When the NCAA basketball championship tips off tonight, it'll be fun to see whether preseason favorite North Carolina can overwhelm local favorite Michigan State. It's uncommon, I think, to have the favorite make it through the season and win it all. This week's Top 10 topic: teams with the best shot of winning the BCS title:
- Florida: No shock here. And there are some parallels with the UNC hoops squad. You've no doubt heard comparisons between both teams' stars, Tim Tebow and Tyler Hansbrough. Both will go down as among the greatest players in college sports. Tebow may leave Gainesville as the greatest college football player ever. Each also has been dogged by skepticism about their pro prospects and backlash about the media's love for each. But UF is much more than just Tebow. The defense is loaded, and star LB Brandon Spikes is back, too. Other reasons to like UF to win it all: The next-best team in the SEC East, Georgia, has to replace its two best players, QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno; UF's nonconference slate is very manageable, with the only top-50 caliber foe being FSU (and that game is in Gainesville). The biggest hurdle in the regular season is a trip to LSU.
- Texas: Who cares if Colt McCoy didn't put up great numbers in UT's spring game? McCoy's numbers were ridiculous in 2008, and he has plenty of weapons back to do just as much damage this year. The Horns did lose a lot of talent on the D-line, but the secondary, which was so young in 2008, should be much improved this fall. More positives: The O-line should be solid. The nonconference slate is cake. Karma should be on Texas' side after last season, no? UT has two big hurdles in the regular season: against Oklahoma and at OSU.
- Oklahoma: Having Sam Bradford and DT Gerald McCoy back probably kept the Sooners in everyone's preseason top 5. The Sooners do have a lot to replace on the O-line, though, and the defense needs more work in the back seven. Getting OSU in Norman is a big plus. The nonconference schedule is a bit tricky -- OU plays BYU in Texas and Miami in Miami -- but the Sooners figure to be favored in both.
- Ole Miss: This may look crazy, but keep reading. The Rebels are fearless. They won at both Florida and LSU last season. They have a budding star at quarterback in Jevan Snead, some terrific receivers, and potentially the best D-line in the country. They also have the luxury of playing the softest nonconference schedule in the country, with two games against FCS teams, UAB and a Memphis team they beat every year. Better still, they get Alabama and LSU at home. Can the Rebs handle success and expectations now? We'll see. A Thursday night trip to South Carolina appears to be the toughest road game.
- USC: I'm not that leery of the Trojans' having to replace QB Mark Sanchez. Inside the program, there has been a good buzz around Aaron Corp for months. The young O-line will be a lot better, and WR Damian Williams is a rising star. Defensively, there are concerns in the front seven, which is almost entirely new. Consistency will be an issue. USC's trip to Ohio State early will be fascinating, although the Buckeyes also have major holes they need to address. The big reason why I have the Trojans a few spots lower on this list is that their schedule doesn't fall well in the Pac-10. They have to go to Cal and Oregon -- not to mention visit South Bend to play what should be an improved Irish team, although we said that last year, too. Still, that's four challenging road games for what will still be a very young team.
- Va. Tech: I'm always a bit worried about Tech whenever it has big expectations put on it going into a season. The Hokies tend to be most dangerous when people don't hype them up. But I still like QB Tyrod Taylor and their running game, and provided they can get their special teams back to form after a shockingly mediocre stretch last season, they deserve to be watched very closely in 2009. Playing Alabama early is tough, although the Tide has to rebuild its O-line and find a new starting quarterback. I also like that Tech gets Miami, UNC and Nebraska at Lane Stadium.
- Boise State: The youngest good team in the country last season should be even better with another year of seasoning. The Broncos get a good crack at getting people on the bandwagon in a Thursday night home opener against a very potent Oregon team. Last season, BSU won at Autzen behind freshman QB Kellen Moore. I think they have a legit shot to beat the Ducks again, especially since Oregon has to replace a lot of good players on D. After that, it's all downhill to a perfect regular season, although going to Tulsa in mid-October won't be so easy.
