As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
Coming in at #18…
2012 Record: 10-3
Conference Finish: Tied for first in Big 12 (Lost tiebreaker to Kansas State)
Bowl: Lost Cotton Bowl 41-13 to Texas A&M
2013 Returning Starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
One secret most didn’t want to mention last year but I’m going to let you in on is Oklahoma didn’t really beat anyone last year. The team’s best win came against a good, but not great Texas team and then the rest of a Big 12 conference except for Kansas State that by year’s end didn’t have much to point to. Coming into 2013 the entire reason Oklahoma, a traditional top 10/top 15 at worst team, begins the year at #18 for me is the quarterback position. Now there’s enough talent around the QB spot that it may not matter but I’m skeptical. The talks about other QBs competing with Blake Bell for the starting spot are well and good but it’s not a convo I’m listening to. Bell’s impact in the red zone and his popularity with the fan base will get him the starting job. Once he gets the job I’ll curious to see what he does in the passing game. Keep in mind this was a passing attack that ranked fifth in the nation a year ago and Landry Jones threw the ball 555 times. Now Bell may very well work out fine as a passer but I’ve rarely ever seen him throw the football with major success. We know what he can do with his feet and that weapon won’t go away. But you generally have to be able to throw the football to win in the Big 12 and one year of Collin Klein won’t change my opinion on that.
The receiving core took a hit when Kenny Stills elected to skip his senior year and join Justin Brown in the draft. With their departures went the top two pass catchers from a season ago. Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard step into the leading roles and will have to emerge as the down field threats for Bell in his progression. Perhaps no sight will be more welcome than the dual threat Trey Millard who has been big for the Sooners as both a tight end and full back. His versatility could come in hand especially in 2013 as the Sooners look for that red zone target to emerge. Damien Williams and Brennan Clay both come back for their senior seasons to stabilize a Sooners run game that may be counted on early in the season. While neither put up earth shattering numbers a season ago, Oklahoma has the depth at running back to give each man the necessary carries to contribute without wearing out either back.
The biggest edge going to Oklahoma in 2013 is the line play up front. Four starters return, all juniors and seniors, from a line that allowed only 15 sacks a year ago in 13 games despite the 555 pass attempts and perhaps nearly 600 drop backs. This line was exceptional at protecting Landry Jones and will likely be counted on early in the year to set the foundation for the running game and buying time for Bell to perhaps pull it down and run if his reads aren’t on point or available. Few offenses were better in the red zone in 2012 and not much should be expected to change once Belldozer becomes the permanent man in those spots.
The Sooners lost a ton off its 2012 defense and must repatch a front seven that was gutted by graduation. In all only one key player from its defensive line is back which poses problems considering the Sooners were 83rd against the run a season ago. Oklahoma was especially porous in the red zone where 24 of opponent’s 34 red zone scores came on the ground, a staggering number when you compare it to the three the team gave up through the air in the red zone. Oklahoma simply didn’t generate pressure with their big hogs up front ranking poor nationally in sacks and recording one of the lowest totals in the country in tackles for loss. How the Sooners generate more pressure will be a key in whether this team can contend for a Big 12 title or not as quarterbacks in the Big 12 will eat defenses up that don’t get pressure.
Aaron Colvin returns as an all-conference performer at the CB spot, a year after picking off four passes and leading the Sooners with 14 passes defended. Tony Jefferson’s jump to the NFL means Oklahoma has to replace both safety spots from last year, not coincidentally the positions of the two leading tacklers on the team. Oklahoma’s defensive backs not only have to be able to cover but odds are they better be sure tacklers as well due to the persistent problems against the run up front that a new group can hopefully patch up for coach Bob Stoops.
Having already touched on the numbers for the front four, the Sooners didn’t force turnovers very well in 2012 and its third down defense struggled too. Essentially the Sooners offense hid a number of flaws for the defense last year and it really only caught up to them in games against elite competition. You never want to count out the Sooners offensive capabilities but the defense needs to make big strides with new parts from where it was last year because without Landry Jones, Kenny Stills and company back, I find it hard to believe the offense can erase the same amount of problems defensively as a year ago.
With West Virginia likely facing a transition year in 2013, the schedule opens up favorably for the Sooners with UL-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa to begin the season. Assuming there’s no surprises at that point the season really boils down to a three game stretch coming off a bye after Tulsa. In the three weeks succeeding the bye the Sooners travel to Notre Dame, then get TCU at home before its annual rivalry game with Texas. The Irish game serves as a return trip from last year’s matchup in Norman where the Irish came in and controlled the game nearly from the get go. After that it’s probably the two biggest challenges to the top of the Big 12 for Texas in TCU and Texas. The Sooners have had the Longhorns number for a bit and if Oklahoma can somehow maneuver through that point of its schedule unbeaten then the undefeated regular season talks can begin as the back end of the schedule isn’t too bad with trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State serving as the two games that may be candidates for losses. The QB spot is the #1 concern for me but it’s hard to not trust Bob Stoops (at least before late December/early January) in regards to having his team ready. His track record speaks for itself.
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