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September 2005

Football picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: Pac-10
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

The Pac-10 has always been one of the most overlooked conferences in all of college football. Even though the national champion resides within its borders, the conference still yearns to get the respect that it deserves. In this article, the Pac-10 gets the red-carpet treatment. Let’s take a look at the teams that will separate themselves from the rest of the “Pac.”

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Southern Cal (Projected Record: 12-1, League: 7-1)
Is there anyone that will argue me on this point? The Trojans come into 2006 with depth at just about every position. Matt Leinart, the Trojan quarterback, is coming back for his senior campaign after winning the Heisman last year. He will have an experienced group of receivers to throw to, including Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett.

However, the most deadly Trojan of all is Reggie Bush. I truly feel that this young man has to be the frontrunner for this year’s Heisman. He can, of course, carry the ball, but he is most dangerous when he lines up as a receiver. Even the best linebackers in the Pac-10 have no shot of guarding him.

Speaking of defense, the Trojans are still solid, even with the departures Shaun Cody and Lofa Tatupu. Darnell Bing will anchor a defense that will once again be the true strength of the team. The Trojans’ only Achilles heel is the continuity of the team after the loss of offensive coordinator Norm Chow and line coach Ed Orgeron. These two coaches were invaluable to the success of USC last year, and depending on the success of this campaign, they may be sorely missed.

UCLA (9-3; 6-2)
In 2004, UCLA came about as close as anyone to beating USC. They outplayed the Trojans and had it not been for an interception on their final drive, the Bruins might have pulled off the most shocking upset last year. Let’s take a look what UCLA brings to the table in 2005.

Drew Olson will spearhead an offense that will continue to improve. At running back, Maurice Drew will anchor a position that has strong for the Bruins for the last 10 years (Skip Hicks, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and DeShaun Foster, to name a few). The receiving corps for the Bruins will be led by a tight end. Marcedes Lewis will no doubt be Olson’s favorite target, and if he stays healthy, could be a first or second round draft choice. The Bruins will be hurt on offense by the departures of Manuel White and Craig Bragg, who were both selected in this year’s NFL draft.

On defense, Spencer Havner and Justin London are two of the best linebackers in the country. The loss of Ben Emanuel hurts the Bruins in the secondary, but Jarrad Page will be more than ready for the task. The Bruins have their toughest matchups (Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Cal) all in the Rose Bowl this year, and if their run defense and offensive line can improve, the Bruins will give the Trojans all they can handle.

Arizona State (8-4; 5-3)
Last season for Arizona State was a successful one. They were consistently ranked in the top 20 and defeated Purdue in the Sun Bowl. There was much reason for optimism for Dirk Koetter’s team until the tragic arrest of Loren Wade for murder this spring. Loren Wade was one of my picks to really excel at running back this year. He would have given ASU many reasons to smile, but unfortunately, all he has given them is heartache.

Also, having Andrew Walter at quarterback would help, but ASU’s new QB, Sam Keller, will surprise some people. He has a strong arm and understands this offense well. Another positive for Keller is that he will have Derek Hagan to throw to. Hagan is one of the top 10 receivers in the country. He is, by far, the best receiver in the country that no one has heard of. He is primed for an All-American run this year, and if Keller can be consistent, ASU’s offense will be nearly as dangerous as it was last year.

On the other side of the ball, the Sun Devils must improve strongly if they have any hopes for a Pac-10 title. Jordan Hill, Jamar Williams, and Dale Robertson must give solid contributions or ASU’s defense may be even worse than last year. The secondary, decimated by injury, will have to step up or the team will most definitely suffer. If ASU can apply pressure on the quarterback and cover better, the Sun Devils might end up in the top 20 again.

California (8-4; 5-3)
The 2004 California Bears had one of the most successful years in the school’s history. Their 11-2 record was truly unexpected, and they also had an excellent shot of beating the Trojans last year. This year, expectations have been revised downward with the departures of Aaron Rodgers.

The good news for Bears fans is that there are two capable looking men hoping to take his place. Nate Longshore and Joe Ayoob both impressed Jeff Tedford during spring workouts. One thing is for certain, whoever comes out of camp as the primary quarterback will inherit a team with the cupboards bare at the skill positions.

I’m sure Jeff Tedford wishes his new quarterback would have the luxury to throw to Geoff McArthur and Chase Lyman. These two receivers combined for over 1,200 yards last year, and their departure leaves the Bears uncomfortably slim in that area. At running back, Marshawn Lynch as the unenviable task of replacing J.J. Arrington, one of the all-time greats. Last year, Lynch did a solid job filling in for Arrington as needed, but can he continue his success as a starter? This will be a very important question for Cal to answer.

On defense, only three of the Bears’ front seven return from last year. The good news for Cal fans is that Brandon Mebane is one of them. The sophomore will star in a rejuvenated front seven that will continue to be one of the best in the country. This will take some pressure off of Jeff Tedford’s offense because they won’t have to put up 40 points to win. If they can average over 24, the Bears will have an excellent 2005.

Washington State (7-5; 4-4)
I think that there will be a three-way tie for fifth-place in the Pac-10 between Washington State, Oregon, and Oregon State. Luckily for the Cougars, I feel that they will own the tiebreakers. Washington State’s 2004 campaign was a great example of inconsistency. They struggled against teams they should have destroyed, and played much better teams tough. They have a decent chance at a bowl game this year, and it will depend on their offensive production.

Josh Swogger and Alex Brink were both unimpressive last year and they will have to improve if the Cougars have any shot of a bowl game. The best way for them to get better is to throw to Jason Hill. He might end up being the best receiver in Cougar history. Jerome Harrison can also catch the ball, but he will do most of his damage running through and around opposing defenders. Harrison was a nice surprise for the Cougs and he should continue to solidify the running back position.

Pullman, the home of the Cougars, has always been a tough place to play, but will be even tougher this year because of Wazzu’s defense. This year’s squad will be led by Will Derting. Derting just might be the best linebacker in the conference. He is the “Ray Lewis” of WSU’s defense and his playmaking abilities should allow for this squad to continue improving. The front seven is similar to Cal’s in that it is very strong against the run. The key point of improving will be in the secondary. If Washington State’s can get contributions from Wally Dada and Eric Frampton, the Cougars might win as many as eight games.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: Big 12
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

The Big 12 will once again be a very competitive conference. Oklahoma’s iron grip over the conference will be weakened and upsets will be the rule instead of the exception. Teams like Missouri, Colorado, and Kansas State will not win their division, but should be competitive enough to play the spoiler role. Both the North and South divisions will be close, but there are certain teams that have the potential to have a breakout season. Without further ado, here are the squads that should be the most competitive in the Big 12 conference.

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5. Nebraska (Projected Record: 7-4; League: 5-3)
I have good news and bad news for Nebraska fans. The bad news is that 2005 Cornhuskers will not remind anyone of the Nebraska teams of yesteryear. The good news is that they will win the Big 12 North division (and Bill Callahan will be gone after this season).

If Bill Callahan wants to continue to jog onto Memorial Stadium in years to come, he is going to need Zac Taylor to play like a champion. Taylor, the transfer from Butler Community College, seems to be a better fit for Callahan’s West Coast Offense than Joe Dailey, the Cornhuskers’ previous QB. He had an excellent spring and has shown good touch on his passes, which is a must in the vertical offense Nebraska employs. Of course, screens will also be utilized, due to the talents of Cory Ross.

Cory Ross, Nebraska’s primary running threat, will look to improve on a strong 2004, where he rushed for over 1,100 yards. His size (5-6, 200 pounds) reminds people of a Big 12 legend Barry Sanders, and his rushing skills are underrated. Ross is a multi-dimensional talent who can also catch the ball, as he was third on the team in receptions last year. Speaking of receptions, Husker fans are looking for someone to step up at the wideout position.

The receiving corps are a big question mark in Lincoln this season. There is no one guy that we can earmark to perform at all-conference level, but collectively, they may get the job done. Current starters Terrence Nunn and Isaiah Fluellen will have strong competition from recruits Frantz Hardy, Chris Brooks, and Tyrell Spain. The success of the offense will depend on who can make things happen out of this group, and improve the 81st-rated offense in America.

Another way to improve an offense is by having a solid offensive line. One guy that should provide instant help will be Greg Austin. He’s finally healthy and should be able to help an improving unit. Kurt Mann will be solid as usual and if Cornealius Thomas lives up to his potential, the Huskers offense should improve their output.

The offensive output will need to be increased this season, as the Nebraska defense will prove to be inconsistent in 2005. The Huskers’ defense is talented, but suffered through frustrating lapses last season. When Texas Tech dropped 70 on the Huskers last October, it looked more like target practice for the Red Raiders than an actual football game. Nebraska fans are definitely not looking for a repeat performance, and one guy that can be counted on to play at a high level for 60 minutes is Le Kevin Smith.

Smith, along with Titus Adams, will lead one of the strongest defensive lines in the conference. Smith is an all-conference nose tackle who stuffs the run and has been working on his “bull-rush” skills to get to the passer. Adams is an effective run stopper and loves to get into the backfield to disrupt plays. The key for this unit will be how effective they will be on passing situations, as the secondary will need them to put pressure on the opposing quarterback.

The linebackers will need Stuart Bradley to emerge as a leader. Bradley was second on the team in tackles last year and he’s a Zack Thomas prototype who flat-out makes plays. The other guys in this squad have relatively little experience, but are very talented. JC transfers such as Steve Octavien and Dontrell Moore will be counted upon to produce immediately.

