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Overrated and underrated in first Top 25

Looking for a reason to believe in the Utes this season? Star Lotulelei is a good start. Russ Isabella/US Presswire

All too often, even ardent college football fans want to do away with preseason polls. Why? It's August, and it's providing us with fodder for conversation.

Concerned that your team will not be properly positioned for the postseason as a result of these preseason rankings? No matter, really. There's plenty of time to get from Point A to Point B. Or in some cases, for teams reversing course, from Point B to Point A.

It isn't perfect, but what is?

Let's look at some misses in last season's coaches' poll in order to help us identify what might be similarly off in the 2012 version -- and here is that first poll. We'll work off the assumption that the coaches (or their SIDs or ops guys, or whomever is filling out those ballots) will again overrate three teams and underrate five.

Top misses from 2011

OVERRATED

Oklahoma Sooners

Started: 1; Finished: 15

Season-ending injuries to skill players Dominique Whaley and Ryan Broyles, as well as shoddy pass defense, led to a three-loss regular season -- and a ceding of the Big 12 title to Oklahoma State -- for the preseason BCS title favorite from 2011. In August, the Insight Bowl was far from the goal.

Texas A&M Aggies

Started: 9; Finished: Receiving votes

If only the Aggies could have stopped games at halftime. Then again, if that were the case, Mike Sherman would still be there -- and Kevin Sumlin sure seems like the guy to lead A&M into the SEC. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward?

Florida State Seminoles

Started: 5; Finished: 23

Nagging waves of injuries decimated the offensive side of the ball, and the defense simply couldn't carry the weight of the entire team. It could have been worse than 9-4, but it was a disappointment for a group that thought, at the very least, it would play for the ACC title.

UNDERRATED

Arkansas Razorbacks

Started: 14; Finished: 5

In fairness, anyone in August 2011 would have said, "They're good, but they play in the SEC West. Oh well." Alabama and LSU wound up being the Razorbacks' only losses, and that still represents a strong season -- strong enough for a top-5 finish.

Michigan Wolverines

Started: RV; Finished: 9

Pollsters looked at a recent track record of inconsistency and a new coach, Brady Hoke, who had never worked at such a high level. But Hoke got the Wolverines going, losing only road games at Michigan State and Iowa. A 45-17 blasting of Nebraska in November demonstrated he was right for Michigan.

Baylor Bears

Started: Not ranked; Finished: 12

We'd seen Robert Griffin III for years and knew what he was all about. Not only did he turn it up a few notches as a junior, but he had a stable of playmakers around him in Art Briles' system. That thriller against TCU in the opener was an eye-opener about the Bears and Griffin. Just imagine if BU had stopped anyone.

Kansas State Wildcats

Started: NR; Finished: 16

This was probably the surprise of the 2011 season. Bill Snyder had a slew of unheralded junior college players and guided them to numerous close victories -- Kansas State won eight games by an average of 4.5 points -- and a 10-win regular season. Some felt as if K-State deserved an at-large BCS nod ahead of Virginia Tech.

West Virginia Mountaineers

Started: RV; Finished: 18

It was clear early on that the Mountaineers, under new head coach Dana Holgorsen, had some chops. The Sept. 24 game against LSU wasn't all that close (47-21), but West Virginia punched back with a team that didn't lose until January. Team speed carried it to 70 points and a BCS bowl victory against Clemson.


Potential misses in 2012

OVERRATED

Arkansas Razorbacks

Starting: 10

No one doubts the talent, with quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis. And everyone is eating up the one-liners from coach-for-now John L. Smith.

But what happens when the Razorbacks start facing some early adversity? Alabama comes to Fayetteville the third week, followed by Rutgers, a trip to Texas A&M and one to Auburn the following week. We'll learn by then if this team is really as tight as it is saying it is in the wake of the Bobby Petrino fiasco from the spring.

One thing that's being overlooked with the Hogs: Cobi Hamilton returns, but Wilson loses Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and their combined 2,009 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns from 2011. That's not a simple replacement for a team that has made its name over the past few seasons through the air.

Arkansas doesn't enter 2012 with the expectations Oklahoma did in 2011, but the Razorbacks may end up mirroring the Sooners as a team with a high-powered offense but not enough D to carry them to a conference title.

TCU Horned Frogs

Starting: 17

The Frogs could be fast starters in their first go-round in a big-boy league, but the Big 12 might catch up with them by, oh, late October. They close by going to Stillwater, Morgantown, hosting Kansas State, traveling to Austin and playing Oklahoma at home.

That would be a challenge for any team in the country, especially one that's curious how it will hold up physically in a new conference. One thing working for TCU is that if we are aware of what it is facing, so is Gary Patterson, who prepares extraordinarily well.

Ball control will be a continuing point of emphasis, leaning on backs Waymon James (7.2 yards a carry) and Matthew Tucker (5.7) to play keep away from the uptempo, quick-strike offenses in the Big 12. Will the running room be there, though, like it was in the Mountain West?

Kansas State Wildcats

Starting: 21

All those close victories made for a pleasant 2011, but surely there has to be a law-of-averages course correction in store at some point. A plus-12 turnover margin, which KSU posted last season, is tough to maintain in back-to-back seasons, and among other challenges, the Wildcats have to travel to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU.

