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August 28, 2011

Roundtable: Some preseason predictions

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for his opinion about a topic in the sport. Today, we have five questions as we prepare for the season.

1. How many unbeaten teams will there be?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
The guess here is there will be one - Boise State. I think the Broncos get past Georgia in the opener, then cruise until they face TCU on Nov. 12. That game is in Boise, where the Broncos haven't lost a regular-season game in a decade. Even the highest-ranked teams have issues. There are questions about the defenses at Oklahoma and Oregon. Alabama has a new quarterback. LSU may not have its starting quarterback to open the season. I think even the best teams will stumble at least once this season.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
I think Oklahoma and Alabama will be the only perfect teams.

David Fox's answer:
I predict Alabama, Oregon and Boise State to finish the regular season undefeated, with the Broncos getting left out of the national title game. Georgia beat Boise State in the 2005 opener, but since then, the Broncos defeated Oregon and Virginia Tech to start the season. Alabama gets its toughest SEC West opponents, Arkansas and LSU, at home, and both are facing personnel issues. At one point, I would have picked LSU to beat Oregon in Arlington, but the Tigers may have too many distractions to overcome. The Ducks have their own distractions, but less than LSU. If anyone is looking for a dark-horse candidate to go undefeated, I'd pick West Virginia, especially if LSU is still having difficulties when the Tigers visit Morgantown on Sept. 24. West Virginia's next biggest challenges are Syracuse on the road (the Orange upset West Virginia last season) and USF, the Mountaineers' perennial Achilles' heel, in Tampa.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
None. I think everybody loses at least once. Never have I seen a season in which even the elite teams have such serious flaws.

Steve Megargee's answer:
We've headed into bowl season with multiple undefeated teams each of the past two seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's only one unbeaten team this season. I just see a lot more balance this season without anyone that clearly stands out from the crowd. Alabama's probably the most talented overall team, but the Tide are breaking in a first-year starting quarterback. Oklahoma looked equally talented at the start of the summer and boasts a veteran quarterback in Landry Jones, but I don't know if they'll survive that two-game stretch against Florida State and Missouri unscathed without injured LB Travis Lewis. And if Boise State loses its opener against Georgia - a legitimate possibility - I don't think we'll see any undefeated teams from outside the six major conferences.


2. Which team in the Rivals.com preseason top 10 do you think doesn't finish in the top 10?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
The top-10 team I'm most unsure about is No. 4 LSU. Five of their 11 victories last season were by seven or fewer points. Can Les Miles maintain his magic? The quarterback position remains an area of concern and, frankly, I can't see how the defense can lose Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis and be as good as it was last season. The schedule is demanding, too.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
Oregon. The Ducks have lots of skill-position talent returning, led by QB Darron Thomas and TB LaMichael James. But Oregon also has some big holes to fill in the trenches on both sides of the ball. And that's why the Ducks will fall from elite status.

David Fox's answer:
I am starting to have serious reservations about LSU at No. 4. Some reasons are out of the Tigers' control, such as Steve Kragthorpe stepping down as offensive coordinator. Others have been instances of self-sabotage - Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard. The early schedule - Oregon in Arlington, Texas, at Mississippi State and at West Virginia - won't be charitable if LSU struggles to find its footing. Beyond that, LSU must go to Tennessee and to Alabama. I picked Virginia Tech to upset No. 8 Florida State in the ACC race, but I still could see the Seminoles finishing the season with a good record, especially if they defeat Oklahoma.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
I wonder the most about Stanford. QB Andrew Luck is the most talented player in the nation, and there are two stud linemen in G David DeCastro and OT Jonathan Martin, a top-flight linebacker in Shayne Skov and one of the nation's best safeties in Delano Howell. But Jim Harbaugh is gone, and I worry that he took Stanford's swagger with him. I'm not sure I've ever seen a college team feed so much off a coach's intensity.

Steve Megargee's answer:
Texas A&M played extremely well late in the 2010 regular season and returns tons of talent on offense, but I'm still not convinced this is a top-10 team. The players on this roster aren't accustomed to opening the season with such a high ranking, and I remember how Oklahoma State struggled to deal with higher-than-usual expectations two years ago. I'm not sure Ryan Tannehill can match his 2010 success, and I wonder whether the defense got exposed a little by LSU in last season's Cotton Bowl. Texas A&M shouldn't have a problem winning its first two games, against SMU and Idaho, but the Aggies then have a tough stretch against Oklahoma State, Arkansas and at Texas Tech. Later in the season, the Aggies play host to Missouri and travel to Oklahoma on consecutive weeks. This is a good team that should win eight or nine games, but a top-10 ranking seems a little high to me.


3. Who is the first coach to be fired this season?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
Frankly, considering New Mexico has just two wins in two seasons and there have been numerous off-field issues, I'm surprised Mike Locksley still is coach. If the Lobos get off to another slow start (and they probably will, with Colorado State, Arkansas and Texas Tech the first three games) and if the Lobos lose for a third consecutive time to New Mexico State on Oct. 1, I could see Locksley getting canned Oct. 2.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. He enters his fourth season with a 15-22 record and one bowl appearance. And this season's edition of the Bruins is riddled with questions on both sides of the ball as it breaks in new coordinators in an expanded and more difficult Pac-12. I think he is doomed.