The secondary must improve on a 2004 performance that contributed to the Huskers being ranked 110th in pass defense. The competition for spots is wide open and I think Zack Bowman, a JC transfer from Alaska, will be the man to watch. Bowman possesses the speed and killer instinct needed to play safety in the Big 12. Nebraska would like to play more man coverage in 2005, but their lack of size hinders that possibility. The secondary is a huge question mark, and we will see how it is answered.

The Huskers are a team full of question marks from top to bottom. Bill Callahan has recruited a ton of JC guys who will hopefully help him win immediately. Of course, the cupboards are relatively empty for the following seasons, but Nebraska will never have a problem recruiting so long as they are winning. It should be a very interesting and intriguing 2005 for the folks in Lincoln.

4. Texas A&M (8-3; 5-3)
The Texas A&M Aggies will be the team nobody wants to play in 2005. They have an offense led by an electrifying Heisman candidate in Reggie McNeal and their defense should keep them in games. They will rebound after getting pummeled in the Cotton Bowl against Tennessee. Dennis Franchione’s team has a superb early season schedule and if they don’t look past anyone, they should be 8-0 going into the Texas Tech game. The Ags are my sleeper team in this conference.

Coach Fran has had success just about everywhere he has been. His tenure at A&M will be no different, thanks to Reggie McNeal. McNeal is one of my top-10 Heisman candidates and will take his place on the national stage this season. He is one of those rare quarterbacks who can run and pass effectively. He completed over 58% of his passes last year and ran for over 700 yards. I look for his passing yardage to increase in 2005 as he will trust his teammates more and not need to improvise as much. The person who will do a lot of rushing for the Aggies is Courtney Lewis.

Courtney Lewis must be healthy and play well for the Aggies to be contenders in the Big 12 South division. He has shown flashes of brilliance against lesser opponents, but he had an abysmal end of the year in 2004. He has the talent and the frame to handle a ton of carries and he will have to prove to be a threat so that defenses will not key in on Reggie McNeal.

The Aggies’ receivers will improve in 2005 and will seek some of the spotlight. Earvin Taylor (the Magic Man) will be Reggie McNeal’s primary pass catcher. He is an excellent route-runner, and the chemistry between him and his Heisman quarterback will be much improved. DeQawn Mobley will team up with Taylor and be the A&M deep threat. He has great speed and should have opportunities to make plays on a team that lives by the “busted play.”

Another key to this year’s success will be the offensive line. Last year, A&M really struggled against physical, blitzing defenses like Texas and Tennessee. They allowed an inexcusable 28 sacks, and that must improve this year. Jami Hightower has a perfect name for an offensive lineman, but he has got to get his frame into shape. He was listed at 355, but I’ve heard reports that he was playing north of 370 at times. He has busted his butt his spring and lost the weight, and if he keeps it off he will anchor this squad. Chris Yoder and Cody Wallace will help and if Aldo de la Garza can contribute, A&M’s offensive line will be solid.

Texas A&M has always has always been known for its players on defense. Carl Torbush, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator, wants to make sure that this year is no exception. The defensive line’s motto this season is “size matters.” There is no question that the A&M will have one of the biggest D-lines in the Big 12, but will they be one of the most skilled. Depth will be a concern, but I believe they will be improved with Chris Harrington, Red Bryant, and Jason Jack making strong contributions.

Upperclassmen dominate the linebacking unit this season, and that is often a good thing. Justin Warren is my pick to have a standout 2005, as his talents are suited for the middle linebacker position. His move from outside linebacker will pay dividends this year for Aggie fans. Archie McDaniel and Lee Foliaki will provide senior leadership, blitzing ability, and pass coverage skills (all of these necessary for the A&M to run a successful 4-3 scheme) to this area that could be the X-factor for the defense.

The secondary is will be a concern for Carl Torbush this season. They were 93rd in the country in pass yardage and can’t afford to get any worse. They should be better this season with more experience and talent. The Aggies will play more man defense due to an improvement in the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Danny Gorrer and Broderick Newton possess the size needed to get physical with the opposing receiver. The secondary will be better, and Texas A&M supporters will not have to hold their breath when the other team is in the shotgun.

This will most likely prove to be a rollercoaster of a season for Texas A&M. They should be at least 6-0, if not 8-0, in the early going. If they are lucky, that momentum will carry over into the final third of the season, and propel them to an upset over Texas, Texas Tech, and/or Oklahoma. Franchione and the coaching staff will try and take some of the pressure off of Reggie McNeal and create a balanced attack that can launch A&M to the top of the conference.

3. Texas Tech (9-2; 6-2)
The Texas Tech Red Raiders are the best team in America that no one has ever heard of. Mike Leach, Tech’s head coach, has done a wonderful job of creating a strong program in Lubbock. The offense is simple (Karl Dorrell and Bill Callahan, take notes) and effective due to constant repetition and efficient execution. This season, Leach’s program has a chance to be mentioned with the elite teams of the Big 12.

If the Raiders are to maintain the momentum gained by the whipping of the California Golden Bears in the Holiday Bowl, they’ll need Cody Hodges to have a strong year. Hodges will hope to join the string of recent Tech quarterbacks who have had abundant success in Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. He is a fifth-year senior with experience and a strong arm. The key will be his accuracy as it is vital to the offense. If Hodges can prove that he can throw the ball with precision, the Raiders will roll.

If you haven’t heard of Taurean Henderson before, you will this season. He is a Marshall Faulk prototype —, a back that can do it all for a team. He is super-fast and creates mismatches when he lines up at receiver. Shannon Woods and Taurance Rawls will spell him and give added production as well.

Jarrett Hicks will lead the Raider receiving corps to a banner year in 2005. At 6-4, he creates mismatches and has the route-running ability that all Tech receivers require. Danny Amendola, L.A. Reed, and Joel Filani round out the ubiquitous four-receiver set used in Lubbock. These guys will snare the many spirals out of the West Texas sky and will combine to give Cory Hodges all the options he will need.

Texas Tech’s defense has been steadily improved the last two years and I expect this trend to continue in 2005. The Raider “D” barely gets talked about, but this year, with eight guys returning, they have the opportunity to be one of the better units in the conference. Their defensive line will be the key as teams had a ton of success on the ground. Chris Hudler, the Raider starting nose guard, will be instrumental in closing up the holes opponents have been using to exploit the defense. Seth Nitschmann will also need to continue to improve his already solid run defense, and Keyunta Dawson must put pressure on the passer. If the D-line can accomplish these objectives, Raider fans will be in very good shape.

The linebackers will be led by one of the most intelligent players in the Big 12, Brock Stratton. Stratton is all a conference performer on and off the field, and will have a breakout season. This unit may have more opportunities to blitz this season and John Saldi, Fletcher Session, and Sylvester Brinkley should all benefit.

The reason the backers will be able to blitz more is because the Red Raiders have one of the strongest secondaries in the country. They were 15th in the nation in pass defense and look to improve on that already impressive mark. Khalid Naziruddin and Antonio Hoffman anchor the corners and will press their receivers. Vincent Meeks, last year’s Holiday Bowl MVP, will continue to play excellent at safety and give offensive coordinators a ton of headaches trying to figure out how to move the ball through the air.

This could be the season that Raider fans have been waiting for. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on Cody Hodges to perform, as he is a major factor in their success. He hasn’t had too much previous game time, but that didn’t stop B.J. Symons and Sonny Cumbie from having superb seasons. As long as they can move the ball like they are accustomed, and stop opponents from wearing out their defense on the ground, they just might come out on top.

2. Oklahoma (9-2; 6-2)
This just might be the season that the Sooner Schooner gets some much-needed repairs. After dominating the conference for much of the new millennium, the Sooners will not have nearly as much talent as they are used to. However, Bob Stoops still has an excellent stockpile of players that can compete with the nation’s best on any given day.

The question on Oklahoma fans’ mind is who will be Jason White’s successor? There are credible arguments for both Rhett Bomar and Paul Thompson. Thompson has some slight game experience and has the nod as far as experience, but I think Bomar will end up being the starter. Bomar, once the quarterback of the scout team, has amazed Coach Stoops’ staff with great mobility and excellent accuracy. The redshirt freshman has all of the skills to succeed, and if he’s practiced handing the ball off to Adrian Peterson, he’ll be just fine.

Adrian Peterson is one of the top three running backs in the country. He possesses an uncommon mix of explosiveness and patience. He knows exactly what hole to hit, and pity be upon that unfortunate linebacker that’s on the other side, because Peterson introduces himself with his helmet. Peterson excelled last year by rushing for almost 2,000 yards, and will probably break that amount this year. He will be asked to shoulder much more of the offensive load due to the departure of Jason White. His durability will be pushed to the maximum, and his performance in November will have a great impact on the Sooners’ future.

Travis Wilson was the unheralded receiver who led Oklahoma in touchdown passes last year. This season, the onus of leading the Sooners to the end zone through the air will be on him. He can handle this responsibility as he has the best hands on the team. The issue for this group will be who else will step up to fill the huge void left by Mark Clayton. Jejuan Rankins has a ton of talent, but has had personal problems, which have translated to dropped passes on the field. If Rankins falters, Quinten Chaney, Lenny Holmes, and super-recruit Malcolm Kelly will also have opportunities to see more playing time.

Oklahoma’s offensive line was superb last season. They gave Jason White all of the protection he could ask for and Adrian Peterson wouldn’t have rushed for 1,925 without them. Depth will be a concern this year, but as long as Davin Joseph, a potential All-American, Kelvin Chaisson, and Akim Millington stay healthy, the Sooners should be fine.

