Looking to 2006: Post-Rose Bowl

Punt, schmunt. Fourth-and-two, two minutes left and five-point lead – you go for it. You go for the kill.

That's how USC Coach Pete Carroll played it at Notre Dame (winning touchdown instead of tying field goal), and that was the right move Wednesday night in the Rose Bowl.

A first down would have sealed the victory, and Carroll had LenDale "Why all the fuss about the Texas defense?" White in the backfield.

The problem was who USC had on the sideline: Reggie Bush.

Shouldn't the Trojans' best player have been on the field for the most important play of the game – if not to handle the ball, then at least to make the Longhorns think he might?

Line him up next to White in the backfield.

Send him in motion.

Split him out wide.

Just put him somewhere.

But with Bush on the sideline, the Longhorns had only one concern: White. They stuffed him short of the first down, took possession and eventually beat the Trojans, 41-38, to capture the national championship.

And here's the thing: that wasn't USC's only coaching gaffe of the game.

If you're going to pass up a first-quarter field goal and go for it on fourth-and-almost-two, why empty the backfield and send quarterback Matt Leinart on a sneak? Why not give the ball to White and let him bulldoze?

Why spend your final timeout to organize the defense before a two-point conversion?

It didn't matter. Either the Trojans were going to trail by one or by three with 19 seconds left. The timeout would have greatly improved their chances of getting into field-goal range.

But enough about the Rose Bowl, and enough about the 2005 season.

Before college football fades into the background, here's a preliminary top 12 for 2006:

1. Ohio State (10-2): Once they settled on a QB (Troy Smith), the Buckeyes were as good as anyone in the country. Many of their marquee playersx will be back in '06, including Smith, TB Antonio Pittman and WR Ted Ginn. OSU must replace its terrific linebackers before the showdown at Texas on Sept. 9.

2. Notre Dame (9-3): Defense should be better, offense should be as good, and the schedule should be accommodating (seven home games). Think the Fiesta Bowl would like a Notre Dame-Ohio State rematch, this time for the BCS title? And in case anyone cares: Penn State at Notre Dame, also on Sept. 9.

3. Oklahoma (8-4): Sorry, Longhorns fans. Order is restored to the Big 12 next season. With most of the defense back, plus a (presumably) healthy Adrian Peterson and a seasoned QB Rhett Bomar, Sooners will be back in the BCS hunt.

4. Louisiana State (10-2): All those elite recruits Nick Saban signed before he bolted for the NFL will be veterans in '06.

5. Virginia Tech (11-2): QB Marcus Vick returns, as does much of the defense. But the Hokies must avoid their late-season fades.

6. West Virginia (11-1): Tough to pick against a team that won 11 games with freshmen at quarterback and tailback.

7. Florida (9-3): The second year in Urban Meyer's system should be much easier for QB Chris Leak.

8. Miami (9-3): Peach Bowl performance is cause for pause, but there's plenty of talent. Sophomore-to-be Kyle Wright should develop into an elite quarterback.

9. USC (12-1): Yes, the Trojans have recruited as well as they've played the past four years, but there will be a few bumps as John David Booty steps in for Matt Leinart and Herschel Dennis (if healthy) takes over for Reggie Bush and LenDale White, who are likely to enter the NFL draft.

10. Florida State (8-5): 'Noles were young and erratic in '05, but both issues should dissolve next fall. Orange Bowl performance against Penn State provided a glimpse of what's to come.

11. Arizona State (7-5): Devils will have two quarterbacks (Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter), a load of returnees on offense and several JC recruits to solidify the defense.

12. Texas (13-0): Heavy losses on both sides of the ball, and that doesn't include the juniors who might turn pro. It's tough to see Vince Young returning, given that his value will never be higher and that his hometown team (Houston) is picking No. 1. However, if Young comes back, then make the Longhorns No. 1.