No two ways about it, No. 2 is an impossible call
Finding No. 1 is easy. Trying to figure out the nation's second-best team is slightly tougher, if not downright impossible.
The question in college football is not who's No. 1. Everyone knows the answer is wrapped in cardinal and gold.
The devilishly difficult question is who's No. 2.
The answer is Texas, I figured. Quarterback Vince Young looked like a longer Michael Vick in the Rose Bowl, and his throwing will continue to improve. The Longhorns always attract an abundance of talent. They can win 10 games in their sleep. Yep, this is the year they step up and win that 11th game, then win the Big 12 championship game, then advance to play USC for the national title.
Reality check: Can Texas walk out in front of 100,000 Ohio State fans -- at night -- and win? Do all those entitled prep All-Americans have the toughness (and the coaching) to beat Bob Stoops and Oklahoma in October? Can it really lose the heart of its running game (Cedric Benson) and the soul of its defense (Derrick Johnson) and be better than last year?
Drop 'em, Horns.
Reality check: Was Henne that good, or did No. 3 overall draft pick Braylon Edwards (97 catches, 15 touchdowns) make him look that good? Since a defense that suffered serial breakdowns at the end of last year is trying to replace two All-American defensive backs, can it take a major step forward? Can you really trust a team that has lost 10 times in the last five years as a favorite? Can Michigan go the entire season without the inevitable clunker performance?
Hail to someone else.
The answer has to be Florida. New sheriff Urban Meyer replaces laissez-faire Ron Zook, who seemed to get tough only when dealing with annoying frat boys. Team discipline improves. Chris Leak is poised to thrive in Meyer offense. The receiving corps is rife with big-play ability. There's plenty of talent on defense. The Gators are ready to play Avis to USC's Hertz.
Reality check: There are questions about the running game. Questions about how the spread-option offense will fare in a league that is far faster and more physical than the Mountain West or Mid-American. Questions about a schedule that pits the Gators against four of the top five SEC opponents, plus rival Florida State.
They're swamped. Forget Florida.
The answer is Virginia Tech. The quarterback's name is Vick, and from a physical standpoint, the apple didn't fall far from big brother's talented tree. The top two rushers and top five receivers from a 10-3 team are back. End Darryl Tapp and cornerback Jimmy Williams have All-America potential on what should be another hard-edged Hokies D. Tech is No. 2.
Reality check: Rookie starting quarterback makes his debut on the road against North Carolina State, which only had the No. 1 defense in the nation in 2004. Rookie starting quarterback must fill immense leadership void left by graduated Bryan Randall. Several replacement parts will be tested in the secondary. And there's now an extra chance to be beaten, courtesy of the new ACC title game.
Void Virginia Tech.
Let's get creative with the answer. Let's go with Louisville. Bobby Petrino's fast-tempo, multi-formation offense led the nation in scoring and total offense last year. Came within a dropped interception at Miami of 12-0, and finished the year No. 6 in the polls. Immense skill-position talents team with what might be the best offensive line in school history. Fast defensive front seven. Could be favored in every game on a user-friendly schedule. The Cards are an edgy No. 2.
Reality check: Sophomore quarterback Brian Brohm will be a great one -- but will he perform as well as Stefan LeFors (national passing efficiency leader) right away? Can an offense that also lost its leading rusher (Eric Shelton) and receiver (J.R. Russell) avoid taking a step back? Can a defense breaking in two new safeties and a new middle linebacker still be solid up the middle and avoid surrendering big plays?
Back to convention. LSU is the team. Nick Saban left the treasure of Sierra Madre for Les Miles to play with. Running backs and receivers galore. A veteran offensive line. Lots of seniors on a defense anchored by a junior, All-American candidate safety LaRon Landry. And both SEC East heavies on the schedule, Tennessee and Florida, must come to Death Valley. LSU is No. 2.
Reality check: Can Miles walk in from the Oklahoma plains and command the respect that Saban had? Can he win on a level he's never won before? Can his team still be a run-game juggernaut after 2004 leading rusher Alley Broussard blew a knee? Can he find a quarterback amid the talented but thus far unestablished trio of JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn and freshman Ryan Perrilloux? Will the hurricane trauma gripping Louisiana derail his team's focus, preparations and logistics?
No geaux, LSU.
If an SEC team is No. 2, it has to be Tennessee. Eight returning starters from an explosive offense. Nine returnees on defense, plus stud linebacker Kevin Simon, who missed '04 with a knee injury. Star power almost everywhere. Finished last year 10-3 after wiping the Cotton Bowl floor with Texas A&M. The Volunteers are No. 2.
