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16 Aug 2004

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

by Russell Levine

This week, we continue our look at key Top 25 Questions about the second half of the ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches poll and turn once again to the Magic 8-Ball for the answers. For a look at teams 1-12, click here.

Rank. Team, 2003 Record, Final 2003 Ranking

13. Kansas State, 11-4, 13

Top-25 Question (T25Q): Is Darren Sproles the best little man in America?

Magic 8-Ball Answer (M8BA): "It is decidedly so." What, were you expecting another cheap shot at K-State's non-conference slate? I tried to make my point about that issue in the discussion thread of Part I. In short, I think K-State struggles in big games because they don't play enough of them, and more importantly, their reputation for not playing anyone kills them in the polls when they do drop a game. Bill Snyder, who is an excellent coach, is also a control freak who irritates the media by allowing almost no access to his players and refusing to elaborate on any topic of significance. You think that doesn't matter when the writers cast their ballots? It matters even more now that the computer polls have been discounted in the BCS formula. Then again, so has the strength of schedule component, so it's probably a wash for K-State.

I guess that wasn't so short after all. But speaking of short -- back to Sproles, a dynamo who, at 5-foot-7 may just be the best tailback in America. With QB Ell Roberson gone, the Wildcats are likely to count even more heavily on Sproles, who beat out defending Heisman winner Jason White of Oklahoma for Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year honors. Sproles will likely be a strong Heisman candidate himself this year, as for the first time in his Manhattan tenure, Snyder will allow the team to mount a campaign for one of his players.

14. Tennessee, 10-3, 16

T25Q: Will coach Phillip Fulmer be in the witness protection program by the time UT plays Alabama ?

M8BA: "Better not tell you now." You know how the joke goes. I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you. Fulmer created a controversy more worthy of Spy vs. Spy than America's leading college football conference when he announced he would skip the SEC's annual preseason media days to avoid a media circus over a lawsuit filed by a former Alabama assistant coach. The lawsuit (against the NCAA, not Fulmer) alleges that Fulmer provided the NCAA information against Alabama and the assistant, Ronnie Cottrell, in exchange for the NCAA going easy on its investigation of grade fixing at UT. While the NCAA's investigation of UT went nowhere, Alabama was placed on probation for a series of violations, including an alleged $150,000 payment by a booster to a high school coach for steering a prized recruit to Tuscaloosa. Cottrell's attorney also suggested that Fulmer would be served with a subpoena if he attended the event. With media days being held in Birmingham, Fulmer and UT officials cited the coach's safety as an additional concern. You really can't make this stuff up, and it's more likely to occur in the football-mad SEC than anywhere else. It's just a shame this year's Alabama-Tennessee game is in Knoxville instead of Tuscaloosa.

15. California, 8-6, NR

T25Q: Is coach Jeff Tedford going to follow the path of previous Cal head man Steve Mariucci, who parlayed a successful season at Berkeley into an NFL job?

M8BA: "Outlook good." Tedford, like Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, would be wise to listen if the NFL comes calling. He has done some terrific work at Cal, leading the Bears to a 7-5 record in his first season -- the biggest one-year improvement in the nation that season -- then quickly rebuilding after the departure of QB Kyle Boller to take last year's squad to an 8-6 mark that included handing USC its only defeat and a bowl victory over Virginia Tech. College coaches tend to fall into three groups. There are the lifers and would never succeed in the pros (think Florida State's Bobby Bowden or Michigan's Lloyd Carr), those that have cemented their job security, earning power and recruiting prowess by winning titles at tradition-rich football powers (Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, LSU's Nick Saban and USC's Pete Carroll) and those, like Ferentz and Tedford, that have done remarkable jobs at non-traditional powers, but who will nonetheless struggle to keep producing successful seasons in their current locale.

Members of that third group are not only often mentioned as NFL candidates, they're also the only group of the three that would be making a smart career choice by listening. The perks and job security of being a big fish in a small pond make it foolish for members of the first two groups to consider leaving the college game.

16. Clemson, 9-4, 22

T25Q: Is Clemson coach Tommy Bowden becoming the Wayne Fontes of college football?

M8BA: "Signs point to yes." Former Detroit Lions coach Fontes was given the nickname "Rasputin" by ESPN's Chris Berman for his seemingly annual ability to rally his team and avoid losing his job. Bowden may have saved his job last season by beating Papa for the first time, and if he does get fired after this season it's probably safe to assume the Clemson schedule maker won't be on his Christmas card list. The Tigers face the kind of ridiculously hard slate (road trips to Virginia, Florida State, Miami and Texas A&M) that can bury a decent team. And Clemson is a decent team, perhaps even a very good one, headed by QB Charlie Whitehurst, who only put up more passing yards than presumptive Heisman favorite Matt Leinart of USC.

