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June 14, 2008
Roundtable: Best BCS race to watch
At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for their opinion about a specific topic from the past week in college football.
TODAY'S QUESTION: Rivals.com continues to roll out its 1-120 countdown. Last week, the question was about the non-"Big Six" conference race that was going to be the most interesting. Now, we want to know this: What "Big Six" conference race are you most interested in?
As a native Texan the Big 12 would be my initial response, especially with five teams expected to be ranked among the preseason top 20. However, the more I think about it the more I'm intrigued by the uncertainty of the Big East. Yeah, West Virginia still looks like the dominant program, but you have to wonder if the Mountaineers will falter without Rich Rodriguez on the sidelines. They played great under Bill Stewart in the Fiesta Bowl, no doubt. Can they play to that level for an entire season? We'll see. Also, West Virginia lost a lot of talent on defense and that could be a problem.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh should be much improved this year. Cincinnati and South Florida are solid. Can Rutgers excel without Ray Rice? Can Connecticut build on what it accomplished last season? Will Louisville bounce back from a disappointing showing in their first season under Steve Kragthorpe?
West Virginia may cruise to another conference championship, but with the defensive questions that cannot be taken for granted. If the Mountaineers falter the race will be wide open.
I am fascinated as to how the ACC will unfold, and it's not because the league race shapes up as a battle of titans who possess national-title hopes. It's because so many of the schools appear to be painted with the same broad brush stroke of sameness.
There is one given: Duke will stink. It's nice to know we can depend on one thing. While waiting and watching for teams to rise from the morass of mediocrity will be interesting, the most intriguing storyline involves Clemson. The cold, cruel fact that has Tiger fans tearing up: no ACC titles since 1991.
Since then, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Maryland and – deep breath – Wake Forest have won ACC titles. Order another round at the Esso Club, it'll be OK. Better days may be ahead. In fact, this looks as if it's going to be Clemson's long-awaited season in the sun. The thinking goes: If not now, when? The Tigers have issues on the offensive line and the linebackers are iffy. Still, there's a whole lot to like. A championship is a championship – even if it comes in a season when the ACC looks like the worst BCS conference. Somewhere, Danny Ford is smiling.
The power shift in the Big 12 isn't over yet. Missouri and Kansas knocked Nebraska off its perch in the North. The strange days should continue into 2008.
The Tigers and especially the Jayhawks have tougher schedules against the South this season, with a Missouri road trip to Texas and Kansas playing Oklahoma, Texas Tech and the Longhorns. The North looks to be more competitive with Nebraska on the rebound under Bo Pelini and Colorado on the way back up. After a banner year for the North in 2007, the race could be even more interesting in 2008.
In the South, I'm interested in watching Texas Tech, which is seeking a Missouri- or Kansas-like breakout of its own. Texas hardly looks invincible this season, and Oklahoma is coming off another BCS bowl flop. It's this year or never for a Texas Tech team that always finds a way to lose a game it shouldn't.
The offensive firepower in this league is staggering. Walk into Big 12 country and ask fans about the top two quarterbacks in the league. There are Chase Daniel and Graham Harrell. Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford were both freshman All-Americans. Todd Reesing symbolizes Kansas' scrappiness. Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson (odds are you remember the guy he beat out better than Robinson) is the league's best dual-threat. Stephen McGee is a three-year starter.
The league also sports the two best receivers in the country – Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. The offensive superstars and weak defenses point to weekly shootouts that could have BCS implications.
I think three conference races will be rather dull: the Big East, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 because I can't see anybody other than West Virginia, Ohio State and USC, respectively, winning those titles.
That leaves the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC.
The Big 12 North race should be a good one between Kansas and Missouri – think about that for a second – but I still think Oklahoma is head and shoulders above the other teams in the South. So, the Big 12 is out because there's not enough intrigue.
The ACC looks to be a jumbled mess – and that's good. Seriously, outside of Duke and Virginia, you cannot honestly count out anybody in either division. Plus, there are intriguing sub-plots surrounding Florida State and Miami (who gets back to the top first?), Clemson (is this finally the season for Tommy Bowden?), Georgia Tech (can Paul Johnson's offense work in a "Big Six" conference?), Maryland (is Ralph Friedgen's job really in danger if the Terps are below .500 again?) and Wake Forest (can the Demon Deacons win the league for the second time in three seasons?). All that should make for a fun season.
That leaves the SEC, which – while not as jumbled as the ACC – still should have two tight division races. Plus, unlike the ACC, the SEC actually has some teams that should finish in the top 10 – and compete for the national title. Thus, the SEC is my pick.
When you think about how the past two seasons have turned out, there's really one obvious answer to this question. The Southeastern Conference champion has gone on to win the national title, so the SEC race certainly is the one that's going to grab my attention.
But it's not just the national title implications that make the SEC race so interesting. You have so many coaches with national championship experience (Alabama's Nick Saban, Florida's Urban Meyer, LSU's Les Miles, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer). And you have so many juicy storylines. How will Georgia deal with its brutal road schedule? How will Florida respond to Georgia's end-zone celebration from last year? Will the LSU-Auburn game go down the wire once again? Will Alabama finally end Auburn's Iron Bowl streak?
The SEC is so compelling this season that even a game that could determine last place in the Western Division – Ole Miss vs. Arkansas – offers plenty of intrigue because it has Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt returning to Fayetteville to face his old team. No other league has so many exceptional coaches, outstanding teams and heated rivalries.