Pete Fiutak - College Football News Q: Which teams could be this year's LSU or Ohio State? In other words, who are the unnoticed teams that could play for the national title? A: LSU was ranked 14th in the 2003 preseason AP poll and 15th in the preseason Coaches' poll (USC was eighth in both.) Ohio State was 13th in the 2002 preseason AP poll and 12th in the Coaches'. So what midranked teams could get to the Orange Bowl this year? 1) Michigan - Once again, USC was ranked eighth in both polls last year. Michigan fits the Trojan pattern of last year to a T ranked eighth in the AP and seventh in the Coaches' poll. The Wolverines have the talent and the schedule to get to the national championship as long as the backfield situation is worked out. If they don't lose in the Big House, all that's reasonably standing in their way is a date with Ohio State in Columbus. 2) Kansas State - 12th in the AP and 13th in the Coaches' poll, the Wildcats aren't getting too much respect with everyone concerned about the loss of QB Ell Roberson. The offense will revolve around RB Darren Sproles again while the defense will quickly plug the holes. The schedule works out nicely with only Fresno State providing any resistance until October. Oklahoma and Nebraska have to come to Manhattan while the toughest road games are at Texas A&M and Missouri. 3) Iowa - 12th in the Coaches' poll and 19th in the AP, the voters are missing the bus on just how good this defense is going to be. O.K., so the offense has some major issues to overcome, but the potential is there with some great young talent. If the Hawkeyes can get past road trips to Arizona State, Penn State and Minnesota and beat Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, it's all up to the game at Michigan. This team is good enough to make it interesting. Richard Cirminiello Q: Which teams could be this year's LSU or Ohio State? In other words, who are the unnoticed teams that could play for the national title? A: With the 2004 season mercifully upon us, the race for the Orange Bowl—this year’s national championship venue—looks pretty easy to size up, right? Oklahoma will square off with USC in Miami, and if one of those programs fails to deliver, the winner of the SEC—either Georgia or LSU—or the ACC—either Miami or Florida State—will be poised to fill the void. Nice and tidy, until we realize that pre-season polls never go true to form, and that good, but highly unexpected, teams from Columbus and Baton Rouge pocketed national titles the last two seasons. Some of this year’s national contenders aren’t Top 5 timber just yet, but they could get there before the leaves begin turning colors: 1. Michigan – So many people are fixated on the departures of John Navarre and Chris Perry, they’re losing sight of all the talent still wearing maize and blue in Ann Arbor. Likely starter Matt Gutierrez will be just fine under center, and as far as the muddled backfield goes—the Wolverines won a national championship the last time they employed a running back by committee. 2. West Virginia – Quick, name a school that has a more manageable path to a perfect record than the Mountaineers. Rest assured there aren’t many, which is why West Virginia could throw the BCS into a tizzy again this fall. 11-0 West Virginia v. 10-1 (insert the name brand program of your choice here). That could be the hot debate of 2004 if—and it’s a big if—the Mountaineers can navigate that minefield known as Maryland. 3. NC State – Philip Rivers was the uber Wolfpack, but this lack of respect being given to the rest of NC State is ridiculous. Yes, Rivers will be sorely missed, but the Pack is stacked most everywhere else, and new starter Jay Davis is the kind of steady vet, who’ll keep the offense from becoming a liability. The schedule’s rugged, but they do get Ohio State, Miami and Florida State in Carter-Finley. Matthew Zemek Q: Which teams could be this year's LSU or Ohio State? In other words, who are the unnoticed teams that could play for the national title? A: 1) West Virginia - The conference they play in might not offer enough BCS heft and bonus rankings points, but if the mental side of the game is mastered by Rich Rodriguez' crew--and the Maryland game, if conquered, could catapult WVU to a big year--who exactly knows what can happen? Georgia could certainly stumble, and USC has this little Mike Williams issue to deal with. 2) Ohio State - While I'm not sold on this team, given the loss of both talent and experience in so many positions, I'd never doubt Jim Tressel's ability to work wonders from the sidelines. If there's a team that could be both "legitimate" and a "surprise" at the same time, it's the Buckeyes. 