One area where the Sooners all always “fine” is the defense. The OU defense has been spectacular throughout the Bob Stoops era. They have dominated their opponents with an aggressive, hard-hitting brand of in-your-face football. They may not have Roy Williams out there, but they will put a team of guys who play hard every down. The defensive line will still be strong against the run this year as in years past, as they are even stronger at the tackle position with Dusty Dvoracek and Remy Ayodele. The ends won’t be as talented, but Larry Birdine and C.J. Ah You (I love the name) would be stars on about 80 other programs across the country.

Clint Ingram, Zack Latimer, and Rufus Alexander will make an interesting trio at linebacker. Only Ingram has huge breakout potential, but this group just may be better than last season’s. The secondary is the area of concern for the defense as they gave up far too many yards last year. The talent is there, and the question will be how well they use that talent on the field. If the secondary can improve this season, and there’s always a chance if Chijoke Onyenegecha can live up to his huge potential, this defense will live up to the lofty expectations of the folks in Norman.

There are three big games (at UCLA, the Red River Shootout, and at Texas Tech) that will determine the fate of the Sooners. UCLA will be a good litmus test in September as the Bruins are a top-25 team. The biggest test will be on October 8th against Texas in the Red River Shootout. If OU is undefeated and gives the Longhorns another defeat in Dallas, these guys just might run the table.

1. Texas (9-2; 6-2)
I really think 2005 is the year Mack Brown and all the Longhorn fans have been waiting for. This should be the season that they finally defeat Oklahoma and take home the Big 12 South crown. Of course, if they go undefeated or maybe even with one loss, the Horns could even be headed to Pasadena this season. The player that will try to lead them to the promised land is Vince Young.

Vince Young is the most talked about Texas player since Ricky Williams (sorry, Major Applewhite fans). His performance in the Rose Bowl last year against Michigan was awe-inspiring and his running abilities are unreal. His passing abilities have been questioned, but I think he will answer his critics in that area this year. He will throw for over 2,000 yards and if he maintains his 60% efficiency, the Heisman just might fall in his lap.

With all of the emphasis on VY and his throwing ability, people forget that Texas is a team that loves to run the ball. Young will be running, but it will be Selvin Young that will be doing the damage on the ground. Selvin Young, the Longhorns’ junior, will get about 15 touches per game this year and he should be successful. His speed is ridiculous, and now that he’s back from his injury, his endurance is restored and he will be able to handle the exorbitant load Mack Brown loves to put on his backs.

If Limas Sweed is a household name in December, then Texas is probably on its way to Pasadena again. Sweed is another burner with excellent hands who should be the primary Longhorn threat at receiver. Nate Jones has had an excellent spring and will also catch plenty of passes. David Thomas, the starting tight end, will contribute, as he is very skilled and running quarterbacks love to hit big targets.

Every program that is based upon rushing usually has a strong offensive line. That is no exception in Austin as this O-line is probably the best in the country. There are a couple of guys (Justin Blalock & Will Scott) who will be playing on Sundays and the rest of the group is outstanding, as well. Texas will play a bruising, physical game and run their opponents into the dirt.

The Longhorn defense should be extremely successful in 2005. They have nine guys returning and a new coordinator Gene Chizik, who helped orchestrate Auburn superb squad last year. Chizik should be very pleased with his defensive line, as it is one of the best in the country. Rodrique Wright leads a dominating front four, which will excel against the run. These guys can also get after the quarterback and they should wreak havoc on opposing units.

The linebackers are a bit short on experience, but will do their best to replace the huge shadow cast by Derrick Johnson. Aaron Harris was all over the field last year, making 118 tackles, and I expect him to make even more plays this year. Robert Killebrew and Eric Foreman will help Harris keep the ship afloat and keep this group playing to its high expectations.

The Longhorn secondary is one of the best in the conference and should get even better. The starters are all upperclassmen and experience is one of the most valuable assets a defensive back can have. Michael Huff is a guy who can do it all at safety, and Cedric Griffin and Aaron Ross will give most receivers fits on the corners. This bend-but-don’t-break unit will keep everything in front of them and prevent the big play.

I’m sure there have been many prognosticators who have picked Texas year after year, and have gotten burned. Mack Brown is on the hotseat, and there are a couple of games that should determine his fate. If the Longhorns can go into Columbus and knock off Ohio State and defeat Oklahoma in Dallas, they will be in the driver’s seat to win the Big 12. Of course, in this conference, nothing is guaranteed, as every week will be tough. One thing is for certain, though — it will be fun to see who comes out victorious.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Sports picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: ACC
By Avery Smith

This season is a historic one in the ACC. Boston College defected from the Big East, and now makes this a 12-team conference. It should be an interesting year with teams like Wake Forest, Virginia, Clemson, and North Carolina State as potential sleepers.

Also, the now-ubiquitous championship game has been incorporated in this conference and will be held at the end of the season. There are many teams that want to play in Jacksonville this December, but only a few have a realistic shot. Here are the teams that I feel will have the best chance for bragging rights within the ACC.

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5. Boston College (Projected Record: 7-4; League: 4-4)
Boston College had the Big East crown wrapped up, signed, sealed, and almost delivered. Unfortunately, they forgot how to stop the run against Syracuse and let a BCS berth slip through their fingers. The Eagles have an opportunity to improve upon last season’s disappointment, and make a mark in their inaugural appearance in the ACC. They have a ton of starters returning, and hopefully that continuity will lead to wins. If Quinton Porter, BC’s quarterback, has the year Eagle fans expect, a successful year is definitely within reach.

Porter is the projected starter at quarterback after being red-shirted for last season. He is not your typical redshirt, as he is a senior, and has put up good numbers in the past. If he falters, last year’s starter, Matt Ryan, is ready to take up the reigns. There isn’t a quarterback controversy now, but there may be once the season begins if Porter underperforms. Fortunately, for the Eagles, there is no controversy at running back, as the dynamic duo of Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth will rack up the yards.

Even at this date, it is still unclear whether Callender or Whitworth will be the starter, but it doesn’t really matter. They will both excel, and their contrasting styles will give defenses fits. Whitworth is the bigger, more bruising type back, whereas Callender is a more shifty, speedy threat. The Eagles also have speed at the receiver position in Larry Lester and Will Blackmon. These guys should get plenty of opportunities to go deep, due to defenses creeping up to try to stop the running game.

Of course, there is no running game without a solid offensive line. Boston College will have one of their best O-lines in recent memory. Jeremy Trueblood leads a unit that will no doubt leave other teams covered in the red stuff. Patrick Ross and Josh Beekman are also experienced upperclassmen that will assist in opening up holes for BC’s star rushers. If these guys continue to improve, the Eagles will have a shot at improving their odds of going to Jacksonville this December.

On defense, the line will be strong due to the presence of Mathias Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka, projected to be a high draft pick in the NFL, is a fantastic talent, and excellent pass-rusher. This guy can flat-out rush the quarterback. Al Washington will also give support to a group of guys who are speedy, but might be vulnerable to a team with a physical presence.

The linebackers made a lot of tackles last year, and I think this trend will continue. The Eagles have the luxury of having guys who are extremely talented and can make plays in the open field. The trifecta of Ricky Brown, Ray Henderson, and Brian Toal are the best starting unit in the entire conference and one of these guys will earn All-American honors this year.

The secondary will improve upon last year’s performance, as everyone has experience. There is no “Mathias Kiwanuka” of the secondary, however, this unit will do well as long as they communicate on the field. They have the luxury of having Wil Blackmon, one of BC’s top receivers to go to as he was previously in the secondary. DeJuan Tribble and Jazzmen Williams will shore up the corners, and Larry Anam and Ryan Glasper are the projected safeties.

As long as the defense plays as expected, the Eagles should perform to expectations. The defensive line will be much more experienced than in years past, which will benefit the team. Quinton Porter will have a ton of pressure on his shoulders and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. There is potential for this team to move up in the standings, but I just don’t think it will happen. They won eight games (nine if you include the bowl game) last year in a much weaker Big East. I just don’t see them duplicating that feat in the ACC.

4. Georgia Tech (7-4; 5-3)
There is a chance that Chan Gailey could hoist the ACC championship above his head for all Tech fans to see. There is also a chance that the Jackets could get whooped and embarrassed again by North Carolina. This is the reason they are number four on my list. This team has the potential to be one of the best in the country, but they must master the art of consistency. No one would benefit more from this than Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback, Reggie Ball.

Reggie Ball has been an enigma for the Yellow Jackets. He has excellent mobility and great playmaking skills, but his accuracy has been lacking to say the least. His 18 interceptions last year killed far too many drives. He has impressed this spring, so we will see what happens, but Taylor Bennett is waiting in the wings if Ball does not improve.

P.J. Daniels, the best running back you’ve never heard of, will be called on to continue the burden of carrying this offense on his capable shoulders. He is a solid performer and has both the speed and quickness to thrive in the ACC. The key with him will be his health. The Yellow Jackets don’t really have a guy who can spell him, and with that scenario, an injury is unfortunately just about guaranteed.

Calvin Johnson, the best receiver you’ve never heard of, also suits up for Georgia Tech. He’s been mired in obscurity, even though he starred as a freshman last year. I don’t think this guy will have a sophomore slump — in fact, I think he’ll be one of the best in the conference. Damarius Bilbo, a former quarterback, will be a more than effective wideout, and should have another strong year with teams putting more of their focus on stopping Johnson.

Of course, the only way any offense can do well is with a strong offensive line. This is the main area of concern for Chan Gailey’s team. The offensive line returns only one starter from last year, and that spells trouble for even the most talented team. This group is going to have to get it together fast in order for Tech to win some games. Fortunately, Tech’s defense will give them a chance to win almost every game.

