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The dark horses

Teams that could crash top 25 by midseason

Posted: Tuesday May 17, 2005 11:20AM; Updated: Tuesday May 17, 2005 12:38PM
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Let's see here. I could use this installment of the Mailbag to wax poetic about the state of Vanderbilt's offensive line, or the dawn of the Terry Hoeppner era at Indiana. I could discuss what a letdown the Will Ferrell-hosted SNL was, or ponder whether I, if suddenly offered $50 million to do the Mailbag, would have the gall to blow it all off and jet to South Africa like a certain cable television comedian.

But alas, I know most of my readers care about one thing and one thing only: preseason rankings.

Of the teams not in your early top 25, are there any that you wouldn't be surprised to see there six weeks into the season?
 --Walt Schmidt, North Ridgeville, Ohio

I like Walt's question for two reasons: One, it gives me a chance to cover my butt and mention a few wild-card teams I have a hunch will be pretty good this year, but didn't have the cojones to include in my actual top 25. And second, there are a few teams that may not finish in the top 25 but have such favorable early schedules that they could very well be there six weeks into the season.

My top three candidates:

1. Texas A&M: The Aggies were the last ones cut from my first list, and the potential is there in Dennis Franchione's third season to not only be in the top 25 but contend in the Big 12 South. Talented QB Reggie McNeal will be in this third year at the helm, and a veteran defense that's gone through its share of bumps in the road should finally mature. My main reservation: the way they ended last season, losing four of their last five, including to Baylor, and getting blown out by Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.

2. Oregon: The Ducks have been underachieving for several years now, and, coming off a 5-6 season, it would be tough to justify including them in a preseason top 25. But the talent is there, and I have a hunch Mike Bellotti's team will be much improved this season with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, who is installing a Utah/Urban Meyer-type spread attack to better maximize the abilities of QB Kellen Clemens and speedy receivers Demetrius Williams and Cameron Colvin. Plus, Oregon has two phenomenal defensive linemen in Haloti Ngata and Devan Long.

3. Alabama: This one's about schedule as much as anything. The Tide should start at least 4-0 -- and possibly 5-0, if they can knock off Florida at home in what will be Meyer's first real SEC road test (no offense, Kentucky). Do that and they're definitely in the top 25 at the six-week mark. Whether they stay there is another story. 'Bama's defense should be one of the nation's best, and the return of a healthy Brodie Croyle certainly boosts its offense, but I'm not sure he has enough weapons around him yet. Remember, this is a program that's still dealing with the aftermath of NCAA recruiting sanctions, and has a head coach that still doesn't look old enough to get into an R-rated movie.

I believe the most crucial inter-conference, early-season matchup could be Bowling Green at Boise State on Sept. 21. Any chance the winner of this game ends up in the top 10 of the polls and becomes this year's BCS party-crasher?
--Mark Dunn, Toledo, Ohio

I think you hit the nail on the head, Mark, that the winner of this game could put itself in position for a Utah-like run, but it depends on what the two teams do before that. BG opens at Wisconsin. Boise opens at Georgia and Oregon State. BG is not going to start high enough in the rankings, if at all, to be able to finish in the BCS' top six without going undefeated, so if it loses to the Badgers, the issue is moot.

Boise, because of the carryover from last year's No. 12 ranking, could conceivably lose one of its first two games and still finish high enough, but only if it runs the table from there.

The other team to consider in this category is Fresno State, which will likely start in the top 20 and not only plays the Broncos but also USC on consecutive weekends in November. The Bulldogs also play at Oregon, so if they were to somehow make it through that schedule with fewer than two losses, you'd have to think they'd be pushing the top six.

Every year I love picking out the "11th-year seniors" who are still playing college football. Take LSU's Shyrone Carey and Joseph Addai, for example -- they both have gray hair. What players from other schools have the same status?
--Jonathon Perry, Baton Rouge, La.

Funny, I play the exact same game (and have in past years' Mailbags), though it's more fun for college basketball, where, at this point, anyone who actually stays four years (i.e. Chris Duhon, Julius Hodge) is automatically an 11th-year senior.

Both LSU players you mentioned fit the bill perfectly. Others I'd throw out: Alabama's Croyle, Texas A&M's McNeal, Fresno State QB Paul Pinegar, Texas DT Rodrique Wright, Georgia QB D.J. Shockley, Washington State LB Will Derting, Minnesota C Greg Eslinger, Notre Dame WRs Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, Oregon's Clemens, Virginia QB Marques Hagans, Penn State QB Michael Robinson, USC punter Tom Malone and Miami DB Glenn Sharpe (i.e. the guy involved in the infamous Fiesta Bowl pass-interference call three years ago). I'll gladly accept other nominations.

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