17. Missouri, 8-5, NR

T25Q: Is Brad Smith the best player you've never heard of?

M8BA: "Most likely." It's tough for a player at Missouri, even one as talented as junior QB Smith, to get national recognition. Smith is one of those multipurpose QBs that can tear it up in college by throwing or running. I have no idea if he can refine his throwing skills enough for the NFL, but I do know he's one of the most dynamic players in the college game -- and one of just two in history to amass 2,000 yards passing a 1,000 yards rushing in a single season, the other being Clemson's Woody Dantzler. The Big 12 is loaded with heavyweights Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State, and even rebuilding Nebraska will get a lot more attention as it moves to the West Coast offense this fall, but Smith might be the conference's most entertaining player.

18. Auburn, 8-5, NR

T25Q: Will any team benefit more from reduced expectations than Auburn?

M8BA: "Very doubtful." Auburn was Sports Illustrated's preseason No. 1 team last year, then got crushed -- at home, no less -- by USC in its opener and never recovered. The 2003 Tigers were the classic case of a team that believed high expectations alone would carry it to success. Most of the talent that created those expectations, including running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, returns this year but under less scrutiny. If Auburn can get off to a good start against a tough early schedule, the confidence that was destroyed last September will return, and the Tigers could end up being a factor in the SEC. If not, the school may actually fire Tommy Tuberville -- something it all but did last year when it went on a fishing expedition to hire Louisville coach Bobby Petrino the week of the Iron Bowl against Alabama. When the story became public, along with the fact that a booster's jet had been used for the trip, and Tuberville delivered a win over 'Bama, the school all but had to beg him to stay. In the end, he received a contract extension in the latest edition of the football-gone-mad world of the SEC (the same league that has brought you the Fulmer circus). That contract extension won't make Tuberville's seat any less hot should the Tigers stumble again this season.

19. Virginia, 8-5, NR

20. Maryland, 10-3, 20

Paired entry T25Q: Are these two schools hurt the most by ACC expansion?

M8BA: "You may rely on it." For years, the ACC was nothing but Florida State and its eight redheaded stepsisters. After joining the league for the 1992 season, the Seminoles ripped off 29 straight conference wins.  In 12 seasons of conference play, they have lost six games. Four of those have come in the past three seasons, however, a sign that the rest of the league -- including Virginia and Maryland -- may be catching up to FSU. Now, thanks to conference expnasion, the ACC has added Miami and Virginia Tech in the same year that Florida State looks like it might be ready to once again contend for a national championship. With another conference heavyweight, Miami, to contend with, the likelihood of either the Cavaliers or the Terps grabbing a BCS bid is greatly diminished.

Maryland has quietly won ten games each of the last three seasons under Ralph Friedgen, who has done a great job building up the program. Those ten-win seasons might have generated some more noise if the Terps had managed a single signature win in any of the campaigns. Ten-win seasons should never be dismissed, but they'd get a lot more attention if Maryland had posted better results than 52-31, 37-10 and 35-10 losses to FSU the last three years, with a 56-23 Orange Bowl loss to Florida and a 22-0 Kickoff Classic blanking by Notre Dame thrown in for good measure. I'm not picking on Maryland, but rather trying to point out that it wasn't able to play within three touchdowns of Florida State when FSU was considered the only powerhouse in the conference. Now that conference has added Miami and Virginia Tech, making that ten-win plateau much more difficult to achieve.

Virigina has the added difficulty of trying to replace QB Matt Schaub, and will have to rely on its defense in the early going. But the schedule sets up nicely and the Cavs could be 5-0 when they head to FSU on October 16. They will need to stockpile early wins, as four of the final six games are on the road, and one of the home dates is against Miami. One other point about Virginia: keep an eye on D'Brickashaw Ferguson, offensive lineman.

Actually, I don't know anything about D'Brickashaw, but he's the leader in the clubhouse in the "college football name of the year" contest, and stands poised to join the pantheon of such players as Nebraska's I.M. Hipp and Baylor's Hunter Hunter. (Have a nominee for this year's or the all-time team? Click here to send it to me.

21. Utah, 10-2, 21

T25Q: Is Utah this year's token school that everyone will scream about for BCS inclusion before they actually finish undefeated?

