By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Every year about this time, I do more reading about college football than I did for even my Great American Novels course at Vanderbilt. And then, it took me forever to plow through Faulkner's "Light in August."

Yet every August, after plowing through six or eight magazines and just about all of the 4.7 billion words on college football offered on this Web site, I invariably feel light on validation. I know who's coming back and who's coming along, but I have no real idea whether a team will jell when the lights come on for real.

Neither does any head coach of any team ranked in the preseason Top 25.

That's because, incredibly, college football doesn't play exhibition games. Of course, some powerhouses schedule the equivalent of preseason scrimmages on opening weekend. See Western Kentucky at No. 15 Georgia. But many national title contenders play make-or-break openers -- Cal at Tennessee, Notre Dame at Georgia Tech, Florida State at Miami.

Yet, because they aren't allowed to play a single dress rehearsal, who really knows how any of those teams will perform? Imagine the NFL completely eliminating a four-game preseason. Customers would be outraged because the opening-day product would be cheapened.

Obviously, the NFL's preseason is two games too long -- yet college football's is one game too short. Come on, this is nothing less than ivy-covered pro football -- a billion-dollar business masquerading as students who happen to be athletes. I've talked to numerous college coaches down through the years who would like to play just one practice game against a good team. No doubt it would sell out.

Yet the NCAA in no way wants to resemble the NFL. It has allowed schools to add a 12th game, but that game must count -- even if it's a cupcake opener or a midseason breather.

Then again, sometimes college football is irresistibly great for the wrong reasons. This way, national championships can be unpredictably lost on opening Saturday because a team with a new quarterback -- like USC or Texas -- isn't quite prepared after nothing but intrasquad scrimmages. And of course, national championships can be won by votes and computer analysis.

But I digress.

The point here is that making preseason predictions on college football can be as difficult as grasping William Faulkner at 3 a.m. the night before your final exam.

Especially this season.

Last season was much easier. Last August, it was clear that USC, Ohio State and Texas were loaded. In April's NFL draft, those three schools had nine players selected in the first round and 18 in the first three rounds.

If Ohio State coach Jim Tressel had started and stuck with Troy Smith at quarterback against Texas, maybe Ohio State would have played USC for the national title instead of merely destroying Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

But this year all the predictable powerhouses inspire more questions than answers.

How can preseason No. 1 Ohio State be quite as powerful as it was in the Fiesta Bowl? Six defensive starters were drafted in the first four rounds -- three in the first. No more A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter or Donte Whitner.

The Buckeyes have lots of highly recruited newcomers but no proven firepower except for Troy Smith. Can he be this year's Vince Young, who went Michael Jordan on college football? Not when Smith is generously listed at just 6-foot-1. At 6-5, Young is even more elusive than Smith.

And can Ohio State wideout Ted Ginn Jr. turn back into Ted Ginn Jr. without Santonio Holmes (a first-round choice of the Steelers) to take double-team pressure off him? The biggest mystery of last year's college football season was the consistent disappearance of sophomore Ginn, who went Reggie Bush on opponents as a freshman. At times Ginn appeared to lose his nerve, even his desire, and he fell from Heisman candidate to missing person.

I could see Ohio State again losing to Texas, this time in Austin on Sept. 9. And I could see Texas turning around and losing to Oklahoma.

Defending champ Texas is the nation's most talented team at every position but quarterback. Is Colt McCoy the real McCoy? Who knows?

This team has the look and feel of all the Mack Brown teams before last year's -- loaded underachievers. What you had to love about Brown last year was his incredibly honest humility. When I spoke with him in October, he readily admitted that "we go as Vince goes" and that "I finally realized that I had to back off and let Vince do it his way, and he's taking me along on a great ride."

Without Young, Brown's Longhorns almost certainly would have lost three games last year -- Ohio State, Oklahoma State and USC. Can McCoy even begin to replace Young's playmaking and leadership?

Last year, I loved watching Charlie Weis' Notre Dame offense even more than I did USC's. In fact, last August I picked the Irish to upset USC. The Trojans needed late help from the refs to avoid that October trap in South Bend.

Now that offense is a year older and better. Everyone's back -- Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that nine starters return on a defense that wasn't very good.

Will it be that much better? Can Notre Dame roll to a national title by an average score of 40-38? Can the Irish get through their first four games (at Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, at Michigan State) unscathed? Can they win their final game at USC?

Once again, USC is coming up Rose Bowls with highly recruited studs. By December, this team could be No. 1 in most people's minds. But by then, this team could have lost two games. How will John David Booty do in place of Matt Leinart? Who knows?

I can't pick any SEC team to win it all. That conference is just too difficult and deep. It cancels itself out.

That leaves me with Florida State and Miami, who play what could be an elimination game on Monday night. This game could wind up 7-6. Lots of players on both defenses eventually will be playing on Sundays.

Both quarterbacks are back, and Miami's Kyle Wright is a little better than FSU's Drew Weatherford. But Miami running back Tyrone Moss and receiver Ryan Moore will miss this game after violating team policy. Edge: FSU, even in Miami.

That's the first of only two dangerous games for FSU. The second is the last one, at home against Florida. But Gators QB Chris Leak will never reach his potential while stuck in Urban Meyer's option offense. So Florida State, led by the country's nastiest defense and the pounding of running back Lorenzo Booker and the big-play catching of 6-6 Greg Carr, will beat Florida.

Undefeated Florida State will play in the national championship game against...

Undefeated Louisville.

I know: These Cardinals might not have a much better chance of convincing the computers and voters they belong in the national championship game (in the Arizona Cardinals' new stadium) than the NFL Cardinals do of playing in the Super Bowl.

But what if Louisville goes 12-0 with an offense that consistently looks even more explosive than Notre Dame's? What if quarterback Brian Brohm soon convinces pro scouts that he, and not Brady Quinn, should be the No. 1 pick? What if Brohm loses the Heisman to a teammate? What if a second straight Bush wins it -- a 247-pound twinkle toes named Michael?

What if Bobby Petrino validates what a lot of NFL people believe -- that he's college football's best coach? What if his no-name defense, brimming with athletes Petrino has quietly stockpiled, gets stronger and stronger?

What if the Cardinals overwhelm Miami and West Virginia in Louisville? Those are two legit tests. And what if the Cardinals score 70 at Syracuse and Rutgers and Pitt?

What if the Louisville Cardinals slip into the national title game and win it!

Somehow, it feels like a Louisville kind of year.

And Faulkner wrote a book about my picks: "As I Lay Dying."

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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