Georgia Tech returns eight starters on a defense that figures to be one of the best in America. The defensive line will continue to excel against the run due to the talents of Eric Henderson. Henderson is a lock for All-ACC honors this year, and can stop the run and wreak havoc on opposing offensive coordinators’ playbooks. I also look to see the Yellow Jackets’ defensive lineman getting more pressure on the quarterback this season. If they can improve on their pass rush, these guys just might win games on their own.

The linebackers are solid, if not spectacular. Gerris Wilkinson is an absolute stud, who will be playing on Sundays soon, and will lead this unit to big things this year. The only concern I have with this part of the team is depth. The bench lacks game experience, and this could be a problem if Wilkinson or one of the other starters gets hurt.

Georgia Tech’s secondary rounds out the defense very well. They are a top-10 unit in the country, and will be even more consistent this year. Reuben Houston and Dennis Davis are the best corner tandem in the conference, and Chris Reis and Dawan Landry are excellent safeties. As long as the lineman and linebackers can apply some pressure to the quarterback, these guys will continue to improve Tech’s takeaway margin. This defense has a chance to be Tech’s best ever.

Georgia Tech has always seemed to be overshadowed by someone. Whether it is their in-state rival Georgia, or another team like Florida State from their conference, the Yellow Jackets have always seemed to be on the cusp of greatness. If Reggie Ball can show the greatness that he displayed this spring on a more consistent basis, and if the offensive line can give him time to throw, the Yellow Jackets just might cast their own shadow on the conference.

3. Florida State (8-3; 6-2)
Bobby Bowden. He is one of the most recognizable head coaches of all-time. He is a recruiting guru and one of the best evaluators of talent the college coaching profession has ever seen. He will have to add “master strategist” to his already considerable resume in 2005 if the Seminoles are to exceed expectations this year, as his talent base is nowhere near what he is accustomed to.

Xavier Lee is an unbelievable talent, and he will get the first opportunity to lead the Seminole offense. Lee has the potential and the mobility to remind Seminole fans of Charlie Ward, but will he produce on the field. Of course, Lee’s opportunity at quarterback is due to the suspension of Wyatt Sexton. Once Sexton gets back, he will resume his duties as field general of the offense. Sexton is experienced, but he is mistake-prone, and will have a short leash.

I’m sure that opposing defensive coordinators wish they could have a leash for Leon Washington, FSU’s star running back. Washington may be the most unheralded Florida State star in the past 25 years. It may be due to the injuries he’s suffered during his time in Tallahassee, but I think he’s due for a superb senior season. I’m expecting very big things from this guy who can run over and around defenses.

Two guys that like to run past defenders are Willie Reid and Chris Davis, the Seminole starting receivers. Both of these guys have done what has been asked of them, and will be relied upon heavily to make big plays. Their careers have not been spectacular, but you could probably blame it on the fact that they haven’t played with a quarterback with a bunch of talent. If we fast-forward six months and look back at this season and see that these guys have put up big numbers, then Florida State will be playing somewhere on New Year’s day.

One area that should already make Bobby Bowden smile is the offensive line and its health. It looks like for the first time in a long while, the line will start of the season with every one in good health. Of course having Mario Henderson and David Castillo is an automatic reason to grin. These two guys will continue to provide the opportunity for Leon Washington to run for big yardage.

Yardage was hard to come by last season for opposing teams, as Florida State had probably the best defense in the nation. They will not be as good as they were last year this season, but the cupboards are definitely not bear, and they will perform. The line might be an area of concern as there are plenty of new faces.

Everyone in the ACC, especially opposing running backs, are very familiar with FSU’s linebackers. A.J., Nicholson, who I’m sure didn’t like getting tasered by an officer during the offseason, will be looking to avenge himself by causing chaos on the field. Nicholson will have a strong senior year, and Ernie Sims and Buster Davis will join him and put a halt to the adversary’s ground game. These guys can also defend against the pass, and I’m sure we will see their speed put to good use.

The secondary has been severely impacted due to the loss of Antonio Cromartie. This guy was a potential first-round pick, and those kind of talents don’t come round’ everyday. They still have Pat Watkins, a stud a free safety, but besides him, the ‘Noles are very thin. Depth will be a concern, but they do have the luxury of having excellent cover linebackers, so this will help tremendously.

The biggest game for Florida State this season will be the one that they are currently in. This will be a team that must grow week after week, especially in the secondary, and at the quarterback position. Either Wyatt Sexton or Xavier Lee must provide stability and lead their team offensively. These players will look to their head coach, Bobby Bowden, to guide them through a schedule full of pitfalls and give them the keys to success.

2. Virginia Tech (9-2; 6-2)
I really like Virginia Tech’s chances this year. They have a solid squad and their schedule gives them a prime shot at ending up in Pasadena. Frank Beamer is one of the best coaches in the country and folks in Blacksburg have a lot to be excited about. Marcus Vick is a super talent and the question that has to be asked is how good will he be?

I’m probably the only writer who hasn’t talked about Marcus Vick’s off-the-field transgressions, and I’m not about to start now. Vick, the Hokie star quarterback, has an excellent support system and he needs to look no further than his brother for advice. I think being the brother of Michael Vick will pay off in a big way this year, as Marcus will excel. He had a fantastic spring, and coach Beamer has given the keys to the offense to him, and he just may drive these guys to Pasadena.

Another guy who will spend time in the driver’s seat is Mike Imoh, V-Tech’s star running back. He has excellent speed and deceiving power, being that he’s only 5-7. He came back from a suspension the second half of last season and performed amazingly well. I look for him and Cedric Humes, Tech’s power back, to provide the Hokies a more than suitable ground attack.

The wideouts will be another strength for this team. They go five-deep and will allow the Hokies to spread the field, making Marcus Vick even more dangerous. They are still relatively inexperienced, but they have gelled very quickly and will be fun to watch. One guy who Marcus Vick will always have his eyes on is his star tight end Jeff King. King will surely be a Mackay Award finalist and is the perfect complement for a scrambling quarterback. Tight ends are always a favorite for a mobile passer, and this situation is no exception. I look for Mr. King to have a huge year.

The offensive line is a bit of a question mark, but should resolve itself during the course of the year. Just about every starter has experience playing another position, and this will allow the coaches to be more creative. It may take awhile to find the right combination to present itself, but nevertheless, these guys are all experienced and solid. In the meantime, they should be able to provide holes for Imoh and time for Vick (not that he needs more than a second).

This seems like a re-run, but Virginia Tech’s defense will once again be among the best in the nation. They are led by an awesome front four which features Darryl Tapp, one of the most explosive linemen in the country. Tapp is a terrorizing pass-rusher who explodes into the backfield and puts pressure on the quarterback. This defensive line also has excellent run-stoppers like Jonathan Lewis, who has excellent mobility for a man north of 300 pounds.

The linebackers should also have a fantastic season. Super sophs Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi will anchor a corps that can cover speedy running backs in a pass situation and shut those guys down on the ground. James Anderson is an experienced upperclassman that will also provide support and can get after the quarterback, as well.

Jimmy Williams might be the best cornerback in the conference not named Hester. He is a true lock-down corner and shuts off half of the field on every down. I look for him to improve on his 5 INT total from last year and make even more plays. His 60 tackles were a huge contribution, and I look for more of the same. The rest of the defensive backs are serviceable and should do well.

Virginia Tech could certainly be headed to a BCS bowl after this season is over. They have the talent, coaching, and a very favorable schedule. Miami and Georgia Tech both have to visit them in Blacksburg, and they miss Florida State. If they execute on offense with Vick at the helm and with a sprinkle of luck, this season could turn up roses for the Hokies.

1. Miami (10-1; 7-1)
The 2005 Hurricane season has already been active with hurricanes Dennis and Emily reaching Category-4 status. When the football season starts, though, watch out for Hurricane Devin. I’m talking about Devin Hester, of course, and he will lead the best defense that Hurricane fans have ever seen. The offensive production is the only uncertainty for now, but there is no lack of talent, and Kyle Wright, Miami’s starting quarterback, has the potential to be mentioned among names like Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, and Vinny Testaverde.

Kyle Wright, Miami’s sophomore quarterback, will lead the offense this season. His potential is limitless, but of course, you win the games on the field (just ask Ron Pawlus). He’s 6-5, has a cannon for an arm, and the leadership capabilities that it will take to deal with the enormous pressure and expectations heaped upon him.

The ‘Canes will look to Tyrone Moss to spark the ground game. Moss has good size, and should be able to carry a sizeable workload. His breakaway speed is underrated, and I feel sorry for the defensive back that doesn’t get to the corner in time. Moss should easily rush for over 1,000 yards, and if he gets over 1,500, he will have given Hurricane fans an early Christmas gift.

Speaking of gifts, Lance Leggett has all the ingredients necessary to become a star wideout. Leggett has blinding speed, and as his experience grows (he’s only a sophomore), his route running will also improve. Coach Larry Coker was also very impressed by Ryan Moore, Sinorice Moss, Darnell Jenkins, and Akieem Jolla this spring. Moss is very speedy and if Ryan Moore is fully recovered from his injury, he will be superb.

Another person coming back from injury will be Eric Winston, the Hurricanes’ stud on the offensive line. Winston’s health will be very important to a unit that many consider the weakest point on the entire team. Of course, the term “weak” has never been used in a more relative way, as the guys up front have a ton of skills. Rashad Butler and Tyler McMeans are blessed with talent, and this group will be just fine, especially in the latter part of the season when they begin to gel.

The Miami Hurricane defense is superb. This group is no doubt the best that this generation of ‘Canes fans has ever seen. The defensive line loaded with Orien Harris, Baraka Atkins, and Thomas Carroll. Harris is a superb run-defender and clogs up gaps so that the linebackers can make plays. Atkins and Carroll are both unbelievable pass-rushers as the both sacked the quarterback 6.5 times last year. Those are super numbers and they will be even better in 2005.

