Throughout August, the Notebook has taken up each conference for review and made a pick on who’s going to win it. The Recent Posts archive on the righthand side will take to you any of them quickly. This column will be devoted to tying it all together and making final predictions on how the major bowl matchups will shake out and who will ultimately win the national championship. To briefly review each conference, including both the pick for first place and the four at-large selections to BCS bowl games:
Big East: Rutgers gets the edge. They closed last season strong, winning their last six, including the Papajohns.com Bowl over an equally hot N.C. State. The Scarlet Knights return their entire offensive line and are very deep at running back. The defense has nine starters who are upper classmen, and even new quarterback Dominic Natale is a senior. In a balanced league, Greg Schiano has everything he needs to win a championship and it starts on Labor Day against defending titlist Cincinnati.
ACC: The conference that re-defined wild and crazy a year ago is again up for grabs, with no fewer than eight teams having legitimate title aspirations and only Duke being hopeless. I’m calling North Carolina to dethrone Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division and then beat rival N.C. State in the championship game. The Tar Heels have virtually all of their people back on both lines, and all their linebackers. T.J. Yates provides veteran leadership at quarterback and Butch Davis is a proven winner at the college level.
Big Ten: A three-team race, as Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State separate themselves from overrated Penn State and several other mediocrities. It’s Iowa who prevails in the race for first place. The Hawks are going to be very strong defensively, they return junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi and have an experienced offensive line. They need to replace running back Shonn Greene, but that’s something a Kirk Ferentz program is ideally situated to do. Ohio State is good enough to again be chosen for a major bowl game, but inexperience at linebacker is the signature weakness that’s just enough to hold them back.
SEC: Florida is an overwhelming favorite in the nation’s best conference. The entire defense is back, Tebow is back and that adds up to another championship. Ole Miss wins the West, beating out Alabama thanks to Jevan Snead at quarterback representing a significant edge over Greg McElroy. But the Rebels falter to the Gators in the conference title game, and Georgia sneaks past them for at-large selection to the BCS. The Bulldogs are stronger defensively and—just as important—the BCS selectors tend to prefer teams who did *not* lose a December championship game if they can avoid it. That gives the edge to the second-place team from the East over the first-place team from the West in determining who joins Florida on the big stage.
Big 12: It’s another three-team race out of the South. This year it’s Oklahoma State, rather than Texas Tech who joins Texas and Oklahoma in the hunt for conference and national honors. The Longhorns get the nod. OU has only one starter on the offensive line back and that spells the difference. It also knocks them behind Oklahoma State in the race for the at-large bid. The Cowboys' only weakness is that just one starter in the secondary is back, but with three of the first-stringers being seniors, they will have enough experience to get a major bowl invite.
Pac-10: USC may have to replace most of its defense, but there is no one in this league ready to step up and challenge them. Offensively, I expect them to replace Mark Sanchez without missing a beat. Will they have enough defense and mental focus to avoid tripping up in a league game and to beat Ohio State? That’s the only real question. Whether they will again finish in first place is not.
MidMajors: For the fourth straight year, we’ll have a party crasher at the BCS ball. This time around it’s Nevada. Chris Ault has a high-powered offense led by Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and supported by two outstanding running backs in Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott. The defense is strong up front and in the secondary. Just as important, the schedule is balanced. The opener at Notre Dame and the finale against Boise State will get the Wolfpack the media attention they need, without being so strong as to be unwinnable.
Other: Notre Dame will improve slightly, but not to BCS level. Navy and Air Force are worthy of respect and a bowl, but are not national contenders.
That leaves us with these ten teams to fill the spots in the four major games (Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Rose), plus the BCS National Championship Game, held in Pasadena on January 7:
In making my national championship picks, I feel a little like the Frank Sinatra-portrayed character Nathan Detroit in the classic gambling comedy film Guys & Dolls. Sinatra asked for danish at his favorite pastry shop, and was told they only had cheesecake and streusel, due to their popularity. Detroit confides to his henchmen that he wants to be different “Everyone’s on cheesecake and streusel. Make me feel like I’m playing a favorite.” One can only imagine how the mythical Nathan Detroit might react to the national championship landscape this season. Florida and Texas have emerged as the cheesecake and streusel when it comes to picking who will get to Pasadena. Oklahoma and USC are the only other teams remotely mentioned.
I share Detroit’s distaste for riding the favorites, but we also have to deal with reality. The ‘Horns and Gators are decisively the best two teams in the country. College football is a world that favors the traditional powers and surprises are fewer here than any other sport. I’ve already dismissed Oklahoma from the entire BCS party and USC’s defense is just too young. No one else has anywhere close to the raw talent level of Texas & Florida.
Complete selection procedures for slotting everyone else in the four major bowls can be found here. I’ll take them up in more detail as the season goes on. For now, here’s how my projected field would likely match up:
Orange: North Carolina--Ohio State
Fiesta: Oklahoma State--Nevada
Coming back to the Texas-Florida showdown, I will part company with established wisdom when it comes to who will end up on top of the heap. I think UT has a superior running game and beats Florida head-to-head. The last time a team got this close to a repeat national title was 2005. USC came to Pasadena with a stud quarterback and went home as only second-best. History repeats itself in ’09 as Mack Brown wins his second national championship.
Up Next: Bowls Vs. Brackets on Saturday