Petrino’s Cardinals are a sleeper team


LITTLE ROCK — Criss crossing conference championship odds with a preseason poll in a search for the Michigan State of 2014, three teams appeared on the radar.

The original idea was to identify the Auburn of this year, but the 2013 Tigers didn’t offer any obvious point of reference except a new coach. Remember, coaches thought so little of Auburn that none could find a reason to cast a vote for the Tigers in the preseason poll.

This year, 20 FBS schools have new head coaches and more than 60 teams were blanked in the poll. Throwing darts at that bunch is not a good plan so Michigan State’s background was employed to narrow the also-eligible list. The Spartans’ 13-1 was overshadowed by Auburn’s unlikely trip from nowhere to national championship game but, a year ago, MSU only had sufficient appeal to be on the fringe of the Top 25 in the preseason poll.

Matching the 28 teams that also received votes this year against teams that are 10-1 or less to win their conference championship yields Michigan of the Big Ten, Louisville of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Oklahoma State of the Big 12. Winning a conference championship is a virtual must to get into the four-team College Football Playoff. Even a 12-0 team that loses a close one in the league championship is iffy.

For a refresher course on 2013, the final BCS standings, were Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan State; teams that were No. 12, nowhere, No. 1, and No. 28 in the coaches preseason poll.

There are parallels between Auburn and Michigan State, including the fact that both won with unproven quarterbacks and both lost on Sept. 21, Auburn to LSU and Michigan State to Notre Dame.

At Auburn, Nick Marshall, fresh from Garden City Community College, enabled an offense that averaged more than 500 yards per game. At East Lansing, Connor Cook, who threw all of 17 passes the previous year, completed almost 59 percent with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.

For contrast, there is the in-vogue offense of the Tigers vs. the old-fashioned defense of the Spartans.

Auburn scored 30 or more in each of its last 10 games; Michigan State held opponents to 0-3-6-6-3 in its last six regular-season games.

If Louisville or Michigan or Oklahoma State is this year’s Michigan State, I’m sticking with the new face at quarterback theme and going with the team that lost a quarterback who may be the starter for the Minnesota Vikings.

Endorsing Louisville is not a dismissal of Teddy Bridgewater’s skills, but reflects confidence in Bobby Petrino’s talent for tutoring quarterbacks and befuddling defenses, plus questions about the number of quality teams in the ACC. The former is from witnessing Petrino’s work at Arkansas and the latter is based on Florida State’s weekly rout of conference opponents in 2013. Outside of No. 1 FSU, the ACC is not represented in the preseason top 15.

Despite being suspicious that Petrino orchestrates the spring game to showcase the quarterback, sophomore Will Gardner’s 32 of 37 for 542 yards and four touchdowns is impressive.

Black marks against Oklahoma State include questions at quarterback and a season opener against Florida State. In OSU’s favor is that the Big 12, much like the ACC, appears to have only two national contenders.

Michigan, which lost six of its last eight and was 3-5 in the league, plays Notre Dame and the two best teams in the Big Ten.

Speculation about the unexpected in college football is fodder for conversation in August, but the guess is that all four participants in the CFP can be found in the top 16 in the preseason poll. That group includes Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, LSU, and Auburn of the SEC; Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC of the Pac 12; Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin of the Big Ten; FSU and Clemson of the ACC, and Oklahoma and Baylor of the Big 12.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.Email: hleonk42@gmail.com.