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Jones Top Ten 2008 Season Preview

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Remember when you could smoke cigarettes in football stadiums? I liked the world better that way. I am neither virulently libertarian, nor am I a member of any sort of modern day Christian temperance movement. My vices are documented in these pages, for better or worse (they include caffeine, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey older than at least two of my three sons, tacos al carbon, Earth, Wind and Fire and, well, the fact that I took Chris Simms’s side most of the time during a certain stretch of Longhorn history, but that’s another matter entirely…). I don’t believe the world needs to be protected from the likes of Kinky Friedman. I am glad, however, that brother Friedman does his part to protect the world from politically correct namby pamby nursemaid types of various shapes and sizes. Anyway, none of them want you to smoke in public, especially during an athletic event.

But my early memories of college football are smoke-filled. The top of the stadium in Canyon was Club Marlboro; old men (from my vantage point they were old, makes me wonder if I’m an old man now) lighting up, leaning on the top rail and reviewing the first half. The cigarette smoke blended with the stench of bad coffee—this was before Americans exercised their collective inalienable right to good coffee—and popcorn. Somebody always burned it. You can’t trust the average high school band booster club member to properly operate a popcorn machine. Burning, brewing, charring, ritual fires sending smoke up to the top of the light towers. Always at night, the small schools never got the Saturday afternoon slots when I was growing up. Ritual fires are always at night.

All cultures, all religions, all peoples have their ritual fires, Celts, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, small children lighting Christmas candles. The burning metamorphoses reflect a belief in something beyond our human experience. Or at least at the very edge of it. That’s where college football resides. The Celts and Buddhists have their moments. But they ain’t never created nothin’ like Alabama/Auburn.

Welcome back, friends, to season fourteen of the Jones Top Ten, the truth about college football since 1995.

Another season begins and our yesterdays now turn to tomorrows, as they would be (does anyone remember the eventide?) entirely devoid of present, the tomorrows, merely yesterdays’ yesterdays, moving onward, as it would be tomorrow, but not as it had come to pass from tomorrow’s yesterday…

Damn. Sorry, the MS Word "Faulkner" default was on again. I hate that little paper clip guy.

A season is upon us and it is now time for the preposterous and futile gesture of the pre-season top ten. There is not another sport in our nation’s history that depends so ridiculously on a starting point as does college football. Auto racing you say? Well, yes, but you earn poll position based on hard work in the preceding days before the contest. We in the college football universe determine poll position in accordance with the whims of 18-year-old kids, the memories of bowl games past, Phil Steele, attractive schedules and pre-season practice reports. None of this would matter near as much if we actually settled the final matter on the field…but that is an argument for another day.

The JTT is what we now call a "power poll." In other words, I am not interested in predicting order of finish by taking into account anyone’s schedule. Just pretend like we match everyone up in a sterile and empty NFL stadium (well, OK, most of them are sterile even when they are full) and let them play. The result? Read on, MacDuff.

1. Ohio State: Sheesh, can’t we just be honest about it? Even with Todd Boeckshmenheinenburgermeister at QB I think the Buckeyes have the best squad, 1-22, in the nation. Beanie Wells is the difference between first place and not. This pick, however, is based on two premises with which you may or may not agree. 1. The 2006 national title game was more a matter of too many Buckeyes interviewing agents and not preparing to play football than it was Florida being five TDs better on the field. 2. The 2007 national title game was simply a matter of LSU being better than a Buckeye team that should have been a year away and had no business being in New Orleans in the first place. Well, if they were a year away, then this is their year. I think OSU beats USC early and rolls on.

2. Florida: The Gators are a close number two to the Buckeyes and I am scratching my head as to why they are picked below
Georgia by many. The offensive line in Gainesville is much better than the one in Athens and they play in front of the best player in the game. Can the defense get that much better in a year’s time? Yes, it can. Carlos Dunlap is a future star.

