College football is back

Carolyn Brown

By Carolyn Brown

Staff Reporter

The polls are out, and soon our Friday nights and Saturdays will be spent sitting in front of the TV tuning into one of the most watched sports of the year: college football. Next weekend teams all over the country open their seasons, beginning their quests toward the national championship in January. The AP poll has come out with its rankings of the top five teams based on the results from last season, returning starters and new recruits. There are several other teams that these top competitors need to watch out for that could change the outcome of the entire football season in the race for the national championship.

No. 1 Ohio StateOhio State breaks into the season at No. 1 in the AP poll. As many expected, ending the 2005 season 10-2 by defeating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes return eight offensive starters including senior quarterback Troy Smith who recorded 2,893 total yards last year and 27 touchdowns. Although they lost nine starters on defense, the Buckeyes return 20 lettermen on that side of the field, which provides depth in their defensive roster. Seniority, speed and strength on both sides of the field are what place Ohio State above the rest. But who should the Buckeyes watch out for?

Best Competition: No. 14 MichiganThe University of Michigan has the reputation of a football powerhouse that always brings toughness to both sides of the ball. Ending last season 7-5, Michigan can’t be taken for granted as Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines are expected to be back in the national spotlight again this year. There are high expectations coming from the “Big House” this year, especially considering the Wolverines return offensive standouts Chad Henne (QB), Steve Breston (WR) and Michael Hart (RB). Mark your calendars for November 18, when Michigan takes on bitter rival, Ohio State, to whom they lost by only four points last year, in a game that could have national championship implications.

2nd Best: No. 16 IowaOver the last decade Iowa has built the reputation of being a team to watch out for in the Big Ten Conference. Coming into a new season with a lot of experience and returning 16 starters from last year, Ohio State needs to beware of the strong Iowa team. Senior quarterback Drew Tate would like nothing more than to commemorate his final season with a victory over the Buckeyes.

No. 2 Notre DameSenior quarterback Brady Quinn leads Notre Dame at No. 2 in the AP poll. Quinn’s successes last season rank him as one of the best returning quarterbacks in the country, and places him at the top of everyone’s preseason Heisman lists. The 2005 campaign, Charlie Weis’ first in South Bend, was a banner year for the Fighting Irish as they set 11 team records and 30 individual records throughout the year. However, Notre Dame’s memorable 9-3 season ended on a low note with a loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The opening of the 2006 season this weekend against Georgia Tech will see familiar faces on the Irish’s sidelines, including All-American wide receiver Jeff Samardzija. He will be back for his last season before he has to make the “difficult” decision of choosing whether to move on to the NFL or Major League Baseball. If the Irish are going to get through their difficult schedule, they’ll need to be careful of…

Best Competition: No. 6 USCEven after losing former Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, USC still has the firepower to be the preseason favorite in the Pac-10. Returning with just 11 starters and six on defense, we can expect to see some new faces on USC this year but with similar winning results. The Trojans return arguably one of the best wide receiving corps in the country with Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. However, the team’s fate will lie in the hands of relatively untested quarterback John David Booty, who takes the helm at one of the most prestigious positions in the country. If Pete Carroll can work the same magic with Booty that he did with former Heisman winners Leinart and Carson Palmer, there’s no reason that USC can’t find itself in the national championship game again. After last year’s battle between the Trojans and the Irish became an instant classic, with one of the most memorable endings we’ve seen in years, this year’s matchup should be no different. Both teams should come into this late-season game with a high ranking and a BCS birth on the line.

2nd Best No. 19 Penn StateAn old rivalry will be rehashed this year when Penn State takes on Notre Dame in the second weekend of the season. Expect the upstart Nittany Lions to travel to South Bend with one thing on their mind: ruining the Irish’s season. Not much more needs to be said about this game, as Joe Paterno will be sure to have his players well-prepared for this opportunity to regain the national recognition that his team has been missing the last few years.

