Seven Teams On the Cusp:
Atlantic Coast: Miami Hurricanes: Randy Shannon is doing a nice job of replenishing the ‘Canes talent pool. It will be fun watching youngsters such as quarterback Jacory Harris, linebacker Sean Spence, defensive tackle Marcus Fortson, defensive end Marcus Robinson, cornerback Brandon Harris, as well as wide outs Aldarius Johnson, LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin—octuplets who flashed ability as true freshmen—grow into stars.
Big East: South Florida Bulls: For the past two seasons the Bulls have been knocking on the door of the national scene—cracking the top ten each season—only to fall short of claiming their first Big East title. They are as talented as any team in the conference, but breaking in four new starters along the offensive line means they will have to settle for making their fifth straight (non-BCS) bowl trip.
Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini: With the likes of quarterback Juice Williams and wide out Arrelious Benn leading a deep stable of pass catchers, the Fighting Illini could have the most explosive offensive attack in the Big Ten. If they can find some semblance of consistency and some defense they will crash the top 25 and maybe make a second New Year’s Day bowl in three seasons.
Big XII: Kansas Jayhawks: With senior quarterback Todd Reesing set to pick apart Big XII defenses with his dynamic duo at receiver (junior Desmond Briscoe and senior Kerry Meier) and what should be an improved defense, Kansas hopes to win their first Big XII North crown. They host Nebraska, but must play Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech from the South.
Pac-10: Oregon St. Beavers: Coach Mike Reilly has quietly been one of the most consistent head coaches in college football and despite a difficult schedule, he will have the Beavers among the better teams in the Pac-10. The Rodgers Boys—sophomore running back Jacquizz and junior wide out James—solidify the offense, but eight starters must be replaced on defense.
Southeastern Conference: Arkansas Razorbacks: If headman Bobby Petrino can harness Ryan Mallett’s vast potential—he may have the strongest arm in all of college football—the Razorbacks could be among the nation’s most improved teams this season. Tailback Michael Smith and tight end D. J. Williams are dynamic playmakers and the defense will be better for the lumps suffered in 2008.
Independents: Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The skill position talent is there—particularly at receiver (Golden Tate and Michael Floyd)—and Jimmy Clausen may actually live up to the hype, making the Irish a team on the rise. The biggest concerns come in the trenches, which are often where football games are won and lost. The O-Line is inconsistent, while the D-Line is unproven.
BCS Busters: TCU Horned Frogs: The young Horned Frogs (only 15 seniors) are likely a year a way from being BCS Bowl contenders, but should not be counted out this season, not with balance on both sides of the ball. Andy Dalton provides experience at quarterback, while end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington headline a speedy defense.
Rounding Out the Top 50 - The Best of the Rest:
Arizona Wildcats: The ‘Cats should continue to get better on the defensive side of the ball and there are several talented skill players ready to step up offensively, beginning with all-everything junior tight end Rob Gronkowski. As long as headman Mike Stoops can find a replacement for quarterback Willie Tuitama, Arizona should build on last season’s success.
Arizona St. Sun Devils: A six-game losing streak buried the Sun Devils in year two of the Dennis Erickson era. A talented front seven means they will make a bowl this season, but the fact they must replace Rudy Carpenter and are still searching for a winning combination along the offensive line means they will not reach double digits in wins as they did in 2007.
BYU Cougars: BYU is not far behind TCU or Utah in the race for the Mountain West crown and a BCS bowl. This group of Cougars is looking to become the first in school history to reach double figures in victories four years in a row. If the offensive line and wide receivers gel quickly, coupled with an improved defense, BYU will be dangerous.
Cincinnati Bearcats: In quarterback Tony Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, the Bearcats possess the offensive firepower to repeat as Big East Champs. However with only one starter returning on the defensive side of the ball, it will be an uphill climb. Chip Kelly is the conference’s best headman so they cannot be counted out, even in what amounts to a rebuilding year defensively.
East Carolina Pirates: With veteran quarterback Patrick Pinkney and strength in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the Pirates figure to be one of the most dangerous BCS Busters once again. There is not shortage of skill players on offense or the defensive backfield. Retaining head coach Skip Holtz was also a coup for the program.
Kentucky Wildcats: The ‘Cats had an explosive offense in 2007 led by quarterback Andre Woodson, but last season it was more of a defensive-minded squad which took them to a third straight bowl game. To make it four in a row, Rich Brooks hopes to find some balance. The offense has gained experience with stud linebacker Micah Johnson and corner Trevard Lindley on defense.