M8BA: "Ask again later." I have no idea if Utah can become the first non-BCS conference school to get a BCS at-large bid, but I do know this: If the Utes are 8-0 and still buried in the BCS standings, every college football writer will feel compelled to write a "BCS is unfair to the small conference schools" rant. Please spare me. Can we wait until one of these teams actually finishes a season undefeated before we get all up in arms about how unfair the system is to the little guy? It seems that every year some school, such as TCU, Fresno State, Northern Illinois, etc., gets off to a great start only to come crashing down in the season's final month, rendering the argument for their inclusion in the BCS moot.

22. Wisconsin, 7-6, NR

23. (tie) Minnesota, 10-3, 17

23. (tie) Purdue, 9-4, 19

Triple entry T25Q: Will the Big Ten race once again boil down to Big Two, Little Eight (nine, actually)?

M8BA: "As I see it, yes." Though the Big Ten is a much, much deeper league than it was in the Woody-vs.-Bo/Ohio State-Michigan heyday of the 1970s, the Buckeyes and Wolverines are still the class of the conference, with Iowa knocking at the door after a pair of impressive seasons. That leaves second-tier Big 10 teams like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue buried at the bottom of the Top 25. The Big 10 has taken a beating in its non-conference and bowl schedules the last two seasons, bolstering the argument that it is one of the weaker power leagues. Penn State's fall from national prominence the last several seasons has done much to weaken the conference's image, as has Wisconsin's slip from perennial Rose Bowl contender to four- and five-loss seasons. But Purdue has become a annual bowl team and Minnesota is coming off a 10-win season in which only a monumental collapse against Michigan prevented it from competing for the conference crown. The SEC, Big 12, and probably the ACC are all stronger conferences, but the Big 10 is very tough top-to-bottom, and it would not be a shock for any of these three schools or Iowa to rise up to challenge Michigan or Ohio State for the Rose Bowl berth.

Conference strength is a cyclical thing and the Big Ten is in a bit of a down cycle at the moment, but it has also managed two BCS teams the last two seasons. Since the creation of the BCS in 1998, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois and Iowa have all played in at least one BCS game, so the conference has proven to be deeper than just Michigan and Ohio State. That said, at least a piece of the league title will almost assuredly be on the line when the Buckeyes and Wolverines tee it up in Columbus on Nov. 20.

25. Oregon, 8-5, NR

T25Q: Are the Ducks the nation's most perplexing team?

M8BA: "Reply hazy. Try again." Something strange was afoot last season in Eugene, where the Ducks were the nation's leading Jekyll-and-Hyde team. Oregon started the year 4-0 and riding high after a home upset of Michigan before the wheels feel off in the form of three straight losses, including a 39-point loss to Washington State (at home) and a 45-point pasting at the hands of Pac-10 also-ran Arizona State. Maybe it was the dye in those horrid uniforms. Maybe it was something in the $400-per-gallon helmet paint (containing genuine emeralds) that seeps into the brains of the players. Maybe it was the video game-enabled plasma screens and leather couches in the locker room (paid for by Oregon alum and Swoosh-meister Phil Knight) -- but something made the Ducks soft. (Aren't ducks, not Ducks, supposed to be soft? I love college football nicknames.) Oregon will get a chance to prove last season's up-and-down campaign was a fluke against a slate that includes a road trip to Oklahoma, but which does not include USC. The Ducks should be bolstered by QB Kellen Clemens, who takes over the job full time after sharing it with Jason Fife for much of last season.

Others Receiving Votes

(mouse-over for selected comments)

Nebraska 151, Oregon State 101, Boise State 99, Washington State 86, N.C. State 84, Louisville 78, Virginia Tech 62, TCU 50, Oklahoma State 41, Toledo 33, Memphis 27, Georgia Tech 25, Notre Dame 25, Bowling Green 22, BYU 21, Miami (Ohio) 21, Fresno State 17, Michigan State 16, Pittsburgh 14, Marshall 13, Alabama 12, Arkansas 12, Boston College 10, Northern Illinois 10, San Diego State 8, Mississippi 7, Colorado State 7, UCLA 7, Texas Tech 6, Texas A&M 5, Hawaii 5, Southern Mississippi 4, Penn State 2, New Mexico 1, Connecticut 1, Air Force 1, Arizona 1, Arizona State 1, Washington 1.

Next week: A guide to the college football games of the year.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 16 Aug 2004