David Fox's answer:
Other coaches have worse records, but I wouldn't be shocked to see UCLA's Rick Neuheisel face an early exit if the Bruins cannot navigate their early schedule, which includes Houston, Texas, Oregon State and Stanford by Oct. 1. Only the Texas game is at home. Time is running out for UCLA to make up ground on USC, whose bowl ban ends after this season. UCLA had every reason to believe it could become a more consistent Pac-10 (and now Pac-12) factor with the Trojans' difficulties. Instead, Stanford and Oregon have become national contenders. The last thing UCLA needs is to be mired in losing seasons once USC returns to form.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
I don't think New Mexico's Mike Locksley lasts the season. He is 2-22 in two seasons and again looks to have one of the worst 10 or so teams in the nation.

Steve Megargee's answer:
I'm going to go with New Mexico's Mike Locksley. He heads into the season with a 2-22 record and got some bad news this summer when projected starting QB Stump Godfrey opted to transfer to Hawaii. And he certainly didn't help himself in his debut season by getting in an altercation with an assistant that resulted in a one-game suspension. I can't imagine Locksley having this job in 2012 unless the Lobos show a whole lot of improvement, but I also can't imagine New Mexico winning more than a couple of games this season.


4. Let's talk Heisman. Group A is Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oregon TB LaMichael James and Alabama TB Trent Richardson. Group B is everyone else. Which group do you think has the eventual winner?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
I'll take Group A. Luck would be my pick, though I think James and Richardson will make strong challenges. Perhaps the greatest threat from Group B would be Landry Jones if Oklahoma does live up to its No. 1 ranking. Honestly, though, I don't think Jones is the best player on his offense. I think that is Ryan Broyles.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
Give me Group B, as I think Oklahoma QB Landry Jones will win the award en route to taking the Sooners to an unbeaten season. I think he joins recent OU QBs Jason White and Sam Bradford as Heisman winners.

David Fox's answer:
That's an awfully intriguing Group A. I'm usually the one who would take "everyone else," but I'll stick with Luck, James and Richardson. I already have picked Alabama and Oregon to go undefeated, so it stands to reason their star players will be in New York for the Heisman ceremony. As for Luck, he will enter the season as a Heisman contender, which he did not a year ago. And fairly or not, if Stanford is in the Pac-12 or national title races, Luck will get most of the credit for keeping the Cardinal elite despite the departure of Jim Harbaugh.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
Barring injuries, I think each member of Group A will have a solid season and will be a Heisman finalist. That said, I'll take Group B just for the simple fact that there will be more than a few people from that group who have great seasons on big-time teams.

Steve Megargee's answer:
Recent history suggests I should go with Group B. Nobody was mentioning Cam Newton as a Heisman contender this time last year, and Mark Ingram didn't get much preseason Heisman hype two summers ago. But I'm going to pick Group A anyway. Luck had such a big season last fall and has garnered so much attention this summer in regard to his NFL prospects that I think he's as big a preseason Heisman front-runner as we've had in a number of years. If Luck doesn't win the award, I'm guessing it will be because Oregon blows out Stanford for the Pac-12 title, and that likely would make James the front-runner. I also like Richardson's chances of contending for the award by following the same formula that helped Ingram win it during the Tide's national title run two years ago. Alabama's my pick to win the national championship, and Richardson's going to be the most productive player in Alabama's offense. That's enough to make Richardson a legitimate candidate.


5. Who will play in the national title game?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
Although I don't think it's fair, I just don't think Boise State will get in even if it's undefeated. So, I'm writing the Broncos off. The SEC champion always is in, right? Isn't that an NCAA mandate? So, put Alabama in against Oklahoma would be the easy choice, but I want to go against the grain, climb out on a limb and take a dark horse. Alabama vs. Stanford for the national championship.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
Unbeaten Oklahoma vs. unbeaten Alabama.

David Fox's answer:
I'm picking Alabama and Oregon. Alabama looks too much like its 2009 national title-winning team to ignore. The Crimson Tide has a potentially dominating defense and an elite running back. The question is the passing game, but Alabama has shown it can win with a first-year starter at quarterback (Greg McElroy, 2009). We'll learn a lot about Oregon in that LSU opener, particularly about the passing game. The Ducks' defense usually is at least solid, even if it's not spectacular. LSU may be relying on RB Spencer Ware in the opener, so the Ducks' defensive line minus Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair will be tested.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
Alabama and I'm not sure. If Oklahoma gets through September unscathed despite being without star LB Travis Lewis, I think the Sooners could be in New Orleans. And while I don't think there will be any unbeatens, I think the team with the best chance to finish unbeaten is Boise State. And, man, Alabama-Boise State sure would make for an intriguing matchup, satisfying both sides of the "Boise isn't an elite program" argument.

Steve Megargee's answer:
I'm not exactly going against the grain by picking Alabama against Oklahoma, though I'm not feeling quite as confident in Oklahoma's chances now that LB Travis Lewis will miss a significant portion of the season. As I mentioned earlier, I don't think we're going to have multiple undefeated teams this season. And I think Alabama and Oklahoma are playing the types of schedules that could allow them to survive an early loss and remain in national title contention. I believe both are good enough to win their respective conferences, even though they might stub their toes once along the way. Oregon also is a formidable contender, and don't forget about Boise State. If the Broncos manage to beat Georgia in Atlanta, they have an excellent shot at going undefeated and could slip into the championship game if there's only one unbeaten team from the six major conferences.

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