As focused as I am on baseball at the moment, there is no getting around the fact that June is the month before the month before the month at the end of which football season starts. The season preview magazines are hitting the newsstands and all of our summertime minds are turning more and more towards the arrival of autumn and, with it, the return to the gridiron of our favorite teams.
Despite our best guesses, we cannot know for certain which squads will meet expectations, which will exceed them, and which will dash their fans’ hopes. Here, however, are a few teams that are starting to get some preseason love which are, in my humble opinion, overrated. In no particular order, these are . . .
Kansas: The Jayhawks are coming off of their best season ever, a 12-1 campaign capped off by an Orange Bowl victory, and they return nine defensive starters along with quarterback Todd Reesing. Many experts are high on Kansas again this season, but I’m not. The Jayhawks, like their head coach, got fat off of cupcakes, without so much as a single regular-season win against a legitimate quality opponent in 2007. This year, K.U. travels to South Florida for an early-season Friday night tilt and the ‘Hawks are apt to discover that the Sunshine State is a mite more hot and humid in Tampa in September than it is in Miami in January.
Although a 6-0 start is possible (however unlikely), this year’s slate actually has some meat to it down the stretch, as Kansas plays at Oklahoma on October 18, against Texas Tech on October 25, at Nebraska on November 8, and against Texas on November 15 before closing with Missouri in Kansas City on November 29. Facing a substantially weaker schedule last season, the Jayhawks still struggled in road wins over Colorado, Kansas State, and Texas A&M. This program hasn’t been to a bowl game in an even-numbered year since 1992, hasn’t posted back-to-back seasons above .500 since 1995, and is as unlikely to replicate either last year’s outlying turnover margin (+21) or its fortuitous avoidance of injuries as it is to succeed in tackling a tougher slate under the guiding hand of a head coach who is 8-21 on opponents’ home fields.
The Jayhawks may be looking at a bowl game named for a manufactured good, but they won’t be bound for a postseason destination named for anything found growing in nature this year.
Texas Tech: I hate to make it look like I’m picking on the Big 12, which appears to be a much-improved league in 2008, but the Red Raiders have borrowed the Sunflower State philosophy of creating overinflated records with as many weak sisters as they can find. The Red Raiders’ first four games include outings against Eastern Washington and Massachusetts, both of which hail from the Division I-AA ranks. What, were the Deaf & Dumb and the Houston Y.M.C.A. unavailable? (Longtime Texas Tech rival Texas A&M actually opened the 1904 and 1905 seasons, respectively, against those two opponents. Look it up if you don’t believe me.)
Yes, with Mike Leach at the helm and 10 returning starters on that side of the ball, the Raiders will be great on offense again in 2008. What about the defense? Sure, it’s supposed to be the best Texas Tech D of the Mike Leach era, but how bad would the Red Raiders have to be defensively not to be? Last year’s Texas Tech defense surrendered 24 points to Rice, 27 points to Oklahoma, 28 points to Virginia in the Gator Bowl, 31 points apiece to Colorado and to U.T.E.P., 41 points to Missouri, 49 points to Oklahoma State, and 59 points to Texas. The Raiders could improve upon that by leaps and bounds yet still stink badly enough to lose four or five games.
Pittsburgh: No less respected an expert than Sunday Morning Quarterback gives the Panthers a fair amount of credit and, while that could just be because Dave Wannstedt haunts SMQ’s dreams, he is not alone: Phil Steele has Pitt as his No. 4 Most Improved Team and his No. 11 Surprise Team. Why all the love for the squad that bumped off the Mountaineers last year? Two reasons: 15 returning starters and a series of quality recruiting classes that give the Panthers top-tier talent among Big East teams.
You know what, though? Ray Goff recruited like gangbusters, too. I used to say that the way to win a national championship was to hire Bill Curry, fire Bill Curry, and wait three years. It worked for Georgia Tech and it worked for Alabama, after all. My point was that the ability to recruit talent and the ability to coach talent are two different things. Many coaches have both abilities (e.g., Mack Brown, Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, et al.), but possessing one does not presuppose having a handle on the other. Wanny may be able to get ‘em to Pitt, but there is absolutely no evidence that he knows what to do with ‘em when he gets ‘em there. Somebody is going to win with Dave Wannstedt’s recruits; I just don’t think that somebody is going to be Dave Wannstedt.
Clemson: Cullen Harper, James Davis, and C.J. Spiller are among the eight returning starters from an offensive unit that riddled scoreboards to the tune of 38, 42, 44, 47, 49, and 70 points last year. Of course, those impressive numbers were put up against Furman, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Duke, Louisiana-Monroe, and Central Michigan, respectively; against the likes of Georgia Tech, Boston College, Auburn, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Florida State, the Tigers managed only 3, 17, 20, 23, 23, and 24, in that order.
It’s not hard to see why hopes are high for the Fort Hill Felines this year, as Clemson opens in Atlanta against an Alabama squad that will not yet have had time to gel, follows that up with four straight home games against two Division I-AA opponents and two conference foes who lost seven games apiece in 2007, and enjoys open dates before each of the Tigers’ first two true road games.
Is there anyone who doesn’t think this team will fade down the stretch, though? Bear in mind that Clemson closes with five straight games, including Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Florida State in Tallahassee, Virginia in Charlottesville, and South Carolina by the shores of Lake Hartwell. Bear in mind, as well, that, when Tommy Bowden-coached teams get off to fast starts, they falter down the stretch, as evidenced by the Tigers’ fading fortunes in 2000 (8-0 start, 1-3 finish), 2001 (5-2 start, 2-3 finish), and 2006 (7-1 start, 1-4 finish). Clemson will start strong, but this season will not end well.
When you start a new job as a brunette and go grey in a great big hurry, that’s a pretty good indication of poor performance in the position. You know, like Jimmy Carter during the White House years.
Those are the teams I see as receiving undeserved preseason attention in 2008. Let me know whether you agree, disagree, or have some suggestions of your own in the comments below or, better yet, in the FanPosts to the right.