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August 26, 2008

SCS.comWelcome back sports fans to another school year, which means the pinnacle of sports college football returns. On Thursday night at 7 PM, four Mid-American Conference teams will host games to open the biggest single-elimination tournament in sports (unless we go back to 2007 where it was more like triple elimination). From Thursday until Monday night, there are games every day to fill the Labor Day weekend. As loyal readers have come to expect, I will be covering the general aspects across the college football nation again in 2008, and previewing the Top 3 games of the week.

Everyone knows the maxim that good (or bad) things come in threes. Hollywood certainly seems to think so, as the local multi-plex almost always has sequels and three-quels running. While some trilogies are fantastic such as The Godfather trilogy, others are very terrible: think the I Know What You Did Last Summer trilogy. Many more trilogies suffer from sequel-itis, with the second and third iterations not quite meeting the greatness of the first (an example would be The Matrix trilogy). The past two seasons in college football have yielded the same endgame. The main question going into 2008 is will this regular season simply be a prelude to a three-quel in the BCS Championship?

The first ingredient from the past two seasons is Ohio State having a record better than every other major contender in the country. Unlike last season, poll voters and the public will not allow the Buckeyes into the Championship with a loss this season with all the negative PR. That means Ohio State must go undefeated to return for a third-straight BCS Championship. With the Buckeyes returning 19 starters and the only critical losses being OL Kirk Barton and DL Vernon Gholston, the outlook looks good on paper for a three-peat. The Big Ten is still trying to catch up to the Buckeye recruiting advantage, and it appears only Wisconsin has a legitimate shot to stop a fourth-straight conference title. The Buckeyes have more talent and experience than everyone on their schedule.

There's a strong case against the Buckeyes though. The last two teams to return this level of talent for the Buckeyes were 1998 and 2003, both of which suffered surprising upset losses to lesser teams. Ohio State always struggles on first road trips, especially out west. The toughest possible scenario plays out September 13 at USC, a team with perhaps as much talent but not as much experience. Road games at Wisconsin have always been tricky and watch out for teams like Illinois (again), Michigan State, and even Michigan by season's end. No team has ever won three straight outright Big Ten conference titles. The verdict? Ohio State overcomes the wealth of history there to prove them wrong thanks to the Miami-sized chip on their shoulder.

The second ingredient from the past two seasons is a bloodbath in the SEC leading to the best one-loss or two-loss team in the country. While there are a handful of teams in the country that could go undefeated outside of the SEC, every contenders seems to have a rough schedule or too many new starters to reliably say 12-0 will happen. After Florida and LSU struggled through the SEC the past two seasons, the pollsters rightfully put the battle-tested SEC champion in the BCS Championship and both delivered by stomping OSU. The only team in the same league as Ohio State on paper is Georgia, but the Bulldogs also have the toughest schedule in America. Look for LSU, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn to seriously contend as well. Still, Georgia is the most likely team to survive the toughest schedule in the country with only one loss, opening the door for the SEC return to the championship.

Here the case against is strong. As listed above, no fewer than 4 other Top 15 caliber teams will be competing for the SEC crown alongside Georgia. Even though Florida does not have the same talent as Georgia, a win in the Cocktail Party will supplant the Bulldogs with the Gators in the BCS chase. Still, an SEC champion will be impossible to slot in the BCS Championship if two other conference have an undefeated team and the SEC does not. After two years of imperfect finishes, college football is due for 2-3 undefeated teams in 2008. The Verdict? A storm seems to be brewing in college football, that storm being parity. Every conference outside of the Pac-10 and Big Ten has parity, and the two dominant teams in those runaway conferences play each other in 2008 and 2009. Consequently, expect the Florida-Georgia winner to make it three appearances in a row for the SEC.

The final ingredient to 2006-07 is the final outcome, the coup de grace. Ohio State came in as a heavy favorite over Florida and lost by 27. LSU was favored by a touchdown and did not disappoint, winning by 14. After Georgia's heavy complaining in 2007, the 2009 BCS Championship could match two teams with huge chips on their shoulders in Georgia and Ohio State. Ohio State is halfway to infamy held only by the Buffalo Bills, and Georgia would be looking to make OSU o-for-10 against the SEC in bowl games. The SEC champion will be battle-tested, while OSU feeds on lesser opponents many weeks. Like most trilogies, people will automatically assume OSU cannot win a game like this.

The argument against this outcome is strong. While the 2006 and 2007 Buckeyes were not really challenged outside of a fluke loss against Illinois, but road games at USC, Illinois, and Wisconsin will test these Buckeyes more. Georgia and Florida have great offenses, but the Buckeyes have improved and will likely be able to stop the SEC-caliber offenses after facing everything from Wisconsin's power-I to Michigan's new spread. No conference has produced three consecutive BCS Champions in the modern era. The verdict? The script never seems to change, which is why most trilogies end on a sour note. 2008 will be the same disappointing SEC beats Ohio State result, and nobody outside of SEC country will be happy. Watch out college football fans...this season has trilogy written all over it.

The first game of the opening slate comes Saturday when Utah visits Michigan. Of course nobody has forgotten how Lloyd Carr's final season in the Maize and Blue started, with tough home losses to Appalachian State and Oregon. Utah may be as good or better than both of those teams, and the Utes have serious BCS possibilities if they make it out of Ann Arbor 1-0. A new spread system will be tested by fire this season, as Michigan does not have the Rich Rodrigues style of athletes yet. Michigan's defense will be the key, as Utah can score points in bunches if left unchecked. Despite every indication that Utah is the favorite here, I'm picking Michigan because I think the young Wolverines are just sick and tired of hearing about 2007 and want to springboard a top-notch 2008 bowl win into a surprising successful season. Michigan by 4.

The second game of the week is Tennessee at UCLA on Monday night. Tennessee lost a tough opener out west at California last season, but the teams went in opposite directions as the Volunteers rebounded to an SEC Title Game while Cal floundered. Tennessee should be even better in 2008 and is simply overshadowed by the bigger names playing for rivals Georgia and Florida. This is also the beginning of the Rick Neuheisel era after his fall from grace three years ago. UCLA is his home, so expect improvements under a slightly better coach than Karl Dorrell. This would be a huge statement to UCLA and even cross-town rival USC if the Bruins win against this level of competition. Crazy things do happen in the Rose Bowl, but not this time. Tennessee will win by 21.

The third and best game of the week is an easy choice, Alabama vs. Clemson in Atlanta. Each of these teams has struggled through high expectations and failed results. Both have great coaches Saban and Bowden. This is just the kind of game Clemson usually loses to ruin a seven or eight game winning streak. Alabama would instantly become a sixth contender in the SEC race with this neutral-site win over a Top 10 team. The reality is that this is the most complete team Clemson has had, and a weak ACC should open the door for an almost certain BCS berth either way. Clemson steals this one in the fourth quarter by 10.

2007 GOTW Record: 25-20 (.556)
Last Week: N/A

Fitz Top 10 - Preseason
1. Ohio State
2. Georgia
3. Florida
4. USC
5. Missouri
6. Clemson
7. West Virginia
8. Oklahoma
9. Auburn
10. Wisconsin
Just Missed: LSU, Texas Tech, BYU, Texas, Arizona State

It is good to be back for another season, and I look forward to bringing all of my readers good stories in 2008. See you next week!

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