Maryland Terrapins: The Terps are led by an experienced senior signal caller in Chris Turner, but will be one of the youngest teams in the ACC in 2009. That, of course, doesn’t mean they lack talent. With no Georgia Tech or North Carolina on the docket their schedule is favorable and if they can gel sooner rather than later, Ralph Friedgen’s boys could surprise.
Missouri Tigers: After winning consecutive Big XII South titles, the Tigers figure to take a step back with the loss of quarterback Chase Daniels, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, tight end Chase Coffman, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, and safety William Moore. A home game versus Nebraska could set up a showdown with border rival KU for a spot in the conference championship game.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: The Cornhuskers won six of their final seven games in 2008, which is why they are being picked by many to regain their status as top dog of the Big XII North. Bo Pelini does appear to be the man to get them back on top, but that doesn’t mean they have to do it this season—not with only ten starters back from a nine-win team.
Nevada Wolf Pack: Which quarterback rushed for 1,130 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008? No it wasn’t Tim Tebow, it was Wolf Pack junior Colin Kaepernick, one of the most exciting players in the nation. They also bring back the WAC rushing champs from 2008 (junior Vai Taua) and 2007 (senior Luke Lippincott).
North Carolina St. Wolfpack: Tom O’Brien appears to have the Wolfpack headed in the right direction and year three in Raleigh should be the first of many winning seasons to come (6-7 in 2008). Led by sophomore signal caller Russell Wilson the offense should be explosive, if they can get the defense turned around—a big if particularly in light of Nate Irving’s injury—NC State could be a sleeper in the ACC.
Northwestern Wildcats: With Pat Fitzgerald leading the program it should be no surprise the ‘Cats possess one of the top defenses in the Big Ten with a potential Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in senior end Corey Wootton, and one of the nation’s top secondaries (all four starters return, including three All-Big Ten performers). If skill players emerge on offense, watch out.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Two years ago the Scarlet Knights’ identity was running back Ray Rice (Rutgers’ all-time leading rusher). Last season it was the passing game, led by quarterback Mike Teel (Rutgers’ all-time leading passer) and wide out Kenny Britt (Rutgers’ all-time leading receiver). Who will step up to be the face of the 2009 team? With a lack of proven playmakers, RU isn’t ready to contend for the conference crown—maybe next year for these Jersey Boys.
South Carolina Gamecocks: It is absolutely stunning the struggles that South Carolina has had finding a quarterback under Steve Spurrier. Despite losing junior defensive backs Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook, the defense will be staunch once again. However unless junior signal caller Stephen Garcia begins to fulfill some of the promise many had for him, it might not matter.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: With quarterback Austin Davis, running back Damion Fletcher, and wide receiver DeAndre Brown, as well as an experienced offensive line and a year under their belt in Larry Fedora’s system, the Golden Eagles should have the top offense in the East Division. If the defense catches up, this team will make some noise.
Texas Tech Red Raiders: Losing record-setting quarterback Graham Harrell and star receiver Michael Crabtree was expected, but losing the 22 sacks that junior ends Brandon Williams and McKinner Dixon recorded was not. The strong-armed Taylor Potts should flourish in the shotgun for Tech, who will be hard pressed to repeat their 11 wins of last season.
Wisconsin Badgers: Close losses, poor special teams play, and turnover margin did the Badgers in last season. If they don’t find some answers on defense and quarterback Dustin Sherer doesn’t improve, none of that will matter. The talent is there to stop the downward trend (12 wins in ’06, nine in ’07 & seven in ’08) since Brett Bielema took over, but they’re probably not looking at a top-25 finish.
Others Going Bowling:
Air Force Falcons: Sophomore Tim Jefferson gives the Falcons the type of dynamic presence at quarterback that their best teams have had. They will run the ball well—that is a given—whether or not they have an impact on the Mountain West race will be determined by Jefferson’s development as a passer and the defense. They will be better than last year’s eight-win squad.
Auburn Tigers: Gene Chizik’s first season in Auburn could be a rocky one. They still have questions at quarterback, a lack of playmakers on offense, and little depth in the front seven. While they will be looking up at Alabama once again—way up—there is enough talent with stars like end Antonio Coleman and tackle Lee Ziemba for Auburn to return to a bowl.
Baylor Bears: How do you not root for second-year headman Art Briles and sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin? For the first time since joining the Big XII, look for the Bears to post a winning season—or at least a non-losing regular season—and make a bowl. They have weapons on offense and a defense that should improve with the addition of defensive tackle Phil Taylor.
Buffalo Bulls: The class of the MAC East should again challenge for the conference title after pulling off the upset over Ball St. last season. Quarterback Drew Willy is gone, but stellar tailback James Starks and explosive pass catcher Naaman Roosevelt are back, as is headman Turner Gill who has led the turnaround. A strong back seven could make them better in 2009.
