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For the second time in five years, I have a vote in the Associated Press college football poll. It's a great gig, a job I take pretty seriously.
I don't see a clear-cut dominant team this year. So my preseason national champion is the team with the best chance of going undefeated. It's the only team with a chance of making it through the regular season unscathed.
Here's my preseason ballot:
1. West Virginia: Schedule, schedule, schedule. The Mountaineers play in the right conference, the Big East, and have a beautiful nonconference schedule: Marshall, Eastern Washington, Maryland, East Carolina and Mississippi State. Notice Virginia Tech, the only team to beat WVA last year, isn't on the schedule. But it's deeper than the cupcake schedule. Coach Rich Rodriquez's spread offense has the perfect quarterback in Pat White and a terrific running back in Steve Slaton. Get by Louisville, and the Mountaineers will be America's lone unbeaten when BCS bowl bids get handed out.
2. Notre Dame: This is really a crazy pick. The Irish play a rugged schedule -- heck, they could lose the opener at Georgia Tech. But there's much to like about Notre Dame beyond Charlie Weis, Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker and the rest of ND's offense. I'm expecting ND's defense to improve significantly. It takes at least a year for players to fully grasp defensive coordinator Rick Minter's complex schemes. Led by ND's veteran secondary, I expect the Irish D to support Weis' offensive fireworks.
3. Texas: OK, the Longhorns lose the ultimate college weapon in Vince Young. It's difficult to imagine them repeating without Vince. However, if the Longhorns get past Ohio State on Sept. 9, there's not much else standing in their way. The Big 12 stinks, and Oklahoma lost its quarterback. This is a one-loss team -- either Ohio State or a slipup in conference -- with a nasty defense.
4. Ohio State: I'm picking Texas to beat the Buckeyes, and I'll never rank Ohio State ahead of Texas the rest of the season unless the Longhorns lose two games. You follow? If Texas loses a game late, I won't let a one-loss OSU squad leapfrog Texas in my poll. Plus, I think the Buckeyes are a bit overrated. They lost nine starters on defense. I can see Iowa and Michigan beating OSU this year.
5. Auburn: Experienced quarterback? Check, Brandon Cox. Playmakers? Check, receiver Courtney Taylor and running back Kenny Irons. Favorable schedule? Check, just four road games and Georgia, Florida and LSU all at the crib. The Tigers are physical on defense.
6. USC: You cannot lose Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, LenDale White, Winston Justice and all that other NFL talent and still crack my preseason top 5. Can't do it. No way. I know Pete Carroll stockpiles blue-chip recruits, but let's be reasonable. The USC veterans won a few close games over the past two or three years. The inexperienced replacements won't be nearly as cool under pressure as Bush, Leinart and Co.
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7. Louisville: The best QB-RB combination in the country -- Brian Brohm and Michael Bush. Most NFL teams would take that combo right now. The Cardinals can score points with any team in the country. The winner of the West Virginia-Louisville game will be in the national title hunt. I'm picking the Mountaineers because they'll play more defense than the Cardinals.
8. LSU: With its backup quarterback leading the way, the Tigers ended last season by destroying Miami in the Peach Bowl. Coach Les Miles' squad finished 11-2 and with quarterback JaMarcus Russell sitting out with a separated shoulder. Matt Flynn took over the starting job for the bowl game, and Flynn and freshman Ryan Perrilloux handled the Tigers during spring ball. LSU has three talented QBs, and I can see all three of them contributing at some point.
9. Michigan: Terrible schedule -- at Notre Dame, at Penn State, at Ohio State and let's not forget an early November showdown against my Ball State Cardinals inside the Big House. Despite the schedule, I don't see Lloyd Carr surrendering his job with another 7-5 season. If they can survive against Ball State, the Wolverines will win nine or 10 games. With Chad Henne and Michael Hart, they have a tremendous offensive foundation for new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to work with.
10. Iowa: Here's another 2005 disappointment with a strong QB-RB combination -- Drew Tate and Albert Young. The Hawkeyes also have one of my favorite coaches in Kirk Ferentz. Iowa has seven starters back on offense and defense, so will be dramatically improved.
11. Oklahoma: The Sooners were a national title contender before losing quarterback Rhett Bomar. I wasn't a big Bomar fan, but it's difficult to have confidence in Paul Thompson, Bomar's replacement. Thompson had been playing receiver. Last year, Thompson was the starting QB in Oklahoma's loss to TCU.
12. Alabama: You can panic because the Tide lost quarterback Brodie Croyle, but Alabama won last year with defense. Besides Croyle, most of Alabama's offense returns. Bama's offense will be better and the Tide will still roll on defense.
13. Florida: I don't know what to make of the Florida football teams, so I decided to bunch them all together in the middle of my poll with the Gators leading the way. If freshman Tim Tebow, who graduated early and practiced during the spring, beats out Chris Leak, I wonder how that will play in the locker room.
14. Florida State: The Seminoles should start the season on a positive note. They get to play Miami in the opener and the Canes have suspended four players for the game, including their starting tailback.
15. Miami: I'm picking the Hurricanes last in Florida because I can't get their 40-3 bowl loss out of my mind. Larry Coker might finish the season under more heat than Lloyd Carr.
16. Oregon: I'd rank the Ducks a bit higher, but they start the season with Stanford, at Fresno State and playing host to Oklahoma. If they win all three, I'll regret ranking the Ducks this low.
17. Georgia: Coach Mark Richt will struggle to find an adequate replacement for QB D.J. Shockley unless freshman phenom Matthew Stafford is ready to go early.
18. Virginia Tech: Sean Glennon won the starting quarterback job. He won't remind anyone of the Vick Brothers -- on or off the field. Glennon isn't very athletic. Hey, the Hokies finished last year beating Louisville in the Gator Bowl.
19. TCU: The powerhouse team of the Mountain West Conference is going to crack the top 20.
20. Penn State: A year after nearly running the table, the Nittany Lions land at No. 20. Yep, I'm calling last year a fluke, a nice swan song for an old coach. Sorry, Joe.
21. California: OK, Bush and Leinart are gone, so having the Pac-10's best offensive weapon isn't as impressive as it once was, but Cal running back Marshawn Lynch should make the Bears extremely competitive and pick up quite a few postseason awards, too.
22. Tennessee: Coach David Cutcliffe returns to lead the Vols' offense. He'll save quarterback Erik Ainge and head coach Phil Fulmer.
23. Clemson: Life without quarterback Charlie Whitehurst won't be all bad.
24. Boise State: Even with a new coach, I expect the Blue Turf Boys to have success.
25. UTEP: I like Carson Palmer's little brother, Jordan. Others receiving consideration: Ball State. My Cardinals landed the MAC's top recruit, quarterback Nate Davis. Plus, the Cards have a terrific group of second- and third-year players ready to blossom. Keep an eye on tight end Darius Hill, receiver Dante Love, tackles Robert Brewster and Andre Ramsey, linebacker Bryant Haines, center Dan Gerberry and safety Erik Keys. OK, it's just a shameless plug for my favorite team. But we will be the surprise of the MAC this season.
Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sound off to Page 2 here.