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July 5, 2008

Looking for a sleeper outside the Top 25

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask our national writers their opinion about a specific topic from the past week.

TODAY'S QUESTION: We're at No. 27 in our 120-1 countdown. What team outside of our top 25 has the potential to be the biggest surprise?
Olin Buchanan
A team with eight defensive starters returning, a solid quarterback situation, a big-play running back and at least one of the best offensive linemen in the country has to be respected - especially if that team has a favorable schedule. Considering those factors, beware of the California Bears, who might be overlooked this year because of their second half swoon in 2007.

The defense should be much improved, and the list of returnees does not include end Rulon Davis, who missed much of last season with injuries. If healthy, he's All-Pac 10 caliber. Also, turnovers – interceptions, in particular – were a major issue last season, but quarterback Nate Longshore was hampered by an ankle injury. He's healthy now, but will also face a challenge from sophomore Kevin Riley. The receiving corps has to be rebuilt, but the Bears have game-breaking potential in running back Jahvid Best, who runs behind a line featuring All-American center Alex Mack.

Michigan State, Arizona State and Oregon all must come to Berkeley this year, although the Bears do have to travel to USC.

Preseason Countdown: No. 31 California

Tom Dienhart
It happens every season: a shocker team that not only cracks the top 25, but plays in a BCS bowl. There are many teams lurking on the fringe, ready and able to cross the velvet rope into the VIP room.

My pick is Connecticut. I think the Huskies are being vastly overlooked. It's mind-boggling. If a team with this résumé were named "Florida," "Ohio State" or "Texas," there is no doubt in my mind it would be a top-25 team. Maybe even a top-15 team.

Check it out: UConn returns 16 starters from last season's 9-4 squad that shocked the world by winning a share of the Big East title. Couple that experience with a schedule that is manageable, add in a significant chip on the shoulder for being overlooked – again – and you have a recipe for a team that's just aching for another huge season.

Randy Edsall has done an outstanding job making UConn into a formidable I-A program in a scant six seasons. He nearly got plucked away by Georgia Tech after last season's Cinderella run. I guarantee if Edsall does what I think he can do this season, another big-time BCS program will knock down his door with a mega-contract in hand.

Preseason Countdown: No. 50 Connecticut

David Fox
Mark Dantonio is determined to make Michigan State the little brother no more. The Spartans are a long way from beating up on the rest of the Big Ten, but let's just say Sparty is moving closer to middle-sibling status. Rivals.com has Michigan State ranked No. 32. I say the Spartans can finish better, probably passing their tormenters in Ann Arbor, who are 30th.

The Spartans were 7-6 last season, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2003. They still had their requisite collapse (against Michigan, no less), but expect those to be a thing of the past under the no-nonsense Dantonio. Michigan State was close to an even more dramatic turnaround, but couldn't eke out wins in close games. All six of the Spartans' losses came by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime. With a second season under the new coaching staff and a senior at quarterback, the Spartans are better-suited for close situations. Eric Gordon and Greg Jones had outstanding freshman seasons at linebacker. It appears the receivers will be OK, even without Devin Thomas. And Javon Ringer is the best back in the Big Ten not named Beanie.

If the Spartans can win at California in the opener, they could be 7-0 heading into a home game against Ohio State on Oct. 18.

Preseason Countdown: No. 32 Michigan State

Mike Huguenin
I'm chickening out a bit and picking the team we had at No. 28, Utah.

The Utes have some issues in their front seven on defense and there are some concerns at wide receiver, but there's also a ton of talent in Salt Lake City.

Quarterback Brian Johnson looks to be 100 percent healthy, and if so, he will be one of the nation's top 15 or so at his position. The offensive line is experienced, there are some good running backs, the secondary should be solid, the defensive ends will be disruptive and the special teams will be strong. On top of that, the schedule is easily navigable – even including the season-opener at Michigan.

A victory over the Wolverines certainly wouldn't be a shocker, not with the Wolverines breaking in a new quarterback in a new offensive system. And a strong case can be made that after the opener, the Utes will be favored in every remaining game except maybe the season-ender against BYU.

And keep this in mind: BYU had to pull it out in the fourth quarter to beat the Utes last season in Provo and won by just two in its last trip to Salt Lake, in 2006.

Utah has been a BCS "interloper" before. This season's Utes team has a chance to do it again.

Preseason Countdown: No. 28 Utah

Steve Megargee
It won't be much of a surprise if Notre Dame emerges from the wreckage of its 2007 season and regains some respectability by going 6-6 or 7-5, but a look at the Irish's schedule shows it isn't so far-fetched to think they could do even better than that.

Instead of beginning the season with a "Big Six" program the way they usually do, the Irish open the 2008 slate with a near-certain victory against San Diego State. Then, they play host to a Michigan team retooling its offense under a first-year coach. If the Irish pull off a victory in those first two games, they should have plenty of confidence as they face the meat of a schedule that includes only one program (USC) ranked among the top 24 teams in Rivals.com's preseason countdown.

Notre Dame returns just about everyone on offense other than center John Sullivan and tight end John Carlson. Assuming Jimmy Clausen lives up to expectations in his sophomore season – and that the line gives him enough time to throw after allowing an NCAA-leading 58 sacks last season – the Irish should at least be average, which would represent a major upgrade.

The defensive line is a major question mark, but the pass defense could be solid with David Bruton and Darrin Walls in the secondary. There are plenty of potential losses on this schedule, and you have to think the Irish will slip up at least four times while facing the likes of Michigan State, Purdue, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Boston College.

But when you study that schedule, the only near-certain loss is the season finale against USC. So maybe that 6-6 or 7-5 finish everyone's forecasting might be more like 8-4 or 9-3.

Preseason Countdown: No. 40 Notre Dame

Complete Rivals.com Preseason Countdown

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