3. Georgia: The Bulldog schedule is about as brutal as they come: on the road against South Carolina, Auburn, Arizona State and LSU, with
Florida at a neutral site. Throw in Alabama and Tennessee, for that matter, Georgia Tech, led by an unorthodox coach who actually knows what he is doing. The only nice thing to say about the slate is that Vanderbilt visits for homecoming. Other than the Gators, I think Georgia is better than anyone listed above. I am in the camp that says Knoshown Moreno is a special player, not merely an all-conference one. The defense is great, the quarterback has a chance to be and the Dawgs are exceptionally well-coached. My one asterisk is that they are pretty thin on the offensive line and they lost LT Trinton Sturdivant today (if ESPN is to be believed).

4. USC
: If you believe in high school recruiting rankings, and I do, then USC should never be below fifth in any national poll, regardless of who’s returning. That’s how much better Pete Carroll is at his job than any of his peers are. It’s not all Carroll; USC has some other inherent advantages in getting kids to campus. Of course, Paul Hackett leveraged those inherent advantages to lose an awful lot of college football games. You see, recruiting rankings are SAT scores. Kids with low SAT scores, those who don’t "test well" or have a substandard secondary education or are out drunk the night before, are sometimes successful college students. But kids who knock the top out of the SAT are almost always successful college students. Carroll gets players who knock the top out of the SAT, so to speak (not literally, the way Stanford does—stay with me). What does this have to do with this particular USC team? Nothing. Well, actually, everything.

5. Clemson: Me, of all people, who has depended on the Clemson swoon for more comic relief than a writer should be allowed. My favorite from last year: "Clemson finishes like warm beer, and their fans can’t possibly be that thirsty." Ho-ho, ZING! Ba-dim-dum, look out, I’ll be here all week. Anyway, the Tigers have never fully closed the deal under Tommy Bowden. But a funny thing about this, the Tigers have never actually been ranked in the preseason top ten under Bowden. True, they are streaky and, yes, they sometimes drop a couple they shouldn’t, but for the most part Clemson starts as one of the 20 or 25 best teams in the country and that’s about where they finish. They just do it much more entertainingly than say, Oregon or
Wisconsin. This team is loaded: Cullen Harper, C.J. Spiller, James Davis and more than a solid enough defense, including a frosh named Da’Quan Bowers who may the nation’s best 18-year-old defender. I think the Tigers stick around this time.

6. Oklahoma
: The Sooner offensive line represents the closest physical approximation to a weapon capable of firing bags of wet cement at extremely high speed over a short distance. They are enough to keep Sam Bradford from suffering a sophomore slump. If they aren’t, then super tailback DeMarco Murray is. That said I don’t view the Sooners as national title contenders. The front four on defense is nasty, but the linebackers are not world beaters and the secondary is questionable. This is far from the best defense Bob Stoops has put on the field. Remember, of course, that Missouri is everybody’s darling this year. Oklahoma beat ‘em twice last year, both times convincingly. The two teams are not much different this time around.

7. Missouri: The Tigers have all the ingredients for another title run. Great quarterback, explosive offensive personnel, lots of returning starters to a defense that should hold up its end of the bargain. On balance, they look like the nation’s 7th or 8th best team. One thing bugs me. Of the two Big 12 Cinderellas from last year, the general consensus is that Mizzou has staying power and Kansas does not. Ostensibly this is because Mizzou has better personnel (and they did beat the Jayhawks head-to-head last year) and the KU schedule is a war zone. But after an outlier season, if one team is going to regress significantly back toward the mean, wouldn’t you bet that the team coached by Gary Pinkel would be the more likely candidate? I’m just whistling Dixie here.

8. Auburn: This could just as easily be LSU or, for that matter,
Tennessee. I am starting to draw them out of a hat right now. Tommy Tuberville shook up the staff to generate some offense this season and I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that Mack Brown shook up the Texas staff to get some defense this season, by hiring Will Muschamp away from Tuberville. Nevertheless, I think the Tigers deserve more ink.

