The Michigan State Spartans had in 2010 one of the least surprising breakthrough seasons in recent memory. They returned a solid if unspectacular roster for coach Mark Dantonio, who had his own upperclassmen, but mostly, Sparty had a schedule that could be a case study in substantive ease. It had all the elements:
• Keep it local: State didn't leave the state until its eighth game in late October.
• To borrow from "Rounders," pay that man his money: A trio of payout contests dotted the early slate.
• Prime-time potency: A nationally televised win over a rebuilding Notre Dame Fighting Irish team added gravitas. Another home triumph over the still-forming Wisconsin Badgers sealed it.
By the time Bama pummeled the Spartans in a bowl matchup, you looked back and wondered how Michigan State could possibly have done worse than, say, 10-3. Some pollsters already are doing exactly that.
We clamor for smarter voters, but some are already quite smart. What we call preseason rankings are, if you talk to the voters, also predictions. A team that may be No. 20 based on talent easily can be No. 5 when you also figure in its soft schedule. Why evaluate the rosters when you can check the schedule and feel pretty good about being right at the end of the season?
We may decry it, but we'll play along. Here are teams that figure to be on the fringe of the preseason Top 25 -- or left off completely based on their talent levels -- that could end up making significant moves up the polls by season's end based on their soft schedules. It's a schedule-fulfilling prophecy.