The group of linebackers that take the field this season for Miami may just go down as the best ever. Rocky Macintosh and Leon Williams are two seniors that still taste the bitter defeat to Ohio State three years ago and take it out on the opposing team. They make plays and hardly ever make mistakes. Willie Williams looks like he’s recovered from his injury and sparkled this spring. If he even comes close to living up to the hype surrounding him, he will be a very rich man someday, and Hurricane fans will only use Jacksonville as a pit-stop on the way to Pasadena.

Devin Hester will lead the best secondary in this country. There is no doubt about it — Miami has the best defensive backs in America. Hester has blinding speed and once he improves on his technique, he will be one of the best corners in Hurricane history. Everyone knows how good Devin Hester is, and how great he may be someday, what people probably don’t know is how good everybody else is in Miami’s secondary. Kelly Jennings, Anthony Reddick, Brandon Merriweather, and Greg Threat would all be the best DB on just about any other team in America. The scary thing about this group is that one of those four guys will be on the bench in base coverage. Can you say nickel or dime defense?!

Miami has the talent and the defense that can carry them all the way to Pasadena. They might be vulnerable to an early season upset (mark your calendar, Clemson fans, for September 17th), but if they get a head of steam, they will win the ACC and surely be in a BCS bowl. Of course, the beautiful part of sports is that its decided on the field, and it will be fun to see it all play out.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: SEC
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

Who will win the SEC this season? That question is extremely tough this year. It is made even more difficult by the return of Steve Spurrier to the conference at South Carolina. Even though I do not foresee the Gamecocks at the top, they will pull off their share of upsets.

There is no “week off” in the SEC and I do not think that any team will come out of the season unscathed. However, there will be some squads that may end this year with enough momentum to get into a BCS bowl. Who will they be? Please read below, and check out who will be the best five teams in the conference.

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Tennessee (Projected Record: 10-2; League: 7-1)
“Rocky Top Tennessee,” It has to be the best fight song in the country. It also looks like coach Phillip Fulmer’s squad will be among the best in America, as well. Can you believe it has been seven years since Tee Martin led the Vols to the National Championship? I don’t know if Tennessee is headed to Pasadena this year, but it looks like they will end up on top of the SEC East standings. They closed out the season strong with a bone-crushing 38-7 win over Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl, and that momentum will most certainly spill over to this year.

Erik Ainge is the starting quarterback this season, and he will have a very talented offense to work with. The Vols have a potential Heisman trophy candidate in Gerald Riggs, Jr. He is the type of back that can take over a game and if he can maintain his 5.7-yard per carry average from last season, Tennessee will be able to dominate offensively. Riggs’ ability to run will also help the passing game. The combination of Jayson Swain and Robert Meacham may be the best 1-2 punch in the country.

What I like about these two guys is that they complement each other. Meacham is the speedy deep threat, and Swain is the reliable pass-catcher. At tight end, Tennessee is doing their best Jared Lorenzen impression with the 289 lb. Justin Reed. Even at that weight, Reed is surprisingly mobile, and if he can provide excellent blocking as well as a pass option, the Vols will be even that much better with the ball.

On defense, Tennessee is as strong and deep as ever. They are returning eight starters to a squad that will be among the best in the nation. On the line, Jesse Mahelona will be the one to watch. He provided immediate dividends last year, and is looking to have an even better senior campaign. The linebackers will continue a tradition of Tennessee football by being strong as well. The only potential fly in the ointment will be the health of Kevin Simon. If he is truly at 100%, Tennessee’s front seven will live up to the tremendous expectations bestowed upon them.

The secondary is the only spot that could use some improvement. The Vols finished 2004 last in pass defense, and will need Jason Allen, a potential All-American to lead the way. Allen decided to forego an opportunity at the NFL and come back for his senior season. He will be moving from safety to cornerback this season, so the key will be how well he will adjust to his new position. Inky Johnson will also provide help at defensive back, and allow the front seven to be more aggressive. All Tennessee needs is for their DBs to be decent as their pass rush will be fierce.

The key for coach Fulmer’s squad will be taking care of business early by defeating Florida and LSU on the road. This will not be an easy task, but I think they will come out of it with at least a split. The rest of the season looks much easier, and if everything works out right, they may not lose at all.

Louisiana State (9-3; 6-2)
” Who dat say dat we need Nick Saban?” The LSU Tigers will miss their former head coach, however, they will be strong enough to win the SEC West crown. The Tigers will return nine starters back on an offense that should be among the elite in the country. The only concern LSU fans have at this time will be who will be taking the snaps from center.

JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn are the candidates for the quarterback position. Right now they are in a dead heat, and no one will know who the true starter is until the season start. Whether it is Russell or Flynn, one thing is for certain, they will be handing the ball off to Joseph Addai many times. Addai is in the top five of every publications rating for running backs in the country. He is a Marshall Faulk-type back that can run effectively and create mismatches in the passing game. Alley Broussard should round out the running game with a Ron Dayne, bruising-type style.

The pass corps should be strong for the Tigers, as well. Skyler Green and Xavier Carter lead the deepest group of receivers in the conference. I expect that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will utilize four and even five wide-out sets to maximize this strength. The offensive line is also excellent with Andrew Whitworth. I expect the Tigers to average over 30 points per game this season.

LSU’s defense last year was not nearly as effective as it was when they split the National Championship the year before. The Tigers will have to maintain a high level of consistency on defense in the competitive SEC. Bo Pelini, the new defensive coordinator, will do an excellent job of getting this squad ready. He has coached in the NFL and at Nebraska and most recently at Oklahoma. I look for Pelini to run schemes that will utilize one of the strongest defensive lines in the country.

The Tigers’ defensive line, even without Marcus Spears, will be one of the best in the nation. The front four will be able to generate a strong pass rush on their own. This will allow Pelini to utilize cover 2 sets if he so chooses. Of course, with linebackers like Cameron Vaughn, blitzing will also be a very good option. LSU fans may also see some zone blitzing to utilize Vaughn’s ability and confuse their opponents. This will also give the defense an opportunity to try and mask their weak point, the secondary.

The secondary is the will be challenge due to the departures of Corey Webster and Travis Daniels. There are a number of options at cornerback, and LSU fans will hope that someone will step up and fill the void. If the Tigers stay healthy, they should be a top-10 team this season, and should come out on top of the SEC West. They should dominate their division, as Auburn is much weaker this season, and the rest of the pack are nowhere near as talented.

Florida (9-3; 6-2)
The arrival of the “Urban” legend has Florida fans from across the country hopeful for a return to glory. Gator fans should expect a team that should be more consistent than last year’s. Ron Zook’s squad showed flashes of brilliance, but inconsistency (and having to follow Steve Spurrier) ultimately led to his firing.

Another positive of hiring Meyer is all of the media attention he is getting. Everyone is talking about the coach and no one is talking about the players. The Gator head coach has been setting up swamp talks throughout the state of Florida, with the goal of re-energizing a somewhat disillusioned fan base. So far, he’s done a great job. Meyer has also been excellent in deflecting the media scrutiny towards him and away from his team.

The attention to the players will intensify on the first snap on offense, when the best quarterback in the SEC goes under center. That would be Chris Leak. Leak, the prodigy from Charlotte, has underperformed in his previous seasons in Gainesville. This season, I think he will emerge as on of the strongest quarterbacks in the country. His combination of strength and mobility is jaw-dropping, and defensive backs from Baton Rouge to Athens are already nervous.

Leak will have Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson, and Dallas Baker as his primary targets at receiver. Caldwell, whose 57.4 yards per game average leads all returning players, should be able to fill the void of O.J. Small who has moved on to the NFL. Chad Jackson’s big play ability should give the Gators their perennial deep threat, and will open up the playbook on offense.

The offensive line at Florida looks outstanding. The starting five is on-par with anyone in the conference. Mike Degory is an All-American candidate, while Randy Hand and Lance Butler will probably end up with conference recognition. The only concern for Florida is depth. Injuries to the line are very common, and their second unit is nowhere near as talented as the first. Hopefully, the line stays healthy and the offense performs to its potential.

The Gators are expecting a reduction in productivity at the running back position in 2005. Ciatrick Fason is gone, and there are a plethora of candidates for the position. DeShawn Wynn will not remind Gator fans of Emmitt Smith, but he will get the majority of the carries and has the potential of being a suitable back. Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson will spell him and contribute, as well. The amount of yards the backs will gain is a concern for Urban Meyer, and will affect the strength of the offense.

On defense, the Gators return eight starters to a group that looks to continue to improve in 2005. Defense is not something that is comes to mind when you mention Gator football, but it will become more of a focus in 2005. I look for Florida to take more risks with blitzes and stunts becoming more common. Of course, you need good linebackers to do this. Brandon Siler and Earl Everett both fit the bill.

Siler and Everett will have to replace Channing Crowder, who is down I-75 playing for the Miami Dolphins. Siler looks like the obvious choice to step into Crowder’s role at middle linebacker. Last year, Siler, the All-SEC freshman performer, was the No. 2 tackler on the Gator defense. This is noteworthy because he only started in six games. Earl Everett will help the Gators in the blitzing category, and improve on his 4.5 sacks from last year. Everett possesses a combination of speed and agility that will allow Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong to call his number often.

