Friday, August 25, 2006

Top 10 Questions that Will Shape the Season

At the time of this writing it is Friday, August 25 and in a mere 10 days Florida State will kick off its 2006 season in Orange Bowl against the hated Miami Hurricanes! In honor of the 10-day countdown The Chop Shop presents the 10 questions that will shape the college football season…

10. Which Powerhouses Will Bounce Back?
Last year a number of regular residents of the top 10 went through tough times. Oklahoma started slow, getting beaten by TCU and Oregon before appearing to steady the ship late in the year. Miami absorbed a beating at home to the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech. FSU experienced its first three-game losing streak in two decades. And the worst offender, Tennessee, started out the year at #3, yet finished unranked after suffering defeat at the hands of all off their major rivals: Florida, Alabama, and most humiliating of all, Vanderbilt.

There’s too much talent available for all of those teams to stay down for a second consecutive year. Oklahoma and Florida State appear to be in the best shape for a return to prominence. The more I think about OU the more I think they’ll be able to weather the Bomar storm in Norman. Florida State showed at the end of last year that Seminole pride is alive and well. Thanks to a veteran offense the ‘Noles are potentially looking at their best season sine 2003. And Miami, despite an off-season of turmoil, returns a loaded defense that has the potential to be the best unit in the nation. However, I fear that Tennessee could be in for another long year. The defense that was the heart and soul of last year’s team lost standout performers such as Jesse Mahelona. Despite returning a strong DL the defense is still bound to take a step back. And the offense that doomed the Volunteers in so many games last year? Most of the prominent personnel return under the tutelage of recycled offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Was it all the coaches’ fault? Will the underachieving receivers and inconsistent QB experience a renaissance in the Cutcliffe era? My head says no, but my heart says…no. Look for additional turnover in Knoxville, possibly including Big Phil Fulmer (and you know my heart just goes out to the fat bastard), after another tough year for the Vols.

9. Which Powerhouses Will Regress?
How can USC overcome the loss of two Heisman winners? How will Texas perform without Vince Young? Will Ohio State maintain their lofty standing without their killer defense of 2005? All of those questions will be answered later in the column. For now the one team that sticks out at me is Penn State. I grew to respect the Nittany Lions long before the Orange Bowl last year. Michael Robinson was a big-time performer once his nomadic skills found a permanent home at QB. The offensive line was great and the defense was a killer. The mid-season loss of star freshman Derrick Williams only seemed to spur the offense on to greater heights. Williams returns healthy and ready to terrorize Big 10 DBs once again, as does a stellar LB corps, but there are numerous rebuilding projects going on throughout the rest of the team.

The Chop Shop places tremendous emphasis on QB experience when judging a team’s potential, and in Penn State’s case there is none. Anthony Morelli will attempt to replicate Robinson’s magic from last season, and although Morelli is skilled it will take him some time to find his groove. What was a great secondary in 2005 will be a completely new unit in 2006. Most damaging of all is the loss of several key offensive lineman and star DE Tamba Hali. Joe Paterno has done an admirable job of building up the talent base at Penn State, but this young team is going to need some time to grow up. Once the young stars like Williams, WR Deon Butler, and CB Justin King are fully grown the Nittany Lions will be back in the Big 10 hunt, but that’s unlikely to happen in 2006.

8. Is This The Year Clemson Lives Up To The Hype?
In The Chop Shop’s pre-season Top 24 the Clemson Tigers found themselves at #7, a full 11 spots higher than the AP ranked them. Was this a Lou Holtz-style build up of a future opponent? Intra-conference partisanship? Some sort of reverse jinx? Hardly. The Tigers have the pieces in place for a deadly defense, and skill position players that compare favorably to anyone in the ACC. The one caveat is at QB where Will Proctor takes over for long-time starter Charlie Whitehurst. In flagrant defiance of our own “QB Experience” factor in ranking teams we put Clemson in the top 10 despite their shiny new QB. Proctor is a fifth-year senior with plenty of experience in Tommy Bowden’s offense, and he has so much help around him that we like Clemson’s chances to make serious noise this year. Not just in the conference, but nationally as well. Even if the Tigers lose their big early-season showdown at FSU there is still a heinous five-game stretch to close the season that could garner the Tigers national respect and a possible at-large bid to the BCS. But the Tigers are thinking about championships. With the talent at his disposal this year it’s time for Bowden to put together a serious run at the ACC Title, and we think it’s finally going to happen this year.

