Behold the majesty:
4. West Virginia
8. Florida State
9. Virginia Tech
10. Penn State
13. South Carolina
15. Ohio State
20. Texas A&M
24. South Florida
I don't actually have the magazine yet, although I did get to touch Orson Swindle's advance copy on Saturday. (Orson, in case you're wondering, was very much like Eric Cartman after he saw the Terence and Philip movie: "I've seen the Terence and Philip movie, who wants to touch me?") Thus, I have not gotten to breathe in the sweet aroma of Steele's reasoning in six-point font, but my initial reactions are as follows:
1. USC is everyone's pick to win the national title and they're certainly a better bet than anyone else, but this Trojan team isn't so imposing so as to merit this sort of unanimity. Their offensive design isn't what it was under Norm Chow and their defense was mediocre for long stretches of last season. More importantly, although USC looked outstanding in their biggest games of the season, they also managed to lose to two vastly inferior opponents and almost lose to several others. They had motivational issues that every pundit is simply assuming are going to go by the wayside.
2. LSU is the consensus #2 team, but I have queasy feelings about them, as well. The Matt Flynn euphoria is triggered by his performance in one bowl game. Bowl games are not usually good measuring sticks of a team's merit and this is especially true when Miami, a team notorious for mailing in bowl performances when they aren't playing for the national title and/or at home ('94 Fiesta Bowl ring a bell?), is involved. Phil rightly gives a nod to Florida State for picking up Jimbo Fisher, but shouldn't he knock LSU down a peg for losing Fisher and replacing him with Gary Crowton, who was somewhat underwhelming at Oregon? Again, LSU is as good an option as any at #2, but why does there seem to be such consensus that they are far and away the best team in the SEC and the second-best team in the country?
3. This is the second straight year that Phil has bought what Bob Stoops is selling, hook, line, and sinker. Oklahoma wasn't especially good last year and they're replacing a senior quarterback with an unheralded JC recruit (I know, Josh Heupel, blah blah blah) and Adrian Peterson.
4. The prevailing skepticism about Phil's picks has centered around his selection of Florida State at #8. Personally, I think this is a really solid pick. Last year, I thought that Steele had the Noles too high and was proven right by Wake Forest 30 Florida State 0. This year, the Noles have the combination of great talent and no-longer incompetent coaching. Florida State's decline neatly tracks the departures of Mark Richt and Chuck Amato, combined with the inexcusable decision by Bobby Bowden to promote and retain his son as offensive coordinator. Now, Amato is back and Fredo Bowden has been replaced by Jimbo Fisher, who was last seen grooming Jamarcus Russell into the #1 pick in the Draft and losing out on the UAB job because some Alabama boosters didn't want their new coach to be the third-best coach in the state. (This was prior to Nick Saban shocking all of us and taking the Alabama job.) Adding Rick Trickett from West Virginia is icing on the cake. The only way that Florida State won't be significantly improved this year is if it takes time to clear out the effects of years of Jumpballpalooza.
5. Contrast Steele's top 25, which features all sorts of changes from last season and appropriately reflects the volatility in college football from year to year, with the static rankings offered by most pundits. Steele famously touted Arkansas last year and has now banished them out of the top 25, which is reasonable since they had an unusually experienced roster and home game-dominated schedule in 2006. Every pundit has Wisconsin in their top ten, while Steele has the Badgers at a more reasonable #16, which takes into account the fact that Wisconsin had no offense last year, played a weak schedule, lost to the one very good team they played by 17 (despite the fact that the very good team in question was in a classic let-down situation), and were beyond fortunate to win their bowl game after being badly outgained. Steele has South Carolina in the Arkansas slot this year, which makes sense given the amount of talent that is returning in Columbia, as well as the fact that this does not look like a vintage year for Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee. Then again, last year didn't look like a vintage Florida year to me or Steele and yet this happened: