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February 8, 2008

Wolverines may face reality check

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
Feb. 2: One-year wonder?
Jan. 25: Fans dream big
Jan. 18: Playoff push

The Godfather, Part II was the best movie. All in the Family was the most popular TV show. Charles Lindbergh died. Gasoline cost 63 cent a gallon.

The year was 1974, and that was the last time the Michigan Wolverines did not play in a postseason game.

Not that they were bad that year; they went 10-1. But like the price of gas, the number of bowl games had not yet grown to ridiculous proportions. There were only 11 bowl games in 1974, and for Big Ten teams, it was Rose Bowl or nothing.

Times obviously are different in 2008. But how different are they? Could Michigan's streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances be in jeopardy?

We answer that question plus a few more in this week's mailbag.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Still Michigan

Many "experts" say Rich Rodriguez will win at Michigan only when he gets the players he wants. What many experts fail to realize is that Michigan has better talent now than what he had at West Virginia. Do you feel Michigan will be ranked in the preseason top 25 next year. If not, will the Wolverines finish in the top 25 and continue the longest streak of bowl games and winning seasons?

Marlon in Kansas City
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Rodriguez wishes he could have taken quarterback Pat White and tailback Noel Devine with him to Ann Arbor, but maybe your appraisal is correct and he has more talent at Michigan than at West Virginia.

But even if that debatable opinion is correct, he'll be facing better competition in the Big Ten than in the Big East - and that has to be taken into consideration.

Michigan doesn't strike me as being a preseason top-25 team. There are just too many uncertainties. Two exceptional receivers are gone, as well as Jake Long, Mike Hart and the top two quarterbacks from 2007.

Most of the players on next season's roster will have been recruited to fit into a different offense system. But let's face it: Michigan doesn't recruit bad players. There will be talent on that team, though a lot of it is frighteningly young and unproven. That is especially true at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Steven Threet projects as the probable starter at this point.

Anticipate the Wolverines to be good enough to extend their bowl streak; the Big Ten had eight bowl teams this year. But the Wolverines will have to prove they deserved to be ranked.

A fluke?

Both Arizona State and Missouri found their way into the 2007 rankings after years of lingering below the top 25. Although I am a fan of both, do you share my opinion that 2007 was a fluke?

Mike in Tempe, Arizona
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I thought Arizona State overachieved in 2007, but from the beginning, I felt Missouri was going to challenge for the Big 12 North title.

Honestly, I thought Nebraska would win the North Division this past season, and obviously that was way off. But I did think Missouri would be Nebraska's chief rival, especially with the Tigers coming off a solid eight-win showing and returning a bunch of starters from 2006.

There are a lot of reasons to like Missouri in 2008. Chase Daniel is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Jeremy Maclin is a marvelous big-play threat and Chase Coffman will ensure that tight end remains a position of strength.

Missouri needs to upgrade its defense, but nine starters return, so it's not out of the question to think the Tigers again will be in the national championship picture.

Meanwhile, Arizona State had made three consecutive bowl appearances before last season, so there was every reason to think the Sun Devils would be successful in 2007 - particularly with Dennis Erickson at the helm. But I wouldn't have predicted they would start 8-0.

The Sun Devils have seven regulars back on offense and defense in 2008. With another year under Erickson, it should set up another strong season in Tempe.

Flying high

Do you think with (five-star wide receiver)DeAndre Brown going to Southern Miss, and about seven or eight other top Mississippi prospects either going out of state or to rival schools, was it a good idea to fire (former Ole Miss coach) Ed Orgeron? Before Orgeron was fired, Ole Miss was the team to beat for Brown. Was it a good idea to fire the obviously potent recruiting power of Ed Orgeron?

Collin in Oxford
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Orgeron brought in some highly touted players, but that never resulted in more than four victories. Was 2008 going to be a breakout season for Orgeron's program? Perhaps. But there was little to indicate that would be the case. After all, the Rebels lost five of their last six games in 2007, with a couple of blowouts sprinkled in there, so nothing indicated they were getting better.

We'll see if new coach Houston Nutt can benefit and win with some of Orgeron's players. Jevan Snead should be a significant upgrade at quarterback, which has to boost an offense that produced fewer than 20 points in five games last season.

If the Rebels show some progress under Nutt, maybe in-state players will be more receptive to him in '08. It probably wouldn't be wise, and definitely wouldn't be fair, to judge Nutt before he's coached a game in Oxford.

Still have bite

With Anthony Morelli out of eligibility, that leaves Penn State's starting quarterback spot open to rocket-armed Pat Devlin and dual-threat quarterback Darryl Clark. With a majority of their offense coming back and their always-stellar defense, do you think the Nittany Lions will rise from the middle of the pack and compete for a Big Ten title in 2008? Remember, the last time we had a mobile quarterback Michael Robinson Orange Bowl 11-1. I just thought I'd throw that in there.

Matt in Pennsylvania
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Penn State will challenge in the Big Ten as usual. Three of the Lions' four losses were by a touchdown or less, and a ton of starters are coming back. Although Clark isn't a returning starter, he did play well in the Alamo Bowl victory over Texas A&M and demonstrated he can be a rushing threat (six carries for 50 yards and a touchdown).

Penn State will have to shore up its secondary, but other than that, the defense - which ranked 11th in the nation overall this past season - should be solid again.

Will that be good enough to result in another trip to Miami, where the BCS national championship game will be played? Probably not. The schedule sends Penn State to Wisconsin and Ohio State, which is my pick to win the Big Ten again.

Bullish

With 10 starters back on offense and defensive end George Selvie and Tyrone McKenzie back on defense, how do you see USF faring next season? Could the turmoil at West Virginia open up a potential Big East championship run? And, in the broader sense, how do you see the Big East playing out next season?

Dave in Tampa
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How the Mountaineers respond to new coach Bill Stewart definitely will be the biggest question facing West Virginia, but judging how they responded against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, they figure to be OK.

There also has to be some question of whether the dynamic but diminutive Noel Devine can endure the wear-and-tear of being the starting running back. With only four starters returning on defense, that could also be an area of concern.

Yet, West Virginia still has White at quarterback and returns its entire offensive line. Based on that, I would still rate the Mountaineers as the team to beat in the Big East.

But USF, which has posted back-to-back victories over the Mountaineers, cannot be overlooked for the reasons you mentioned. Selvie has bona-fide All-American ability, and quarterback Matt Grothe figures to keep getting better. Yet despite USF's recent success against West Virginia, I'm inclined to favor the Mountaineers in that game in Morgantown.

Overall, I think the Big East race will be compelling. Don't expect Cincinnati to slip, especially if the NCAA grants quarterback Ben Mauk another year of eligibility. Pittsburgh could be one of the most improved teams in the country, and maybe Louisville will bounce back from last year's disappointment and be a factor again.

But at this point, I'd think West Virginia and USF would be the Big East's top two teams next season.

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



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