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Posted: Wednesday July 30, 2008 11:58AM; Updated: Saturday August 2, 2008 12:28AM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Three potential sleepers and busts, the view on Bradford and more

Story Highlights
  • Rutgers, Utah and Alabama could be this season's surprise teams
  • Are West Virginia, Texas Tech and Wisconsin in for lackluster seasons?
  • This year's worst matchup of BCS teams from different conferences
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Darrell Mack
Utah looks to crash the BCS by riding star RB Darrell Mack.
Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
Submit a question or an opinion to Stewart.

All summer long, I've been getting several thousand variations of the following question, and all summer long, I've been dodging it. Explanation to follow ...

Stewart, doing some math on the "poll comparison" Web site you mentioned last week, I see that over the past 15 years, an average of 3.5 teams per year start unranked and then end up in the top 15. On the other side of things, 3.4 teams start in the top 15 and end up unranked. Looking at the consensus preseason poll this year, which are the three teams you have falling into both categories?
-- Jonathan Dennis, San Antonio

This is the annual "no-win" question. People like "sleeper" picks, so the first part is fairly harmless. No one gets particularly agitated if one of your "sleeper" teams winds up going 6-6. But whichever three I pick as potential "busts" -- obviously, their fans are not going to be happy. Even if I nail two of the three correctly, fans of the third one are going to remind me about this misjudgment endlessly for nine months afterward.

I'll answer your question, Jonathan, but only because you put in the math. Just note that I will be posting your e-mail address on the offended teams' message boards and telling them it was your idea.

Three That Could End Up In The Top 15

1) Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights fell back off the map following a "disappointing" (as of 2005) 8-5 season, but it would not surprise me if Greg Schiano's squad returns to its 11-2 heights of a year earlier. The talent level in Piscataway has only gotten better now that Schiano can sell recruits on more than just blind faith. The passing game should be lethal with QB Mike Teel and receivers Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt returning, and the defense, which took a step back last year, will include nine upperclass starters.

2) Utah. I know BYU is the trendy "BCS buster" pick, and I will have the Cougars ranked in my preseason ballot, too. It's hard to pick against a team that has won 16 straight conference games and returns practically its entire offense. There's a part of me, however, that wonders whether we're propping up the wrong Utah team. The Utes ended last season nearly as hot as their rivals and return 1,204-yard rusher Darrell Mack and four of his starting blockers. Utah has a chance to prove itself in Week 1, opening up the season with a nationally televised game at Michigan.

3) Alabama. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: In Saban, I trust. Yes, the Tide lost to Louisiana-Monroe last year. Yes, seemingly half their roster has been either injured or arrested this offseason. Still, I can't shake the feeling that Nick Saban will do exactly what he did in Year 2 at LSU: Throw a handful of his most touted freshmen on the field, turn up the intensity on defense and churn out nine or 10 wins.

Three That Could Plummet Out Of The Rankings

1) West Virginia. Not only are the Mountaineers undergoing a boatload of change in their program, but their schedule is also significantly tougher than in recent years, with non-conference games at Colorado and against Auburn. On the one hand, it's easy to think Pat White and Noel Devine alone will propel the Mountaineers to another lofty ranking. On the other hand, Louisville had Brian Brohm last year and still took a nosedive.

2) Texas Tech. Don't get me wrong, I'm solidly on the Mike Leach bandwagon -- the Red Raiders will appear in my preseason top 10. But I'm also the first to acknowledge that we're all taking a tremendous leap of faith with our rankings considering Tech has never finished higher than 18th (2004) under Leach and finished with fewer than three conference losses just once ('05). It's not inconceivable they could wind up being this year's Cal.

3) Wisconsin. I feel really uncomfortable with this one -- the Badgers might not go 10-2, but I have a hard time envisioning them falling out of the top 25 altogether. That said, one could argue that no team on the list has a bigger question mark at quarterback, besides LSU (and the Tigers sure as heck aren't falling out of the top 25). Wisconsin has more running backs than it knows what to do with, but if by chance it fails to develop any balance, trouble could ensue.

Just for the record, I have much more faith in the first list than the second. While it's all but a foregone conclusion that a few highly-ranked teams will completely tank, it's like throwing darts trying to predict which ones they'll be. And not having Michigan or Notre Dame up there this year makes it that much harder.

Has Maryland hit a ceiling under Ralph Friedgen? The Terps had that streak of 10-win seasons from 2001-03 but have been mediocre since the ACC expanded, and the team seems totally off the radar this preseason. Should Terps fans be thinking about change or is Friedgen safe forever?
-- Dan, Arlington, Va.

I actually think the Terps could surprise some people this year (though not dramatically enough for me to consider putting them in that top 15 list above). The offensive line is stacked and Darrius Heyward-Bey is one of the most talented receivers in the country. If Friedgen settles on the right QB (Is it just me, or has that been an issue there for about six-straight years?) and sophomore RB Da'Rel Scott lives up to the hype, Maryland will win some games in 2008.

But yes, there's a ceiling. I know Friedgen raised the expectation level considerably with his initial success, but it was never realistic to think Maryland would be an annual 10-win team. That doesn't mean 6-7 seasons (like last year) aren't disappointing, but realistically, eight wins is a good season at Maryland. One thing that's become evident is that Friedgen is not much of a recruiter. He achieved his initial success largely with players recruited by predecessor Ron Vanderlinden. He gets beat way too often for players in his own backyard by teams like Penn State (though that may not necessarily be a bad thing considering some of those former targets' rap sheets during their time in State College) and, despite his supposed offensive wizardry, has yet to attract and produce a top-shelf QB.

All of that said, I don't see Maryland ever parting ways with Friedgen unless the program flat-out implodes. In seven seasons, the Terps have never won les

s than five games; in the 15 seasons prior to his arrival, they never won more than six. The program hasn't been in this good of shape since the early 1980s, and as long as Maryland remains a near-annual bowl contender, Friedgen's job security should not be an issue.

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