In the secondary, Demetrice Webb will look to solidify a unit that was shaky in 2004. Webb has All-American potential, and will need Tremaine McCullom and Kyle Jackson to step their games up as well. Last year, the secondary seemed lost at times, and opponents exploited this. This year, Florida’s DB’s should be much more prepared after playing together as a unit. The Gator defense should give Urban Meyer’s squad an opportunity to win more games this season, and maybe even snatch the SEC East title from the hated Volunteers. However, if Webb, Siler, or Everett get hurt, even eight wins might be a stretch.

Auburn (8-4; 5-3)
The main question that Tiger fans have to be asking themselves is, “Did we miss our window of opportunity?” Auburn shocked the nation by going 13-0 last year, and the Tigers should have been in the Orange Bowl with the Trojans for the National Championship. I don’t think Tommy Tuberville’s team will replicate last year’s success, but I also don’t think an SEC West title is out of the question, either. If there is one player who will make or break the season, it will be Brandon Cox, Auburn’s new quarterback.

Brandon Cox has some very big shoes to fill. Jason Campbell, Auburn’s previous quarterback, led the team to a perfect record by not making mistakes. Cox will have to do the same, but he will also have to do even more than Campbell did last year. Cox does not have the luxury of handing the ball to Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Auburn will still run the ball, and Tre Smith will be the starter. It is obvious why his career hasn’t yet been sparkling, but he should have plenty of opportunities this season. Kenny Irons, Carl Stewart, and Brad Lester will also add some production. The key to the season for the running backs will be if they can generate enough production to loosen up the passing game

Tommy Tuberville’s team is going to have to throw the ball much more in 2005 in order to be effective. The good thing for the Tigers is that they have a group of receivers who are up to the task. Courtney Taylor is an NFL prospect with blazing speed and good hands to match. He has also has the ability to rack up the YAC (yards after catch), as well. Ben Obamanu and Devin Aromashadu compliment Taylor and will be utilized on deeper patterns.

Even though there have been many changes at Auburn, the defense still remains their strength. The Tiger defense was tops in the nation in scoring defense last year, and there is no reason why they cannot repeat this year. Stanley McClover had an excellent freshman season, and he will lead the best defensive line in the country. It is almost incomprehensible to think how he can get better, but the word from spring practice is that he has. If that’s the case, Auburn’s front four will apply tons of pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

A trio of studs, Kevin Sears, Travis Williams, and Antarrious Williams, lead the Auburn linebackers into 2005. These guys utilize their speed very effectively and have the athleticism to both cover and blitz. The only concern for Tiger fans will be if this unit has enough time to gel because of their injuries in the spring. The secondary might be the only reason for concern. Carlos Rogers is gone, but David Irons and Will Herring should be able to take his place.

The Tigers might give up a few big plays due to their gambling style, but I just don’t see opposing teams hurting them in the air because of the front four. Auburn’s defense will be fun to watch, and more importantly, will give the Tigers a shot to win the SEC West crown.

Alabama (8-4; 5-3)
I know of all you Georgia and South Carolina fans are whining as to why your team is not here. The Crimson Tide will shock a lot of people this season and just remember you heard it here first. They have a tailor-made schedule, with all of their difficult games at home. They also have a team that will play at much higher level than it did last season. Alabama has a legitimate shot at the SEC West title and they might be playing Auburn for it on the last game of the season.

Brodie Croyle will lead the Crimson Tide on offense. Croyle is a talented quarterback who would have been a household name had he not gotten injured. He is back at full speed this year, and that will give ‘Bama a much-needed boost. Croyle will be handing the ball often to Ken Darby, one of the best backs in the SEC.

Darby rushed for over 1,000 yards last season and will be looking for even more this year. He may be a bit slowed by the hernia injury he suffered this spring, but he should be ready for action by the fall. The receivers are young, but look for one of them to step up. The most likely candidate will be either Matt Caddell or Tyrone Prothro. Both receivers will be aided by having a quarterback who can get them the ball, which Croyle should be able to do.

One thing the Tide will have in common with Auburn, their hated rivals, is a strong defense. Alabama’s defense is led by Demeco Ryans, their star linebacker. Ryans is coming off of a strong junior year where he led the team in tackles with 78. This season he will get much-needed assistance from Juwan Simpson and Freddie Roach. The linebacking corps will prove to be very effective this season. The defensive line will also be strong with Mark Anderson as its star. Anderson can pass rush, as well as stop a speedy back. All of the tackles and ends return, so experience is a given and so are plenty of sacks and fumbles.

Alabama’s secondary is the best in the conference. All four starters return to a unit that is extremely cohesive. These guys can both cover and tackle, and look for Mike Shula’s squad to employ a lot of nickel and dime sets. The key to the Crimson Tide’s season will be how well their offense plays. If Brodie Croyle can rebound from his injury and put points on the board, then ‘Bama has a very good shot at going to the SEC championship.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: Big East
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

The Big East Conference has gone through many changes. Miami, Virginia Tech, and now Boston College have defected from its ranks. The conference has lost some of its luster, but will still feature competitive and talented teams. Which teams will be the class of the conference? Let’s find out.

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5) Rutgers (Projected Record: 6-5; League: 3-4)
The Scarlet Knights have always been a team that has found away to pester the elite teams in the Big East. With Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College now gone, Rutgers has the opportunity to step into a more dominant role in the conference. It won’t happen this season, but I do feel that they are talented enough to get earn a winning record and just maybe their first bowl game in 26 years.

The offense is led by Ryan Hart, the Scarlet Knights’ senior quarterback. Hart is an experienced field general who has excellent options through the air. Tres Moses and Shawn Tucker will be one of the best receiver tandems in the conference. Hart also has a very viable option at tight end with Clark Harris. Harris is a huge target with very soft hands.

The running game is still a concern for head coach Greg Schiano. Clarence Pittman is the projected starter, and is somewhat of an enigma. He has not produced as the coaching staff would like, but the hope he can turn it around and have a good season. Another aspect of the offense that the Scarlet Knights will have to improve on is consistency. They turned the ball over far too much, and if they are to be successful, the interceptions and fumbles have got to cease.

The main concern for this team will be improving their defense. Rutgers’ rankings against the pass and the rush are similar to what I would shoot at St. Andrews — just downright atrocious. The defensive line has got to generate more pressure on the pass-happy teams in the conference. Ryan Neill, Rutgers’ top defensive end, should excel there has he has proven to be able to get to the quarterback in the past.

The linebackers will also have to play much better in 2005 if this team is to be bowl-bound. The talent is not at the level that it needs to be to dominate, so these guys will have to play as a unit if they have any chance. The secondary is in the same boat, and now that they are more experienced, they should be able to stop teams from throwing at will.

There are far too many question marks for me to pencil this team into Tempe come next January. If Rutgers can improve their rushing attack, and their consistency on offense, they will surprise people. The defense has got to keep this team in games, and play as a unit as well. It should be an interesting season and hopefully a historic one, as well.

4) Syracuse (6-5; 4-3)
Last season, the Syracuse Orange played the spoiler role perfectly by trouncing Boston College, 43-17, and ending the Eagles’ hopes of a Fiesta Bowl bid. This year, the Orange hope to improve and regain their winning form.

When Syracuse has the ball this year, fans should notice some changes in their schemes. The Orange have ditched their traditional sets and implemented the West Coast Offense. This offense is based upon precision and timing, so Perry Patterson, their starting quarterback, must improve his consistency and can not throw more interceptions than touchdowns again this year.

The running back position should be reliable as Damion Rhodes is very talented. He torched Boston College in the aforementioned matchup, and I think he could have a banner year. Rhodes has a very good offensive line in front of him, so 1,000 yards should be easily attainable. Unlike the running game, there is no real standout among the receiving corps, so either Tim Lane or Rice Moss must have a breakout season and contribute.

The defense will have a lot of work to do as they were 101st in the nation last year. The Orange have addressed this issue over the offseason, and hired Greg Robinson. Robinson is an experienced NFL guru who will add instant creativity and stability to a unit who needs it sorely.

Robinson will feature what he calls his “attacking 4-3” defense, a system that applies much more pressure on the quarterback and relies on strong linebackers and ends. Orange fans will be happy to know that their linebackers should excel in the attacking 4-3. Kellen Pruitt, Jerry Mackey, and Kelvin Smith are the projected starters, and all three of these guys can get the job done. Depth is not a concern for the linebackers as this area is by far the strongest overall in the defense.

Where Robinson and the Orange should be concerned is the secondary. These guys gave up a ton of passing yards last year, and got embarrassed on national TV against Georgia Tech last year in the Champs Sports Bowl. The corners have gained experience by playing together last year, but I’m just not sure if it will be enough. Coach Robinson and Syracuse fans have to hope that this new attacking style of defense will be enough to carry their uninspiring secondary.

Orange fans will definitely have to exhibit a high level of patience with this year’s squad. The West Coast Offense has proven to be a set of schemes that have not yielded early results. Plays are very long to call out and susceptible to errors, especially in a hostile environment. If the Orange can grasp it quickly, they may just be a national sleeper.

3) West Virginia (7-4; 5-2)
The Mountaineers have had quite the bipolar 2004-2005 in their athletic program. On paper, their football team had BCS hopes, but underperformed at 8-4, and lost their bowl game. Their basketball team was supposed to be “middle of the pack” in the conference, but caught fire in the Big East tournament, and proceeded to make a huge splash during March Madness.

This year, the expectations will be toned down a bit in Morgantown, as the team is rebuilding. The offense has been decimated due to turnover and there are many more questions than answers. The quarterback position is still somewhat undecided, and the receivers are young and inexperienced.

One area that West Virginia fans will still see success is the running game. Jason Colson is the real deal and he will excel, and continue the string of highly skilled Mountaineer running backs. The offensive line is experienced and will open up plenty of holes for him, Pernell Williams, and highly-touted freshman Jason Gwaltney.

