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June 6, 2008
USC won't need help to reach its goals
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
May 30: New coach hopes
May 23: The next step
May 16: The weak link?
May 9: Another crazy season?
Everybody needs help now and then, but some don't need as much as others. For example, teams starting out on the back end of the preseason Top 25 – or out of it entirely – almost always need higher-ranked teams to lose in order to climb in the polls.
Those that start at the top, though, don't need help. Their success is dependent only on themselves. A team like that could end up in the national championship game without any concern about what other teams are doing. So what teams could be like that?
Well, at least one is identified in this week's mailbag.
Controlling their destiny?
Is USC's BCS title destiny in its hands or will the Trojans need help from other top teams losing? I think even a one-loss Trojans team will play in Miami for the BCS title regardless of how Georgia or anyone else fares. It just depends on who USC loses to – if they lose.
— Marc in Memphis
USC won't need help from anyone else to reach the championship game for several reasons.
• It's USC, with a high national profile.
• Because of that high profile, the Trojans will start the season ranked high in the human polls – probably in the top three – so they won't be counting on other teams to lose in order to improve their ranking.
• USC's schedule is among the best in the nation. The Trojans are the only team in the country that will exclusively play "Big Six" conference opponents. One of those games is against Ohio State, which is the most anticipated non-conference game of the season.
If USC gets through its schedule unscathed, the Trojans will be in Miami. That Ohio State game alone should be enough to give USC the cachet to play for the championship.
But a one-loss USC team would not be assured a trip to Miami, especially if that loss came to Ohio State. If Ohio State beats USC and finishes unbeaten or with just one loss, it certainly would have the edge over the Trojans. And it would be difficult keeping an undefeated or one-loss team from the SEC out of the title game.
In addition, if USC gets upset by a weak opponent – as was the case last season when it lost to Stanford – it would run the risk of becoming odd man out if there were three or four one-loss teams.
Of course, there is no guarantee that USC won't again suffer at least two losses. The defense projects to be excellent, but quarterback Mark Sanchez has to prove himself as a full-time starter, heralded receivers need to reach their full potential, only one full-time starter returns in the offensive line and the Trojans lost seven players who were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.
Looking to the future
I'm a huge Florida State fan. I always hope for the best, but I'm also a realist. The quarterback situation with Drew Weatherford has been horrible. Is it time for Jimbo Fisher to get Christian Ponder or incoming freshman E.J. Manuel ready for '09?
— Dave in Tampa
Whoa, whoa, whoa, Dave. The season doesn't start for three months and you're already willing to use the '08 season to prepare for '09? Don't give up yet.
Hey, I know how you FSU guys are. Our basketball writer, Andrew Skwara, is a FSU alum. He thinks if you can't win the national championship, why bother.
That 14-year run of top-five finishes spoiled a lot of fans, and now it's all or nothing. That's like saying just because you dined at a five-star restaurant a few times, you're too good to eat anywhere else.
But I digress. The issue here is Weatherford, who obviously has been inconsistent but hasn't had great line play, receivers or running backs, either. Now, he's coming back from a knee injury that forced him to miss most of spring practice. That enabled Ponder to get more experience and more reps.
But unless Ponder or Manuel clearly emerges as the No. 1 quarterback in August, the Seminoles should stick with Weatherford and find out if he can finish his career in a blaze of glory.
If he falters and the Seminoles suffer a few early losses, then it would be smart to start preparing for '09.
Ready to roll?
As an avid reader and subscriber to Rivals, I figured it was about time I asked a question. How good do you think the Crimson Tide will be this year with a senior quarterback and what should be one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC?
— Michael in Belle Chasse, La.
Alabama is one of the more intriguing teams in the country.
Quarterback John Parker Wilson has worked under three offensive coordinators in three seasons, and that's not easy. He had an up-and-down year in 2007, but I believe he'll perform at the level he did in '06. He completed 57 percent of his attempts with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions two seasons ago.
As mentioned, the offensive line should be exceptional and tailback Terry Grant is a slippery sort who could develop into something special this season.
Alabama lost its top three receivers from last season, so that could be a problem. But an impressive group of incoming freshmen, led by five-star prospect Julio Jones, could provide a quick fix.
Alabama faced more questions last year. Even though it finished 7-6, the Tide came tantalizingly close to a huge year in coach Nick Saban's first season. Each loss was by seven or fewer points. The Tide lost in overtime to Georgia and gave up the game-winning touchdown to LSU with 1:26 remaining.
It's reasonable to expect improvement in the second season under Saban - and for some of those close losses to turn into victories. I expect Alabama to be a solid contender in the SEC West, just a step behind LSU and Auburn.
Do you think that Mike Sherman can fix the mess Dennis Franchione left at Texas A&M? I'm not as enthusiastic as fans of other schools with first-year coaches, but I do believe that he will make great progress toward making A&M a contender for the Big 12 and eventually for the national championship. What do you think?
The bad news is they might not get enough help to be consistently productive.
As we all know, a running back's success is largely dependent on the offensive line, and A&M's is suspect (and that's being kind). Sherman was an exceptional offensive line coach at A&M under R.C. Slocum, so you can bet he eventually will assemble a solid offensive front. But he doesn't appear to have a lot to work with right away because three starters from last year's line are gone.
Furthermore, there is every reason to wonder if A&M's passing game will be good enough to keep defenses from stacking the line against the run. Quarterback Stephen McGee has become a target of criticism in College Station, but I believe he's a good quarterback and an even better leader. He was an excellent passer in high school and – if his sore shoulder proves sufficiently healed – will get more of a chance to demonstrate that under Sherman than he did under Franchione.
But McGee and sophomore Jerrod Johnson, who will compete for the starting job, aren't the issue. The Aggies' returning receivers combined for fewer than 30 catches last season. There are grand expectations for incoming freshmen receiver Jeff Fuller, a four-star prospect who immediately could be A&M's best wideout. Still, he has to turn potential into production, which hasn't been easy for Aggies receivers in recent years.
A&M's overall defense was mediocre at best in '07, and its pass defense was awful. Subtract NFL draftees Red Bryant and Chris Harrington and four other starters, and it's clear the Aggies have problems there, too.
I'd project the Aggies to finish between 5-7 to 7-5 in 2008. Of course, sometimes teams pull surprises, especially when a new coach is involved. But I think Sherman may need a couple of seasons to get the Aggies turned around.
No laughing matter
It used to be that asking how Rutgers would fare was just a bad joke. How times have changed. Last season's 8-5 finish was a disappointment relative to the previous season's 11-2 breakout, but, hey, Rutgers managed it with an injured quarterback (Mike Teel). How do you see the Scarlet Knights faring this season? We've lost Ray Rice, but our backups seem more than capable. We have, to me, an excellent receiving corps in Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt, and a capable and occasionally brilliant quarterback in Teel. I'm inclined to be cautiously optimistic.
— Nathan in Colorado
Yes, times have changed. It wasn't that long ago that eight victories at Rutgers would be cause for delirium, not disappointment. Well, how will you feel about seven wins? Or six?
Rice obviously was one of the best running backs in the country, and I don't think Rutgers can lose a talent like that and not suffer. Some programs can, but I doubt Rutgers is among them.
Besides, even if Mason Robinson proves to be Rice's equal – and maybe he will – he still will be running behind a line that lost three starters.
My guess is that Rutgers will finish no higher than fourth in the Big East, behind West Virginia, South Florida and Pittsburgh. But I'd also anticipate the Scarlet Knights would win enough to go to a bowl for the fourth consecutive season. That should not be a disappointment.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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