Which Four College Football Teams Are the Most Underrated in 2008?

A couple of days ago, I asked (rhetorically): "Which four college football teams are the most overrated in 2008?" This provoked some strong and often thoughtful responses, to the point of generating another posting altogether, so I turn now to the much happier task of identifying those teams I think aren’t getting enough credit for their likely quality during the coming campaign.

There are some teams everyone agrees will be good in 2008. No one seriously doubts that Georgia, Florida, L.S.U., Ohio State, Oklahoma, and U.S.C. will be very good teams next fall, for instance. Among those that are less obviously apt to make some noise, though, are . . .

The Four Teams I’m Buying for 2008

Missouri: Since I appear (however inadvertently) to be in the process of alienating the entire Big 12, I will begin with the breakout team from the league in 2007 that I believe will keep the good times rolling in 2008.

Granted, this is hardly a surprise pick, but I don’t know that there’s a team in football that appears so clearly to be far and away the best team in its division. Mizzou returns quarterback Chase Daniel and Gary Pinkel’s entire coaching staff. The Tigers once again will bookend their season with neutral site games, opening against Illinois in St. Louis and closing against Kansas in Kansas City, and neither the Illini nor the Jayhawks should be as good this year as they were the year before.

Missouri’s regular-season slate omits Oklahoma, the only team to have beaten the Tigers last fall, and the defending Big 12 North champions enjoy an open date before their first road game, at Nebraska. Aside from an October 18 trip to Texas, none of Mizzou’s away games appear overly daunting.

The offense returns four of its top five rushers and six of its top eight receivers, while the defense returns six starters from last year’s front seven, as well as its top three tacklers. The offense shouldn’t skip a beat and the defense should be better for a squad that appears to be not just the best team in its division, but the class of the Big 12 North by leaps and bounds. I like Missouri to make it to a B.C.S. bowl game this season, as an at-large selection if not as an outright conference champion.

Yeah, he’s going to find a way to louse this up, isn’t he?

Penn State: Let’s start with the bad news . . . the Nittany Lions lost their starting quarterback. Wait a minute; Penn State’s starting quarterback was Anthony Morelli. O.K., scratch that. There is no bad news. Maybe that’s why they call it Happy Valley.

The non-conference slate includes a home game against Oregon State and a road trip to Syracuse. This provides the Lions with B.C.S. conference opposition without undue strain, as East Coast road trips have been unkind to the Beavers (who lost 63-27 at Louisville in 2005 and 34-3 at Cincinnati in 2007) and the program beneath the Carrier Dome has been neutered so thoroughly that the former Orangemen changed their name to "Orange," probably at the compulsion of federal truth-in-advertising regulations.

Penn State gets Illinois and Michigan at home, as well as having an open date before traveling to Iowa. If the Nits can split a four-game stretch between October 4 and October 25 that includes trips to Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, plus a home date with Michigan, a P.S.U. team that returns 18 starters from back-to-back nine-win teams is looking at a double-digit victory total for just the second time since 1999.

Which, if I’m right, they’ll party like it’s.

Boise State: I’ll admit I’m biased; I’ve had a soft spot for the Broncos ever since Georgia put a king-sized beatdown on B.S.U. in the highly-hyped 2005 season opener between the hedges, which was just a heck of a fun evening to be in the Classic City. Nevertheless, while Fresno State is getting much of the love from the media as the preseason W.A.C. favorite, I’m sticking with old faithful.

The Broncos have owned the Western Athletic Conference since joining the league, posting a 46-2 ledger against their W.A.C. coevals. Boise State is nigh-invincible on the blue turf, where they host Hawaii (in the Warriors’ post-deal-with-the-devil season) and the Golden State Bulldogs in Friday night showdowns.

Ian Johnson returns for his senior season and the non-conference slate features an attention-getting September 20 date with Oregon in Eugene. The Broncos have never beaten a Pac-10 team on the road, nor any team at all from the West Coast B.C.S. league that does not hail from Corvallis, but B.S.U. has been competitive in recent road tilts against the Pacific Coast conference.

This is a good year for the Broncos to get Oregon early. The Ducks open with a conference rival whose embattled coach has guaranteed a victory and travel to Purdue the week before hosting Boise State. That’s a pretty rough opening run for a team that lost Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart. If B.S.U. can get by Oregon, they could be looking at a second undefeated season in a three-year span.

Of course, the Ducks may not feel the loss of Jonathan Stewart as badly as expected. The truth is, he hasn’t been all that funny since Stephen Colbert left "The Daily Show" and the host started conducting interviews like he was entertaining old friends as guests in his home. (I mean, really, dude, if you want to have Denis Leary, Adam Sandler, and Uma Thurman over for a bull session, knock yourself out, but don’t put it on T.V., O.K.? It’s like listening to a post-Beatles John Lennon album; there’s a point at which it becomes so personal and self-referential that it’s off-putting and uncomfortable to hear.)

Arizona: I know, I know, I know . . . fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t think the Wildcats are going to win the Pac-10 or anything, but they’re bound to be better . . . right?

O.K., hear me out on this one: Willie Tuitama, a senior, is one of ten returning offensive starters who will be back for a second year under former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes’s scheme. (See? I can say something nice about the Red Raiders!)

An Arizona squad which went 8-26 between 2003 and 2005 has gone 8-8 in its last 16 games and five of the Wildcats’ last nine losses have been by a touchdown or less. In ‘Zona’s six-game stretch run in 2007, the team won three games (including a road trip to Washington and a home game against then-No. 2 Oregon) and lost three games by final margins of seven, one, and three points, respectively.

Granted, one of those three losses was a home game against Stanford, but the other two nailbiters came on the road against Pac-10 co-champions Southern California and Arizona State. This year’s away slate is manageable for the ‘Cats, who travel to New Mexico, U.C.L.A. (a club in transition coming off of a home date with Tennessee and a road test against B.Y.U.), Stanford, Washington State (following a bye week for the Wildcats), and Oregon. After closing 2007 with a 3-1 run, Arizona could be poised to return to the postseason for the first time in a decade.

Of course, I thought that last year, too, didn’t I? O.K., seriously, now even I don’t believe the stuff I’m saying any more. . . .

Once again, those are my thoughts upon the matter, which are offered in spite of my utter lack of expertise, because, hey, what else am I going to do? Trot out lists of songs that influenced me and television shows I loved? Throw down with Rick Reilly? Look ahead with fear and trepidation to Saturday night’s opening-round College World Series showdown with the best team in baseball?

All right, sooner or later, I’ve got to bite the bullet and get around to that last one, but, in the meantime, let me know what you think about just exactly how crazy I am when it comes to preseason prognostications.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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