a superior football program to the University of Miami.

It wasn't that long ago that the University of Florida's football program was known as a national underachiever rather than a national champion.

But within the last decade Florida State, Miami (Florida, that is) and the University of Florida have all won national championships. The state of Florida is a vast ocean of high school football talent, and the right college coach can quickly build powerful programs that can win national titles.

Bobby Bowden did it at Florida State. Howard Schnellenberger did at Miami and Steve Spurrier did it at Florida.

So can Jim Leavitt do it at South Florida?

It might be just a matter of time. Perhaps the time has come for the Bulls.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Not quite yet

As a college football fan I get excited for programs that are in their infancy and have a chance for success. The Bulls of South Florida have only been around 10 years or so, and with all the excitement down there over the last couple of years, don't you think they have an outside shot of the winning the whole thing? It all starts with a tough road game at Auburn.

Roger in Montgomery, Ala.
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There is no question that coach Jim Leavitt has done a tremendous job building South Florida into a top 25-caliber program. Matt Grothe is an exciting quarterback, and the addition of highly touted freshman running back Mike Ford should make the Bulls even better than last season's nine-win team.

But it's an enormous leap from nine wins to the national championship, especially for a team that lost to Kansas and Cincinnati and was blown out by Louisville.

Even though South Florida upset West Virginia last season, the Mountaineers and Louisville are still the class of the Big East. The belief here is that South Florida will challenge Rutgers for third place in the conference, and have a shot at equaling or bettering last season's victory total.

If the Bulls get through September without a loss (they will face Auburn and West Virginia) they will be in the national championship discussion. But I don't think they're ready to go that far.

Not yet, anyway.

Top 10 question marks

I almost hate to ask you this since it would no doubt bring a lot of backlash your way, but who do you think is the most overrated top 10 team?

Tony M. in Mount Vernon
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Geez as if I don't get enough hate mail already. Rivals.com policy prevents me from ducking a question.

OK the AP preseason top 10 consists of Southern California, Louisiana State, West Virginia, Texas, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Louisville.

USC, LSU and West Virginia are solid picks, and I think Louisville is underrated at No. 10.

All the other teams have issues that should raise red flags. Michigan and Texas must bolster defenses that let them down at the end of last season. Florida, Wisconsin and Oklahoma have new quarterbacks, while Virginia Tech returns an inconsistent quarterback.

The guess here is that defending national champion Florida could fall most because of a youthful defense and a difficult schedule that includes Tennessee, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.

Remember, the Gators managed one-point victories over Tennessee and South Carolina last year and beat Georgia and Florida State by a touchdown.

Can they win all the close games again this year? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is also some apprehension about Michigan. The Wolverines may have the best offense in the country, but they are rebuilding a defense that lost four starters who were taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

If the offense isn't playing at peak level, the Wolverines could be vulnerable against Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Oklahoma also faces questions because of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Bradford running the offense.

However, if Bradford proves as efficient as Texas' Colt McCoy was last year, the Sooners could have a big season.

The Sooners have won four Big 12 championships with four different quarterbacks, and Nate Hybl in 2002 and Paul Thompson in 2006 were almost as unproven as Bradford.

Husker hopeful

Do you think Nebraska has any chance of beating USC on Sept. 15 in Lincoln? No one is giving Nebraska a shot. Just wondering what you think.

Ryan in Lincoln
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I've followed college football too long to dismiss any team's chances, especially a home team. Who would have predicted Kansas State to beat Texas last year? Or Oregon State to beat USC?

Nebraska is No. 20 in the AP preseason poll and will climb higher if it can notch victories over Nevada and Wake Forest to start the season.

While at Arizona State in 2004, Huskers quarterback Sam Keller threw for more than 300 yards against USC. Nebraska wide receiver Maurice Purify is a California native that would love to have a big game against the Trojans.

Plus, the atmosphere will be great as always in Lincoln.

That said, I expect Southern California to win that game. The Trojans defense should be better than it was a year ago when it held Nebraska to 10 points.

Also, Nebraska has rebuilt its defensive line, while USC should have one of the nation's premier offensive lines.

Nebraska has a chance to win, but the odds are definitely with USC.

Doubting the Badgers

I've seen Wisconsin ranked high in most polls. However, I have read many an article saying that last year's success was in part due to a soft schedule.(Missing OSU, Iowa, and losing to Michigan) Is Wisconsin really as good as everyone ranks them or are they benefiting from a strong record from last years weak schedule?

Dan in Le Mars
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The Badgers' non-conference schedule (Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State and Buffalo) was so soft it appeared former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder compiled it. However, don't judge the Badgers' success of 2006 solely on that. Wisconsin also beat Penn State, Purdue and Arkansas - the Southeastern Conference's Western Division champion.

So while it's true Wisconsin played a relatively easy schedule (eight Division I teams that had losing records and a Division I-AA opponent), there were sufficient victories that warranted respect in the 2007 preseason polls. The Badgers have nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters back this season.

This year the Badgers have a more difficult schedule, with road games at Penn State and Ohio State. Wisconsin also must play host to Michigan. Even the season-opener against Washington State is a huge upgrade over last year's non-conference opponents. Though Wisconsin plays several teams that finished with losing records last season, many of them are expected to be improved.

So is Wisconsin as good as its preseason No. 7 ranking? Probably. But the Badgers and first-year starting quarterback Tyler Donovan will have plenty of chances to prove it.

Winning formula?

With a defense that is very good, a good running game and once again a sound special teams game (doesn't this sound familiar??), do the Ohio State Buckeyes have a chance to win the national championship even with an unproven QB?

Patrick in Cincinnati
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A good defense and a sound running game provide a chance for a strong season, but a national championship seems too ambitious.

The Buckeyes had a good defense and a strong running game last year. They also had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and two NFL first-round draft choices at wide receiver Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez. With all that going for them, the Buckeyes still didn't win the national championship.

Because of its glorious history, Ohio State obviously has higher standards than most programs. That's what a national championship and a runner-up finish in five seasons will do. But a double-digit victory total and a run at the Big Ten crown would be a more realistic goal.

True, the Buckeyes defense might be better than it was a year ago. Though Antonio Pittman was a proven and productive running back, I think Chris Wells will be an upgrade.

But neither Todd Boeckman nor Rob Schoenhoft are going to match Smith's '06 campaign. Even though oft-injured receiver Ray Small has been predicted to emerge as the next game-breaker, he still has to live up to the hype.

Like Wisconsin a year ago, the Buckeyes benefit from an advantageous schedule. Their first eight games feature just one Division I team coming off a winning season (Purdue).

By late October the quarterback should have settled in and gained confidence. We'll know if last year's backup receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline - can flourish in starting roles. But I'd doubt the Buckeyes could go unscathed through the final third of the schedule. The slate sends them to Penn State and Michigan and features home games against Wisconsin and Illinois.

Ohio State could have another shot at the national championship, but that's unlikely.

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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