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jones Top Ten 2010 Season Preview

Ponder South Carolina. I use "ponder" as a verb here, not as reference to some mythical Conroy-esque small southern town. To be precise: meditate with me on the South Carolina Gamecock football team; for I believe they are the greatest program the sport has ever known. The ‘cocks—whose fans sport the best baseball caps in the game—play impressively in Williams-Brice Stadium, the stadium being the impressive part, not the play. Williams-Brice is stunning, ain’t no doubt. South Carolina also offers one of the great player entrance traditions in the game, to the imposing opening chords of the dawn scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Also sprach Zarathustra, if you remember your music appreciation class; Nietzsche, if you took introduction to philosophy; 1970s Elvis, if you did neither). Inarguably, this is a great atmosphere—even compared to their SEC brethren. 80,000 screaming fans take in this show every Saturday. Big Time College Football, baby.

But greatest program ever, you say? You bet. Those 80,000 fans come to see the most average team in college football history. Since 1892, the Gamecocks have won 535, lost 535 and tied 44. Washington State is also exactly .500, but 80,000 folks sure as hell don’t come to watch Wazzu. NC State, Cincinnati, Vanderbilt and Baylor are all also within a few games of .500, lifetime. Not exactly environments on par with South Carolina. Gamecock fans come win or lose. They were there for the one conference championship—the ACC in 1969—and even put in Astroturf and expanded the stadium the very next year, presumably so that more people could watch their boys go 4-6-1. The crowds showed up the one time South Carolina won ten games, in 1984, and kept showing up 15 years later to watch Lou Holtz go 0-11, averaging 78,273 for a team that never won. Can you imagine? Despite the outlier years, the coin flip record has not been built on stretches of greatness/stretches of stench. Rather, the Gamecocks have an uncanny ability to win between 4 and 6 games a year, regardless of circumstances, finishing in the AP rankings five times in the last 73 years. Their last two coaches—both no-brainer picks for the hall of fame—have burnished their greatness to the tune of 68-54 over the past decade (14 games above the historical average, to be fair).

You will never buy this, but I mean South Carolina no disrespect. I’d take in a game at Williams-Brice in a heartbeat, and I will, some day. I grew up a Texas fan; then had the pleasure of going to school there. Any idiot can be a Texas fan, which I do my best to prove—in writing, no less—every Monday morning during the fall. Do 80,000 folks show up to watch Texas play mediocre football? Uhm…do the words "win or else" mean anything to you? Texas fans sometimes don’t even stick around for great football. I once watched half the crowd at a Texas game fail to return for the second half after Vince Young ran up a 56-0 lead on Kansas. The Longhorn fans had seen enough…of their national championship team…after one half of football…on SENIOR DAY for the love of God. So I must give it up for the Gamecocks, the finest group of American sports fans this side of Wrigley Field. The difference being, of course, that South Carolinians desperately want their team to win (this is the SEC after all), while Cubs fans, I have always suspected, kind of like losing.

And so it goes on these fall Saturdays. The Gamecock fans show up, as do thousands of others who cheer like mad even when their team goes 5-7. We go back to school and start another cycle and celebrate all that is good about life, its language, its textures, its flavors, its customs (which unapologetically include cockfighting—God bless the south).

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

I might as well write about South Carolina while we are here. The Gamecocks will rely on a fine defense and the always entertaining exploits of quarterback Stephen Garcia, assuming he’s not suspended, under arrest or otherwise in the Spurrier doghouse. They also add a potential superstar freshman tailback and feature an offensive lineman named Rokevious and a linebacker named Toquavious. This is one of the best 25 teams in the country. That’s clearly worth a trip to Williams-Brice.

