BTB Spring Football Part One: Emerging Stars
Part Two: Emerging Teams
Part Three: Heisman Candidates
It’s never too early to preview the 2008 season.
With the fourth installment of a five-part series, Beyond the Bleachers is back with its Spring Football synopsis.
This week, Beyond the Bleachers analyzes the mythical Top 25 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, assuming the season started today. As spring practices have come to a conclusion across the country and Memorial Day has passed, take a look at some early rankings as we wait another three months for the ’08 season to start…
1. Florida Gators (9-4, 5-3 in SEC East)
While the overwhelming majority of early-bird preseason forecasts have Georgia as the No. 1 team in the land, let’s not forget about their rivals—the 2006 BCS Champion Florida Gators.
The Achilles Heel for the Gators last year was a poor secondary that ranked last in the SEC in pass defense. This spring, returning starting DBs Major Wright, Joe Haden and Wondy Pierre-Louis all showed measurable improvements from last year. The Florida secondary should be helped out by the pass rush of the defensive front, specifically from ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap.
The only other noticeable weakness from the 2007 squad was that it lacked reliable offensive skill players outside of Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. This year, the offense will feature a plethora of playmakers with the emergence of sophomore running back Emmanuel Moody and redshirt freshman slotback Chris Rainey. Rainey, in particular, is a player to watch, as he has been clocked at 4.24 in the 40-yard dash and may be the fastest player in all of college football. In the end, the health of Tim Tebow will ultimately determine how well this team performs. As long as Tebow remains intact, Urban Meyer’s Gators have the talent to win a national championship in January 2009.
2. Georgia Bulldogs (11-2, 6-2 in SEC East)
The Georgia Bulldogs enter the 2008 season with the most momentum out of any team in the country. After a hot finish to last year in which the ‘Dawgs won their last seven games including a blowout of then-unbeaten Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia is the frontrunner to play for the 2009 BCS Championship. They will have to get through a tough schedule first.
In addition to home games against Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia Tech, Georgia will have to travel to LSU, Auburn, South Carolina and Arizona State. Georgia also has a November 1st date in the World’s Largest Cocktail Party against Florida in Jacksonville. If the Bulldogs can get out of the regular season schedule with one or two losses, the team will be in excellent shape to play in the BCS in January.
Georgia has some of the best young talent in the country, including 2007 SEC Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, Knowshon Moreno, sophomore offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant, freshman receiver A.J. Green and junior quarterback Matthew Stafford. While much of the spotlight will be on Moreno—who has been compared to former Bulldog great Herschel Walker as well as Carnell “Cadillac” Williams—the onus will be on the performance of Stafford, an extremely talented yet inconsistent passer for the ‘Dawgs. If Stafford can hit his targets a little more accurately (he had a 55% completion percentage last year), Georgia’s offensive attack will be hard to stop.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2, 7-1 in Big Ten, 2007 Big Ten Champions)
They’ve probably heard it hundreds of times since their 38-24 loss to the LSU Tigers, marking the second consecutive season that the Buckeyes lost in the national championship game to an SEC opponent: “They can’t beat an SEC team.” “Their schedule is too easy.” “Ohio State—and the Big Ten in general—is too slow to keep up.” “After two blowouts, they don’t deserve to be in the national championship game.” Truth be told, it is hard to argue with these statements.
After two consecutive years of playing weak schedules, the Buckeyes seemed ill-prepared for the BCS Championship Game. Whether it was the coaches’ lack of motivation or lack of focus on the players’ part, OSU hasn’t gotten it done on the national stage. This year, with an abundance of experience on both sides of the ball, the Buckeyes have no excuses. Ohio State boasts an experienced quarterback (Todd Boeckman), receiving corps (Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline), arguably the best running back in the country in Chris “Beanie” Wells and a defense that features future high-round draft picks all over the field.
2008 was supposed to be the year Ohio State played for a national championship. If they get by USC in the LA Coliseum on September 13th, the Buckeyes will be on the fasttrack for another appearance. And the rest of the college football world will hate them even more.
