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May 23, 2008

Wake Forest looking to take the next step

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
May 16: The weak link?
May 9: Another crazy season?
May 2: Bad rap for Big East?

Longevity is the difference between a good football team and a good football program.

There's nothing unusual about a struggling team rising up and playing championship-caliber football for a couple of seasons. It happens quite frequently.

Baylor once won championships. So did Duke. Northwestern won a Big Ten championship in 1995 and won nine games in '96, then endured six losing seasons over the next seven years.

On the other side of the coin, Virginia Tech and Oregon - among others - once were struggling teams that have become established programs.

It makes one wonder whether upstart teams that have had recent success are due to fall back or will just get stronger. Only time will tell.

What about Wake?

Why no respect for Wake Forest when discussing "solid programs" in the ACC? This is a program only one year removed from an ACC championship, and Wake was 9-4 with a bowl win in 2007. Plus, (coach Jim) Grobe's system of redshirting players seems to be coming to fruition. Please tell me you see Wake being a factor in the ACC this season, not to mention winning its third straight over Florida State.

Joe in Greensboro, N.C.

Wake Forest definitely figures to be a factor in the ACC race this season; the Demon Deacons may even win it. As mentioned, they were 9-4 last season and five offensive starters return (including quarterback Riley Skinner) as well as nine defensive regulars. Nobody is going to look at Wake Forest as a walk-over opponent. Those days are gone.

But they haven't been gone long.

That's why Wake wasn't one of the teams included in a sentence that listed Maryland, Boston College and Virginia Tech as solid programs.

Some might look at Maryland as a stretch, but the Terps have posted at least nine victories in four of the past seven seasons. Boston College has won at least eight games in seven consecutive seasons and has won its bowl in eight consecutive seasons. Virginia Tech notched double-digit victory totals in five of the past six seasons and hasn't had a losing record since 1992.

Wake Forest just hasn't had the longevity. Yes, the Deacons have had back-to-back excellent campaigns, but beyond that, its history is mediocre at best.

But how about this? Give me a third consecutive strong season and Wake advances from good team to solid program.

Tiger talk

LSU has won the national championship, has some of the best running backs in college football, one of the best offensive lines and one of the best defenses each seasons, yet the Tigers cannot get any credit in the polls.

Tim in Louisiana

Excuse me, but the only preseason poll I've seen thus far had LSU ranked among the top 10. Maybe we have different definitions of credit.

The Tigers figure to be good again in 2008, but they're also not without some issues; even the most blindly loyal LSU fan should recognize that.

The dismissal of quarterback Ryan Perrilloux raises a red flag. The need to replace three starters in the secondary - as well as Glenn Dorsey up front - and the exit of former defensive coordinator Bo Pelinisuggests the Tigers' defense might not be as strong as it was last season.

Those are legitimate questions. But your points about LSU's running back depth and solid offensive line are valid. LSU should be a top contender in the SEC West and a legitimate threat to win the conference championship again.

I'd say that's giving credit where credit is due.

Looking for answers

Three quick questions. No. 1: Who wins a conference championship first South Carolina under Steve Spurrier or North Carolina under Butch Davis ? No. 2: How long do you think it will take David Cutcliffe's Duke team to start winning on a regular basis, if at all? No. 3: Do you think a team from Conference USA, the MAC, Sun Belt or WAC ever will get a chance to play for the national championship?

John in Wisconsin

No. 1: North Carolina under Davis has the better chance to win a conference championship in my opinion. Why? The ACC is not as demanding as the SEC. In addition, Davis has had two solid recruiting classes, so fortunes in Chapel Hill could turn quickly.

No. 2: I'd guess it's going to take several years for Duke to win consistently. And even then I'm not sure it will happen. But Cutcliffe did well at Ole Miss, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, I'd be more optimistic if he had another Manning at quarterback.

No. 3: Well, if you believe Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, who predicts an eventual playoff, then, yes, teams outside the "Big Six" conferences one day will get a chance to play for a national championship. But it won't happen under the current format.

Undefeated Boise State in 2006 deserved to at least have a chance to play for a championship, but was denied because it plays in the WAC. Disagree? Then, look at it this way. If Oklahoma, which Boise State beat in the Fiesta Bowl, had gone undefeated, there's no doubt the Sooners would have played in the championship game. Unbeaten Utah at least deserved a shot in 2004, too.

I don't think Boise State would have beaten Florida or Ohio State in '06, nor do I believe Utah would have defeated USC or Oklahoma or Auburn (which all finished the regular season unbeaten) in '04.

But they're all under the same NCAA Division I-A umbrella. Therefore, a team that wins all its games should at least have a shot at the national title.

It's unlikely a team outside the "Big Six" would win, but if basketball used the same system, then Texas Western, Marquette and UNLV never would have been given the opportunity to win national titles.

All-freshman team competitive?

Youth and inexperience often are cited as reasons teams won't be able to pull out a clutch win or be highly ranked. But at what point does talent overcome inexperience? If a hypothetical team had signed each of the top 40 prospects, would they be able to compete immediately with this season's top teams? Would they be good enough to win a mediocre conference like the ACC?

Taj in Durant, Okla.

Some may argue, but my feeling is a team of top recruits still would struggle when they were freshmen. Keep in mind that recruiting classes are supposed to be limited to 25, but even if a team got each of the top 25 prospects, other factors would be in play.

Freshmen quarterbacks - no matter how highly regarded - tend to struggle, just as Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen did last season. Receivers have to adjust to a more physical game and learn how to keep from getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. Linemen usually need a year of weight training and learning more complex offensive systems.

And I don't think a team of the top-rated freshmen would win the ACC. Despite recent struggles, ACC teams have a lot of highly rated recruits, too. Although ACC champion Virginia Tech did lose the Orange Bowl last year, it's not as if Kansas blew the Hokies off the field.

Scary schedule

I bleed red and black, but I am realistic when it comes to my Georgia Bulldogs this season. Consecutive games with Arizona State, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn and Georgia Tech have me considering at least a two-loss season. In the preseason polls, Georgia most likely will have a big, red bull's-eye painted on its uniforms, being ranked either No. 1 or No. 2. I am telling all of my fellow fans to be cautious. Objectively, are there any schedules that appear more difficult than Georgia's in 2008?

Martin in Albany, Ga.

Strength of schedule is so uncertain because teams that were good in 2007 might not be as powerful in '08. By the same token, teams that struggled last season might put it all together and be a force this season.

Still, in the preseason, some will rank strength of schedule by virtue of the combined records of opponents. But just looking at records isn't enough.

For example, New Mexico and Florida both finished 9-4. Now, which would you rather avoid? The obvious answer is Florida, which is among the teams that Georgia must play this year.

To me, deciding who has the toughest schedule requires more data, including which opponents won bowls, how prestigious those bowls were, how many starters return, how many key players are among the returning starters, etc.

But that's like telling you how to build a watch when you ask for the time.

So, the simple answer is no. It's doubtful any team faces a more difficult schedule than Georgia, whose 12 opponents were a combined 95-59 last season. Nine of those teams played in bowls last season, going 5-4. And at least seven teams Georgia faces have top-25 potential.

Maybe another team will face a schedule that's as difficult, but I doubt any plays one that is tougher.

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

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