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Archive for the ‘The Countdown’ Category

No. 1: L.S.U.

History isn’t on L.S.U.’s side. Since the advent of the B.C.S. in 1998, only one runner-up has bounced back to win the national championship in the following season: Florida State, after losing to Tennessee in the inaugural B.C.S. title game, topped Virginia Tech a year later to cap its second – and last – national title. Since then, only Oklahoma and Ohio State have returned to the title game; both lost, to U.S.C. and Florida, respectively. Other teams haven’t even come close, like Nebraska in 2002, the injury-ravaged Sooners in 2009 and, most famously, the Texas team that went from meeting Alabama in early 2010 to seven losses less than a year later. So L.S.U. has history to contend with, not to mention one other hurdle no other team to come before it could have ever anticipated: Alabama. So why will the Tigers be the first since F.S.U. to buck the trend? Because what happened yesterday – what happened a sentence ago – has never mattered to L.S.U. and Les Miles; this is a program that has never worried for one second about perception or history. Alabama might have beaten L.S.U. down, but the Tigers weren’t broken. They’ll bounce back – just you wait.

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    No. 2: Oregon

    Whizz. Bang. Boom. I’d tell you to keep your eyes on Oregon, but the Ducks are already gone – long, long gone, past you at breakneck speed into the end zone, good for six, and back to the sidelines. The Ducks do everything fast: Chip Kelly talks fast, rat-a-tat-tat-tat through silly question after foolish query; the team’s station-to-station practice work is a blur; the school changes uniforms like Superman, stepping out in green-yellow-grey one Saturday before opting for green-white-winged-gold a week later; the offense goes up, comes back, hikes and hustles unlike any other unit in the history of college football. The entire program has long been different, especially to those outside the state, and under Kelly’s direction, Oregon has completely and utterly embraced its unique qualities – and what makes Oregon different is what makes it great. They’re moving fast, but let’s stop and catch our breath for just one quick statement: the Ducks are awesome. Whizz. Bang. Boom. And they’re off.

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      No. 3: Florida State

      Miami is no longer a threat. Florida’s lack of offensive punch has left the Gators lagging behind. Nowadays, Florida State’s title quest runs through two A.C.C. opponents: Clemson in the Atlantic, Virginia Tech in the Coastal. For every team with title aspirations, the first step towards greatness comes during conference play; the Seminoles must first tackle the Tigers and Hokies before turning their sights towards the rest of college football’s landscape. But with this the year that F.S.U. puts it all together under Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles can begin readjusting their line of vision – the Seminoles can think bigger, beyond the boundaries of the A.C.C., and begin measuring themselves against the truly elite: Alabama, Oregon, L.S.U., U.S.C., Georgia, Oklahoma and the rest. How does F.S.U. measure up? The talent is there. The coaching is there. The confidence is there. The schedule is certainly there. What’s this team’s ceiling? Try Sun Life Stadium – on Jan. 7, 2013.

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        No. 4: Alabama

        My only surprise came when L.S.U. didn’t walk into the Sugar Dome wearing black – the Tigers were going to a funeral, after all. What transpired over the ensuing 60 minutes was the most physically dominating big-game performance of the B.C.S. era, in my mind. A question: After seeing how the 2009 SEC title game completely and utterly demoralized Urban Meyer and Florida, do Les Miles and L.S.U. have the mental fortitude to make another run at B.C.S. glory? Alabama and L.S.U. are tied together in more ways than one: Alabama’s quest for a repeat goes through the Tigers, just as the Tigers’ hopes roll through Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. There are traditional, annual rivalries that tie teams together more closely than Alabama and L.S.U. – Alabama and Auburn – but is there another annual tussle in college football with such historic title implications? It’s time to put Alabama and L.S.U. in a very select class: Nebraska and Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State, Florida State and Miami, U.S.C. and Notre Dame – and that’s it. For Alabama and L.S.U. alike, this fact won’t change in 2012.

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          No. 5: U.S.C.

          Is that all you got? U.S.C. took your best shot, wiped its lip, shrugged it off and kept on moving, strolling past the overly harsh ruling heaved its way by the N.C.A.A. and coming out clean as a whistle on the other side. Sanctions, penalties, crippling sanctions and penalties? Please. U.S.C. is in a better place today than it was before the N.C.A.A. misguidedly threw down its hammer, if you can believe that. The level of swagger is at 2005-like levels. The quarterback is the best in the nation. The backfield has two 1,000-yard rushers. There are two 1,000-yard receivers. The back seven on defense is ferocious. It’s glory days all over again, even if the Trojans were just put under a two-year cloud, and this program shows no sign of letting up now that all systems are officially go. U.S.C. is back, ladies and gentlemen. That the N.C.A.A. tried and failed to take the Trojans down a peg only makes this renaissance all the more sweet.

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            No. 6: Georgia

            If football games were 15 minutes long, Georgia would have been the best team in the country. If football games were 30 minutes long, Georgia would have worn the SEC crown for the first time since 2005. The Bulldogs allowed only 27 points in the first quarter all season: Boise State, Florida and Auburn scored one touchdown apiece; Mississippi State and Kentucky added a field goal; and the rest, the other nine teams, were held scoreless. In the first half of games, Georgia outscored its 14 opponents by a score of 275-111. Against Auburn on Nov. 12, the Bulldogs put together the program’s most dominating first half of SEC play since… when? But it was a different story in the second half, with this fact illustrated no better than in the two biggest games of Georgia’s season. In the opener, Boise State left Georgia in the dust with back-to-back touchdowns to open the second half. In the SEC title game, Georgia’s 10-0 second-quarter lead was followed by 42 unanswered L.S.U. points, 35 of which came over the game’s final 30 minutes. Georgia has already proved it can play with anyone for 30 minutes. But to be the best in the SEC, the Bulldogs need to round into 60-minute form.

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              No. 7: Michigan State

              Last fall, Michigan State beat Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan in the same season for only the second time in program history; the first, in 1987, came during the Spartans’ last outright Big Ten title. Rare? Beating all three of those conference rivals in one year is as rare as 11-win seasons, of which the Spartans have two in as many years. But none before 2010, a point that the rest of the Big Ten pointed out with glee prior to Michigan State’s current resurgence under Mark Dantonio. Now, after 22 wins over two years, those same rivals have only questions: How have the Spartans done it? How can we copy it? The simple answer: Take a system, add a serious heaping of patience and throw in a helpful dash of senior leadership. Add more patience. Wait, and don’t watch: it’ll never boil, or something to that end. And now that the Spartans have lost last year’s senior leaders — along with a number of other key contributors — the program has a question of its own: Can we maintain this sort of pace without our stars? Again, it’s time to have faith in the system.

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                No. 8: Texas

                DeLoss Dodds and Texas are consistently painted as out of touch with reality, puttering along like money-mad oil barons as the F.B.S. continues to draw and redraw its borders through conference expansion. In the case of Mack Brown’s offseason contract extension, however, Dodds and Texas show that the program is far from out of touch, despite recent examples to the contrary. “I’ve been here 30 years,” Dodds told The Dallas Morning News’ Chuck Carlton in January, “and I’ve never been more committed to a coach than I am to Mack and the future of this program.” Dodds, through Carlton: “We’re poised to be back again. We just need the kids to be a little older.” Come the fall, Texas won’t just be more hip to how last year’s new coordinators do business on each side of the ball; they’ll be a year wiser and a year more experienced, which lends credence to the idea that Texas is simply days away from returning to the nation’s elite. Extending Brown’s contract only solidifies the idea that once the Longhorns do return to prominence, they won’t be dropping back out of sight anytime soon.

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                  The Countdown

                  A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.