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09 Aug 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Ask the Magic 8-Ball, Part I

by Russell Levine

Football fans, our long national nightmare is nearly at an end. It's August, which means it's officially football season. The truly dedicated among us don't want to hear about baseball's trade deadline or the pennant races, and we'd sooner watch the 1973 Saints highlight film on ESPN Classic than the Olympics.

Though the NFL won't kickoff its regular season for another month, training camps are open, and tonight you'll come home from work, hit the couch, flip on the TV and discover to your wonderful surprise a preseason game on national television.  Thank you, Hall of Fame.

On the college side of things, we don't have to wait quite as long. There are no exhibitions (except for Kansas State's non-conference schedule) and the season gets into full swing a week earlier, on September 4.

In the meantime, to whet our appetites, the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll is out with its preseason Top 25. Preseason polls are not to be dismissed. Sometimes, a school that wasn't highly ranked in the preseason finds itself out of the championship mix only because it has much farther to go to get into contention than teams that had a high preseason ranking.

I'd love to break down the entire poll for you -- provide some X's and O's, highlight key games, spotlight Heisman contenders, etc., but things like family and my day job are conspiring to rob me of the time necessary to do so. With my trusty Magic 8-Ball, or at least an online facsimile, I've got all the key bases covered.

What follows is the first half of the coaches poll, with a key Top 25 Question for each team, followed by the Magic 8-Ball Answer -- and yes, those are the actual phrases from the Mattel Magic 8-Ball. See for yourself -- it's only example No. 8,744,234 as to why the Internet is the greatest time-waster ever invented. Thank you, Al Gore. And, in the spirit of DVOA and DPAR, I'm going with T25Q and M8BA.

Rank. Team (first-place votes), 2003 Record, Final 2002 Ranking

1. USC (44), 12-1, 2

Top 25 Question (T25Q): Since Football Outsiders gives me the forum to speak to Patriots fans in concentrated numbers, I'll ask a question of them. Did you ever think you'd be reading about Pete Carroll building a dynasty, except maybe in his kids' Pop Warner league?

Magic 8-Ball Answer (M8BA): "Very doubtful." Carroll has restored USC to its former glory, delivering a national championship (at least according to the writers in the AP poll) in just his third season. Carroll's player-friendly, upbeat style, such a failure in the NFL, has been a hit in college. He's put together a self-sustaining recruiting juggernaut that is likely to remain in place as long as he's the coach in SoCal. Of course, now that's he been a success in college, NFL teams with short memories are bound to come calling, but Carroll would be well advised to stay put. Just ask Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson or Mike Riley.

Bonus T25Q (special perks for the No. 1 team): Will the Men of Troy* have receiver Mike Williams in the lineup this season?

Bonus M8BA: "Outlook not so good." To many, Williams is the innocent victim in the Maurice Clarett saga. By now you probably know the story. Williams declared for the NFL draft after a judge ruled Clarett eligible. When that ruling was reversed on appeal, Williams was left out in the cold, having forfeited his college eligibility by hiring an agent. I have a certain degree of sympathy for Williams' plight, but not enough to think he should be reinstated. Upon declaring for the draft, Williams was warned by NFL officials that if the Clarett decision were to be reversed, he would be ineligible. Despite that, he hired an agent, secured six-figure loans, and immediately began acquiring some serious bling. As far as the NCAA is concerned, all that money (an estimated $115,000) will have to be repaid, without Williams receiving further loans based on his football ability, before he can play again. As hypocritical as the NCAA is, it is not likely to set a precedent in this case and open a giant can of worms for other kids that are tempted by agents. My advice to Williams would be to practice his formations from a running start -- that's legal in the CFL and the AFL.

* Note: "Men of Troy" is an acceptable moniker for USC's sports teams. How do I know this? In the mid 1990s, while working at an all sports news wire, I pulled a USC press release off the fax one day that advised writers as to this very topic. Other acceptable terms were "Southern California," "USC" and "Trojans." "Southern Cal" and "SC" were not to be used. Now, this was in the middle of the first O.J. trial, and the grizzled newsroom veteran who ran the operation took one look at the release and stated "'The Men of Troy?' I don't think so. How about, 'the school that produced that &^%#ing murderer?' " Funny, that one never caught on. Oh, and one more thing -- I happened to attend a USC home game that fall. Painted on the 50-yard-line at the L.A. Coliseum was a simple intertwined "SC".

