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The long-shot forecast

Six dark-horse picks for conference titles in 2005

Posted: Tuesday July 19, 2005 12:16PM; Updated: Friday August 19, 2005 5:36PM
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George Hall
Middle linebacker George Hall is one of 11 returning starters on what should be a solid Purdue defense.
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The beauty of writing for the Internet is that one is free to express his opinions on a variety of subjects. The downside of writing for the Internet is that the URL for the page containing those opinions -- or at least a Google-cached version -- lives forever and can be dug up and thrown back in the writer's face when at least some of those opinions inevitably turn out to be wrong.

This week, Joe Van Cleve of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, offers up what I think is a fun and interesting topic to help pass the time in these long weeks before the season finally arrives:

With such a strong group of players returning from last year (18 starters) and a very favorable schedule (no Michigan or Ohio State, Iowa at home), Purdue must be considered a strong "dark horse" for the Big Ten title. Are there any other dark horse teams in other conferences with this kind of experience and schedule?

I agree with Joe's sentiments about the Boilermakers, who return all 11 starters from what was already a pretty good defense and, though they lost star QB Kyle Orton, will be replacing him with a senior, Brandon Kirsch, who has significant experience. Purdue has been right on the brink the past couple of years but has been hampered by a profound inability to win close games (seven of its nine losses in 2003 and '04 were by four points or less). So yes, the Boilers are my Big Ten dark horse.

Now, based on Joe's criteria of experience and favorable schedule, I will now offer up a dark horse choice for each of the other major conferences. I do this, though, knowing full well that such predictions are a complete crap shoot and that at least half of the teams I pick will turn out to be complete busts. But that, of course, will not stop Bill Smith of Detroit from writing me an e-mail in November telling me what an idiot I was for "picking Purdue to win the Big Ten" (which I'm not) and that I should turn in my ID because Sports Illustrated must surely be embarrassed by now to even be associated with me (which they may very well be, but that would be for other reasons altogether):

ACC: The most common preseason picks figure to be Virginia Tech, Miami or Florida State. My dark horse: Clemson. The Tigers won five of their last six to end '04, including a victory at Miami. They return one of the nation's most experienced QBs, Charlie Whitehurst, who will be playing in a new, more passer-friendly spread offense installed by ex-Toledo coordinator Rob Spence. Clemson's defense was already fairly tough and has veterans sprinkled throughout. And it gets both Miami and Florida State at home while missing Virginia Tech.

Big East: Louisville and Pittsburgh are the overriding picks here, and it's hard to argue with either of them. My dark horse: Don't laugh -- Rutgers. This is the make-or-break team Greg Schiano has been building for five years and has some of the conference's best offensive weapons (QB Ryan Hart, WR Tres Moses, FB Brian Leonard). The defense needs to improve dramatically, but there's finally experience. Just reaching a bowl, of course, is the more reasonable goal for the Scarlet Knights.

Big 12: You know the drill -- Texas or Oklahoma, Oklahoma or Texas. My dark horse: Texas Tech. You know the Red Raiders' offense will be powerful, because it always is, but for once, they have the potential for a solid defense, with seven starters returning from a unit that improved from 106th to 46th in the nation last year. Tech plays at Texas, but gets Oklahoma and Texas A&M at home and misses Colorado, Missouri and Iowa State from the North.

Pac-10: I suppose any team other than USC is considered a dark horse, but we'll put Cal and Arizona State in the "obvious" category as well. My dark horse: Oregon. The Ducks, who will be changing to a Utah-like offensive scheme this year, have experience at quarterback (Kellen Clemens), tailback and receiver in addition to a strong D-line. Oregon hosts the Trojans in Eugene on Sept. 24, perhaps just early enough to catch them before they hit full stride (USC lost to Cal and barely survived Stanford in their past two Pac-10 openers).

SEC: Tennessee, LSU and Florida are considered the favorites, and recent champs Georgia and Auburn are too obvious. My dark horse: Alabama. The Tide return nine starters from the nation's second-ranked defense and a veteran backfield (QB Brodie Croyle, RBs Ken Darby and Tim Castille), and their only truly formidable road game is the season-ender at Auburn. Of course, the jury's still out on Mike Shula, and 'Bama would probably have to beat someone pretty darn good in the title game.

So there you have it. If even one of them comes through, I'll be feeling like a genius, but why do I have a feeling I'll only get reminded about the other five?