2008 Spring Football: Emerging Teams

David WilliamsSenior Analyst IApril 17, 2008

It's never too early to start previewing the 2008 college football season.

With Beyond the Bleachers’ second installment of a five-part Spring Preview of the 2008 season, we start this week with an examination of potential sleepers in the Football Bowl Subdivision.  Although the majority of these programs lack recent success or national exposure, each team has built a nucleus of talented players which may allow them to elevate into one of their respective conference’s elite—or nation’s elite for that matter.  As spring practices come to a conclusion in the South, watch out for these programs to build momentum toward the fall…

Alabama Crimson Tide

Last year: 7-6 (4-4)
Key Games in 2008: Clemson @ Atlanta, GA (8/30), Georgia (9/27), at LSU (11/8), Auburn (11/29)

Nick Saban-coached programs seem to have one general trend:  They may struggle in the initial year as players he did not recruit adapt to his schemes, and by the second year they thrive.  While at LSU, Saban’s Tigers lost to UAB in his first year, but were SEC and Sugar Bowl Champions by the next.

2008 may promise similar success for the Crimson Tide.

After signing two of the most sought-after prospects in the country in 6’4” receiver Julio Jones and 6’7” 285 offensive lineman Tyler Love, Saban has added to the wealth of an already solid offense.

Led by senior co-captain Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith, Alabama may boast the best offensive line in all of college football.  These potential All-Americans will serve the job of protecting John Parker Wilson and blocking for probable starting running back Terry Grant.

While Saban discussed several defensive miscues in the A-Day annual spring game on Monday, he will have plenty of depth and talent in the fall.  Justin Woodall, Rashad Johnson, and Javier Arenas make up a talented defensive backfield and former starting running back Jimmy Johns may emerge as a key player at linebacker.

Although the Crimson Tide have tough games against the cream of the crop on the ACC, Clemson, as well as Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU, Saban’s biggest goal of the season will be beating Auburn. 

Despite the Crimson Tide program’s historical success, Auburn has now beaten Alabama six times a row—including four times consecutively in Bryant-Denny Stadium.  Even if Alabama doesn’t win the SEC West, beating Auburn will go a long way in restoring the Crimson Tide program to prominence.

BYU Cougars

Last year: 11-2 (8-0)
Key Games in 2008: at Washington (9/6), UCLA (9/13), at TCU (10/16), at Utah (11/22)

The overwhelming success of the mid-major Hawai’i Warriors took national focus away from BYU—a team which started off 1-2 and quietly won 10 straight games.

Starting as a freshman at running back, Harvey Unga ran for an impressive 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns.  Rising junior Max Hall led the Mountain West last year in passing yards (3,848) and touchdowns (26).  The defense allowed just over 16 points per game against conference foes last year and will look to continue that momentum into the ’08 campaign.

Miami (FL) Hurricanes

Last year: 5-7 (2-6 in ACC)
Key games in 2008: at Florida (9/6), at Texas A&M (9/20), Florida State (10/4), Virginia Tech (11/13)

After a tumultuous first season in which Miami was clearly overmatched in games against Oklahoma (lost 51-13), Virginia Tech (44-14), and Virginia (48-0), Randy Shannon will look to regroup with a talented bunch of recruits from the Miami era.  The Virginia game was especially embarrassing to the program as it was their last game in the storied Orange Bowl, but 2008 promises a chance for the program to get a fresh chance.

Over the past two years, Shannon has recruited the speed and athleticism that has typified the program over the past two decades; with running backs Graig Cooper and Javarris James, wide receivers Sam Shields and Aldarius Johnson, defensive backs Doug Wiggins and Damien Berry, and defensive stalwarts Arthur Brown and Marcus Fortson, the Hurricanes will have a solid foundation for several years to come.  It also doesn’t hurt to have the past two Florida Mr. Football players on their roster: quarterbacks Robert Marve and Jacory Harris.