So what else will happen this year in the only possible sport that could create a 12-team entity and call it the Big Ten and a ten-team entity and call it the Big 12? Let’s start at the top:

1. Florida: There are two first-time quarterbacks who I believe will be among the ten best in the nation by mid-season. One of them is John Brantley (the other one plays for #5, below). Not only do I believe Florida will be better quarterbacked than Alabama, but I also think their skill position players are rough (albeit less-hyped) equals, the lines are a draw and the Gators will field better defenders, especially in the secondary. Quite frankly, other than the loss of Jesus Tebow and an ugly 2009 SEC title game result, I don’t understand why Florida isn’t a consensus top three pick. I have never bought the argument that a defending college football champ should be #1 until proven otherwise. Welcome to 2010. Although…

2. Alabama: I would be happy to go along with the rest of the world and rank Alabama #1 if I didn’t think Florida was better. The 2010 SEC is a nasty place and I am not sure either of these teams will finish undefeated. ‘Bama’s two returning defensive starters should be cause for alarm, but that would be a lazy analysis that doesn’t take into account the talent of the new nine who will line up alongside them. Second-ranked is nothing at which to be sneezed. If the Tide quarterback was great, instead of just good, it would be easier for me to buy into the 55 out of 59 first place votes in the coaches poll.

3. Ohio State: THIS time, the Buckeyes are serious. If you buy the proposition that Terrelle Pryor will make a Vince Young-like evolution as a junior, then this pick is easy. I don’t quite buy that proposition, although I think Pryor will be improved. Certainly great talent plays around him. I wish Ohio State had a great tailback, rather than some very good ones. A game-breaking wide receiver would help—perhaps DeVier Posey is one, but I am not convinced of that, either. The defense is highly experienced and talented. A soft #3, but nonetheless, the Buckeyes will contend. Far too much has been made about the ugly and unfocused loss to Florida in 2006 and the honorable loss to a better LSU in 2007. This year presents their best shot at redemption.

4. Oregon with Jeremiah Masoli: This team actually doesn’t exist, although it will be fun to watch Masoli play for Mississippi.

5. Texas: Whatever. I am not really sure that the Longhorns are one of the best five squads for 2010. On the other hand, I think the only 85-man rosters in the game comparable to the Horns are Florida’s and Alabama’s, and then comes everyone else. Garrett Gilbert will be the new starter at quarterback. Horn fans shouldn’t lose any sleep. Gilbert might, however, because the right side of the Texas line (and on some days the left…) will hold up like spaghetti versus an angry toddler against any good defense. Texas counters by throwing their own best defense in the nation at their opponents. The whole could lead to 12-0…or 9-3, but opposing offenses better bring a lunch.

6. Oklahoma: The Sooners lost five games last year, but other than the bizarre give-up against Texas Tech, all of them were easily winnable. OU didn’t exactly field the team it expected in 2009; if it weren’t for bad luck, they would have had, as the song goes, no luck at all (it’s a Hee-Haw reference; trust me, the Oklahoma fans get it). You can play winning football with Landry Jones, a better quarterback than most Texas fans think, leading a very solid offense. A healthy DeMarco Murray—an heroic assumption—takes them beyond very solid to borderline terrific. I rate the Texas/Oklahoma game as a toss-up. If the Sooners had better cornerbacks, they’d be the conference favorites.

7. TCU: The common condescending refrain from the village elders to those teams outside of the Big Six goes something like this: "TCU (or Boise State, or Utah…) can win a one-shot bowl game, but if they had to play a tough conference schedule week-in-and-week-out, then no one would mistake them for a top ten team." I agree with that, but it doesn’t apply to this TCU squad. For starters, their schedule last year was the equal of some in the Big East or ACC (or any of the Big 12 North teams that skipped Oklahoma and Texas, for that matter). This team is better than last year’s undefeated squad—more good football players, whose above-average talent coming out of high school is greatly accelerated by a sublime S&C program. Would TCU run through the SEC undefeated? No, but several top ten teams wouldn’t accomplish that. Would I take TCU straight up against LSU? How about Virginia Tech? Iowa? Yes, I would. We will get some relative indication of whether I am right or wrong on September 4, when the Frogs play Oregon State.

