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May 25, 2007

Olin's Mailbag: Why not us?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be working all summer to get you ready for the start of Fall practice.

In 1995, the Northwestern Wildcats were the darlings of college football. After more than 20 years of getting picked on, the Big Ten's traditional whipping boys finally fought back.

The Wildcats won 10 games. They won the Big Ten. They went to the Rose Bowl. They even won over their celebrity alums, which were all over the television toasting their alma mater and showing school spirit.

Two years later, Northwestern started a streak of three consecutive losing seasons and the Wildcats haven't sniffed the Rose Bowl since.

Also in 1995, the Kansas Jayhawks set a school record with 10 victories. The next year began a streak of nine consecutive losing seasons.

The list of college football one-hit wonders goes on: The 1984 TCU Horned Frogs. The 1982 Vanderbilt Commodores. The 2001 Illinois Fighting Illini.

Are their numbers soon to increase? We'll soon find out.

One-hit wonder?

The Wake Forest Demon Deacons won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. They single-handedly carried the entire conference on their backs, in part, by going undefeated in their regular season non-conference schedule. They shut out Florida State. What does Wake have to do to get some respect? Please at least attempt to explain the logic or lack thereof of your journalism colleagues not having Wake Forest in their Top 25 preseason polls.

Al in North Carolina
C'mon, Al. We all respect the Deacons. What they did last year was one of the best stories of 2006.

But I would not rank Wake Forest among the preseason Top 25 for six reasons that's one reason for every starter gone from last year's defense.

QB Riley Skinner did an admirable job when pressed into duty, but Wake Forest's success was due more to playing excellent defense and having a reliable kicker in Sam Swank.

I think the losses of linebacker Jon Abbate, the heart and soul of that defense, and safety Josh Gattis will be significant. Their production will be difficult to replace.

Also, opponents that might not have taken Wake Forest seriously in '06 will be gunning for them in '07. Coaches often say winning a championship is hard, but defending one is harder. We'll see if that's the case for the Deacons.

However, I do expect Wake Forest to be very competitive again. Skinner figures to be better, RB Micah Andrews is back from injury, Swank is still there and the schedule has more cupcakes than a toddler's birthday party. Half the Deacons' opponents are coming off losing seasons.

That said, Wake Forest still upgraded its non-conference schedule by adding Nebraska and Navy. Last year's non-conference schedule included three Division I-A teams that finished 4-8 and a Division I-AA opponent.

The long road back

When will Nebraska be back in national championship contention, and what is their weak point?

Connor in Austin
I think the Cornhuskers are at least three years away from being bona fide national championship contenders. Their weak points are depth, offensive line play and pass defense.

National champions almost always have veteran offensive lines, experienced quarterbacks and strong defenses, and putting that all together might take awhile.

The offensive line has been an area of some concern for the Huskers. They are putting together a tremendous group of linemen led by five-star prospect Baker Steinkuhler that potentially could bring back to the glory days of dominant line play. That was clearly a strength of the team when Baker's dad, Dean, was a Husker All-American. Also, getting a commitment from QB Blaine Gabbert recently was also a big catch.

The Huskers also need to upgrade their depth everywhere, but especially on defense. When CB Zack Bowman was hurt last season his absence left a gaping hole in the secondary which was never really filled. After another injury, Bowman's availability for this year is uncertain.

Although I feel Nebraska is a favorite in the Big 12 North and could contend for the conference championship, I don't feel the Cornhuskers are legitimate national championship contenders in 2007.

In 2008 they likely will be starting a new quarterback. If everything comes together, 2009 could be the season that the Huskers finally make a serious run for a championship. Don't be surprised if it takes until 2010, though.

ACC Championship picks

Who do you think will play in the ACC championship game? I think it will be Clemson and Virginia Tech. I think Virginia Tech will win and go on to play in the Orange Bowl.

Kris in Sarasota
Has it come to this? Are Florida State fans really conceding the ACC championship in May? I don't believe it.

Just kidding, Kris. Virginia Tech is without a doubt the smart pick, especially in the Coastal Division. The Hokies have nine offensive and eight defensive starters returning, and the defense probably will be among the top 10 in the nation. Plus, the Hokies get Miami in Blacksburg.

If QB Sean Glennon improves and consistently makes good decisions, Virginia Tech should have a big year.

However, I'm disagreeing with you on Clemson being the Atlantic Division champ. Even though James Davis and C.J. Spiller are a great combination at running back, Clemson lost three offensive line starters, WR Chansi Stuckey and DE Gaines Adams. The Tigers will also have a brand new QB. Those reasons are enough to be apprehensive.

My pick in the Atlantic is Boston College, which returns 10 starters from a very good defense and Matt Ryan, who was the ACC's best quarterback in 2006 even though he was hobbled by injuries all season.

However, the Eagles face a daunting schedule. They open against defending ACC champ Wake Forest and face Maryland, Virginia Tech and Clemson on the road.

Back on the radar

Why isn't Nebraska's Sam Keller getting the national respect as a quarterback that he was getting at Arizona State? In 2005 he was getting Heisman-hype after starting seven games and throwing for 20 touchdowns. How can Keller not be getting mentioned as a top 5 quarterback in the nation?

Jason in Omaha
I'm not going to disparage Keller because I think he'll be a very good quarterback for the Cornhuskers. Rivals.com ranked him No. 12 in our preseason quarterback power rankings, which I think is pretty good for a guy who did not play in 2006.