Central Michigan Chippewas: The passing game (quarterback Dan LeFevour, wide receivers Bryan Anderson and Antonio Brown) and a solid front seven (defensive end Frank Zombo, linebacker Nick Bellore) make the Chippewas the favorite in the MAC. However, an equally shaky offensive line and defensive backfield make them vulnerable to challengers.
Colorado Buffaloes: Season four of the Dan Hawkins era is a big one in Boulder. The Buffaloes regressed last season, due in part to rash of injuries. Quarterback play and how quickly the defense adjusts to a new scheme will decide how far they go in 2009—they could go anywhere from struggling to make a bowl to challenging for the Big XII North.
Connecticut Huskies: They must replace running back Donald Brown and quarterback Tyler Lorenzen on the offensive side of the ball. That won’t be easy, leaving the defense to lead the way. The Huskies are stacked at linebacker with a troika of starters returning in Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson, and Greg Lloyd—all juniors.
Houston Cougars: Headman Kevin Sumlin had a solid debut in Houston and with quarterback Case Keenum, tailback Bryce Beall and wide receiver Tyron Carrier all back they should be just as good, if not better, in year two. Like many others in Conference USA, their defense needs work. Nevertheless, they are the team to beat in the West Division.
Memphis Tigers: With five bowl appearances in the past six seasons, headman Tommy West has earned some benefit of the doubt. The Tigers have a very solid defense and skill players galore—see running back Kevin Steele and wide out Carlos Singleton. If they can get improved play from the quarterback position, Memphis could be the surprise of Conference USA East.
Michigan Wolverines: With uncertainty at quarterback and a transition on defense (new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson), the Wolverines are still a year away from being “Michigan” again. Defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Obi Eze, and cornerback Donavan Warren are solid building blocks, and there are enough skill players on offense to make a bowl.
Navy Midshipmen: They lose offensive linchpins in quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, slotback Shun White, and fullback Eric Kettani, but you can still expect the Midshipmen to possess one of the top rushing attacks in the nation. What will be different is this season, it could be the defense that leads the way to a seventh straight bowl appearance.
Northern Illinois Huskies: He’s not at the level of Dan LeFevour or Tim Hiller, but Huskies’ sophomore signal caller Chandler Harnish flashed ability as a freshman while leading NIU to a bowl game. Harnish is more LeFevour in that he can hurt you with his arm and legs. A strong offensive line means the Huskies will boast a balanced offense.
Troy Trojans: There is little doubt the Trojans will once again be the class of the Sun Belt. Larry Blakeney continues to churn out stellar defensive units (and NFL prospects) led by senior ends Brandon Lang and Cameron Sheffield. This year with the return of quarterback Levi Brown, running back DuJuan Harris, and wide out Jerrel Jernigan, they could be just as good on offense.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane: As long as Todd Graham leads the Golden Hurricane, Tulsa will bring one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. For the third time in three years they will be breaking in a new quarterback, but there will be no shortage of weapons to throw to. An improved defense could help counter the losses of quarterback David Johnson and running back Tarrion Adams.
UTEP Miners: If you’re looking for a sleeper in Conference USA, the Miners are it. The combination of Trevor Vitattoe (quarterback) to Kris Adams (wide receiver)—both juniors—might be the best you haven’t seen. What held back Mike Price’s club in 2008 was defense, something they must overcome…again. The secondary has potential and could make UTEP a surprise in ’09.
Vanderbilt Commodores: They are not the most exciting team in the country—heck, punter Brett Upson was the MVP of their Music City Bowl victory—but Bobby Johnson’s squad is sound as they come. If they could just get some semblance of an offense to go along with their stellar defense, the ‘Dores could really make some noise in 2009.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons: With senior quarterback Riley Skinner and an experienced front five, Wake’s offense could the best they’ve had in years. With the likes of linebackers Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux, as well as defensive backs Alphonso Smith and Chip Vaughn off to the NFL, they will certainly need that offense to come through. One thing is for sure—Jim Grobe’s teams should never be underestimated.
Western Michigan Broncos: A solid offensive line—perhaps the best in the MAC—returns to block for strong-armed quarterback Tim Hiller and the shifty runner Brandon West. The senior duo will need to be at their playmaking best as Butch Jones is rebuilding the entire defense. A home game against Central Michigan gives them a chance to win the West.
Photo Credit: University of Miami Sports Media Relations Office, Mark A. Philbrick/BYU, Brian Utesch, Baylor University Athletics, University of Houston, Wake Forest Athletics Media Relations
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Seven Teams On the Cusp: