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July 15, 2009

Potential does not always translate to wins

Exactly where the "overrated" taunt originated, I'm not sure. (The guess here is it probably began with ornery Duke basketball fans.)

Personally, I never understood that one. It seems that chastising a losing team for being overrated somehow lessens the accomplishment of the team that pulled off the upset.

Nevertheless, every year in every sport, some teams are overrated and some are underrated. This year's college football season certainly will have some fitting both categories. Some won't be known until midseason. Some won't be known until much later. But while it cannot yet accurately be said what teams are overrated or underrated, personnel, schedules and last season's performances can be analyzed to determine which teams might fit those descriptions.

With that in mind, here's a look at five teams potentially overrated and five that may be underrated.

Possibly overrated

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are widely projected as a top-10 team going into the season. No doubt, there are reasons to expect a big season in Stillwater. Dez Bryant is the best receiver in the country. Kendall Hunter is an explosive running back. Zac Robinson is a third-year starter at quarterback. Russell Okung could be the first offensive lineman taken in next year's NFL draft. Notice all those players are on offense? That's the concern. The defense could bring the Cowboys down like an anchor. Don't forget that six opponents scored at least 28 points against the Cowboys last season, and that they were among the nation's worst in pass rush and pass defense. Six starters return on the defense, but only one in the secondary. Sure, new coordinator Bill Young has had a distinguished career, but a coach can only do so much. There are even some questions about the offense, too. Remember, the Cowboys bogged down when Bryant was hurt in the fourth quarter of last year's 42-31 Holiday Bowl loss to Oregon. Oklahoma State opens with Georgia and Houston, and neither game is a sure win. If they falter early, the Cowboys may not be able to climb back into the top 10, especially with Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma looming in the second half of the season.

Ole Miss: A cotton-soft schedule (two Football Championship Subdivision opponents, six Football Bowl Subdivision foes coming off losing seasons) should ensure the Rebels a good season. But the talk in Oxford is that the Rebels can win the SEC West and maybe even the SEC championship, which basically equates to contending for the national title. Slow down. There is talent on the roster, for sure. But after posting nine victories last year, Ole Miss won't have the element of surprise. It's an old story: A team that had a breakout year one season fails to meet expectations the next. Look at Illinois or Missouri in '08. The Rebels can score in bunches. They proved that by exceeding 30 points in each of the last four games last season. Still, will quarterback Jevan Snead be as effective without first-round NFL draft choice Michael Oher protecting him? Can high-risk, high-reward receiver Dexter McCluster shake his tendency to lose the ball? How strong will the defense be without Peria Jerry up front? Will defensive end Greg Hardy continue to have problems with his foot that twice has required surgery? Are the cornerbacks good enough?

LSU: The mere suggestion that the Tigers may not be as good as some might project will make Louisianans hotter than Avery Island peppers. LSU is viewed as a top-10 team and strong SEC contender, and anything else would be disappointing. Much of the hype surrounding LSU centers on sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who threw four touchdown passes and one interception in the last four games of '08. On the season, though, he still completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. The defense also is an issue. Don't forget that LSU surrendered 31 points in each of its last three regular-season games. The presence of new coordinator John Chavis should make a difference, but not all the defensive problems from last year could be blamed on coaching. The schedule won't allow for many breaks. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas beat LSU last season, and the Tigers must face three of them on the road this year.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions were in the national championship picture much of last season, but getting in the group shot this season may be dicey. Supporters will say Penn State will win the Big Ten and make a run at the national title, and will itemize a list of reasons that extends beyond the presence of legendary coach Joe Paterno. OK, so quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster return after excellent seasons, and the defense will get a boost with linebacker Sean Lee coming back from injury. But there are many uncertainties. How well will an offensive line with three new starters perform? The top three receivers from '08 are gone; are there adequate replacements on hand. Penn State also has significant holes to fill at defensive end because Aaron Maybin, a first-round choice, and Maurice Evans left early for the NFL draft. The secondary will have four new starters. Reliable kicker Kevin Kelly is gone and will be replaced by freshman Anthony Fera, who has to prove himself. An underwhelming list of cupcakes on the non-conference schedule and a mediocre Big Ten will make sure Penn State compiles a good record. But the Lions as a national championship contender? I can't see it.

