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July 21, 2012

Irish Illustrated's 100 hunches: 80-71

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80. Clemson will land a BCS at-large berth - All the key offensive skill-position players return on a unit that ranked among the nation's top 26 in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense. The one-two-three receiving punch of Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown combined for 185 receptions, 2,603 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and dual threat QB Tajh Boyd returns to get them the football. Andre Ellington (1,178 yards rushing 11 TDs) is one of the most dangerous running backs in the country. Of course, it all comes down to a defense that allowed 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. That's why DC Kevin Steele is out and Brent Venables is in. The Tigers trim a touchdown off the 29.3 points allowed per game last year to challenge Florida State for the ACC Atlantic Division title.

79. Alabama will land a BCS at-large berth - The schedule is a bit cruel with a neutral site opener in Arlington against Michigan, and trips to Arkansas on Sept. 15 and LSU on Nov. 3. The top three tacklers from '11 are gone and so are the top four receivers, which also includes Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson, who rushed for 1,679 yards and 21 TDs. But the Tide has won 48 games the last four years. Winning has become a part of their DNA. So, too, are trips to BCS games, with three in the last four years. Make that four out of five.

78. Oregon will land a BCS at-large berth - Winning has become a habit for the Ducks as well with 44 victories and three straight BCS games. QB Darron Thomas' early departure was a blow, as was the loss of RB LaMichael James (1,805 yards rushing, 18 TDs). Bryan Bennett takes over for Thomas, which is a step back at QB. But RBs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, who combined for 1,534 yards rushing and 18 scores, spark an attack that averaged 299 yards rushing per game. The real key to Oregon landing a BCS bid is its improvement on defense, which recorded 45 sacks in '11. For the first time in several years, the Oregon-Stanford game is lower scoring, but the end result is the same. The Ducks defeat the Cardinal to win the Pac 12 North.

77. Texas will land a BCS at-large berth - After winning 90 games in an eight-year span, the Longhorns won just 13 games in the last two seasons combined. The 12 losses equaled the total from the previous seven years combined. But 15 starters return, including nine on the offensive side, where the QB play has been at the forefront of Texas' problems the last two seasons. David Ash will have to protect the football better (four TD passes, eight interceptions in '11). If he doesn't, Mack Brown will turn to Case McCoy. But the top four receivers return, and the running game continues to get stronger. If the Longhorns can get past Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Sept. 29, they'll be back with the big boys.

76. Florida State defeats Louisville in the Orange Bowl - After six years of trips to places like the Emerald, Music City, Chick-fil-A and Champs Sports bowls, the Seminoles are back in a BCS game for the first time since 2005. Louisville, coached by former Notre Dame assistant Charlie Strong, is back to the Orange Bowl for the first time since Bobby Petrino's 12-1 run in 2006. In a battle of defenses, Florida State prevails.

75. Wisconsin defeats Oregon in the Rose Bowl - Despite not winning the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, the Badgers play in the conference championship game (due to Ohio State's ineligibility) and knock off Nebraska to land a spot in the Rose Bowl against the Ducks for the second straight season. The Ducks prevailed last year, 45-38. But the Badgers still have the powerful ground game led by RB Montee Ball (1,923 yards rushing, 33 TDs), who returns as a Heisman Trophy finalist and helps transfer QB Danny O'Brien settle in. The Badgers get their revenge against Oregon.

74. Oklahoma defeats Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl - The Sooners expect to return to the BCS Championship game for the first time in 2008. But losses to Texas in Dallas and at West Virginia derail their plans. Clemson, meanwhile, has much to prove after its humiliating loss to West Virginia in last year's Orange Bowl. The Tigers play much better defensively, but ultimately fall to the Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl.

73. Alabama defeats Texas in the Sugar Bowl - The Crimson Tide yawns at mere BCS bids after having won two national championships in the last three years. But Nick Saban's crew is 4-1 in bowl games under his direction, and traditional power Texas is more than enough to get the Crimson Tide up for the Sugar Bowl, where they haven't participated since 2008. Alabama's defense suffocates Texas' experienced offense.

72. LSU defeats USC in the BCS Championship Game - The Tigers could taste their second national championship in five seasons last year, but Alabama left a bad taste in their mouths with a shutout victory. Head coach Les Miles, often criticized for his game-day decision-making, has much to prove. This time, LSU doesn't let it slip away as another spectacular Tiger defense pressures Heisman Trophy winner Matt Barkley into three interceptions to claim the 2012 national championship.

71. Most improved: San Jose State - No one expects teams such as Ohio State, South Florida and Central Florida to lose seven games again. But no one improves more than the WAC's San Jose State, coached by Mike MacIntyre. The Spartans also lost seven times in 2011 after going 2-10 in 2009 and 1-12 in MacIntyre's first season in San Jose in 2010. Never afraid to take on the big boys before conference play begins (Nebraska and Stanford in 2008, USC and Stanford in 2009, Alabama and Wisconsin in 2010, and Stanford and UCLA in 2011), the Spartans give Stanford all it can handle in the season opener before falling. The go on to win 10 games, including a bowl game, which lands MacIntyre - and his defensive coordinator, Kent Baer, who coached at Notre Dame from 2002-04 - a job at a BCS school in 2013.

Irish Illustrated's 100 hunches
80-71
70-61
60-51
50-41
40-31
30-21
20-11
10-1





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