2. Oklahoma (12), 12-2, 3

T25Q: Will Jason White return to his Heisman-winning form? White lit up the regular season with 40 touchdown passes, but stumbled badly in the Big 12 championship and the Sugar Bowl, both losses, with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

M8BA: "Signs point to yes." White, granted a rare sixth year of eligibility (he missed two seasons with knee injuries) appeared to hurt his throwing hand in the Big 12 title game loss to Kansas State and was not himself against LSU in the BCS title game at the Sugar Bowl. Now healthy, the OU offense could be even more explosive this season with the addition of highly touted freshman tailback Adrian Peterson.

3. LSU (5), 13-1, 1

T25Q: With a new starting quarterback, can LSU defend its surprise national title of 2003?

M8BA: "My sources say no." In the annals of college football, there have been very few schools that have gone undefeated with a first-year starting QB, as the Tigers will have this season -- Marcus Russell is the most likely candidate to replace Matt Mauck. About the only school to avoid stumbling with a new QB was Tennessee in 1998, which inexplicably went undefeated and won the national title under Tee Martin the year after Peyton Manning's graduation. (Ed. note: It's that Ewing Theory, my man.) In most cases, the new QB is going to cost the team a game or two along the way. But the future is bright in Baton Rouge. Coach Nick Saban has put down the foundation for a perennial powerhouse as long as he, too, can resist the NFL. It wouldn't be a surprise to see another title run out of the Tigers in 2005.

4. Georgia, 11-3, 6

T25Q: Is this the season Georgia finally kicks down the door to the true title contenders' clubhouse?

M8BA: "My reply is no." Georgia has been on the edge of the national elite for several seasons, but just can't quite get over the hump. They're no Texas, having actually won a conference title and appeared in a BCS game the last five years, but for a team that has been considered a title contender for at least three seasons, they haven't delivered a whole lot. To me, Georgia has always been one of those schools that its fans and the national media think is much better than it really is. The Bulldogs haven't truly factored in the national championship since 1982, when Herschel Walker was toting the mail. Yet, they are consistently ranked high in the preseason polls and spoken of as a team that could contend. They've come up short the last few years, and I don't see how this season is going to be any different. They'll probably beat some very good teams such as Florida and LSU, then drop a game to the likes of South Carolina or Vandy and end up on the outside looking in. It's just a gut feeling.

5. Miami (Fla.), 11-2, 5

T25Q: Does the admission of checkered star recruit Willie Williams mean a return to the "Hurri-gangsta" days of the 1980s?

M8BA: "Cannot predict now." There's no doubt, the admission of Williams and his 11 arrests is a dubious one, especially after Butch Davis and successor Larry Coker returned Miami to national powerhouse status without all the embarrassing off-the-field incidents that were a regular part of the Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson-era championship teams. The school has worked very hard to restore its reputation (as a recent ESPN.com article pointed out, since 2000 Miami has had fewer players arrested than the Naval Academy) and stands to take a beating in the national press if Williams continues to get in trouble. But I'll withhold judgment until the school is faced with another Williams disciplinary situation. Admitting Williams was a mistake, but I wouldn't look for Luther Campbell on the sidelines anytime soon.

6. Florida State, 10-3, 10

T25Q: If Bobby Bowden had any hairs that weren't gray, would quarterback Chris Rix take care of that for him?

M8BA: "It is decidedly so." Rix is as perplexing a player as there is in the nation. At times he displays spectacular ability (see last year's win over Florida) and at others, unbelievable boneheaded-ness (such as the 2002 season, when he slept through an exam and was benched for the Sugar Bowl, forcing Bowden to stick some receiver named Anquan Boldin under center midway through the loss to Georgia). If Rix can be counted on and has the trust of his teammates, two very big ifs, this is the season that FSU can reclaim state supremacy from Miami. We'll find out in week one when the teams meat at the Orange Bowl for their third showdown in 11 months.

