Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Not yet

I won't do it. With one of my general rules as a writer being not to humiliate myself, I refuse to put up a "way too early" top 25 for next season -- I'll start in on something along those lines after spring practices.

You've probably seen all these rankings -- most of which came out immediately following the national title game --on various other sites, but I think we all know that by acknowledging the "way too early" part, the writers are admitting the general stupidity of attempting such an endeavor.

Their only real benefit is providing the general public with a vague idea of which teams have the most talent coming back from last season, while not accounting at all for incoming recruits, position battles that have yet to be decided, etc.

I lend a little more credence, though, to the ones from nationally recognized writers and organizations -- ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Rivals -- because those tend to provide a pretty good point of reference for what the national media think of certain players and teams.

The elite teams are usually pretty easy to identify. This fall, it'll be Florida, Texas, USC and Oklahoma (probably in something close to that order) at the top of the polls. Further down in the top 10 -- and even more so in the top 25 -- it gets a little sketchier.

One team at the rear of most of these rankings ... well, let's see if you can identify it based on these numbers from last season:
  • Rushing offense - 77
  • Passing offense - 62
  • Pass efficiency - 85
  • Total offense - 74
  • Scoring offense - 62
  • Rushing defense - 67
  • Passing defense - 69
  • Pass efficiency defense - 37
  • Total defense - 58
  • Scoring defense - 41
  • Turnover margin - 49

With numbers that poor, it must be a talented team -- maybe a Florida State or Miami -- that simply underperformed last year, right?

Wrong. Those numbers belong to Michigan State.

The statistics themselves aren't surprising -- they're about what you'd expect for a mediocre team that played a weak schedule but was obliterated by the two excellent teams it played (Ohio State and Penn State) and lost to the only two other teams that could be considered good (Cal and Georgia).

But the Spartans seem to be getting a surprising amount of love from the media, showing up in the top 25 or in the "honorable mention" section of the pre-preseason rankings by Rivals, Mark Schlabach at ESPN, Stewart Mandel at Sports Illustrated ...

All this for a team that was 9-4, lost the star running back (Javon Ringer) who accounted for over 87% of the team's rushing attempts, lost the fifth-year senior QB who saw pretty much every meaningful snap the last two seasons and lost the right side of its offensive line -- and those are just the offensive departures.

On defense, linemen Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw are gone, as are all-conference safety Otis Wiley (probably the best player on the unit) and nickel corner Kendell Davis-Clark.

Sack leader Trevor Anderson returns, and the linebacking corps is young and fairly talented ... and I guess the receivers should be good, assuming Mark Dantonio can find a quarterback (the favorite appears to be redshirt sophomore Kirk Cousins).

I don't know, I just don't see this as a top-25 team. Pretty much the only thing the Spartans really have going for them is a relatively easy schedule -- they don't have to play Ohio State (Illinois takes the Buckeyes' place in conference play), and Cal is replaced in the nonconference portion of the schedule by Western Michigan.

But assuming that these rankings are mostly an analysis of returning talent, including a team in the top 25 because of a weak schedule seems a little strange.

A few other notable oddities:

* Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury-News has Mississippi ranked fifth and Oklahoma State sixth -- and that's a drop for the Cowboys, who were second in his rankings before Sam Bradford announced his return to Oklahoma. The Cowboys are also ranked fourth by Joe Person at The State (Columbia, S.C.). Zac Robinson, Kendall Hunter and Dez Bryant give Oklahoma State one of the best offensive trios in the country -- maybe the best -- but those rankings are still a little shocking to see in print.

* Bruce Feldman at ESPN has Oregon fourth -- well ahead of USC -- and Mississippi sixth. In fact, Ole Miss is in the top five in two other rankings and in the top 16 in every significant one I've found so far. Granted, the Rebels were very strong late in the season -- they won their final six games, including impressive victories over LSU and Texas Tech. They also were the only team to beat Florida. However, let's not forget that this team lost to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and South Carolina (as well as Alabama) and loses its best lineman on each side of the ball (Michael Oher and Peria Jerry)

* Alabama is ranked fourth by Dennis Dodd of CBS, Matt Hayes of Sporting News and Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The defense should be very good, but I have big-time concerns about the offense after what Utah was able to do in the Sugar Bowl with Andre Smith suspended. Smith is now gone, as are guard Marlon Davis, center Antoine Caldwell, running back Glen Coffee and quarterback John Parker Wilson. Julio Jones and the stable of talented young running backs will make some big plays, but I don't think the offense will be good enough to justify a top-five ranking.

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