On defense, Wocka, Wocka (Adam “Pac-Man” Jones) is gone, but the defensive backs in Morgantown will still excel. The secondary is the strength of this team, and I see Mike Lorello and Jahmile Addae having even better years than they did last season. The linebackers are decent, but depth has to be a concern for Rich Rodriguez. The defensive line has more depth, and the starters do have some talent.

This year’s team will be one that should be in a lot of games. The defense will bend, but not break, and keep them in games. The running attack should chew up tons of possession time, but what will they do on 3rd-and-13. The passing game is a huge question mark, and has to be addressed. I’m sure whoever gets the nod at quarterback will have enormous pressure to deliver. If the Mountaineers are able to balance their offensive attack, this team could easily win the conference.

2) Pittsburgh (8-3, 5-2)
The Panthers backed into the Fiesta Bowl last year and played like a team that didn’t deserve to be there. They got smashed 35-7 by a far superior Utah team who showed them exactly how good they needed to be in order to be among college football’s elite.

That game cost Walt Harris his job, and along the Allegheny, public opinion is divided as to whether he should have been fired for a guy whose best player couldn’t even stop smoking marijuana. Dave Wannstedt, Pitt’s new coach, must produce much better results than he did in the NFL or he will be shown the door again.

Wannstedt prefers to run a team with a bruising, physical attack. Unfortunately for him, the Panthers are a team based much more on finesse and timing. Tyler Palko, the Panther quarterback, is an excellent leader on the field with a super left arm to match. Palko has his favorite target Greg Lee back at wideout. He’s a physical guy at 6-2, and has the speed to go deep, as well. This guy just might be the best at what he does in America.

The running game is the only real question mark for the Pitt offense. They were 105th last year on the ground, and at times it seemed as if they were only moving the ball that way because they had to. That will certainly change this season, and with Raymond Kirkley skills, and Dave Wannstedt’s schemes, the yards should pile up.

The defense is talented, but must translate some of that raw physical ability to success on the field. H.B. Blades will be a guy who will make a name for himself again this year. He will anchor a linebacking unit that should be the best in the country. There is no concern as far as depth — the Panthers have five guys who can start at any time.

The secondary and defensive lines are both areas that must show improvement this year. Josh Lay is a super corner and will shut down his side of the field. Unfortunately, opponents will just throw to the other side. Darrelle Revis or Darnell Carter will have to elevate their game this year and unify the strength of the defensive backs.

The defensive ends have got to improve on a team that provider a lackluster pass rush at best. Pitt fans have to hope that the lack of experience that this unit suffers from can be overcome by their talent level. The coaching staff will substitute freely until they can find the guys who can deliver the most efficient pass rush.

It looks like this will be a good year for first-year head coach Dave Wannstedt. Walt Harris did not leave the cupboards bare, and a bowl game is just about a certainty. What is uncertain is how he will run this team on offense. He will undoubtedly try to increase the number of reps for his running backs, and improve the ground game. If he’s smart, he will make sure that the ball gets to Greg Lee’s hands, as well, as the passing attack can do tons of damage.

1) Louisville (9-2; 6-1)
There hasn’t been this much buzz in Louisville in regards to a sport besides basketball since a guy named Clay [Muhammad Ali] won the Olympic Gold in Rome, and there’s good reason. This Cardinal football team could easily run the table. Unfortunately, due to some inexperience, they could also disappoint, as well. I’m hedging my bets by saying that they’ll win the conference, but go to Tempe instead of Pasadena.

The offense will go through some transition with Brian Brohm taking over for all-world quarterback Stefan Lefors. If Brohm displays the poise and talent, along with even half of the leadership that Lefors provided, he will be superb. There are high expectations for him, but he has the physical ability and the smarts needed to be a legend.

Another guy who will impress is Michael Bush. He was a former all-state quarterback who has been converted into a 250-pound running back. He has been able to retain his mobility and quickness at the weight and can of course pack a powerful punch. I really think he can run over 1,500 yards this season if he gets a good volume of carries. His 5.6 yards per carry average last year was outstanding, and he is a superb outlet and screen guy, as well.

Speaking of outlets, the Cardinals have a slew of talented options at wideout. Montrell Jones, Joshua Tinch, and Broderick Clark are all seniors who can get open and make plays. Jones and Clark are the home run hitters, and Tinch is an extremely valuable possession guy. Louisville also has a super tight end in Gary Barnidge. He’s only a sophomore, but he’s got great hands and I expect him to get a lot of work, especially in the early going.

Any time you have a team that grabs so many headlines on offense, the defense is sure to be forgotten about. If opposing teams make that same mistake, they will be in for a surprise. The Cardinals were 15th in total defense last season, and although I don’t expect them to be that high this year, they have a unit that can make things happen.

Mike Cassidy, Louisville’s defensive coordinator, lost three starters from his secondary last year. Anytime there is upheaval amongst the defensive backs, continuity is always a problem. These guys will have to gel quickly, or opponents will take advantage and throw early and often. William Gay is the only upperclassman in the unit, and his speed and experience will be vital in order to stem the tide.

The linebackers are serviceable with Abe Brown and Brandon Johnson looking to ease the loss of Robert McCune. These guys are both upperclassmen who can have the lateral movement and strength needed to make a ton of tackles. I think these guys are both underrated and should perform well as a team.

The defensive backs will be extremely important for this year’s team. They will have to put an increased amount of pressure on the quarterback to offset the talent deficiencies in the secondary. They will also have to maintain their level of success from last year against the run. I don’t know if they will be able to do both, but with talents like Elvis Dumervil and Montavious Stanley, they will make a solid attempt. Depth should not be a problem so long as the injury bug doesn’t run rampant. I think that if another guy such as Brandon Cox can emerge as a star that just might make the difference and solidify this unit.

Louisville has the talent and the coaching to be the class of the Big East. Brian Brohm is a Heisman hopeful waiting to happen and offensively this team is a juggernaut. Michael Bush will chew up the clock, and the defense should not let them down. This team may be vulnerable to an early season upset, but they just might run the table. The Cardinals seemed to have turned the corner and are on the verge of establishing a perennial winner. America, we’d better get used to these guys, so let’s at least pronounce the name right. It’s LOU-A-VULL, and they’re your Big East conference champs.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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Football picksSeptember 1, 2005
2005 College Football Preview: Big 10
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

The Big 10 will most certainly be the perennial powerhouse that we have grown accustomed to. The upcoming college season will bring a bit of parity to a league often dominated by Michigan and Ohio State. Even the teams that will fall in the bottom half of the standings, such as Penn State and Illinois, are capable of springing upsets. Who will come out on top? It’s not New Year’s Eve yet, but let’s countdown the five best teams in the Big 10 for 2005.

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5. Minnesota (Projected Record: 7-4; League: 4-4)
It really seemed like last year was the year for the Golden Gophers. Fans from Duluth to Minnesota had to feel that 2004 was going to be their year. Unfortunately, the Gophers ended the season poorly and forfeited any hopes of a Big 10 championship.

In 2005, Minnesota will have learned from the mistakes of years past, but it just won’t be enough to put them over the top. They are the beneficiaries of a brutal schedule, and I don’t know if they have enough offensive firepower to compete with the elite teams in the conference. However, if everyone on Minnesota’s squad were as talented as Laurence Maroney, the Gophers would win the title, hands down.

Every publication has Laurence Maroney rushing for huge yardage this season. All of the ingredients are there — a strong offensive line, a talented rusher, and an offensive playbook centered around the run. He has to be Minnesota’s best Heisman shot in years, and will most certainly rush over 1,500 yards. Maroney will most certainly be the featured player in this offense, but it will be up to Bryan Cupito, the Minnesota quarterback, to prove that he can improve on his accuracy and make the Gophers offense a more balanced one.

Cupito will have an excellent array of pass catchers to choose from. Jared Ellerson and Ernest Wheelwright are both strong receivers who can go deep and run precision routes. I look for Ellerson to be the possession guy, while Wheelwright will be the deep threat. Matt Spaeth is a solid tight end who can both run-block and catch the ball.

The offensive line is solid with Mark Setterstrom and Joe Ainslie leading the way. They will provide plenty of holes for Maroney to romp, and give Bryan Cupito plenty of time to pass. If Cupito can have a breakout year, and be a true field general, the Gophers may surprise some people on offense.

In 2004, Minnesota’s defense looked lost a good majority of the time. Head coach Glen Mason has focused on the defense this spring, and has promoted David Lockwood to defensive coordinator from secondary coach. Lockwood has a lot of question to answer such as how to improve on one of the worst pass defenses in the conference and how to offset the departure of Darrell Reid on the defensive line.

Anthony Montgomery, the Gophers’ starting tackle, will attempt to fill the void that will be left on the D-line because of Darrell Reid’s departure. He will not be a pass rusher, but he will rack up the tackles, and has potential to be an all-conference performer. Mark Losli can also be depended upon at the other tackle position. Losli will be looking to cap his career at Minnesota with a strong senior campaign, and I predict he will do so. Unfortunately, the strength of the defensive diminishes once we move away from the defensive line.

The linebacking corps will be very young and inexperienced this season. Kyle McKenzie is the only upperclassman with significant playing time and will have to step up his play. John Shevlin and Mike Sherels will have to make giant leaps and bounds if the Gophers hope to stop their opponents on the ground.

In 2004, there were 108 teams that had a better pass defense than Minnesota. That’s not good. As you can see, coach Lockwood has his work cut out for him in the secondary. Unfortunately, I predict he will still have many long nights ahead of him. There were no solid recruits brought in to help the situation and the current players just don’t have the talent to make it happen. I think a Sun Bowl appearance is in their future.

