College Football bettors` Top 10

It`s never too early to start thinking about football and this year`s college season could be one of the most exciting in a long time. Although USC is the heavy favorite to three-peat as national champs, there`s plenty of other teams in the running – and great odds if you look outside of the Trojan empire.

1) Tennessee Volunteers +1800

This is one of the most talented teams in the country and it’s a mystery why oddsmakers have opened the window so wide for bettors. Coach Phillip Fulmer has athleticism and experience at nearly every position, as they displayed in their virtuoso performance in last year’s Cotton Bowl victory. Tailback Gerald Riggs Jr. is a serious Heisman candidate and his groundwork will help clear the airways for quarterback Erik Ainge and his gifted receiving corps.

On the field, this team makes few mistakes, but off the field is a different story. No less than 13 Tennessee players have been either arrested or cited for crimes during the offseason. A few players will be serving suspensions in the Vols’ opener against UAB for their involvement in these incidents, but that shouldn’t affect their shot at a national championship. Early games at Florida and LSU will be much more serious roadblocks, but if they can pull off wins in the deep south, “Rocky Top Tennessee” could be playing in Pasadena in January.

2) Oklahoma Sooners +1200

A 55-19 blowout at the hands of USC in last year’s Orange Bowl didn’t do much for OU’s public image, but don’t forget that this is one of the most successful football programs in recent history. The Sooners have only lost seven games in the last five years and with another successful recruiting year by coach Bob Stoops, you know that Oklahoma is still a powerhouse.

The betting public sees a team without its Heisman-winning quarterback, superstar receiver, and a pile of other long-time contributors, but question marks at a number of positions will undoubtedly become exclamation marks when young players get a chance to step up as running back Adrian Peterson did last year. Stoops will be working with only 11 returning starters, but there are no rebuilding years in Oklahoma. They have a good shot at winning the Big 12 if they can take down Texas in Dallas on Oct. 8 and then the Sooners can circle the wagons and start thinking about redemption for last year’s embarrassment.

3) Iowa Hawkeyes +1500

Not your traditional Big Ten powerhouse, but with a dramatic Hail Mary pass that called to mind Doug Flutie circa 1984, Drew Tate ushered in a new era of Hawkeyes football. That was the last-second play that won the Capital One Bowl and branded Iowa with the promise of great things to come. But it’s still Iowa – better known for cornfields than pigskins – and oddsmakers aren’t about to make these farm boys the favorites over the glamour boys in L.A. and Miami.

But that’s what makes this team such a great bet. Nobody can picture the Hawkeyes in Pasadena, but they have as good a shot as anybody to go all the way.

4) Auburn Tigers +5000

It takes more than just one great season to win a national championship. The BCS demonstrated this fact when they dissed a 13-0 Auburn team and held them out of the championship game in favor of Oklahoma. That could work to their advantage this year if they can put together another successful campaign.

It won’t be easy without their two world-class running backs and starting quarterback from 2004, but their savage defense is still largely intact and that’s not something to be overlooked. Newcomers at quarterback and tailback will have to step up, but if Brandon Cox can get him the ball (and with a 65 percent completion percentage last year, there’s no reason he shouldn’t) receiver Courtney Taylor could become the new star of this offense. This team is going to be better than most people think and it’s never a bad thing when the BCS owes you one.

5) Alabama Crimson Tide +7500

Crimson Tide is the only team in the SEC that can stop Auburn. I love these odds on Alabama because this team is going to surprise a lot of people. Quarterback Brodie Croyle is back from an injury that kept him off the radar last year, but this guy is a ball player. He’ll provide a much-needed boost to the offense, while the defense will remain strong with Demeco Ryans at linebacker, Mark Anderson up front and a rock solid secondary.

But the best thing is Alabama’s schedule. They play all their difficult games in Tuscaloosa and they get the chance to build up a season’s worth of momentum before heading to Auburn for their last game, in what could be the battle for the SEC title. Keep an eye out for Alabama because all the pieces are in place for the Tide to roll right into the BCS championship game.

6) Michigan Wolverines +1200

With the sour taste of a one-point Rose Bowl defeat to Texas still in the mouth of the Michigan Wolverines, oddsmakers are banking the experience and determination of last year’s Big Ten champs to carry them once again.

Led by rising sophomore running back Mike Hart and pivot Chad Henne, Michigan’s front line is much to be feared. Although the loss of Braylon Edwards will hurt the Wolverines, they should throw their weight around in the Big Ten. That is, of course if Ohio State doesn’t stifle them in the final game of the regular season.

7) Ohio State Buckeyes +1000

Focus. That’s all Ohio State needs to do. With the departure of Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith’s troubles behind him, the Buckeyes can finally make a push for a national title. They have plenty of weapons to take them there too. Santonio Holmes and utility playmaker Ted Ginn Jr. lead perhaps the best receiving corps in the nation, while the 10 returnees on the other side of the ball only helps the Buckeyes’ already tough defense.

If Ohio State doesn’t depend on Josh Hutson like they did the departed Mike Nugant, the only thing standing in the Buckeyes’ way this year will be a season-finale trip to Ann Arbor.

8) Wisconsin Badgers +4500

Defense stole a number of victories for the Badgers in 2004, but don’t expect the same this time around. With seven starters gone from last year’s 9-3 squad, the Badgers are in rebuilding mode and are focusing on offense, which averaged just over 20 points per game last season.

Former Oregon State offensive coordinator Paul Chryst’s presence should only help junior play-caller John Stocco and Wisconsin’s 103-ranked passing game. They’ll need every inch as the Badgers’ fresh-faced defense kicks off the season at home against explosive Bowling Green.

9) Oklahoma State +8000

Mike Gundy is in for a long season. OSU’s new head coach has the pleasure of molding the young Cowboys into a Big 12 contender - just don’t expect it to happen this year. While the former OSU star QB should help last year’s 112-ranked passing attack and inexperience receiving corps, it will be trial and error this season for the Cowboys. Running back Mike Hamilton is showing signs of life and should help take the pressure off either Donovan Woods or Bobby Reid. But with five of their final seven games coming on the road, including stops in Texas and rival Oklahoma, the Cowboys are already looking ahead to 2006.

10) USC Trojans +100

Obviously, this the strongest team in the country, but at these odds it’s not really worth the money or the effort – especially after a few injuries in spring ball. Three starters will miss the season and tight end Dominique Byrd and fullback Brandon Hancock will both miss up to five weeks after undergoing knee surgery.

The heart and soul of last year’s national championship squad remains in tact. Quarterback Matt Leinart is back with his Heisman Trophy for a senior season, as is insanely talented tailback Reggie Bush, who can do it all on offense. But Norm Chow is no longer around to guide the offense and offensive line coach Ed Orgeron has also flown the coop. The loss of two great leaders could rock the Trojan boat more than most people expect.

And it’s also important to remember how hard it is to stay on top of the intensely competitive college football heap. Three consecutive national championships might be too much to expect of any team.

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