Earlier this month Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was asked whether it surprises him that his team, despite losing nine defensive starters (including five first-round draft choices), is considered the preseason favorite by many to win the national championship. "I don't know much about the rest of the country," said Tressel, "but that says to me there's obviously not a lot of teams out there that have everybody coming back."
That certainly wasn't the case at this time last year. It didn't take a rocket scientist to pencil in defending national champion USC, whose 14 returning starters included offensive stars Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Dwayne Jarrett, and Texas, which brought back QB Vince Young and 15 other starters from a squad that finished 11-1 in '04, as the top two teams in the preseason polls. And lo and behold, the Trojans and the Longhorns met in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
The pollsters also looked like Nostradamus in 2004, when their preseason top two of USC and Oklahoma also wound up meeting in the national-title game (much to the chagrin of undefeated Auburn). That year the Trojans and the Sooners were also considered obvious choices, with USC coming off a 12-1 season led by Leinart and a dominant defense and Oklahoma bringing back 16 starters from a 10-2 team, including Heisman Trophy-winning QB Jason White.
Try finding such no-brainer picks this year. Would you bet your mortgage on the aforementioned Buckeyes, who will likely start six sophomores on defense when they visit defending national champion Texas on Sept. 9? What about the Vince-less Longhorns, who will be breaking in a freshman quarterback in the same game? USC's cast of stars from the last few seasons are now playing on Sundays. Notre Dame has the star power -- Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker -- but it also has a defense that gave up 617 yards in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
And so on and so on.
The fact is, there isn't a team in the country entering this season without at least a couple of major flaws. What does that mean for the nation's national-title hopefuls? "Last year everybody was talking about how no one could beat USC," said Miami coach Larry Coker. "This year it's probably wide open."
How wide open? Based on recent history, it's entirely possible that this year's national champion will not be one of the teams ranked in the preseason Top 10. Maybe it's not even in the Top 20.
While the past two seasons have played out largely as predicted, there have been three seasons since 2000 in which a team that finished with five losses the year before rose up to win a national title the following season: 2000, Oklahoma (7-5 the year before); 2002, Ohio State (7-5); and 2003, LSU (8-5). Auburn's undefeated 2004 team also went 8-5 the preceding season. All four teams started the year outside the Top 10. This year the Buckeyes, Texas, Notre Dame and USC sit atop the preseason coaches' poll, but the No. 1 team come January could just as easily be a lower-rated squad such as No. 11 Miami (9-3 in '05), No. 13 Louisville (9-3), No. 15 Michigan (7-5) or No. 17 Iowa (7-5).