- LSU: The Tigers still have a ton of talent and rode a dominant bowl performance into the offseason, and that should take some concerns away from the quarterback questions that dogged them all of 2008. Even though their out-of-conference schedule is suspect, the Tigers' SEC slate doesn't fall too favorably: at Georgia, followed by a visit from Florida; later they have to go to Tuscaloosa and to Oxford.
- Oklahoma State: I love the Cowboys' offense, and I think bringing in Bill Young to run the defense was a great move, but OSU has to go to Norman late and gets a visit from Georgia early. Also, playing Houston in Week 2 right after a big, physical Bulldogs team might be more treacherous than people think.
- Notre Dame: Charlie Brown kept thinking he could kick those field goals, and we'll give Charlie Weis one last shot to make contact here. The Irish have very good receivers, and if they can get a lot better on the O-line, they should put up a ton of points. The defense shouldn't be awful any more. Better still, they will be facing one of the softest schedules of any team in the country, especially one that doesn't need to worry about surviving a conference title game at the end of it all. Yes, ND has to face USC, but it's in South Bend. After that, a late visit to Stanford is probably the next toughest game. ND also plays the two teams that were the worst BCS conference programs last year, Washington and Washington State.
Just missed the cut: Oregon, TCU, Penn State, Alabama and Ohio State.
• I was out at TCU's spring game Saturday and got a chance to spend a little time around the Horned Frogs. As is the case with most spring scrimmages, it was pretty bland, although you don't see too many spring games where the head coach rails at the officials and points at them the way Gary Patterson does. Star DE Jerry Hughes had three "sacks" in the game. (Yes, they were those spring touch sacks.) Speaking of Hughes, when I asked TCU starting OT Marcus Cannon which player surprised him the most this spring, he said Hughes. So how does one of the country's top pass rushers remain a surprise guy? "He just got that much better. He's stronger and a lot faster."
A few other things about TCU's spring:
QB Casey Pachall (pronounced PAH-hall) is a freshman the school is thrilled about. The 6-4, 190-pounder enrolled early and is the kind of high-profile recruit you don't usually see picking TCU. I was surprised when Patterson told me some of the offers that Pachall turned down to come to TCU. One of them was from Florida. Pachall said former UF offensive coordinator Dan Mullen told him how much he reminded him of one of his former quarterback stars at Utah, Alex Smith. "Just getting that offer from Florida boosted my confidence," Pachall said. "But I just felt this place had a family atmosphere and a real blue-collar, hard-working mentality."TCU is still looking for a backup quarterback to starter Andy Dalton, although Pachall concedes he needs a lot of work getting used to the speed of the game.
Patterson was really pleased with redshirt freshman Edward Wesley, a running back he compares to former TCU star Robert Merrill, but says, "He's got the same vision sideways only he's faster." Since the Horned Frogs only have 13 seniors back on this team, Patterson made sure to scrimmage a lot more and be more physical this spring, he said.
On Friday, Patterson and I chatted about scheduling and the delicate balance that a lot of teams, especially those in non-BCS conferences, face when it comes to putting together a nonconference slate:
"I don't think you can play nobody and think, 'We're just going to go out and play our conference and go from there,'" Patterson said, adding that he believes playing against Oklahoma last season helped them against BYU and Utah. The downside is the physical toll it can take. "Two years ago we played Baylor, Texas and Stanford, and with the size of the bodies, it really took a toll on us because you do get beat up in those games."
• Keep an eye on WR Kevin Dorsey at Maryland. I spoke to Terps QB Chris Turner the other day, and he had a lot of praise for the 6-2, 205-pound wideout, talking about what strong hands Dorsey has. "He's a really good jump-ball guy," says Turner.To go around the college football landscape with Bruce Feldman, become an ESPN Insider.
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