Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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BY PHIL MILLER
If it was up to me, there wouldn't be any preseason polls. They are fun for speculation, and if that was as far as they went, it wouldn't be a problem. But we all know that it's difficult for voters to move teams dramatically up or down once the games begin. The polls set expectations that are difficult to change; a team ranked 4th right now has a much easier path to the national championship game than one ranked 24th, even if they are in the same conference, even if they are both undefeated.
That said, when I agreed to be an AP voter this season, it meant taking a stab at what's going to happen over the next three months, and I gave it a shot. I read up on what local writers think about the teams they cover, examined schedules and trends, and tried to figure out what last year told us about these teams. The result is a series of hunches, opinions and blind guesses, and I wouldn't dare suggest that my vote is any more valid than anyone else's. The other 59 AP voters are chiming in this week, and the full poll will be released soon.
So here's a look at my best guess at the top five. Feel free, as you no doubt will, to disagree:
1) LSU -- Wish I could pick someone other than an SEC team, but the possibility is too strong that LSU's defense might be the nation's best this year. Sure, they lost their quarterback, but anyone who watched Jordan Jefferson in the BCS championship game understands that that's not a negative. They may not blow out teams as readily, but the rematch with Alabama is in Baton Rouge this year.
2) Oklahoma -- Could Sam Bradford's successor repeat his Heisman season? Landry Jones is going to give it a try, and the Sooners appear ready to reclaim their state, and conference, championship.
3) Alabama -- Their defense humiliated LSU in the title game, but the backbone of that unit -- particularly nose guard Jose Chapman and linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- is gone. No, it would be no surprise if they repeated, but for now, you have to lean toward LSU.
4) Oregon -- The Ducks' arch-rival, USC, is getting most of the preseason hype, especially after adding Penn State refugee Silas Redd, but my guess is that Oregon will be the best team in the Pac-12. The Ducks have a couple of strong candidates to trigger their spread offense, and one of the best defenses in the Chip Kelly. They'll be plenty motivated for a rematch in Los Angeles.
5) Arkansas -- Yes, I know this makes three SEC West teams in the top five nationally, but the Hogs might have the league's best quarterback in Tyler Wilson and the best all-around defender in linebacker Alonzo Highsmith. The players around them might not match up to LSU and Alabama, and nobody knows if John L. Smith is up to this sort of high-pressure assignment, but it could be the breakthrough season the hogs have dreamed of.
Am I right about all of this? Of course not. Should USC or Ohio State be on this list? Maybe so. (I'm a witness to how quickly Urban Meyer can turn around a talented but underachieving bunch.) Best thing about it: We get to start to find out in another three weeks.
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