So now I have to talk about Boise State, the press darling and the team that beat TCU in a BCS game last year. I love watching the Broncos play. They are disciplined, creative, exciting and have a knack for scaring the bejeezus out of BCS teams…of which they have played five in the last five years. Twenty starters return from an undefeated team, including all the skill position players from a dynamic offense and a highly underrated core of defensive players. I would take a flyer on Boise State as a top five team if this were NCAA basketball and attrition was not a significant success variable (they are the football equivalent of Butler). I would also put them there if I thought they would beat Virginia Tech in the opener. I don’t. But if Boise beats Va Tech, escapes Wyoming with a win (don’t laugh; it may be their third-hardest game) and beats Oregon State at home, then the rest of the schedule is a walk—no disrespect to Nevada and Fresno, but Boise is in a different league. Then we will get Boise State in a one-shot, winner-take-all with a month to prepare for, let’s say, Ohio State (coming off a 50-day layoff). Boise State could be the BCS champs. Long shot? Yes. Inconceivable? No.

8. Georgia: Somewhat forgotten in the new FloriBama SEC is the talent level of the Georgia Bulldogs. UGa is one of only four teams to have had consensus top ten recruiting classes in each of the past five years (USC, Florida, Texas—not Alabama, Saban has made up for this by signing 43 players a year and running off the chaff). That means Georgia has more quality players roaming around than almost any squad in the country. If any team breaks through the Meyer/Saban hegemony, it will be the Bulldogs. Problems? Well, their quarterbacks are highly unproven, their defense has been disastrously deployed over the last two years and Mark Richt is a very good coach in a world where two great ones have set up shop. It hasn’t helped matters that their best left tackle played less than a game in the last two years because of devastating knee injuries. This year, a new defensive coordinator, perhaps the best offensive line in the nation and absolutely sick skill-position talent, including wideout A.J. Green, might turn the tide (not to mention the Gators…).

9T. Virginia Tech: It makes me chuckle that Virginia Tech is now tagged, year-in and year-out, as overrated. As if Virginia Tech is a traditional major power fishing in a fertile sea of big-time recruits. The Hokies in the last six years have won 10,10, 11, 10, 11 and 10 games. Living up to expectations that you have solely set yourself through past excellent performance is an "unfairness" of life (it got Dan McCarney fired at Iowa State). I like this squad to win ten again, behind the nation’s two best tailbacks who don’t play for Alabama and a quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, who finds himself in the enviable situation of being lambasted as overrated for so long, that he is now probably underrated. Perfect for his program.

9T. USC: The news of the Trojan’s demise is greatly exaggerated. Yes, a slow degradation of their talent level will soon commence, courtesy of le Affaire d’ Bush (and Rick Neuheisel will jump at the chance to put UCLA on a better talent footing because of it). None of that has much bearing on this season (well, Seantreal Henderson might have looked pretty good at right tackle, but work with me). If you believe Lane Kiffin is a jackass, that’s fair game. If you think he can’t coach, you are mistaken. His father certainly can and he has a passel of nasty defensive players at his disposal to prove it. USC—of all teams—will be one of the early surprises of 2010, including posting a win over Oregon Without Jeremiah Masoli. The downside? Even though no big time stars defected (other than the true freshman Henderson), they did lose five or six solid players when the NCAA’s probation terms released juniors and seniors from the transfer rules. Troy will only play with 70 scholarships players this season. It will make a difference, especially down the stretch.

10. Nebraska and North Carolina: I am not cheating; this is the same team. Both have top-notch defenses capable of making even the best teams miserable. Carolina has more NFL-ready players (even if the NCAA suspends Marvin Austin), but Nebraska’s not far off and is exceptionally well schemed. Beyond that, both teams return virtually their entire starting offenses. Although that’s somewhat of a problem, since both offenses were atrocious bordering on nauseous last season. For Nebraska, just a few more points could be the difference between 9-3 and winning the Big 12 championship, especially if they beat Texas at home on October 16 and start rolling. For North Carolina, the task is more difficult. The defense will have to win at least two out of three in a murderous stretch at Miami, at Florida State and hosting Virginia Tech. I think they are capable, but I slightly favor Nebraska to have the special season.

The Spinal Tap Slot: Any number of teams could go to eleven, but I give the nod to Oregon Without Jeremiah Masoli. Chip Kelly knows what he is doing and will get much better line play this year than last. He has a great tailback and will get at least competent QB play. They could win the Pac Ten, but I think USC is being written off too quickly.