Reality check: Offseason behavior breakdowns suggest a lack of championship-caliber focus and character. The defense was smoked for a combined 64 points by Vanderbilt and Kentucky at season's end. The choice of sophomore Eric Ainge over senior Rick Clausen at quarterback, after Clausen put up better stats in August scrimmages, might fracture the locker room. Can a team that lost at home to 6-6 Notre Dame really be that great?
So the No. 2 team must be Miami. NFL scouts are still beating a path to Coral Gables for a reason. Everybody but Antrel Rolle returns from a defense that was fairly awesome early and late. Left tackle Eric Winston is back to anchor an offensive line that will bring the running game back to life, and give talented young QB Kyle Wright ample time. Return man Devin Hester is capable of winning a game or two by himself. The Hurricanes are a solid second banana.
Reality check: Wright might be talented, but he's still a question mark. The running backs look utterly pedestrian. There was a small matter of the middle of the season for the defense, when the Hurricanes were gouged repeatedly on the ground. And the road to the ACC Coastal Division title runs through Blacksburg and a Virginia Tech team that has beaten the Canes two straight seasons.
Move over, Miami.
Oklahoma is the old reliable choice. The Sooners have won an incredible 60 games the past five years, and it's not like players have stopped flocking to Norman. Bob Stoops can start with Adrian Peterson, finest running back in America, running behind Davin Joseph, perhaps the finest offensive guard in America. On defense he gets back tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who was first-team All-Big 12 in '03 before being suspended most of '04. And the schedule includes just one road game against a 2004 bowl team. OU is No. 2.
Reality check. The world assumed that hotshot redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar would be the quarterback, but he hasn't beaten out unspectacular junior Paul Thompson. The offensive line lost some stars. The defense lost even more. The receiving corps is in rebuild mode as well. And America has grown skeptical of a program that's been undressed in the postseason the past two years.
Oklahoma is not OK.
So it's got to be Ohio State, right? Yes. Ohio State is No. 2. Ted Ginn Jr. is a breakaway touchdown waiting to happen, and Santonio Holmes is a star receiver in his own right. Quarterback Troy Smith is a run-pass threat. Four starting offensive linemen are back. A defense that was pretty salty at the end of last season returns nine starters, led by the ubiquitous A.J. Hawk. No road games until Oct. 8. Clearly, the Buckeyes are No. 2.
Reality check: Does anyone remember how weak Ohio State was running the ball for much of last year? What happens at quarterback, where Smith is suspended for the first game? Can he be sharp in his first game -- against Texas? How will a team that relied (too) heavily on kicker Mike Nugent do with John Huston, who made a wobbly three of 10 FGs in 2001?
The Bucks stop someplace lower.
If the Big Ten is the best conference at the top, then Iowa must be No. 2. The Hawkeyes have the best coach in the league in Kirk Ferentz. They have the best quarterback in Drew Tate. They have the best linebacker duo in Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. They have an eight-game winning streak rolling into the season. The Hawkeyes deserve the spot.
Reality check: If you thought Ohio State couldn't run the ball, what about these guys? They averaged an anemic 73 rushing yards per game. That number will definitely improve -- but how much? The defensive line is completely rebuilt. And Iowa is the only Big Ten title contender that has to play the other three top contenders (Michigan, Ohio State and Purdue).
So it's got to be Purdue, then. The team with the golden helmets and golden schedule (no Michigan, no Ohio State, Iowa comes to West Lafayette). The Boilermakers were so close to unbeaten last year (five losses by a total of 14 points.) They return 11 starters on defense, three quality receivers and two quality running backs. They have a chance to be favored 11 weeks in a row. Purdue is No. 2.
Reality check: The Boilermakers might have lost nail-biters last year, but five defeats is still five defeats. They're replacing the all-time Big Ten leader in receptions (Taylor Stubblefield) and Kyle Orton, who only threw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns and now is a rookie starter in the NFL. New QB Brandon Kirsch might be promising, but can he make anyone forget Orton?
Pass on Purdue.
So let's try a flier pick. Texas A&M is No. 2. Senior quarterback Reggie McNeal makes no mistakes and plenty of plays. Running back Courtney Lewis has more than 1,700 yards in two years. Tight end Martellus Bennett was the No. 1 recruit in the nation at his position. The Aggies defense is flush with experience and should improve significantly. And coach Dennis Franchione is a proven turnaround artist.
Reality check: Any team that lost to Baylor the previous year cannot be considered for the No. 2 ranking in America. That's nonnegotiable.
A&M, over & out.
So the question remains: who's No. 2?
The final answer: If you're scoring at home, you've got two programs trying to shake underachiever pedigrees, five with new quarterbacks, two with new coaches, two overcoming offseason turmoil and two taking a step up in class. Which means I'm leaving that space blank. Nobody is No. 2.
So let's move on to No. 3. Let's start with Texas...
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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