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June 13, 2008

It all starts up front for Penn State in 2008

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
June 6: No help needed
May 30: New coach hopes
May 23: The next step
May 16: The weak link?

Of all the factors that go into winning a national championship, luck may be the most important.

For example, national champion LSU wouldn't have been in the national title game if Pittsburgh hadn't upset West Virginia last season. And if Jarvis Moss doesn't block a late field-goal attempt by South Carolina, Florida wouldn't have reached the 2006 championship game.

The list of lucky breaks could go on and on.

Still, even in mid-June, fans wonder if their teams have the components to win it all in early January. Some are counting on a star quarterback, a big-play running back or a proven defense. But this week's mailbag shows at least one team is counting on its offensive and defensive lines to pave the way to Miami.

Building blocks

Does the depth and experience of the offensive and defensive lines make Penn State a national championship contender?

Cory in Bradford, Pa.

The Nittany Lions are good up front, especially on the defensive line where end Maurice Evans is an absolute monster.

Any team solid on the lines cannot be overlooked, especially one with Joe Paterno on the sideline. Completely dismissing Penn State as a national championship contender would be a mistake and could potentially make you look like a buffoon.

Just look back at 2005, when the Nittany Lions were coming off back-to-back losing seasons but went 11-1 with Michael Robinson at quarterback. This year they figure to be led by Daryll Clark, whose running ability happens to be reminiscent of Robinson.

Still, Penn State does have its issues. Clark, after all, would be a first-year starter and will have to prove himself as a passer. The leading rusher must be replaced. The injury to star linebacker Sean Lee was a major setback.

Personally, I think Penn State will challenge Illinois for third place in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions play the Buckeyes and the Badgers on the road.

Title contender?

New Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has a Ph.D. in the spread offense. Auburn racked up a season-high 420 yards against a top-10 defense (Clemson) last year after only nine days of preparation. New defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who had some stout defenses at Pitt, said in an interview that Auburn's defense was the best he ever has been around. Auburn's schedule is favorable, too. My question: Can Auburn be a dark horse for the national championship this year?

Chris in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

An Auburn fan living in Tuscaloosa? You must be real popular around town, Chris.

But to answer your question, yes, Auburn could get into the national championship picture, although the schedule is not that favorable.

Yeah, the Tigers are at home against LSU, Tennessee and Georgia, but we all know those aren't guaranteed wins. Also, playing at West Virginia and at Alabama - which I believe will be better than in '07 - won't be easy, either.

That said, Auburn's defense again should be among the best in the nation. Quarterbacks Kodi Burns and Chris Todd who will battle for the starting job appear equipped to run Franklin's spread offense. The play at quarterback may well determine the Tigers' success because the running backs are solid and the offensive line is good.

Auburn is a strong contender to win the SEC West. After LSU dismissed quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, some would say Auburn now is the favorite.

The bottom line is that if Auburn wins the SEC and it has that ability then it should be in the national championship discussion. And this time with a trip to West Virginia no one can argue their schedule isn't strong enough.


Explain the madness. Louisiana-Monroe loses only one player who scored a touchdown last season granted, that player was record-breaking tailback Calvin Dawson but do the Warhawks really deserve the No. 112 ranking by Rivals?

Dusty in Monroe, La.

The only explanation I can offer is that we project ULM to be a middle-of-the-road team in the Sun Belt Conference. But, hey, that win over Alabama last year was something.

Top 25 regulars

Would you list the team that has been in the top 25 the most the past 10 years?

John in Bainbridge, Ga.

Something tells me you already knew at least part of the answer.

I checked the final rankings of the past 10 AP polls because only the last one really matters and because I refuse to go week to week over a decade.

Research shows that only two teams Georgia and Texas have finished in the AP's Top 25 in each of the past 10 seasons.

The near-misses with nine top-25 finishes were Michigan (unranked in '05) and Virginia Tech (unranked in '03).

Tennessee, Florida, Miami and Florida State have eight top-25 finishes in that span.

The teams with the most top-five finishes are Ohio State and USC, with six each.

Competition at Cincinannti?

Will Demetrius Jones be handed the quarterback job at Cincinnati, or will there be an open competition?

Clarence in Fort Drum, N.Y.

Many might have thought Jones would walk into a starting job after he transferred to Cincinnati from Notre Dame, but that competition is open. Jones had offseason surgery on his shoulder, but will be ready to compete for the starting job in August.

Senior Dustin Grutza - the Bearcats' starter in 2005 and '06 - will challenge, as will redshirt freshmanChazz Anderson. The feeling here is that if Jones is sufficiently healed, he'll emerge as the starter unless Ben Mauk's third appeal for an extra season is granted by the NCAA.

Mauk was forced to redshirt as a freshman at Wake Forest and played in less than one game there in 2006. Yet the NCAA hasn't felt that warranted an additional year of eligibility, which is beyond my comprehension.

Heisman Chase

Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel should be the favorite for the Heisman Trophy, right? It would be difficult for Tim Tebow to win it again since only one other player has won it twice. Also, Florida will have a running game with Emmanuel Moody, so Tebow probably won't run as much. West Virginia quarterback Pat White won't win either since he plays in the Big East. So, all in all, it's Daniel's to lose, I believe.

Anonymous in Missouri

Last season, Daniel passed for 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns. If he comes close to duplicating those numbers, he again will be a Heisman contender. That is, if teammate Jeremy Maclin doesn't upstage him.

But I don't think the Heisman is necessarily Daniel's to lose. Don't discount Tebow. It's true that Florida has a lot of offensive talent, with Moody, Percy Harvin and Chris Rainey. Because of their contributions, Tebow might not produce statistics as gaudy as he did a year ago.

But who's to say Tebow won't be even better as a junior? While it's true that Ohio State's Archie Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman recipient, don't count out Tebow because of history. After all, last season he became the only sophomore to win it.

I wouldn't dismiss White's chances because he plays in the Big East, either. He's a stick of dynamite with a short fuse. Should he explode for a big game against, say, Auburn, then nobody's going to be questioning the schedule he faced.

But my preseason Heisman Trophy favorite is Ohio State running back Chris Wells, who rushed for more than 1,600 yards last season and will be the focal point of an experienced offense.

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

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