As July prepares to turn into August, I start to get itchy for the start of the college football season. I don't worry about specific games and matchups yet - that comes later. What I am interested in now is forming the basic opinions of teams that will start to guide my decision making going forward. Often times it's pretty straightforward - Florida State will be really good this year, for example, while Kansas will be awful, and I didn't have to fire up too much brainpower to come to either conclusion.
Often times, though, there are teams that aren't nearly as easy to judge. These teams have a lot of things going for them but also have a factor or two that are enough to potentially raise some doubt. Here are four likely top 25 teams that are challenging to get a good grasp on.
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Michigan: After a successful first year under Jim Harbaugh, expectations are sky high. They are ranked in the Top 5 in most preseason rankings, and they are drawing serious futures betting attention. Michigan fans remember bitterly that the first year under Brady Hoke was great, too, but then they descended into increasingly dark times. They also are quite certain that Jim Harbaugh is not Brady Hoke in any way.
Whenever a team faces hype like this, though, it is very hard to know how both the team and the betting public will handle it. That's especially true from a betting perspective when the team was already as public as this team was and when every breath the coach breathes is covered by the media. There is a practical factor, too - as of now there isn't a starting quarterback named and not even a clear leader in the race between John O'Korn and Wilton Speight.
The talent is significant with the team, and both lines should be excellent, but it's tough to know how well they can put it all together. On top of that, their schedule is backloaded, so it will be a long time until we see them play a game that really tests just how good they are.
Baylor: I should really only have to mention the name here to get the point across. The Bears were forced to fire their coach after a grotesque off-field scandal. They replaced him with someone far more stable than inspiring. Recruits left in bulk. Some players were dismissed. Others left. It has been as bad an offseason as a team could possibly have.
On top of it all, they return only nine starters and have two quarterbacks who are regular visitors at local hospitals. It would be easy to be very negative about this team. We need to remember, though, that there is still plenty of talent on this team, and the potential is significant. It's just very difficult to figure out whether they can achieve that potential.
Georgia: Whenever a long-time and successful coach moves on I am reflexively skeptical about the team. Mark Richt ran the show in Georgia since 2001. Any new coach has to force change into a program that hasn't experienced much of it and has to overcome the cult of personality inevitably built around the former coach. It's a big challenge.
Georgia has some questions beyond the coaching, too - from quarterback and beyond. There is a difference between this situation and most others, though - the new coach is exceptional and quite possibly dramatically better than the one he replaced. Kirby Smart has learned under the master - he's been an assistant at Alabama since 2007. That means he has been the architect of a continuously exceptional defense, been mentored by the best head coach there is, and he has four national title rings to reinforce his credentials with players. He also starred at Georgia as a player, so he will get the benefit of the doubt. I have no doubt that Smart is going to be very successful at Georgia in the long term. It's tougher to judge, though, whether that success can start right away.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes are 50-4 since Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus, they are a year removed from a national title, and the coach says that he has more talent on board now than he has ever had with any team. Some of that is "coach speak", obviously, but you can't fault the idea that there is ridiculous amounts on talent on the team. They also have to deal with an almost unprecedented amount of departed top talent - they had 12 players drafted this year, including five guys taken in the first 20 picks.
Can they replace all that talent without missing a beat? Is any team that deep? They don't have the toughest overall schedule, but there are three big challenges - they play at Oklahoma in Week 3 and then finish off the season by playing at Michigan State and then hosting Michigan.
I believe the team is elite. Bettors and oddsmakers certainly seem to as well. But I can't shake the niggling doubt that perhaps all the change will cause a temporary flash of mortality in the Horseshoe.
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