USC: How many teams could lose a quarterback who was a first-round draft choice (and replace him with a sophomore who has barely played) and eight defensive starters who were drafted (including four in the first two rounds) and still be viewed as a top-five team? Probably just USC. Truthfully, the Trojans have won so much and recruited so well that a top-five ranking makes sense. But there remains an uneasy feeling that the Trojans' streak of seven consecutive years of winning or sharing the Pac-10 championship could be in jeopardy, especially with California, Oregon and Oregon State expected to mount strong challenges. Quarterback Aaron Corp looks to have won the starting job after a strong showing in the spring, but he has thrown just four passes as a collegian. Even the most rabid USC fan would have to admit that's a step down from Mark Sanchez. Corp will have the luxury of playing behind a strong line and has a top receiver in Damian Williams, so you can't write off the Trojans' offense. Still, USC struggled to score in wins over Arizona and California last season, but the defense ensured victory. Can the Trojans count on being as good defensively in '09? Probably not. USC's goal is the national championship. Attaining that seems more unlikely this season than in recent seasons. A top-five finish can't even be taken for granted.

Possibly underrated

Georgia: No one expects Georgia to tank. But no one projects the Bulldogs in the top 10, either. Don't take them too lightly. Georgia has posted at least 10 wins in six of the past seven seasons and should have another strong year. True, the Bulldogs are without quarterback Matthew Stafford, the first player selected in the NFL draft, and running back Knowshon Moreno, also a first-round pick. But Caleb King will bring speed at running back and fifth-year senior Joe Cox has some solid experience at quarterback. The offensive line was ravaged by injuries last season, but it is now experienced and could be among the nation's best with Trinton Sturdivant back in the lineup. In addition, sophomore wide receiver A.J. Green emerged as a star last season and could gain superstar status this season. Defensively, Georgia had problems in big games in '08. But tackle Jeff Owens is back from injury, and he, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston provide an outstanding rotation. The linebackers are solid with Akeem Dent and Rennie Curran. The secondary needs to get better, but at least there are good athletes to work with in the defensive backfield. A demanding early season schedule includes Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State. If the Bulldogs get through that, the top 10 beckons - maybe even the top five. And consider this: Three times in the BCS era, teams won national championships the season following an NFL draft in which their previous quarterback was the first player selected overall (Tennessee, LSU and USC). Could Georgia make it four?

N.C. State: Few, if any, would give North Carolina State a chance in the ACC's Atlantic Division race. But counting out the Wolfpack would be a mistake. Sophomore Russell Wilson is the conference's premier quarterback, and NC State can't be overlooked as long as he's healthy. He threw 17 touchdown passes and only one interception last season, and he rallied the Wolfpack to a four-game winning streak to close the regular season. That included wins over Wake Forest, North Carolina and Miami. The defense has to improve, but seven starters return, including end Willie Young. NCSU has made steady progress in two seasons under coach Tom O'Brien, and a significant leap could come in his third year. The Wolfpack probably won't show up on any preseason top-25 lists, but if Wilson stays healthy and the defense makes progress, they have a chance to break into the rankings.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights will have a new starting quarterback and must replace two starting wide receivers, including first-round pick Kenny Britt. But remember that Rutgers ranked 12th in the final polls in 2006 thanks to a strong running attack. The running game projects to be formidable again with the best offensive line in the Big East and a committee of solid running backs. Coach Greg Schiano has six starters back from a good defense that held seven opponents to fewer than 20 points last season. Rutgers posted eight wins in '08, and three losses were by seven points or less. Adequate quarterback play from Domenic Natale or Jabu Lovelace should be enough for the Knights to win a few more close ones this season.

East Carolina: Conference USA teams don't often finish in the top 25. In fact, none have finished in the final AP poll since former member Louisville was sixth in '04. But ECU, which climbed as high as No. 14 early last year, could end that drought. The Pirates return eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters from last season's team, which won the Conference USA championship and defeated West Virginia and ACC champ Virginia Tech. Among those back for an encore are quarterback Patrick Pinkney and defensive end C.J. Wilson. Early season games at West Virginia (Sept. 12) and North Carolina (Sept. 19) afford the Pirates opportunity to make a major statement.

Colorado: No team in '08 had worse luck than Colorado, which was ravaged by injuries. A healthy Buffs team could be vastly improved this season. The offensive line will get a huge boost with guard Ryan Miller coming back from injury. That will help the running game, which looks strong with sophomores Rodney Stewart and Darrell Scott. Quarterback play must improve, but junior Cody Hawkins is entering his third year as a starter. Quarterbacks typically are better as juniors and seniors than as freshmen and sophomores. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, but the linebackers are solid. And the secondary, which was a liability a year ago, will be upgraded with cornerback Benjamin Burney back from an injury that forced him to miss all of last season. The Buffaloes aren't expected to be much of a factor in the Big 12 North race, but they could cause some problems. Something to keep in mind: Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska must travel to Boulder.