No. 3 TexasEven after losing quarterback Vince Young to the NFL, the Texas Longhorns are still ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. Besides Young, the majority of the Longhorns return this year to defend their national championship. However, their success may lie with how quickly redshirt-freshman Colt McCoy can settle in at the quarterback position. Texas’ team speed and strength will again make them the favorite in the Big 12, but there are several teams within their own conference that Mack Brown’s Longhorns will have to watch out for this season:

Best Competition: No. 10 OklahomaMany feel that with the recent dismissal of starting quarterback Rhett Bomar, the Sooners have lost more than they can handle. But don’t be too quick to dismiss Paul Thompson, a solid all-around athlete who has stepped into Bomar’s spot with relative ease. Though Thompson is not as established as Bomar, his speed makes him a threat to run the ball as well as pass it. Don’t forget about Adrian Peterson, who’s finally healthy and ready to make a solid run at both the Heisman Trophy and the Texas Longhorns. Expect Bob Stoops’ Sooners to enter the Red River shootout in October with a chip on its shoulder after last season’s shellacking on national television at the hands of the Longhorns.

2nd Best: No. 25 Texas TechAlways a tough competitor in the Big 12, Texas Tech finished second in the conference last season right behind Texas. Although a young team, Texas Tech is going to be powerful on both sides of the field and could play the role of spoiler in 2006. If the Red Raiders can get past TCU early in the season, they should enter their October 28th matchup with Texas, undefeated. A victory over the Longhorns, and the title of best team in Texas, would be huge step for this developing program.

No. 4 AuburnAuburn has several positions to fill as it returns just 11 starters (six on defense and five on offense), but it is a testament to the talent, potential and respect that surrounds this program that places Auburn at No. 4 in the AP poll. Sophomore quarterback Brandon Cox returns after a very successful ’05 season, and he is expected to improve even more as the leader on the offensive side of the field. The Tigers will have their work cut out for them if they hope to live up to the expectations of such a high ranking, especially considering the tough road they’ll have to take through the talent-deep SEC. Some teams the Tigers should be aware of are:

Best Competition: No. 7 FloridaReturning the majority of their starters, the Gators have one of their best teams in years. Coming off of a 9-3 season, Florida is expected to challenge for the SEC title and land itself in a BCS game this season. Urban Meyer’s squad’s strength is again its team speed, and three-year starting quarterback Chris Leak returns for his final season at the Swamp. If Leak can finally live up to the lofty expectations that have haunted him thus far in Gainsville, the Gators should find themselves in perfect position heading into their October 14th matchup at Auburn.

2nd Best: No. 8 LSUOften overlooked but always a challenger for the SEC title is No. 8 LSU. Coach Les Miles will begin his second season at LSU after a successful rookie campaign of 11-2. After embarrassing Miami in a 40-3 blowout in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, quarterback JaMarcus Russell will be back to lead his team to more record setting numbers. LSU is big, fast and experienced. They are experienced enough that it should be no surprise if this team finds itself again in the top-10 at the end of the 2006 season.

No. 5 West VirginiaArguably the most intriguing of the AP poll’s top five teams is No. 5 West Virginia. After ending the 2005 season 11-1 and defeating Georgia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl, the Mountaineers return 48 lettermen, including sophomore quarterback, Patrick White. Don’t forget tailback Steve Slaton, an underrated runner who received the MVP award at the Sugar Bowl, who will be looking to step into the spotlight this season at running back. Although they were a young team last year, the Mountaineers only lost one game to Virginia Tech. As most of the starters on both sides of the ball return to Morgantown in ’06, expect West Virginia to stay at the top of the BCS rankings this year, especially with the sub-par competition in the Big East. The one team that stands in their way and is quickly becoming an annual rival in the newly structured Big East is:

Best Competition: LouisvilleAs mentioned earlier, there is not much competition at the top of the Big East conference this year, but West Virginia cannot look past the Louisville Cardinals. After losing by only two points in overtime last season, the Cardinals face the Mountaineers on their home turf this season. The dynamic duo of Brian Brohm at quarterback (2005 Big East Offensive Player of the Year) and Michael Bush at running back (led the nation in touchdowns) make the Cardinals one of the most explosive offenses in the country. These teams are primed for a shootout when they meet on November 2.

In order for the top five teams in the AP poll to stay in the running for the 2007 National Championship, they’ll have to go through some stiff tests throughout their schedules. Teams like Michigan, Iowa, USC, Penn State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Florida, LSU and Louisville are all formidable opponents that will shake up the top of the rankings and could very easily find themselves in the top five come January. With so many great match-ups, the upcoming college football season is sure to be one for the ages.