I think national writers and broadcasters are aware of Keller's exploits at Arizona State, especially that he passed for 461 yards and four touchdowns against LSU in 2005. His presence is the primary reason the Cornhuskers will likely be the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 North.

But he hasn't played in a year and a half, and is in a different system than the one in which he played in Tempe. I think it's understandable that he's not yet viewed on the same level as Hawaii's Colt Brennan, Louisville's Brian Brohm, Southern California's John David Booty, Michigan's Chad Henne or West Virginia's Pat White who comprised the top five of the Rivals.com quarterback power rankings.

He may climb on that chart - and in national perception - very quickly. He'll definitely have that chance when the Cornhuskers play at Wake Forest on Sept. 8 and at home against Southern California on Sept. 15.

Aloha means goodbye

Do you think my Boise State boys have another BCS run in them even with the loss of (QB) Jared Zabransky?

Cody in Westphalia
The Broncos have posted double-digit victories in four of the last five seasons, so I'm not about to say they can't do it again. That machine is rolling, and to dismiss last year's run to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma would be a mistake.

However, the fact remains the Broncos lost six offensive and seven defensive starters - that's a lot of holes to fill.

Taylor Tharp, who likely moves in at QB to replace Zabransky, will definitely benefit from the presence of talented tailback Ian Johnson and four returning starters in the offensive line. But I can't take for granted that he will produce like Zabransky, who passed for 2,587 yards with 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

Also, losing MLB Korey Hall has to have an effect on the Broncos' defense.

Expect Boise State to field another strong team, but this could be something of a transitional year - like 2005 when the Broncos went 9-4 to set up their undefeated year of last season.

An early game against Washington will be interesting, and Southern Miss and San Jose State figure to pose sturdy challenges. Don't be surprised if the Broncos lose one or two of those games.

But also don't be surprised if they're unbeaten and facing Hawaii for the WAC championship on Nov. 23. As of now, I'd expect Hawaii to win. The Broncos edged the Warriors by a touchdown in Boise last year. The game goes to Honolulu this year, and Hawaii has the experience and explosiveness at QB in Colt Brennan and WR in Davone Bess that Boise State does not.

The Jimbo Fisher factor

Why is Florida State not considered a favorite to make a run for a BCS Bowl when it returns a bunch of players on both sides of the ball? The guys learning Jimbo Fisher's offense are part of what was a No. 1 ranked recruiting class two seasons ago.

John in Tallahassee
Actually, Florida State's 2005 class was ranked No. 2 by Rivals.com, but you've made your point.

Unfortunately, the Seminoles didn't make enough points last season being held to fewer than 20 in four games. Sure, you can blame it on the previous offensive coordinator, but until Drew Weatherford or Xavier Lee flourishes under Fisher there rightly will be a certain amount of apprehension.

Also, have you checked the Seminoles schedule? Road games at Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia Tech will make winning the Atlantic Division difficult much less the ACC championship.

Figure in home games against Miami and Maryland and non-conference games with Alabama and Florida, and the Seminoles will be doing well to post eight or nine victories. That is not enough to land in a BCS bowl.

Maybe the Seminoles will show remarkable improvement in Fisher's offense, have a tremendous season and win the ACC. But as of now you can't ignore the fact that this is a team that went 7-6 last year and is facing an extremely difficult schedule.

State College Questions

Everyone keeps talking about all the questions surrounding Penn State's upcoming season. Could you give us some answers? (QB Anthony) Morelli has got talent and receivers, and even without (S Anthony) Scirrotto, our defense will keep us in games. I like our chances against everyone except Michigan on the road.

Adam in Lehighton, Pa.
You're obviously optimistic, and you should be. Not only does Penn State return most of its offense and six defensive starters, but the Lions also have a wonderfully favorable schedule.

Still, much of Penn State's success will depend on three factors: Can Anthony Morelli continue the sharp play he demonstrated in the Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee? Can Austin Scott or Rodney Kinlaw replace the production of Tony Hunt? Can the defense adequately replace lineman Jay Alford and linebacker Paul Posluszny, who have gone on to the NFL?

The receivers are solid, the linebackers will still be good (surprise) and Morelli's progress is encouraging. That means the Lions should be a definite factor in the Big Ten race.

The guess here is they will be undefeated going into the game against Michigan on Sept. 22. But after that their toughest games will all be played in Happy Valley against Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue.

However, I could see the Lions losing a couple of those games.

Playoff dreaming

If college football ever went to a playoff system with conference champions getting automatic bids would it force Notre Dame, Army and Navy to join a conference? Maybe the Big East for example?

Kevin in Cleveland
That's doubtful, especially in Notre Dame's case. In the event a playoff system was ever created there would be some kind of arrangement in which Notre Dame would be included if its record was competitive.

I could foresee an eight-team playoff in which the champions of the six major conferences are automatically in and there are two at-large bids. Something similar to the BCS standings would be used to determine the at-large teams, but you can that a 10-win Notre Dame team would always land one of those bids. The Irish just carry too much weight and are such an attractive draw for television.

Its independent status hasn't prevented Notre Dame from playing in BCS bowl games, and I doubt it would keep the Irish from being involved in a playoff.

Of course, Notre Dame has resisted joining a conference because it doesn't want to share all the money it generates. However, if push came to shove the Big East might make the most sense for Notre Dame. The Irish already participate in that conference in other sports. Although, the geographic and prestige advantages would certainly point to the Big Ten as a possibility.

But that's a moot question anyway.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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