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February 1, 2008

Title Traits: Trends reveal teams to watch

With a square jaw, prominent nose and jutting chin, Rich Rodriguez has a strong profile.

But his Michigan Wolverines do not.

Alabama coach Nick Saban also has a strong profile. And, surprisingly enough, so does his team.

The act of profiling analyzing data to ascertain distinctive features in a given subject can be a useful tool to identify job candidates, blood types or customers, but it's never a guarantee for success.

For example, a college-educated married male, age 30-40, who earns between $75,000 and $100,000 annually and enjoys outdoor sports may not necessarily be interested in purchasing a new set of golf clubs. Maybe he prefers mountain climbing.

So it is with profiling a potential national champion.

Even an experienced team coming off a successful season and having an advantageous schedule can't be counted on to win a championship because so many immeasurable factors avoidance of injuries, weather, unproven players coming through, the benefit of a controversial call come into play.

Still, the 10 national champions in the BCS era share many common characteristics. With that in mind, a five-step plan was devised to determine what teams for the 2008 season most fit the profile of the national champion.

Each of the 10 BCS national champions played in one of the "big six" conferences and posted at least seven victories the year before their championship season. In addition, in half the cases the national champion was coming off a bowl victory. In fact, the past four national champions won their preceding bowl game: '07 champ LSU over Notre Dame 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl, '06 champ Florida over Iowa 31-24 in the Outback Bowl, '05 champ Texas over Michigan 38-37 in the Rose Bowl and '04 champ USC over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The other champion to win its preceding bowl game was '01 Miami, which defeated Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl.

Another apparent key factor in winning a national championship is having a quarterback who has some experience as a starter. For instance, LSU quarterback Matt Flynn hadn't been considered a starter before '07, but he did start the 2005 Peach Bowl in place of injured JaMarcus Russell.

Tennessee's Tee Martin, who had backed up Peyton Manning, is the only quarterback of a BCS national champion who had no prior starting experience.

Finally, nine returned at least six starters from a defensive unit that ranked among the nation's top 40 in total defense the preceding season.

Only '98 champion Tennessee, with four starters returning from the 32nd-ranked defense of 1997, had fewer than half of its defensive starters back

Trends during the BCS era indicate that the 2008 national champ will be a team that meets the following criteria:
1. Play in a "BCS conference"
2. Post at least seven victories the previous season
3. Win the previous season's bowl
4. Have an upperclassman quarterback with starting experience
5. Return at least six starters from a top-40 defense
Several teams met four of the five elements of the profile, including Oklahoma, LSU, Texas and West Virginia among others, so they obviously cannot be ignored as 2008 national championship contenders. But there are six teams that fit all the criteria.

Here's a step-by-step profile for the 2008 champion.

1. Play in a "BCS conference": No team from Conference USA, the Mid-American, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt or the Western Athletic has won a BCS national championship. Neither has an independent, though Notre Dame certainly has been in the championship picture, especially in 2005 and '06. History shows that the 2008 champion will come from one of the six major conferences, so only consider the 57 teams in the six major conferences plus Notre Dame.
Fitting the profile: Teams from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Big East and Notre Dame.

2. Post at least seven victories the previous season: Coming off a strong season is an obvious indicator that a team may be ready to contend for a championship. Six of the 10 BCS national champions managed double-digit victory totals the season before they won their title. Two Oklahoma in 2000 and Ohio State in 2002 were 7-5 the previous season. Consider all the BCS teams that posted winning records in 2007, but put a little more emphasis on teams that had at least 10 wins. In fact, six champions had at least 11 victories before their championship year, including three of the past four (LSU, Texas and USC).
Still fitting the profile: ACC: Boston College (11-3), Clemson (9-4); Florida State (7-6); Georgia Tech (7-6); Virginia (9-4), Virginia Tech (11-3), Wake Forest (9-4); Big East: Cincinnati (10-3), Connecticut (9-4), Rutgers (8-5), South Florida (9-4), West Virginia (11-2); Big 12: Kansas (12-1); Missouri (12-2); Oklahoma (11-3); Oklahoma State (7-6); Texas (10-3); Texas A&M (7-6); Texas Tech (9-4); Big Ten: Illinois (9-4); Michigan (9-4); Ohio State (11-2); Penn State (9-4); Wisconsin (9-4); Purdue (8-5); Indiana (7-6); Michigan State (7-6); Pac-10: Arizona State (10-3); California (7-6); Oregon (9-4); Oregon State (9-4); USC (11-2); SEC: Alabama (7-6); Arkansas (8-5); Auburn (9-4); Georgia (11-2); Florida (9-4); Kentucky (8-5); LSU (12-2); Mississippi State (8-5); Tennessee (10-4).

3. Win the previous season's bowl: Perhaps a bit surprisingly, only half the BCS champs won their preceding bowl game, but the past four champions did. So that trend suggests next season's national champion will be a team that won its bowl this season.
Still fitting the profile: ACC Boston College, Wake Forest; Big East Cincinnati, Rutgers, West Virginia; Big 12 Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech; Big Ten Michigan, Penn State, Purdue; Pac-10 -- California, Oregon, Oregon State; USC; SEC Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee

4. Have a junior or senior quarterback with at least some starting experience: The quarterbacks of all the national champions were juniors or seniors, and 90 percent had at least some starting experience. Matt Flynn, this year's LSU quarterback, was the backup to JaMarcus Russell in 2006, but he had started the 2005 Peach Bowl victory over Miami. The only BCS national champion quarterback without previous starting experience was Tennessee's Tee Martin. While a quarterback with starting experience isn't required, it certainly provides a big boost.
Still fitting the profile: ACC Wake Forest (Riley Skinner), Big East Cincinnati (Ben Mauk or Dustin Grutza) , Rutgers (Mike Teel), West Virginia (Pat White, Big 12 Kansas (Todd Reesing), Oklahoma State (Zac Robinson), Missouri ([Chase Daniel), Texas (Colt McCoy), Texas Tech (Graham Harrell), Big Ten Purdue (Curtis Painter), Pac-10: California (Nate Longshore), Oregon State (Sean Canfield), USC (Mark Sanchez), SEC: Alabama (John Parker Wilson), Georgia (Matthew Stafford), LSU (Ryan Perrilloux), Tennessee (Jonathan Crompton).

5. Return at least six starters from a top-40 defense: Nine of the 10 BCS champions returned at least six defensive starters, and seven teams returned at least seven starters. Only Tennessee, which had four returning defensive starters in 1998, had fewer than six. Eight of those teams ranked at least 39th the year before their championship season (the 1997 and '98 defensive rankings were unavailable). Therefore, it would seem there is a 90 percent chance the 2008 national championship team will return at least six starters from a 2007 unit which ranked 40th or better in total defense.
Still fitting the profile: ACC --Wake Forest (seven starters back from 27th ranked unit); Big East Rutgers (eight starters back from 17th ranked unit), Big 12 Kansas (nine starters back from 12th ranked unit), Pac-10: USC (seven starters back from second ranked unit), SEC Alabama (six starters back from 31st ranked unit), Georgia (nine starters back from 14th ranked unit).

So according to these criteria, the Demon Deacons, Scarlet Knights, Jayhawks, Trojans, Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are the teams to watch next season.

Of course, more teams than those that fit the national championship profile can aspire to win it all in 2008. It's not out of the question for a team that had a losing record in '07 to bounce back and win a national title, though that would indeed be a high mountain to climb.

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

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