July 22, 2011

Mailbag: Who takes a step back?

It was Newton - Isaac, not Cam - who explained that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

That law of motion applies to college football, too: For every team that wins, another must lose.

Thus, if some teams are more successful this season than in 2010, it stands to reason that there also will be some teams that won't be as successful as they were last season.

One year, a team gets breaks. The next year, the ball might bounce the other way. A clutch field goal in 2010 might sail wide this season. Teams that remained relatively injury-free may not be so lucky this time. And, of course, star players who moved on will be difficult to replace. Some might even be impossible to replace - like Newton. Cam, not Isaac.

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Stepping back

I know everyone wants to be optimistic, but I think it's a fact that as many teams will drop in the rankings and standings as will improve. I know my alma mater, California, isn't going to be as good this year as they've been in the past (although, historically, the Bears seem to do their best when they're supposed to do poorly). It seems that everyone is suggesting that every college team is going to do better this season than last. So, what 10 teams do you think for sure are going to be worse in 2011 than they were in 2010?
John in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Don't bail out on your Bears so quickly, John. Even though they have no proven running backs and play no games in Berkeley, the Bears may surprise. Zach Maynard is a quarterback who actually can escape a pass rush, the offensive line is experienced, the receivers are good and the defense isn't bad.

Don't count on a Rose Bowl trip, but the Bears could be better than last season's 5-7 mess.

Optimism does tend to run rampant in July. Nobody has underachieved, injuries aren't yet a factor and everybody has vast potential just waiting to be reached. That's why it seems - as you pointed out - that every team expects to be better.

I'd expect Auburn to drop this season, but that's a no-brainer. Even die-hard Plainsmen should accept that the Tigers will take a step back without Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and four starters from last season's offensive line. There's really no other option after going undefeated and winning the national title.

Of course, expecting a team to take a step back doesn't mean it will crash. Wisconsin will have trouble matching last season's 11 wins now that Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and J.J. Watt have gone on to the NFL. TCU doesn't figure to go unbeaten without quarterback Andy Dalton, but that doesn't mean the Frogs won't be in the thick of the Mountain West championship race.

Other teams I think will have trouble matching last season's win totals are Navy (9-4), Maryland (9-4), Michigan State (11-2), Mississippi State (9-4), Miami of Ohio (10-4), Ohio State (12-1) and Utah (10-3).

And take heart, John: Even if your Bears struggle, you can take solace in knowing that Stanford may not be able to match last season's 12-1 finish.

Two-year plan

I think that Georgia will have a good season (nine or 10 wins is my prediction), but I'm really excited about the 2012 team, especially if Aaron Murray comes back, which I think he will. I know it's early to make any type of prediction, but do you believe the Bulldogs can make some noise in the SEC and be in the discussion for the national championship?
Calvin in Jacksonville

Nothing like looking ahead, huh? But there will be no predictions for 2012 to be made here.

As for this season, I think the Bulldogs could finish anywhere from first to fourth in the SEC East.

Murray is the best quarterback in the SEC, so that's a great asset. But he'll be working with two new starting wide receivers. Freshman Isaiah Crowell is an outstanding prospect at running back, but he has to live up to billing. That doesn't always happen, particularly in the first season. The defense must continue to improve, too.

Georgia has a challenging schedule that includes Boise State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech.

Ten wins certainly isn't out of the question, but that seems a little too ambitious. The guess here is Georgia will post eight victories and finish third in the SEC East, behind South Carolina and Florida.

Happy Valley forecast

Why is no one talking about Penn State as a possible Big Ten champion this season? I usually have a good feel on how the Nittany Lions will be every season, and barring terrible quarterback play, I see them winning double-digit games this year.
Conor in North Ridgeville, Ohio

This is the Penn State that went 7-6 last season and lost to Illinois by 20 points, right? By the way, four of Penn State's victories last season came against teams that had losing records and another was against Temple.

Still, the Big Ten race projects to be competitive, especially with Terrelle Pryor's departure from Ohio State. The Buckeyes, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska would seem to have a legitimate chance to win the conference championship, and Penn State shouldn't be counted out.

Rob Bolden is a solid quarterback, the running backs are good and seven starters return on both sides of the ball.

But the Nittany Lions play a tough schedule that includes a non-conference game against Alabama, inter-divisional games with Nebraska and Iowa and intra-divisional road trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

In fact, Penn State faces Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin in November. That's a tough way to end the season.

While Penn State can't be dismissed as Big Ten contenders, there are other teams that project as a better bet. That's why Penn State hasn't received a lot of preseason hype (though they are in our preseason top 25).

Will Sun Devils rise?

Why is it no one believes Arizona State can be a legitimate contender?
Ryan in Phoenix

Contenders for what? The Sun Devils aren't just contenders in the Pac-12 South; they could be considered the favorite.

Most of the apprehension about Arizona State centers on quarterback Brock Osweiler, who started the final two games of last season but never has been a full-time starter. The Sun Devils also have to bolster a pass defense that gave up far too many big plays last season.

Arizona State last season was extremely competitive against Oregon and Stanford, the favorites in the North Division this season. That said, the Sun Devils would be considered underdogs to both going into the season.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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