9. West Virginia: This may simply be homage to Pat White, my favorite player in the game. I can rank the Mountaineers here on the merits and make a pretty solid argument. The downside is that this team relies on offensive explosion (and they have plenty of players to make it work), but the man who created the fireworks is now toiling away in Ann Arbor. The Mountaineers could go 12-0 (and I will be glued to the TV for the giant Thursday night intersectional against Auburn on October 23rd). They could also go 7-5 and leave a legacy that consists of folks starting conversations with "Remember when Rich Rodriguez used to coach at West Virginia? Man, that was fun to watch."

10. South Florida: The Bulls can play with anyone, especially on defense where end George Selvie has a chance to walk away with all the big non-Heisman hardware. I don’t for a second believe that they are a one-shot wonder. We will know soon enough, September 13th hosting Kansas. The question is, could USF actually survive in a power conference like the SEC? You may disagree, but I think the answer is yes.

Number eleven is Texas, mostly because Mack Brown still appears to be pissed and they are actually hitting each other in practice. The second ten this season may be about as salty as I can remember. As mentioned, Tennessee may be resurgent and LSU still has lots and lots of players with French surnames that every other team in the nation wanted. I like Texas Tech, but am not sold that their defense will be that much better than it usually is. The thing about the Raiders is that I do think their offense may be the best ever. That’s saying something. Kansas is better than you think. With the KU schedule, they could go 8-4 and still be one of the nation’s best 20 teams. This may be the last, best chance Joe Paterno has to take Penn State to a BCS bowl. I think the Nittany Lions are underrated. Wither South Carolina? The tough squad that started last year on fire? Or the injury-ravaged one that limped down the stretch? Alabama could climb right past the Gamecocks in the SEC pecking order (no pun intended), but the Saban powerhouse is at least a season away. If Ohio State loses a Big Ten game, then it will be to Wisconsin. Illinois will miss Rashard Mendenhall.

So who challenges USC on the west coast? Arizona State? Cal? Oregon? They all just look OK to me. This may be the Pac Ten’s turn to be down.

BYU and Utah will wage an intra-state war to prove the best non-BCS squad, or whatever the politically correct term for "mid-major" is these days. I think TCU is closer to both than the general consensus seems to suggest.

I don’t think much of either squad, but quite highly of their coaches, which leads me to believe that Wake Forest and Virginia Tech will play better than their respective preseason rosters suggest. I like North Carolina to emerge even further under Butch Davis, maybe even FSU and
Miami will show signs of life. None of these teams even approach Clemson’s (proven) talent level. Who would have thunk?

Surprises?

Notre Dame
: Call me crazy, but like I said before, I believe in recruiting rankings. Last year’s Irish squad was manned by guys that Lou Holtz wouldn’t have bothered to spittle on in a receiving line. The talent is up, the schedule strength is down and, voila, the Irish win ten games. Bank on it. Then lay the points and bank on old Notre Dame being obliterated by Clemson in a BCS bowl.

Mississippi
: This is the JTT supersecret darkhorse special. Ed Orgeron leaves Oxford with a fairly high (by Ole Miss standards) number of good football players hanging around. Enter the always amusing Houston Nutt, just one step ahead of the posse. The kindly new sheriff, who can actually coach a little football, every third year anyway, gets the first-year-coach boost from a few guys who play over their heads, pulls an upset or two, parlays it into a long-term contract. Please, God, give him unlimited cell phone minutes with that.

The Heisman will go to Beanie Wells, just a snip ahead of Tim Tebow. The best player you have never heard of is Duke’s defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase. Given that he plays for Duke, you probably still will not have heard of him by the end of the season.

In the immortal words of Outkast: Lend me some sugar. I am your neighbor.

-Adam Jones

Check out Adam’s first book, Rose Bowl Dreams, A Memoir of Faith, Family and Football, from the good people at St. Martin’s Press.

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