The previous Mr. Football before them (Tim Tebow) just won a Heisman Trophy as a true sophomore.  It looks like these guys might have some potential.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Last year: 4-8 (3-5)
Key games in 2008: Virginia Tech (9/20), at Miami (9/27), Notre Dame (10/11), at Virginia (10/18) 

With the exception of lopsided losses to South Florida and Wake Forest last year (both by the score of 37-10), North Carolina lost its six other games by a combined 24 points.  If anything, this margin of defeat is a good indicator that the Tar Heels have the talent to compete in the ACC.

Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, the schedule is much more difficult in 2008.

The beginning of the season will dictate how much improvement North Carolina will be able to make in the win column in 2008.  Although the Tar Heels—considered the “best 4-8 team in the nation last year”—are continuously improving under Butch Davis and the new coaching staff, wins will be hard to come by in September and early October. 

North Carolina must travel to Rutgers (8-5 last year) and Miami, as well has play home dates against Virginia Tech (11-2 last year), Connecticut (9-4 last year) and an improved Notre Dame squad.

With a strong back seven and budding stars Darrius Massenburg and Marvin Austin on the defensive line, the Carolina defense will be able to compete.  The biggest question marks for this team are at quarterback and running back. 

Who will start between returning starting QB T.J. Yates and redshirt freshman Mike Paulus?  Can the athlete Greg Little carry the load at running back? 

Time will tell, but this team has the talent to make a move in the ACC.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Last year: 7-6 (4-4)
Key games in 2008: at Mizzou (10/11), at Texas (10/25), at Texas Tech (11/8), Oklahoma (11/29)

Oklahoma State’s defining moments of last year were highlighted by inconsistent play—getting blown out by Troy on national television and then beating Texas Tech and Nebraska —and Head Coach Mike Gundy’s infamous rant. 

This year, Oklahoma State seeks to get from under Oklahoma and Texas’s shadow in its quest to the top of the highly competitive Big 12 South. 

With rising junior quarterback Zac Robinson (2824 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions) leading a high-powered spread offense into the 2008 season, the Cowboys will certainly be able to compete offensively with the best of them.  In terms of extra amenities, Oklahoma State booster-extraordinaire T. Boone Pickens has ensured that the Cowboys have top-notch athletic facilities, including the self-named Boone Pickens Stadium, which should be renovated in time for the start of next season.

Fans in Stillwater should have plenty to be excited about for the upcoming year, that is, if the Cowboys can handle their brutal road schedule.

Oregon State Beavers

Last year: 9-4 (6-3)
Key games in 2008: at Penn State (9/6), USC (9/25), Arizona State (11/1), Oregon (11/29)

With the help from Head Coach Mike Riley, the Oregon State Beavers are quietly solidifying themselves as a mainstay in Pac-10 football.  With the most wins over a two year period (19-8) in the 111-year history of the Oregon State football program, Riley’s program seeks to continue that momentum in 2008.

Oregon State will do so without three-year starting running back Yvenson Bernard, but his replacement, redshirt freshman Ryan McCants, is already being compared to Beaver all-time great Stephen Jackson. 

In addition to McCants, star receiver and All-American punt returner Sammie Stroughter is back with the team.  While the spotlight will be on Stroughter, the highlight of the team will be the defense—which led the nation against the run, ranked fourth in sacks, sixth in turnovers, and eighth in overall defense.  Although several members of the front seven must be replaced, senior linebacker Bryant Cornell will lead the corps at middle linebacker.

UCLA appears to be the trendy pick to emerge as a Pac-10 power, but keep an eye on the Beavers.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Last year: 5-7 (3-4)
Key games in 2008: at South Florida (10/2), Rutgers (10/25), at Notre Dame (11/1), West Virginia (11/28)

2008 will be the season Pitt finally turns its program around—or Dave Wannstedt may be searching for a job in 2009. 

Building off of momentum from an improbable victory in the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, the Panthers are more talented than their record indicated last year.

Pitt senior linebacker Scott McKillop is a gifted tackler who will lead a defense that allowed only nine points against the Mountaineers—who had arguably the best offense in the country.

Despite all of the hype surrounding fellow freshmen Joe McKnight and Noel Devine, the rising sophomore running back LeSean McCoy had more rushing yards (1,328) and touchdowns (14) than them both. Aside from McCoy, the Panthers will need to find a quarterback if they want to prove that last year’s victory against WVU wasn’t an anomaly.