3) Oklahoma State - Is this a huge stretch? Sure. But that's the very kind of pick this question is begging for. They get the Sooners back in Stillwater. If they find a replacement for Josh Fields and Rashaun Woods, the rest of the team looks solid enough. Learning from last year's early stumble in Lincoln and the November humiliation in Norman could have this team mentally ready to elevate its game, and magical college football seasons are made of mental toughness. Mark Risley Q: Which teams could be this year's LSU or Ohio State? In other words, who are the unnoticed teams that could play for the national title? A: When looking for that not-so-flashy national title game contender this season, one could be forced to make the following assumptions: (1) The team will most likely have to go undefeated, given the fact that the increased weight of the human polls will make it harder for one of these less recognized one-loss title chasers to pass up the early-season favorites, which, on the other hand, can sustain a Top-5 ranking with only one loss, and (2) any team outside of the “Big Six” conferences has absolutely no prayer of receiving a No. 1 or No. 2 BCS ranking, no matter the record. (Yes, the strength-of-schedule component is gone, but can you really see an undefeated Louisville team supplanting a 10-1 Oklahoma team for the No. 2 spot?) That being said, here are three teams that could make a run for South Dade… 1) West Virginia – Plenty of prognosticators are picking the Mountaineers to win the Big East, but this team hasn’t been given too much consideration for the Orange Bowl. Given the fact that WVU plays in a BCS conference (albeit the weakest BCS link, from top to bottom), it will garner plenty of early-season attention if this squad can chase away the Scott McBrien demons and come away from Blacksburg victorious. If that 5-0 forecasted start becomes a reality, the rest of the schedule is very favorable to head into Thanksgiving Night undefeated (in front of a national television audience, and plenty of pollsters – both media and coaches, no less). One other advantage – no conference title game to play. 2) Florida –- This is a program that has been largely ignored since the Ol’ Ball Coach left town, but the schedule sets up favorably this season. The first two games should be a walk, then, it’s off to Rocky Top to possibly face a true freshman QB in his first SEC game. The Gators gets LSU & South Carolina in the Swamp, and, as long as the voodoo hex over Georgia remains at-large, knocking off the Dawgs doesn’t seem that daunting. The FSU game will be a tall mountain to climb, but after having 10 games to gel, anything can happen in a rivalry game (i.e., last minute, 52-yard passing TDs). On top of everything, Chris Leak, who looked surprisingly “veteran” last season, will have a year’s experience to boot. 3) Wisconsin – With those five returning O-linemen, a healthy Anthony Davis, and better-than-average play by the defense, the Badgers could make a run at an undefeated season. The squad misses Michigan this year, and, although the conference road slate isn’t exactly a cakewalk, beating Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, and Iowa is not out of the question. If the team can stay focused (and healthy) and walk away from Columbus with a 6-0 record, it’ll be all down hill from there. And similar to WVU, the Badgers avoid the risk of a conference title game. John Harris Q: Which teams could be this year's LSU or Ohio State? In other words, who are the unnoticed teams that could play for the national title? A: Surprise, surprise. 2003 LSU, 2002 Ohio State, 2000 Oklahoma and 1998 Tennessee all seemingly came out of nowhere. Why? a. Senior defensive leadership – Chad Lavalais, Mike Doss/Matt Wilhelm, Torrance Marshall and Al Wilson were transcendent leaders. b. Quarterback experience is not as important as it would seem – Of the four teams above (excluding Josh Heupel), the starting quarterback for each team was not the full-time starter the previous year. (Not to mention, who really knew whom Josh Heupel was before 2000 anyway, outside of OU fans?) c. ‘Extra games’ are not a death knell – LSU, Tennessee and OU all played in championship games (LSU and OU in rematches) and Ohio State played in the Pigskin Classic to start the year. Contrary to popular belief, an ‘extra’ game didn’t ruin their hopes. d. A running threat emerges – Justin Vincent, Maurice Clarett, Quentin Griffin and Travis Henry were arguably anonymous before the year started but ‘emerged’ during the season. With all of that being said, the three teams that perhaps fit ‘the mold’ for this respective year: 1. Tennessee – The two linebacking Kevins – Burnett and Simon – epitomize senior leadership. And, if there’s team with a murky QB situation it’s the Vols. But, Coach Fulmer has been in this position before and he’s going to have the running game to rely on throughout the season. 2. Oklahoma State – Darrent Williams and the OSU defense will have to ‘travel’ the furthest, but the non-seniors have a ton of experience (Paul Duren and Vernon Grant). QB Donovan Woods is talented and has a great offensive line to protect him. Vernand Morency will be the best 1,300-yard back you have never heard of by the end of the year. 3. Wisconsin – Jim Leonhard and Anttaj Hawthorne are the foundation for an improving defense now led by new DC Bret Bielema. Projected starting QB John Stocco is a decent enough athlete to get it done, and we all know whom the running threat will be. The schedule is more than fair, however, Ohio State on the road should be tough, but so were A&M (2000 OU), Purdue (2002 OSU) and Syracuse (1998 Tennessee).