Number Two: West Virginia
In my hierarchy, the Mountaineers go second, and I know what you are probably thinking.
Now, is West Virginia the second best team in the country? No, certainly not. If teams were ranked on pure quality alone, I probably wouldn't even have them in the top five. But this isn't a power ranking index, it's a ranking system that considers both the quality of the team itself and also the circumstances that will surround that particular team in the upcoming season.
When looked at from that perspective, West Virginia is easily a contender to be in the BCS championship game. Last year -- coming off a victory in the Sugar Bowl -- was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Mountaineers, considering they had lots of starters to replace and were generally a young team. Nevertheless, West Virginia carried an undefeated season late into the year and even after upset losses to Louisville and South Florida, they still won the Gator Bowl (granted over a mediocre-as-could-be Georgia Tech team) even without their star tailback Steve Slaton.
From that 2006 squad, basically everyone returns. All told, the Mountaineers will return somewhere in the area of 18 starters, including key offensive cogs Pat White and Steve Slaton.
The offense was one of the best in the country in 2006, and with everyone returning it will be even that much better in 2007. The influx of troubled-but-talented tailback Noel Devine will only make an explosive offense that much more explosive. Moreover, White should develop even more as a passer, and with the return of Darius Reynaud, the West Virginia passing attack will move to another level. The running game, as expected, will be near unstoppable to most of the defenses that the Mountaineers will face, and combined that means, aside from the obvious exception of Hawai'i, West Virginia will likely be the top offense in the nation in terms of both scoring offense and total offense. And of course, it doesn't hurt that head coach Rich Rodriguez is one of the best offensive minds in all of football. The loss of offensive line coach Rick Trickett to Florida State will hurt, but the Mountaineers will be okay. There are simply too many talented players and brilliant offensive minds on this staff -- not to mention too many poor defenses from their opponents -- for West Virginia to not put up yards and points in bunches.
The West Virginia defense wasn't particularly good a year ago, but they do return ten starters in 2007, and should be a good bit improved. No, they still won't be a great defense, but they'll likely be solid and significantly better than a year ago.
The truth is, this is a good football team, no two ways about it. Is it that good? Well, no. As I said earlier, if this were a power ranking index or something of the sort, West Virginia wouldn't likely even be in the top five.
But the circumstances surrounding West Virginia are just so favorable.
If you recall from a year ago, an undefeated West Virginia team was ahead of every other one-loss team in the country (including LSU, Florida, USC, and others) in the all-important BCS standings. And though the Big East is with little doubt the easiest of the BCS conferences, the point that you should keep in mind is that if there is only one other undefeated team, if then West Virgina goes undefeated they will be playing in the BCS Title Game. Bottom line -- unless we have some truly extraordinary occurrence like we did in 2004 when three teams from BCS conferences went undefeated -- West Virginia will play in the BCS Title Game if they go undefeated. I know that may sound a bit elementary -- and, well, it is -- but it could be the key to the 2007 national championship race.
So... all West Virginia has to do is go undefeated in the regular season. And given the schedule, there's a very good chance of that happening.
If you look at the schedule, West Virginia has four "tough" games: road games against Maryland, Rutgers, and South Florida, and a home game against Louisville. That's not exactly a murderer's row, to say the least. The other eight opponents (Western Michigan, Marshall, East Carolina, Syracuse, Mississippi State, Cincinnati, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh) run the gauntlet between terrible and mediocre-at-best.
Maryland isn't a bad team, per se, but they aren't particularly good either. Last year, they went 9-4, and the four losses included West Virginia, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest. Truthfully, more than anything else, they benefited from a weak ACC with Miami, Florida State, and Clemson being major disappointments. Moreover, the Terrapins have to replace nine starters in 2007. Truth is, there's not much reason to expect this year's game will be far different from last year's when the Mountaineers rolled over the Terrapins by three touchdowns.
Rutgers, South Florida, and Louisville -- despite the Cardinals losing quite a bit from a year ago -- are all pretty decent teams, but there's nothing especially difficult here. And if something happens to Brian Brohm -- in terms of injuries -- for the West Virginia game, the cakewalk will just get another layer of butter cream icing.
It's just elementary. USC has to go through Nebraska, Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame. Michigan has to go through Oregon, Penn State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. LSU has to go through Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, and the SEC Championship Game. Texas has to go through Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and then likely either Nebraska again or Missouri in the Big 12 Championship Game. And so on and so forth.
West Virginia, on the other hand, has to go through Maryland, Rutgers, South Florida, and Louisville. And, uh, yeah, that's not quite the same.
Again, I really don't think West Virginia is that good, and I don't think they could make the BCS Title Game if they played in a conference like the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, or Big Ten. And moreover, I don't think they would beat USC (or LSU, Texas, etc.) in the championship game.
But all of that does not mean a thing, for better or for worse. Bottom line: if West Virginia goes undefeated -- and considering their schedule that's a pretty easy thing to do -- barring a semi-miracle (see 2004) they will be playing in the BCS Title Game on January 8th in New Orleans.