Going into the Hall

Former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, former Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas and ex-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz head the 2009 College Football Hall of Fame class, which will be enshrined this weekend.

Aikman, Thomas and Holtz top a list of 21 honorees in South Bend, Ind. Other players to be honored include LSU's Billy Cannon, Virginia's Jim Dombrowski, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Florida's Wilber Marshall, Washington State's Rueben Mayes, Arizona State's Randall McDaniel, Syracuse's Don McPherson, Wyoming's Jay Novacek, Texas Tech's Dave Parks, Florida State's Ron Simmons and Army's Arnold Tucker. John Cooper, who coached at Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State, also will be enshrined.

Divisional enshrinees are Roger Brown of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Fred Dean of Louisiana Tech, Sam Mills of Montclair (N.J.) State, Rod Smith of Missouri Southern and coaches Volney Ashford of Missouri Valley and Jim Donnan of Marshall and Georgia.

The Edge

Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to olin@rivals.com and we'll work on it.

This week, it's USC vs. Florida (requested by Arden Doss, of Los Angeles).

1. Head to head
Florida leads the all-time series 1-0-1. The most recent meeting resulted in a 19-19 tie on Sept. 10, 1983
Edge: Florida
2. NFL first-round picks
Florida: 39 (most recently WR Percy Harvin by Minnesota in 2009).
USC: 74 (most recently QB Mark Sanchez by New York Jets, LB Clay Matthews by Green Bay and LB Brian Cushing by Houston in 2009.)
Edge: USC
3. Famous flyers
Florida: Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II.
USC: Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
Edge: USC. Obviously, two historic events. We'll choose the giant leap for mankind.
4. Legendary NFL running backs
Florida: Emmitt Smith
USC: Marcus Allen
Edge: Florida. Smith holds the NFL career rushing record with 18,355 yards. Allen is ninth with 12,243.
5. Former player turned actor
Florida: Jack Youngblood. Following an elite NFL career, Youngblood became an actor and appeared in TV movies "C.A.T. Squad" and "C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf." He was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in "Python Wolf."
USC: John Wayne. He played tackle at USC under his birth name, Marion Morrison. Later, he became an American icon and one of the world's most beloved movie stars.
Edge: USC. Nobody beats the Duke.
6. "Saturday Night Live" cast members
Florida: Darrell Hammond
USC: Will Ferrell
Edge: USC. Hammond's impersonations of Bill Clinton and Al Gore are hilarious, but Ferrell's Harry Caray was awesome. He did a great George W. Bush, too. Besides, he's had a better movie career. And Ferrell is a college football fan, too.
7. Actor who played a father in an old sitcom
Florida: Bubby Ebsen, who played Jed Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies."
USC: Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver on "Leave it to Beaver."
Edge: Florida. "The Hillbillies" was a better show. Besides, Ebsen's character was the father of Elly May and Beaumont's character was the father of Wally and Theodore.
8. Heisman recipients
Florida: 3 (Steve Spurrier in 1966, Danny Wuerffel in 1996 and Tim Tebow in 2007.
USC: 7 (Mike Garrett in 1965, O.J. Simpson in 1968, Charles White in 1979, Marcus Allen in 1981, Carson Palmer in 2002, Matt Leinart in 2004 and Reggie Bush in 2005).
Edge: USC.
9. Iconic coaches who later struggled in the NFL
Florida: Steve Spurrier, who was 12-20 in two seasons with the Washington Redskins in 2002-03.
USC: John McKay, who was 44-88-1 in nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1976 to 1984.
Edge: USC. McKay took over an expansion team. Despite a winless first season, he didn't fare too badly: The Bucs reached the playoffs three times under McKay and played in the NFC championship game in their fourth season of existence. Besides, McKay had one of the all-time great sports quotes. When asked how he felt about his team's execution, he responded, "I'm in favor of it."
10. Current football coaches
Florida: Urban Meyer is 83-17 in eight seasons as a head coach, including 44-9 in four seasons at Florida. He has won two BCS national championships in the past three seasons.
USC: Pete Carroll is 88-15 in eight seasons with the Trojans. That includes two national championships, although one was voted by The Associated Press.
Edge: Florida. Both of Meyer's championships were won on the field. Even LSU fans, who bristle at the notion that USC won a share of the 2003 title, would give the edge to their SEC rivals.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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