4. USC Trojans (11-2, 7-2 in Pac-10, 2007 Pac-10 Champions)
Even with only four returning offensive starters from last year’s 11-2 season, USC should be in position to compete for a national championship again. SC Head Coach Pete Carroll has led his program to six straight BCS games (including a 5-1 record in those games) and looks to not skip a beat in 2008.
The defense may have lost several of its star players including Sedrick Ellis and Keith Rivers (the #7 and #9 picks in the 2008 NFL Draft, respectively) but the Trojans have the potential to be even better this year. Butkus Award candidate Rey Maualuga is one of the best middle linebackers to come through USC in a long time. Strongside LB Brian Cushing—a fellow Butkus candidate—also returns for his senior year. In addition to the linebackers, junior free safety Taylor Mays has drawn comparisons to Ronnie Lott and defensive tackle Fili Moala may get drafted #1 overall in the 2009 Draft.
As long as a relatively inexperienced line can protect Mark Sanchez and block for Allen Bradford, Joe McKnight and co., this team could be scary. USC had better get out of the gate quick because its first five opponents in 2008—including BCS runner-up Ohio State—were all bowl teams last year.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers (11-2, 5-2 in Big East, 2007 Big East Champions)
With everything on the line at the end of last season, the Mountaineers broke down and were upset by rival Pitt, 13-9, in their annual Backyard Brawl. Even after a blowout victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, the sour taste of a lost opportunity still remains. Despite all of his accolades, fourth-year starter Pat White seeks the one thing that has eluded him the past few years: a national championship.
White’s health and his supporting cast will have a lot to do with whether this goal can be achieved. While the loss of Steve Slaton, Darius Reynaud and Owen Schmitt might hurt, their replacements (Noel Devine, Dorrell Jalloh, and Will Johnson, respectively) could be even better.
The offense has plenty of firepower, but can the defense stop anyone? With only four starters returning to the unique 3-3-5 defense, that question may not be answered until the Mountaineers face Auburn, UConn and Louisville late in the season.
Even with a talented squad the Mountaineers’ 2008 schedule won’t allow for an easy path to Miami. West Virginia must travel to Boulder, Colorado on September 18th, and play a home game against SEC West mainstay Auburn in late October. And to end the season, WVU has a crucial game at home against South Florida—the one team that has constantly held this high-powered offense at bay.
6. Oklahoma Sooners (11-3, 6-2 in Big 12 South, 2007 Big 12 Champions)
After winning the Big 12 last year, sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford and 12 other returning starters look to get back to at least the Fiesta Bowl again in January.
The Oklahoma Sooners boast arguably the best offensive line in the country. Future first round picks Phil Loadholt and Duke Robinson, along with Brandon Walker and Trent Williams provide ample amounts of protection for Bradfordand versatile sophomore running back DeMarco Murray.
The Oklahoma defense have to replace its entire secondary as well middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, the 2007 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but defensive backs Dominique Franks, Lendy Holmes, and highly-touted junior linebacker Ryan Reynolds may fit the mold as replacements.
The biggest question mark for the Sooners will be how they perform in the postseason. In Oklahoma’s history of playing in BCS games, the Sooners are a disappointing 2-4 and have lost in their last 4 appearances. Even with head coach Bob Stoops’ illustrious regular season record, he will not be without his critics if the Sooners fall short again when the most pressure is on the line.
7. LSU Tigers (12-2, 6-2 in SEC, 2008 BCS National Champions)
How can a team that lost so much talent (see: Matt Flynn, Ryan Perrilloux, Glenn Dorsey, Jacob Hester, Chevis Jackson, Jonathan Zenon, Craig Steltz, Ali Highsmith, and Early Doucet, to name a few) still be loaded enough to contend for another national championship? Welcome to Baton Rouge, folks.