7. Michigan, 10-3, 7

T25Q: Now that favorite whipping boy John Navarre and his wheelbarrow full of school records have departed, will fickle Michigan fans miss him?

M8BA: "Most likely." See LSU, above, for the reason why. Matt Gutierrez looks to be the new starter, and while he showed plenty of ability in mop-up duty last season, it's hard to imagine that he won't suffer a breakdown or two that will cost Michigan a game and a shot at the national title.

8. Texas, 10-3, 11

T25Q: Can coach Mack Brown hang on to his job if he keeps losing to Oklahoma by 50?

M8BA: "Don't count on it." Texas is fast becoming the Miami Dolphins of college football -- the team that gets more attention for doing very little than any other. At the root of the problem seems to be Brown, a spectacular recruiter who lands a top class every year, rolls over early opponents, then gets his head handed to him by Bob Stoops and the Sooners in the Red River Shootout. The current losing streak to OU stands at four, with a pair of those coming by 63-14 and 65-13 counts. At most schools, just losing to your archrival is enough to get you fired (see Cooper, John). I'm not sure Brown can survive another season in which his biggest rival takes him behind the woodshed.

9. Ohio State, 11-2, 4

T25Q: In today's era of college football parity, will the Big 10 race still come down to Michigan vs. Ohio State?

M8BA: "You may rely on it." Death, taxes, and Michigan-Ohio State deciding the Big 10 title are the three certainties in life. Coach Jim Tressel probably figured he had earned lifetime immunity from complaining Buckeyes fans after delivering a pair of wins over Michigan and a national championship in his first two seasons, but that will be tested this season if Michigan posts back-to-back wins in what is sports' greatest rivalry in my (unbiased, of course) opinion.

10. Florida, 8-5, 25

T25Q: Is Ron Zook doomed to a life of looking over his shoulder as long as Steve Spurrier remains unemployed?

M8BA: "As I see it, yes." Poor Zook. He takes over a Florida team that had faded a bit in the last year of the Spurrier era, predictably struggles, then watches Spurrier "resign" from his NFL job after just two seasons. Just because Spurrier is highly unlikely to return to Gainesville doesn't mean the Florida fans aren't clamoring for it after every loss. But Zook has plenty of talent at his disposal this year, led by super sophomore QB Chris Leak, and could quiet the doubters with an SEC championship. More likely is a nine- or 10-win season that won't do much to fend off the calls for his head.

11. West Virginia, 8-5, NR

T25Q: Does West Virginia benefit the most from the decisions of Miami and Virginia Tech to leave the Big East?

M8BA: "Without a doubt." Let's see -- no Miami on the schedule, Virginia Tech is now a non-conference game and West Virginia's biggest rival, Pittsburgh, is rebuilding minus stars Larry Fitzgerald and Rod Rutherford. Plus, the watered-down Big East retained its BCS bid. Yes, things are looking up in Morgantown, where the Mountaineers closed 2003 on a 7-1 run and return a very talented offense nearly intact.

12. Iowa, 10-3, 8

T25Q: Is this the year the Hawkeyes slip and coach Kirk Ferentz heeds the siren call of the NFL?

M8BA: "Ask again later." Later, as in September 25 -- that's the day Ferentz and his Hawkeyes will be in Ann Arbor, looking for their third straight win over the Wolverines. If Iowa can win that game, they could be looking at second Big 10 title in three seasons and Ferentz might decide to put down some roots in Iowa City. But if Iowa loses, or loses badly, the Hawkeyes could be in decline in 2003. Ferentz has done a marvelous job, taking Iowa from 1-10 in his 1999 debut to 11-2 and 10-3 the last two seasons, but he's not in the same situation as Carroll at USC or Saban at LSU -- coaches making enormous money in fertile recruiting grounds that have built juggernauts capable of winning nine games in an off-year. If Iowa has an off-year, it'll go 4-7 and people will wonder if Ferentz is really that good a coach.

Next week: The Magic 8-Ball ruminates on the rest of the top 25 and the always enjoyable "others receiving votes," plus a look at the games of the year.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 09 Aug 2004