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August 29, 2008

Olin's Mailbag: Could Alabama break a trend?

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Looking for this year's national champion? You need to look at last season's top 10 for teams with 11 victories.

Six of the 10 BCS national champions had big seasons the year before winning the championship. In the seasons preceding their championships, Tennessee, Florida State, Miami, USC, Texas and LSU posted 11 victories and finished among the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll.

Using that trend as a guide, the odds are with Georgia, USC, Missouri, Ohio State, Kansas, West Virginia and Virginia Tech this season.

But history shows it's also possible for teams outside the top 10 to win it all, too. Florida ranked No. 12 after finishing 9-3 in 2005, then won the BCS crystal ball in 2006.

We look at that topic and a few others in this week's mailbag.

If they can do it

Chris in Troy, Ala.: Maybe I'm crazy, but why does it seem so far-fetched that Alabama could be in the BCS title game this season? Kansas went 6-6 in '06 and only lost one regular-season game in '07. Alabama returns almost everyone on offense, including a veteran quarterback. Also, those back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes don't hurt.

Though not intending to take anything away from Kansas, which had a remarkable 2007 season, Alabama's road is a lot more difficult.

The Jayhawks faced just three ranked teams last season, and only two that were ranked in the final Associated Poll. They lost to No. 4 Missouri and defeated No. 9 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Kansas is in the Big 12 North, which last season had just two teams (Missouri and Kansas) with winning records. On the other hand, Alabama is in the SEC West, which boasted five bowl teams and four bowl winners.

Alabama's schedule is infested with preseason top-20 opponents, including No. 1 Georgia, No. 7 LSU, No. 9 Clemson, No. 10 Auburn and No. 18 Tennessee. Kansas would not have posted 12 victories against that grind.

Still, even though Alabama posted only seven victories last season and was unranked in the final AP poll, don't completely rule out the Tide's chances of getting into the national championship discussion. Three BCS national championship teams won eight games or fewer and finished unranked the year before winning the championship.

Two of those had coaches in their second year Oklahoma with Bob Stoops in 2000 and Ohio State with Jim Tressel in 2002. The other was LSU with Nick Saban in 2003. Alabama has Saban in his second season.

Nice karma.

Believe the hype?

Wes in Hampton, Va.: Am I really blind to something about Virginia Tech? I can honestly say I don't see all the hype. I understand they have absolutely amazing coaches, but they seemingly have no returning skill-position players. Their defense lost a lot to graduation and the draft, but they still have Victor Harris, Kam Chancellor and Purnell Sturdivant, who are capable of being game-changers. But what about the offense? Am I missing something?

No need for a seeing-eye dog, Wes. But I'm wondering what hype you've seen.

Virginia Tech is ranked No. 17 in the Rivals.com preseason poll. The Hokies also are 17th in The Associated Press preseason poll. While a No. 17 ranking would indicate a strong, competitive team, I don't think it's an example of being hyped.

But your questions are legitimate.

The offense ouch. Frank Beamer has to be wondering about how his team is going to score (special teams, perhaps?)

Senior quarterback Sean Glennon has been inconsistent. Junior tailback Kenny Lewis has rushed for 420 yards in his career. The Hokies have lost two receivers in the offseason (one to injury, one to indefinite suspension) and will start freshman wideouts. But tight end Greg Boone could be spectacular.

Virginia Tech always plays good defense. It will this season, too. Count on that.

And that defense, the special teams and just enough offense will ensure the Hokies won't be an easy opponent. In addition, their schedule doesn't include any teams in the preseason top 25.

That seems to indicate about nine victories, which would merit a No. 17 ranking.

Sleeper search

Swai in Vestavia, Ala.: Who is going to be a sleeper for Auburn, and do you think Brad Lester and Ben Tate could be the next great 1-2 rushing punch for Auburn. Will they come halfway close to Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown?

Sleeper? Keep an eye on junior tight end/wide receiver Tommy Trott. He only has 14 career catches, but was a productive receiver in high school - when he played in an offense similar to what Auburn is running now.

In addition, when Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin had the same position at Kentucky, he used the tight end frequently. In 1999, Kentucky tight end James Whalen caught 90 passes for 1,019 yards.

Moving on, the Lester-Tate tailback duo is a good one. They combined for 1,433 rushing yards last season, with both averaging better than 4 yards per carry. But I don't think they're going to be as strong a punch as the Williams-Brown tandem. They combined for 2,078 yards in 2004, and both were first-round picks.

Lifetime achievement?

Kris in Hollidaysburg, Pa.: How much impact can/will lifetime achievement have on this season's Heisman race, specifically in regards to Pat White? So many records are within his range. Imagine the case White could make if he plays like himself again this year. He'd be the NCAA's leading career rusher for quarterbacks. He'll at least be tied as West Virginia's career leader in almost every quarterback category. Couple that with 11 wins in each of his previous three seasons and three consecutive bowls, including two BCS games. Can anybody else even come close to eclipsing him this year in the area of lifetime achievement?

White already has had a stellar career at West Virginia, and I think his final season will be every bit as spectacular as his previous three. White is a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy. It would come as no surprise if he wins it. But don't count on his previous success helping him gain votes this year.

As a Heisman voter, I won't take into account what any player has done in a previous season. If I did, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman recipient, might be guaranteed my vote.

I don't know any Heisman recipient who has won based on career achievement. Texas' Ricky Williams (in 1998) and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne (in 1999) won the Heisman after breaking the NCAA career rushing record. But both were among the nation's leading rushers in the seasons in which they won. Williams led the nation with 2,124 yards, and Dayne was second with 1,834 yards.

If lifetime achievement were considered, that might be an advantage for Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, who has a great shot at setting the NCAA record for career touchdown passes. Harrell has thrown 89 career and needs 43 more to break Colt Brennan's career record of 131. Harrell threw 48 last season.

White probably won't have to rely on his previous performances. He's a dazzling and electrifying talent. With a strong season, he will rate right along with the top contenders Tebow, Ohio State running back Chris Wells and Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel.

And if all things are equal, maybe his career achievement will give him a boost.

A different perspective

Jerry in Atlanta: Why do most SEC fans hate Ohio State? I love them! They practically handed over two straight national championships to us. It's like when John Cooper took over at Ohio State Michigan loved him. So why hate the Buckeyes in the SEC?

Sarcasm is even better with a Southern accent.

Well, to the victors go the spoils - and SEC fans definitely are spoiled.

The SEC has won four of the 10 BCS national championship games, and two of those victories have come against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have also lost in their past eight bowl appearances against SEC opponents. So, gloating is easy for the folks down South.

The problem with gloating is that it works both ways. Eventually, Ohio State will defeat an SEC opponent in a big game, and Buckeyes backers will be itching for some payback.

That could be as soon as this season. Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, Ohio State has a proud and successful program. And the Buckeyes are absolutely loaded this year. OSU has four or five possible NFL first-round choices in the starting lineup.

It would come as no surprise if the Buckeyes reached a third consecutive BCS Championship Game. Nor would it surprise me if they won over an SEC team this time.

State of signal callers

Eddy in Fort Worth, Texas: I was having a talk with an LSU fan and co-worker, and we started arguing what state was producing the best college quarterbacks. So, I told him the guy who led LSU last season (Matt Flynn) was a Texas guy. It would be fun to see the stats of Division I quarterbacks and where they are from.

Ask and you shall receive, Eddy. Just wait a while.

Next week, Rivals.com will again list all the Division I-A starting quarterbacks and where they're from.

I think you'll want to see it. And you'll want to show it to your co-worker.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
Got a question for Olin's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note

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