Pundits may criticize Les Miles for being a gambler as a coach, but few can talk about his ability to recruit young talent to the bayou. Many of the starting skill players from last season are gone, but there is a plethora of young athletes ready to take the reigns. Flynn and Perrilloux are gone, but redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Lee could be special. Instead of Hester and Doucet, the Tigers will utilize Richard Murphy, Keiland Williams, Trindon Holliday, Terrance Toliver, and Demetrius Byrd.
And despite Glenn Dorsey being gone, LSU’s defensive line will still be dominant now that Ricky Jean-Francois is a full-time starter. The biggest question for LSU will be replacing three mainstay defensive backs, but sophomores Chad Jones and Jai Eugene seem to fit the mold.
Yep, I guess there’s no such thing as rebuilding at LSU.
8. Missouri Tigers (12-2, 7-1 in Big 12 North)
The only thing Missouri could not do last year was beat Oklahoma. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Sooners aren’t on their 2008 schedule.
Missouri returns with high hopes for a Big 12 title and possibly more. It will do so on the shoulders of third-year starting senior quarterback and Heisman finalist Chase Daniel. Daniel threw for 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior. One of his primary targets will be ’07 Freshman All-American Jeremy Maclin, who set the freshman record with 2,776 all purpose yards. While Daniel and Maclin are the faces of the program, the Tigers’ real strength might lie in its defense.
After losing only one starter from last year (safety Pig Brown), the Tigers will be strong—especially in the secondary. 6’1 230-pound senior safety William Moore returns after a stellar year in which he tied for first in the NCAA with 8 interceptions. Look for Moore to head a unit that will be tested against some of the best offenses in the country, including Texas and archrival Kansas.
9. Clemson Tigers (9-4, 5-3 in ACC Atlantic)
It seems like every year that Clemson is destined for a great season before they underachieve and end up playing in a mediocre bowl game in late December. With a program loaded with talent in 2008, that all may change.
Clemson has experience on both sides of the ball. At quarterback, Cullen Harper is a seasoned veteran who may quietly be the best passer on the Atlantic coast. Running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller make up the deadliest one-two punch in the country and Aaron Kelly is a threat at receiver. The issue on offense is whether Clemson has the hogs up front to be a legitimate contender. The loss of tackle Barry Richardson may hurt more than they think.
On defense, Ricky Sapp and true freshman DaQuan Bowers make up what looks to be a dominant pass rushing tandem.
At the very least, Clemson looks very good on paper. But as recent history has shown, don’t trust a Clemson team until you see them play the games.
10. Wisconsin Badgers (9-4, 5-3 in Big Ten)
Bret Bielema’s third year as head coach will be a good indicator of what overall direction the program is going after Barry Alvarez’s success in the early 2000s. With a foundation in place and young players making an impact for the Badgers, all signs point to continued success.
The Wisconsin running game promises to be one of the best in the country. Junior running back P.J. Hill is healthy and will have plenty of support from backups Zach Brown, Lance Smith, and redshirt freshman John Clay. The receiving corps will also be strong with the return of senior tight end Travis Beckum and sophomore receiver Kyle Jefferson. Jefferson, who made 26 catches for 412 yards last year, is 6’5” with big play ability and should get plenty of looks in the passing game. The biggest question for the offense is: who takes over for graduated fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan? Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge seems to be the frontrunner, but nothing has been decided yet.
With nine returning starters from a strong defense last year, senior linebacker Jonathan Casillas will lead another strong Wisconsin defense into the fall.
10. Texas Longhorns (10-3, 5-3 in Big 12 South)
Although Texas won 10 games once again, the program seemed to not be making any tangible progress since Vince Young led his squad to a perfect season and national championship in 2006. So Mack Brown decided it was time to bring in new blood at the coordinator positions. He hired former Texas great Major Applewhite from Alabama and the energetic Will Muschamp from Auburn to be his offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. While the true impact of these personnel changes won’t be seen until the season begins, the changes bring promise that Texas may be able to get over the hump next fall.