The rest of the second ten finds plenty of squads who could easily trade places with the ten teams above. Outside of Florida/Alabama/Ohio State/Texas, talent in college football is relatively well dispersed. The SEC has the most overall. If Mark Richt coached LSU, then I would put the Tigers at #8, instead of the Bulldogs. Arkansas is explosive (and better on D than you think) and could possibly upset Alabama in late September. Auburn exceeded expectations last year and should be better this time around; I have already mentioned South Carolina. And you seriously don’t want to play Mississippi with Jeremiah Masoli running some bizarre Houston Nutt concoction you have no film on, nor do you want to play Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State. Tennessee, on the other hand, may completely implode.

Iowa is the fashionable Big Ten dark horse pick, but I don’t trust their re-built offensive line (although they will be very well-drilled by Kirk Ferentz) and I don’t trust Ricky Stanzi any farther than I can throw Seantrel Henderson. I like Wisconsin better, especially on offense with John Clay and the underrated Scott Tolzien. For that matter, it wouldn’t shock me if Penn State won the Big Ten, but that depends mightily on the talents of a new quarterback, Kevin Newsome, doing his best Daryll Clark. The Nitts play only four road games, but three of them are at Alabama, Ohio State and Iowa. Yikes.

I don’t buy for a second that Michigan will be greatly improved.

The Big 12 has three excellent teams…and nine other teams play in the Big 12. Texas Tech won’t slip much under Tommy Tuberville and one would expect the defense to be better. Texas A&M will score lots of points with a skill position line-up equal or better than Texas and Oklahoma. Then, unfortunately, the defense will take the field. Is there a surprise team in the house? Missouri? (not a bad bet, really), Kansas State?, Baylor with a healthy Robert Griffin?

The ACC is far more interesting. Miami is borderline top ten. If we look up in October and the Hurricanes are 5-0, then they will be easily in the top five, having won at Ohio State, at Pittsburgh, at Clemson and at home versus FSU. The ‘Canes have the talent to do this, but do they have the depth? Will they get the breaks? They could go 2-3 and still be one of the best 20 teams in the country.

When Jimbo Fisher walks out on the practice field at Florida State, he is surrounded by (allegedly) great players who have chronically underachieved in the waning days of the House of Bowden. This is the anti-Virginia Tech, losers of 6,4,6,6 and 5 games over the last five seasons. The Seminoles should be ACC contenders, but it is, quite frankly, a crapshoot guessing if this is a 10-win, or a 7-win team.

Georgia Tech remains dangerous and Boston College will shockingly upset at least one team that goes to sleep on them. The best candidates are probably Virginia Tech or FSU.

But I don’t think BC will beat Notre Dame. I don’t think many teams will, actually. I am just afraid to write that in large type. The Irish should have won ten games last year; they might this year with better coaching, which they will get.

Pittsburgh is the class of the Big East, unless West Virginia is. This is the battle of the pocket rocket tailbacks: Pitt’s Dion Lewis and WVU’s Noel Devine. It will be quite a show most Saturdays. Skip Holtz takes over a pretty decent roster at South Florida.

The Mountain West, fighting the Big East for style points, should have one top 25 team in addition to TCU: Utah. Brigham Young is probably top 40 and could be even better depending on a talented, but completely unproven, freshman QB.

The other non-BCS team to keep an eye on is Houston.

Finally, out west, almost anyone could win the Pac Ten. USC and Oregon Without Jeremiah Masoli are the most talented teams, but Arizona could give them both fits. Stanford is not an easy out, either. The Cardinal quarterback, Andrew Luck is the most NFL-ready passer in the game. Oregon State is my pre-season most underrated pick, followed likely by UCLA, which needs one more recruiting class to cause the conference some real problems. Finally, there’s the most intriguing team in the entire country: Washington. I’ve never been more interested in the fortunes of a returning 5-7 squad than I am about the Jake Locker-led, Steve Sarkisian-coached Huskies. Their variance between spectacular and disastrous is huge—play-by-play, forget game-by-game. That’s why we watch.

The best player you have never heard of is Michigan State’s linebacker Greg Jones. He, of course, has no shot at the Heisman. That award will go instead to LaMichael James of Oregon, who will rush for 2000 yards and beat out Boise State’s Kellen Clemens Moore and Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor in the most bizarre Heisman race ever as accusations fly that the Nike corporation has unduly influenced the voters.