Purdue Boilermakers

Last year: 8-5 (3-5 in the Big Ten)
Key Games in 2008: Oregon (9/13), at Notre Dame (9/27), Penn State (10/4), at Ohio State (10/11)

In what appears to be Joe Tiller’s final season as head coach for the Boilermakers, Purdue will look to send Tiller out as a winner.  Although the first half of the season will be tough with games against Oregon, Penn State, and Ohio State, the Boilermakers have a relatively easy road if they can get by Michigan later in the season.

Despite a high-powered offense led by senior quarterback Curtis Painter, Purdue will have to improve its defense if it wants to send Coach Tiller out on a high note.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Last year: (6-6, 2-6 in the SEC East)
Key games in 2008: Georgia (9/13), LSU (10/18), Tennessee (11/1), at Florida (11/15), at Clemson (11/29)

Aside from an early-season game at home against Georgia, South Carolina’s schedule his heavily back-loaded.  It will be imperative for Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks to win at least five of their seven first games before their schedule gets tough.

The big question for Coach Spurrier throughout the spring and the summer:

Who is going to be his quarterback? 

Gifted redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia is suspended until the middle of August, so the Ol’ Ball Coach will have to rely on the combination of Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher for the time being.

On defense, the Gamecocks benefit immensely from the return of senior linebacker and Lombardi and Butkus award watch list member Jasper Brinkley—the only known human being to ever drive Tim Tebow onto his back. Brinkley, along with DT Nathan Pepper, and WR Kenny McKinley all must get healthy by August, as each serve pivotal roles on the USC football team.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Last year: 9-4 (4-4)
Key games in 2008: Nebraska (10/11), at Kansas (10/25), Texas (11/1), at Oklahoma (11/22)

In his third season as the starting quarterback for Texas Tech, record-setting senior Graham Harrell will have ample opportunities to showcase his talents in this pass-happy offense.  Harrell’s primary receiver (2007 Biletnikoff award winner Michael Crabtree) returns and his offensive line looks like it has enough depth.

The Red Raiders, who have been known for their weak non-conference schedule, are maintaining that reputation by scheduling two teams from the Football Championship Subdivision (Eastern Washington and Massachusetts). 

It would not be unreasonable to predict Texas Tech to win its first seven games. If Texas Tech can get by Nebraska and Texas A&M—who are both rebuilding under new coaching regimes—they will be looking at a late October date with Mark Mangino’s Kansas Jayhawks.  This game and the subsequent matchups against Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will determine the fate of the Red Raiders. 

Sure, Texas Tech will put up a lot of points, but this needs to happen in the games that matter.  It is especially important that the defense led by coordinator Ruffin McNeill shows up as well.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Last year: 7-6 (5-3)
Key Games in 2008: at Auburn (9/6), Boise State (10/11), at UCF (11/8)

Although the Golden Eagles chose to make a transition with new head coach Larry Fedora, their schedule is favorable for a Conference USA Championship in 2008.  Although Southern Miss will be tested by Auburn and Boise State out of conference, they will not have to play either Tulsa or Houston—teams which could potentially be the best in the conference.

Honorable mentions:

Bowling Green Falcons
After an 8-5 record in the MAC last year, the Falcons will look to build momentum into 2008.

Florida Atlantic Owls
Junior quarterback Rusty Smith has a chance to lead his team to the top of the Sun Belt once again.

Fresno State Bulldogs
With potentially a down year in the Western Athletic Conference, Pat Hill’s Bulldogs may be the class of the WAC—ahead of both Boise State and Hawai’i.

Houston Cougars
Despite the departure of Art Briles to Baylor, new Head Coach Kevin Sumlin has brought excitement to the Houston Cougar program.  Sumlin, the former offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma will bring his high-powered offensive scheme to South Texas.

SMU Mustangs
New Head Coach June Jones is bringing about a winning attitude to the program after taking Hawai’i to the Sugar Bowl in January.

Washington Huskies
With one year under his belt, Jake Locker will look to step forward as one of the elite quarterbacks in the Pac-10.  Ty Willingham will need to make more positive strides for the Huskies in ’08 because his time is running up.


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