Junior Colt McCoy returns for his third year as the starting quarterback. This fall, McCoy will be without many of his reliable targets, including 2007 Big 12 leading rusher Jamaal Charles, receivers Billy Pittman and Nate Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley. At the very least, he will be protected by a strong offensive line headlined by guard Cedric Dockery, the younger brother of NFL guard Derrick.
On defense, Muschamp will implement his aggressive play-calling into the scheme, but he may not necessarily have as athletic of players he did while at Auburn. Regardless, opposing offenses will have to be weary of the blitzing Longhorn D.
12. Arizona State Sun Devils (10-3, 7-2 in Pac-10)
In Dennis Erickson’s second year as head coach, he will seek to do something that no Pac-10 program has done in over half a decade: beat USC and win a Pac-10 title. The Sun Devils are loaded with talent, so this may be a realistic possibility.
Senior Rudy Carpenter returns for his fourth year as a starter and will benefit from Erickson’s four and five-receiver spread formations. Not only will Carpenter be able to get rid of the ball more quickly, but he will have plenty of targets to throw to including Mike Jones, Chris McGaha and Keegan Herring.
The loss of Robert James due to graduation hurts, but the Sun Devils have plenty of star power left, including defensive end Dexter Davis, who had 33 tackles and 10.5 sacks as a sophomore.
Arizona State will have plenty of obstacles along its way. In consecutive games, the Sun Devils will play Georgia at home, Cal and USC on the road, Oregon at home, and Oregon State on the road. If they can get through that stretch with only two losses, they should be in good shape.
13. Auburn Tigers (9-4, 5-3 in SEC West)
Tony Franklin’s new spread offense is the talk of the town at Auburn. After only having a few weeks to implement his offense before last year’s Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Auburn beat Clemson, 23-20. Franklin’s most important issue will be finding a quarterback to replace Brandon Cox. Once that is done, the offense will have plenty of playmakers at the QB’s disposal including a trio of running backs, Ben Tate, Brad Lester, and Mario Fannin.
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is gone, but an athletic defense still remains. Defensive lineman Sen’Derrick Marks looks to be the next great, undersized player to come out of Auburn.
In addition to their difficult SEC schedule, Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville scheduled a game at West Virginia—a contest which will surely prove whether this team is a legitimate national contender this year.
14. Alabama Crimson Tide (7-6, 4-4 in SEC West)
Nick Saban-coached programs tend to show the most improvement in their second year. 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.
Led by senior co-captain Antoine Caldwell and Andre Smith, Alabama may boast one of the best offensive lines in all of college football. These potential All-Americans will serve the job of protecting John Parker Wilson and blocking for starting running back Terry Grant.
On defense, 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 in the ACC (Clemson) as well as Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU, Saban’s biggest goal of the season will be beating Auburn. 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.
15. Illinois Fighting Illini (9-4, 6-2 in Big Ten)
Illinois’ meteoric rise from a 2-10 team in 2006 to a Rose Bowl contender a year later has put head coach Ron Zook in the spotlight once again. Illinois returns without several of its leaders this year (J. Leman, Antonio Steele and Rashard Mendenhall), but Zook has reloaded with plenty of talent.
Brit Miller assumes Leman's role at middle linebacker. Expect to see plenty of Zook's prized recruit Martez Wilson at linebacker as well. Junior Vontae Davis has the potential to be a lockdown at the cornerback position.
On offense, Juice Williams will have to take an increased leadership position with the departure of Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Williams will rely on talented sophomore receiver Arrelious Benn, but other playmakers must step up if the Illini look to make the next step and win a Big Ten title.
16. Kansas Jayhawks (12-1, 7-1 in Big 12 North, 2008 Orange Bowl Champions)
Was last year sign of change for the Kansas Jayhawks or merely the result of an easy schedule? This year will be a good indicator of where this program is going as Kansas plays games at South Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Missouri. Both tackles as well as the starting running back and receiver are gone, but junior quarterback Todd Reesing is back with plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal. If the Kansas defensive secondary is able to stop anyone, the Jayhawks will contend for another Big 12 North title.
