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April 2, 2010

High preseason ranking a blessing or curse?

High preseason rankings often are preludes to a great season -- or a great collapse.

Some teams just have a way of disappointing their fans. In the past 10 seasons, 15 teams that opened a season ranked in the top 10 finished unranked.

Perhaps the greatest fall occurred in 2000 when Alabama, coming off a 10-3 finish the previous season, opened No. 3. Unfortunately, that number represented the amount of wins the Crimson Tide managed that season, which led to the ouster of coach Mike DuBose.

But while Alabama might have authored the greatest single-season disappointment of the decade, Tennessee was more consistent. Four times Tennessee opened in the top 25 -- including fifth in '02 and third in '05 -- and finished unranked.

A different SEC program has been accused of disappointing its fan base. But which one? And is that accusation accurate? The answers are in this week's mailbag.

Got a question? Click here to send it to Olin's Mailbag

Lots of bark

I have been living in Arkansas for years now. What I'm trying to figure out is why Georgia has been tooting its horn so much lately? In recent seasons, the Bulldogs have started highly ranked only to disappoint fans.
William in North Little Rock

William, I'm going to take the approach of a famous Arkansan, Bill Clinton -- who once asked how you would define "is" -- and ask how you would define "recent years"?

If your definition is the past two, then, yes, Georgia has been disappointing. Last season, the Bulldogs opened 13th and finished unranked. In '08, they opened No. 1 and finished 13th.

In '08, Georgia was victimized by a rash of injuries that depleted the offensive and defensive lines. That would take its toll on any team. Ask Oklahoma. Yet the Bulldogs still posted a 10-win season. That's good in my book.

I checked where Georgia opened and finished in the AP poll in each season of the past decade. What I found was that the Bulldogs finished lower than their opening rank five times and higher than their opening ranking five times. They had four top-10 finishes in the decade and finished unranked just once.

That doesn't seem overly disappointing.

You want disappointing? Look at Tennessee, Wisconsin, Clemson and Arizona State, all of whom finished unranked four times after appearing in a preseason top 25.

Coincidentally, Clemson also finished in the top 25 four times after beginning a season unranked. The program that most frequently went from unranked to top 25 was Boise State, which did it five times.

From what I can tell, Georgia fans aren't bragging too much this spring. Rather, they're hopeful new coordinator Todd Grantham can rebuild the defense back to Georgia's usual standards and that one of the inexperienced quarterbacks will be ready to take over the offense.

And if some Georgia fans seem overly confident, maybe it's because that program has been so successful in "recent years." Georgia had 98 victories in the past decade. Only eight teams in the nation posted more victories in that span -- Boise State with 112, Texas and Oklahoma with 110, Ohio State and USC with 102, Florida with 100 and LSU and Virginia Tech with 99.

Better D-backs?

With Alabama recruiting high-ranking defensive backs the way it has over the past few seasons, do you think that Alabama's secondary will be better overall than in seasons past?
Antonio in Jacksonville, Ala.

Alabama's past three recruiting classes have included a dozen defensive backs who were four- or five-star prospects. Clearly, the Tide has a lot of talent and potential in the secondary. But that doesn't necessarily mean Alabama defensive backs will be better than they were a year ago, when the Tide ranked 10th in the nation in pass defense and second with 24 interceptions. Production always trumps potential.

Although Mark Barron has All-America ability at strong safety, three members of that national championship secondary are gone: Javier Arenas, an All-America cornerback; Kareem Jackson, a corner projected as an early round selection in the NFL draft; and free safety Justin Woodall, a two-year starter.

Expecting a trio of first-time starters -- all of whom could be sophomores -- to step in and immediately play at the same or a higher level is assuming quite a lot. Personally, I like positions to be dominated by juniors and seniors rather than sophomores.

That said, it's no stretch to say sophomore corner Dre Kirkpatrick will be an All-America performer before he leaves Tuscaloosa.

No recpect for the Bearcats

Why is everyone betting against Cincinnati again? The Bearcats were picked to finish fourth or fifth in the Big East in 2009. They are picked third or fourth for 2010. They upgraded the level of talent each year under former coach Brian Kelly. New coach Butch Jones is an extension of Kelly, and his system will offer continuity despite the coaching change. Cincinnati has proven or well-tested talent returning at quarterback and running back and more experience returning on defense than last season. What am I missing?
Jeff in Cincinnati

The system Jones runs may be similar to Kelly's, but that doesn't mean they are equal as coaches. Time will tell on that.

And, yes, quarterbacks Zach Collaros and Chazz Anderson have played well. Still, they're not as good as '09 starting quarterback Tony Pike; if they were, they would have started ahead of him.

Don't minimize Pike's loss. He was a Heisman Trophy contender and threw 29 touchdown passes with just six interceptions last season. That kind of productivity isn't easily duplicated.

Also, don't forget the Bearcats won their final three Big East games last season by a combined six points. And they no longer have wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, who also was a great kick returner and had huge performances in last season's victories over Connecticut and Pittsburgh. In fact, Cincinnati probably doesn't rally to beat Pitt without Gilyard's kickoff return for a touchdown just before halftime.

Cincinnati also will be without two All-Big East offensive linemen, who completed their eligibility. You can't assume their replacements will perform at the same level.

Defense is another reason for hesitancy about Cincinnati. The Bearcats allowed 197 points in their final five games last season. Only five starters return from that unit, so there is a chance the six replacements are better than the predecessors. But there also is the possibility they won't be.

Cincinnati shouldn't be counted out as a contender in the Big East. That was proven last season, when the Bearcats returned only one defensive starter and still finished 12-1. But there are enough questions facing the Bearcats that predicting them to finish third or fourth in the conference race isn't a major transgression.

West Virginia, Pitt, Connecticut, Rutgers and USF all figure to be at least solid teams. It should be an interesting race.

Happy or unhappy valley?

What do you see for Penn State in 2010? I know the Lions will be replacing Daryll Clark at quarterback with an inexperienced but skilled sophomore. And a lot of the defense will be replaced. Is this a serious rebuilding season or do you see another season like 2009, with somewhere between nine and 11 wins?
Bob in Hillsville, Va.

Never count out the Nittany Lions. But now that coach Joe Paterno has had Lasik surgery, even he can clearly see Penn State is not among the top contenders in the Big Ten.

Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin project ahead of Penn State, if for no other reason that they each returns starting quarterbacks. Clark's absence will be felt. And Penn State has to play at Iowa and at Ohio State -- teams that beat them last season in Happy Valley.

But the Nittany Lions won't be a push-over. The eight returning starters on offense include four linemen and leading rusher Evan Royster, and three of the top four receivers are back, too.

The defense will be weaker without All-Big Ten selections Jared Odrick, Navarro Bowman and Sean Lee. Penn State usually finds a way to field a stout defense, though. It probably will again.

Frankly, I'd guess Penn State is 3-1 when it begins play in the Big Ten, which doesn't strike me as being that strong overall. I'd anticipate the Nittany Lions winning eight or nine games and finishing third or fourth in the Big Ten.

That wouldn't be bad for a "rebuilding" season

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