7. Can You Win A National Title Without A Defense?
That’s the question for Notre Dame. After this year most of the stars of the explosive offense will be moving on so it’s now or never (and by “never” we mean 2008) for the Irish to make a run at the Title. But the Fiesta Bowl last year showed everyone how far behind the elite teams the Irish have fallen in terms of speed and athleticism on D. Outside of the excellent Tom Zbikowski the Irish appeared to be standing still as Buckeye after Buckeye flew past them into the end zone. With no major influx of talent in the off-season it will up to that same defense to hold down opposing offenses in 2006. Will it work? Of course not! No team has won the Championship with a shaky defense, and no team ever will. Just look at last year, when Southern Cal’s explosive offense was inevitably denied their second straight Championship thanks to the young defense’s inability to contain Texas. Thanks to their great offense and always-inflated ranking the Irish are already penciled into the BCS, but they will fall short of the Title game when their defense costs them at least two games this year.

6. Is The “Year Two Effect” An Urban Myth?
We’re still struggling to comprehend how Gator fans equate dominating the Mountain West conference and beating Pitt, the worst representative in the history of the BCS, translated into Urban Meyer dominating the SEC and leading the Gators back to glory. But that tells you all you need to know about UF fans. Meyer can certainly coach, and his record at Bowling Green and Utah was impressive. But there was also an element of “right time/right place” to his achievements. He inherited a Utah team that had an NFL caliber QB and receivers that were more talented than your average Mountain West unit. Meyer made the most of that talent and deserves credit for their perfect season, but he definitely got lucky with personnel.

Ironically he walked into a worse situation at UF, a team that had experienced tremendous success in recruiting during the Ron Zook era. Meyer inherited Chris Leak, whose skill set proved to be a poor match for the spread option attack, and a thin WR corps. The defense lacked depth in the back seven. While Meyer’s first class at UF was impressive it will take time for the influx of talent to make a significant impact on the program. For the time being Meyer will continue to run his offense according to Leak’s skills and will pray that the DL and LBs stay healthy. The Gators will not reach the offensive output of Utah thanks to the rugged defenses in the SEC, and any injuries to a thin defense will threaten UF’s current status as a top 10 team. Meyer appears to have the Gators headed in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than two years for them to reach the heights to which they aspire.

5. Is West Virginia Worthy?
Are they worthy of being ranked in the top 5? Sure – they have two stars in Pat White and Steve Slaton who have proved capable of knocking off an SEC champ in a big bowl game. Are they worthy of being mentioned among the national title contenders? Why not – every top team has their share of warts at this point, and West Virginia’s questionable defense and passing game are no worse than Texas’ new QB or Ohio State’s rebuilding job on D. Are they worthy of actually playing in the BCS Title Game – Uhhhhh, hold the phone! There is a very real possibility that the Mountaineers will play one – ONE! – ranked team all season long. A Maryland team that ranks in the bottom third of the ACC is their second-toughest opponent. Plus, they get the benefit of not playing in a conference championship game. West Virginia can’t help that their conference sucks, but they can help the fact that their non-conference opponents include Buffalo, Marshall, and Mississippi State. Their whole season boils down to a showdown against Louisville. If, at year’s end, an unbeaten Mountaineer squad is in contention with a once-beaten SEC Champion I’d give the nod to the team that played a championship-caliber schedule, and that ain’t West Virginia.

4. Will Offensive Line Woes Doom The Big 3 in Florida?
Last year the three major Florida teams – Florida State, Miami, and Florida – collectively reached a 20-year nadir when none of the three started or finished the year in the top 5. Each team possessed different flaws that prevented them from reaching their accustomed level of excellence, but now each shares a potential shortcoming that could doom any attempts to re-enter the heady heights of the elite: the offensive line. FSU’s offensive line issues last year were largely due to massive injuries and a switch to a new zone-blocking scheme. Miami’s drop-off was also due in part to injuries since it took Eric Winston half the season to rediscover his pre-ACL form. UF’s line held up well against lesser opponents but struggled against the better defensive fronts in the SEC. Now each of the three teams is placing the burden of a National Title run on a rebuilt front five.