17. BYU Cougars (11-2, 8-0 in Mountain West, 2007 Mountain West Champions)
Could BYU be this year’s Hawaii? Arguably the best mid-major this fall, the Cougars return with junior Max Hall, sophomore Harvey Unga and the majority of a defense that yielded only 16 points a game in conference play last year.
18. Virginia Tech (11-3, 7-1 in ACC Coastal, 2007 ACC Champions)
Virginia Tech will be without most of its playmakers from last year, but there is still promise in Blacksburg in 2008. Senior quarterback Sean Glennon returns with a firm grip on the starting position and improved decision-making skills. Virginia Tech may have to throw the ball more with Glennon as starting running back Branden Ore was suspended from the team and his backup Kenny Lewis hurt his knee during the spring.
19. Tennessee Volunteers (10-4, 6-2 in SEC East)
For the first time in years, Tennessee may be weak at defensive line. Regardless, the Vols will be backed up by a strong secondary, which includes standout sophomore Eric Berry. On offense, the biggest question is how Jonathan Crompton steps in for departed senior quarterback Erik Ainge. Fortunately for Crompton, he can rely heavily on senior running back Arian Foster—one of the most underrated at his position in the country.
20. South Florida Bulls (9-4, 4-3 in Big East)
Despite rising to the #2 spot in the AP Poll, the Bulls ended the 2007 season on a disappointing note. This year, 16 returning starters (including 10 on offense) and a consistent Matt Grothe should bode well for the Bulls. Defensive end George Selvie (14.5 sacks last year) may hold the title of Best Defensive Player You Haven’t Heard of (yet).
21. Texas Tech Red Raiders (9-4, 4-4 in Big 12 South)
Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree will put up incredible numbers once again but will the defense show up against the best competition? The Red Raiders’ schedule is relatively easy but they’ll have to play Kansas and Oklahoma—two of the best offenses in the country—as well as Texas.
22. Oregon State Beavers (9-4, 6-3 in Pac-10)
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) in the 111-year history of the Oregon State football program, Mike Riley’s program seeks to continue that momentum in 2008.
Former All-American Sammie Stroughter returns to the team after missing virtually the entire 2007 season, but the highlight will be the defense, which led the nation against the run, ranked fourth in sacks, sixth in turnovers and eighth in overall defense.
23. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-4, 4-4 in Big Ten)
Penn State was destined for a rebound year last season, but it never quite formulated. This year, the departure of Anthony Morelli may signify a new era in Happy Valley. With a new spread offense and a young, athletic quarterback (Daryll Clark) leading the way, Penn State’s archaic offense has modernized. Experienced receivers Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, and Jordan Norwood will help the conversion process.
The offense will need to be clicking on all cylinders because the defense will be without its star linebacker Sean Lee due to him tearing his ACL in spring practice.
24. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-4, 5-3 in ACC Atlantic)
After losing a few close games last year, Wake Forest seems like a team poised to make a return to the Orange Bowl in 2009. Junior quarterback Riley Skinner is finally healthy, though he will be without his most dependable target Kenneth Moore. On defense, nine starters return including cornerback Alphonso Smith, who had 8 interceptions and 3 touchdowns last year.
25. Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-5, 4-4 in SEC West)
Sylvester Croom looks to improve on Mississippi State’s impressive 8-5 (4-4 in SEC) record a year ago. With eight defensive starters returning next year from one of the stingiest defenses in the SEC, Croom’s team will be able to keep games close, but much of the fate of this program will rely on the development of quarterback Wesley Carroll. Without a passing game, opposing defenses will key on junior running back Anthony Dixon, a 1,000-yard rusher last year.
On the Bubble: Florida Atlantic, Purdue, Central Florida, Boise State, Tulsa, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Florida State, Cincinnati, Utah, Cal, Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Miami (FL), Pittsburgh, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Connecticut, Hawai’i, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, Houston, Fresno State, Colorado, Eastern Carolina