Their running attack was very effective at wearing defenses down last season, led by quarterback Collin Klein (1,141 rushing yards, 27 touchdowns). But K-State has gaping holes of inefficiency, such as throwing (74th nationally in passer rating last season) and stopping the pass (76th in passer rating allowed). It's difficult to imagine that as a winning combo in a league that thrives by the forward pass. Like the Aggies were last season, the Wildcats could get bitten by their heightened expectations in a competitive Big 12.

UNDERRATED

Texas Longhorns

Starting: 15

The Longhorns were on the right track in 2011, getting to eight wins after the 5-7 2010 season. Coach Mack Brown has said there are earmarks that suggest this team, with strong leadership -- and especially on defense -- could make a large jump, with another large jump next season.

If the Horns are again contenders for the Big 12, would anyone really be all that surprised? The league has a lot of suitors, but no alpha team in 2012. Even favorite Oklahoma has flaws. If UT is in the Big 12 hunt, meaning it would be in position for a BCS berth, it would be in position for a finish higher than 15th.

If the quarterbacks (David Ash, really) can cut down on turnovers, and the run game can really get going (remember Johnathan Gray's name), a top-10 finish is well within the realm of possibilities for this team.

Stanford Cardinal

Starting: 18

The coaches evidently fell into the trap that no Andrew Luck means a weaker Stanford, but isn't it about time we all learn that the Cardinal just keeps chugging regardless of who moves on? Toby Gerhart, Jim Harbaugh, now Luck.

The system is built on physical play on both sides of the ball. That won't change with one of the country's most underrated players, running back Stepfan Taylor -- who has rushed for 2,467 combined yards the past two years while Luck was getting the pub -- and a defense that brings back seven starters. That includes the aggressive play of linebacker Shayne Skov, rebounding from an ACL tear. Without Skov, the Cardinal was third in the country last season against the run.

Stanford is playing with a different ID than the bulk of the Pac-12, and that might allow for sustenance beyond Luck. As Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy noted after his team squeaked by the Cardinal in the Fiesta Bowl last season, the Stanford roster was solid from top to bottom -- not just at the quarterback position.

Virginia Tech Hokies

Starting: 20

There's a lot to like about the Hokies' veteran defense, but the coaches have joined a lot of the country in wondering about their offense -- apart from QB Logan Thomas, seemingly a lab creation at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds.

The offensive line is of particular concern, given that it loses four starters from a group that helped David Wilson rush for 1,709 yards last season. As for Wilson and the running back position, there's hope that Michael Holmes and JC Coleman can fill that void. But there are no results yet to back that for Holmes, a redshirt freshman, and Coleman, a true freshman who enrolled in January.

Still, with a defense that goes eight-deep on the line -- how many teams can say that? -- and has ball-savvy defensive backs such as Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller, that's enough to win a bunch of games in the ACC. And probably enough to finish higher than 20th.

Utah Utes

Starting: RV

If any other BCS-level team were returning a veteran quarterback, a 1,500-yard rusher and a future first-rounder at defensive tackle, pollsters would likely be all over it. But because the Utes are only in their second year in the Pac-12, perhaps there's some caution on voters' parts.

Maybe too much, since an 8-5 team that won five of its last six is bringing back 16 total starters -- nine on the offensive side of the ball. And that includes junior QB Jordan Wynn, who redshirted last season after shoulder injuries wrecked his year.

That D-tackle, senior Star Lotulelei (projected by Todd McShay as the No. 1 overall pick in his way-too-early mock draft), is joined by the Kruger brothers -- 6-5, 295-pound Dave and 6-7, 275-pound Joe -- on one of the more underrated defensive lines in the country. And that sort of size and experienced is rare in any league, let alone the finesse- and speed-driven Pac-12.

Don't sleep on Kyle Whittingham as a coach. He's 65-25 in his career at Utah, which is pretty remarkable for a guy whose bar was set by Urban Meyer. This could be a sleeper top-15 team this year.

USC had better be on full alert for an Oct. 4 Thursday night game in Salt Lake City. And while we're on the topic of schedules, it's worth noting that the Utes are facing a favorable slate this season -- they avoid both Oregon and Stanford out of the Pac-12 North.

South Florida Bulls

Starting: RV

There was no more of a hard-luck team in 2011 than the Bulls, who lost four games on the last play of the game and three on field goals at the final horn. They lost five of six conference games by an average of 6.2 points a game.

Skip Holtz is optimistic about a rebound in a Big East that's now without its champ from last year, West Virginia. The Bulls' 5-7 record last season was far from impressive, but this could easily be an eight- or nine-win team.

At the conference's media day, Holtz joked that quarterback B.J. Daniels has been around since 2002. With Daniels as one of the leaders, there is experience (15 returning starters) on both sides of the ball, and USF redshirted an additional 20 players a year ago.

End Ryne Giddins, linebacker DeDe Lattimore and corner Kayvon Webster were second-team All-Big East selections a year ago. If they're first-teamers in 2012 and Daniels performs like a vet, the Bulls could be ranked -- and maybe in the Orange Bowl -- by season's end.