FSU fans are to shore up the tackle spots that were a constant problem last year. The starting tackles from ’05 have both moved inside to guard, a position that better suits their skill sets. If the unit can avoid the injuries they should bounce back strong from a disappointing year. Miami also appears to be in good shape. They’ve recruited well on the line and despite an influx of youth there is ample talent ready to step up. In particular LT Reggie Youngblood and OG AJ Trump have been impressing the coaches since they first arrived in Coral Gables. The team with the most dire outlook is also the highest-tanked of the three teams. Florida is not only battling youth but a rash of injuries that could delay the development of cohesiveness that is so critical to success for any OL. A mix-and-match unit full of underclassmen is going to be asked to keep out the excellent defensive lines of Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia. That would be a tall task for any team, but poses a particularly large problem for the Gators who will likely miss the SECCG, just as they have every year so far in this century.

3. Can You Defend A National Title With A Freshman QB?
Long story short…no. I love Texas talent and depth on the offensive and defensive lines. They get to play in a relatively easy conference, and outside of a huge battle with Ohio State their off-season slate isn’t too daunting. But they played the same schedule last year when they were just as talented and they still needed Vince Young’s heroics to save them against Oklahoma State, Kansas (Kansas???), and Southern Cal. At some point in the season either Colt McCoy or Jevan Snead is going to have to make a play with the season on the line and, as young QBs tend to do, they will fail. It’s just part of life. Every National Champion of the last 10 years has had an upperclassman under center (the last underclassman to win a Title was Tommy Frazier in ’94) and this year will be no exception. Texas fans experienced a dream season in ’05, but this year they will have to wake up to the harsh reality that young QBs just don’t win National Titles.

2. Can Ohio State Replace Their Entire Defense?
The Chop Shop holds hard and fast to the premise that you can’t win with a young QB. However, we believe – in fact, we KNOW – that you can win with a young defense. In 1993 Florida State returned a loaded offense featuring Heisman candidate Charlie Ward. The only question was a rebuilt D that had lost star LB Marvin Jones. That young D went on lead the nation in total defense and helped the ‘Noles win their first title. In 2006 Ohio State returns a loaded offense featuring Heisman candidate Troy Smith. The only question is a rebuilt D that last star LB AJ Hawk. If there’s one thing Jim Tressel knows, it’s sweater vests. But if there’s TWO things Jim Tressel knows, it’s sweater vests and lock-down defense. Returning stars Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson anchor the middle of a talented defensive line. Larry Grant and Mike D’Andrea will help give the Buckeyes another tremendous group of LBs, while young stars in the secondary include Jamario O’Neal and Malcolm Jenkins. Despite nine new starters expect Ohio State to be a major player in the National Title hunt once again.

1. How Will Southern Cal Replace The Best Backfield Of The Decade?
This off-season Southern Cal has faced the most daunting rebuilding job in recent memory. How does a team lose two Heisman winners, another All-American RB, and their star LT and still enter the next season as a Championship front-runner? By dominating the nation in recruiting, that’s how. Another crop of stars is waiting to take the Trojans to the Promised Land. But can they match the Title-winning exploits of Leinart, Bush, and White? I’ve been hearing about John David Booty forever, now it’s time to see if the guy can actually play. Stafon Johnson finally made the grade and will get a chance to showcase his considerable talents, but could he possibly be as clutch as Bush? And where are the Trojans going to find another big back with LenDale White’s explosiveness? Based on their recent history you have to believe that USC will be a player on the national scene, but talents like the ones Southern Cal just lost don’t come along every day. It will be extremely interesting to see if the Trojans are able to re-enact their championship script of the last three years with a new cast of players.

So that’s it. Over the course of the next four months the answers to these questions will emerge one-by-one, leading to answer everyone wants to know: who is going to assume Texas’ mantle as the next National Champion? I, for one, can’t wait to find out. Enjoy the ride everybody!


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