4. Michigan (8-4; 5-3)
No, that is not a typo, and I really do think the Wolverines will come in fourth this season. I’m not counting on the EA Jinx (Desmond Howard is on the cover of NCAA Football 2006), but I just think that a combination of a so-so defense, and playing in conference with three better teams ahead of them will doom them. Of course, Chad Henne could surprise everyone and be even better than we think and lead the maize and blue all the way to Pasadena.

Chad Henne, Michigan’s sophomore QB, did an excellent job last year. The only problem going into 2005 is that Braylon Edwards is not there to turn mistakes into 80-yard touchdown receptions. Henne will miss Edwards, but he will still have Mike Hart to hand the ball off to.

Mike Hart will anchor the running back position for the Wolverines this season. He had an excellent freshman campaign with almost 1,500 yards last year. The offense will even more focused on him, so achieving these totals should be possible. Michigan will need backups Max Martin and Kevin Grady to give Hart enough rest so that he doesn’t wear down during the season.

Jason Avant and Steve Breaston are hungry and ready to prove that they can carry the torch that Braylon Edwards gave to them. Avant will serve as Michigan’s pass-catching receiver, while Breaston gives them a solid deep threat. While I am sold on Avant’s ability, I just don’t know how good Breaston will be. He’s been inconsistent in his three previous years, so he will have a lot to prove.

There was a debate in a previous column as to which school is Quarterback U. There is no disputing that Michigan is OL U. Every year, the Wolverines crank out top quality talent at every line position. This year is no exception. Adam Stenavich is outstanding and will be an All-American, while Matt Lentz is almost a lock to secure conference honors. Mike Hart should flourish with this strong line ahead of them, and this group will wear down many of their opponents.

In 2005, Michigan best defense will be their offense. However, when their defense does take the field, there will still be plenty of players to watch; most notably Lamaar Woodley.

Woodley has been used at both the linebacker at defensive end positions. He seems to be more suited for the end position as his pass-rushing is truly fierce. The rest of the defensive line is solid as well. Gabe Watson and Pat Massey will help form one of the best defensive lines in the country. They have three players on the line that could be in the NFL. Unfortunately, those are the only three in the entire defense that will be playing on Sunday anytime soon.

The linebackers will be true to Big 10 form by being strong against the run and much weaker against the pass. Scott McClintock is the prototypical Michigan ‘backer with excellent vision and agility to match. Prescott Burgess will be the player to watch, and he will have to further develop his pass defending skills if Lloyd Carr’s team is to be successful.

The 2005 Michigan secondary will be filled with new faces. Leon Hall and Grant Mason will be the corners, and Ryan Mundy will combine with Brandent Englemon to form the safety crew. This unit may have trouble in the early going, as they figure out how to work as a unit. Communication is crucial for defensive backs, and this only comes with game experience. This squad has the potential to be solid, but it may be a case of “too little, too late.”

3. Purdue (8-3; 6-2)
Whoever created the 2005 Big 10 schedule must be a Purdue fan. The Boilemakers miss both Michigan and Ohio State, and their toughest road game is at Minnesota. The schedule is tailor-made for success, and Joe Tiller’s team just has to capitalize on it.

Purdue was the first Big 10 team to realize that you can actually win a game by passing the ball. Drew Brees and Kyle Orton excelled in Purdue’s precision passing game, and Brandon Kirsch, Purdue’s starting quarterback, will be the best player no one has ever heard of.

Kirsch is the type of QB who believes in substance more than style — it may not look pretty, but he’ll get the job done. He can make plays with his arm and he will not hesitate to tuck the ball and run. If he’s smart, he will let Jerod Void do the running. Void is the projected the starter at running back and he will most likely platoon with Brandon Jones. Together, these guys, along with redshirt freshman Kory Sheets will gain over 1,000 yards.

Purdue’s offense has always relied upon excellent pass catchers to be successful. This season, Dorien Bryant and Kyle Ingraham will team up to be one of the most feared tandems in the country. Bryant has sick talent and will spend most of his Saturdays on the way to the end zone. Ingraham, at 6-9, presents huge matchup problems. Repeat after me: “jump ball in the end zone, caught by Ingraham!”

The offensive line is not spectacular, but they are serviceable. Mike Otto will be the star of the unit. Jordan Grimes and Matt Turner will also assist. Purdue’s line does not have to be fantastic — they just need to give Brandon Kirsch enough time to find his superstar receivers.

The defensive line for the Boilemakers this season may be their best ever. Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer are superstars, and they may just be the best pair in the country. Purdue’s defense starts with these guys, and the defensive line is really going to surprise a lot of teams. This is the final piece of the puzzle for Joe Tiller’s squad to be able to compete with the elite.

There isn’t too much off a dropoff in talent at linebacker. All the starters return and George Hall is their undisputed leader. He had 92 tackles last year, and he will be leading the team once again this year. The key to this unit will be their pass defense. The Boilemakers could really play a lot of cover two this season because of their dominating defensive line. It will depend on how these guys do in the passing game.

Purdue’s secondary is not the greatest, but its not terrible, either. Once again, everyone is coming back, so at least they are used to playing with each other. Bernard Pollard is an oversized safety, who will provide excellent run support. Pollard and the rest of the crew will have to not make the mistakes they made last year, and Purdue just might come out on top in December.

2. Ohio State (9-2; 7-1)
The Buckeyes have found themselves in the limelight ever since winning one of the best National Championship Games in history. The Maurice Clarett fiasco played out like Thursday night TV and I don’t even want to start talking about Troy Smith. I think that Jim Tressel’s team will be ready to play, and with all of the scandals behind them, they will also be ready to win.

In 2005, all Buckeye fans will attempt to keep their eyes on Ted Ginn. He is, bar-none, the best athlete in America. He is the most valuable player on this team and he does just about everything on it. He returns kicks, punts, and has enough spare time to find the end zone via lining up as a split end. The key to the season will be how well the coaching staff adjusts the offense around Mr. Ginn.

The man responsible for getting Ted Ginn the ball on offense will be Justin Zwick. Zwick has underperformed throughout his career, but he just might be ready to shine. At Tressel U, all the quarterback has to do is not lose the game. I certainly think that Zwick will do just fine, but if not Troy Smith or even Todd Boeckman could get a shot.

The running game is not nearly as strong as in years past, but this year it doesn’t need to be. Antonio Pittman and Eric Haw will platoon and give the Bucks decent numbers on the ground. Their inexperience may hurt them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of balls left on the turf. Fortunately, Ohio State will be throwing the ball much more in 2005, and they have some very capable targets.

I’ve already heaped enough praise on Ted Ginn, so let’s talk about Santonio Holmes. Holmes also has excellent speed with good hands to boot. He should put up much better numbers than last season, as he is going to get the ball more. He can go deep and run good routes, so I see him getting a lot of touches. Roy Hall, Devon Lyons, and Ryan Hamby will also get some catches.

The defensive line for the Buckeyes will be solid, but not spectacular. Quinn Pitcock was the leading tackler out of the group last season, and he should be their star in 2005. Marcus Green, Jay Richardson, and David Patterson will also see significant playing time. The key for the linemen will be to lock on to an offensive player so their stellar linebackers can make the plays.

The linebacking unit at Ohio State is the best in the nation. A.J. Hawk had a mind-blowing 141 tackles last season, and has to be the favorite for the Butkus Award. He has 4.4 speed, and at 240 pounds, that it one scary combination. Bobby Carpenter is a guy that just makes plays. He is a no-nonsense type of football player and he gets the job done. Anthony Schlegel and Mike D’Andrea will secure the middle linebacker chores, and this unit will make the Buckeyes’ defense very tough in the interior.

Ohio State secondary is one of the best in the conference. Ashton Youbody is their best cover man and Donte Whitner is the best tackler. They have plenty of speed and all of these guys have played with each other before. The most important game this season may be in September for the Bucks, and if they can run the table in the early going, they will most likely win the conference.

1. Iowa (10-1; 7-1)
The Iowa Hawkeyes have the best shot of representing a Big 10 team in Pasadena this year. Even though this year’s Rose Bowl is not slated to feature the traditional Pac-10/Big 10 matchup, the Hawks just might crash the party.

The Hawkeyes start 2005 with tremendous momentum from last season. The Capitol One Bowl against LSU was one of the most amazing games I have ever seen. Iowa won on an amazing touchdown pass from Drew Tate with only seconds left. It just might have been the greatest play since some guy named [Doug] Flutie got his prayers answered 20 years ago.

Drew Tate, Iowa’s starting quarterback, is the unquestioned leader of the offense. He had a tremendous season last year, throwing for almost 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. He will have an even better season this year, and he’s an early favorite for the Heisman in 2006. The only issue I have with this offense is how productive are they going to be on the ground.

Iowa didn’t really produce much on the ground last season. They were ranked 116th (which is almost unimaginable in the Big 10) in rushing yards last season. It was mainly due to injury, but the talent level must improve this season or the gains will still be minimal. Marques Simmons and Sam Brownlee will both try to improve on their efforts from last season, and if either can be productive, watch out.

Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon will once again be the receiving tandem for the Hawkeyes. They bring upperclassmen leadership and skills to a group who I expect to have a big season. Hinkel, Drew Tate’s favorite target, is an excellent pass-catcher and can make just about any play. Solomon is the big-play guy, and can break a game wide open with his blazing speed.

The offensive line will be stronger this season, and will be one of the best in the conference. These guys will surprise some people, as many pundits feel that they are a notch below the best in the Big 10. Mike Elgin and Lee Gray will be the leaders on an all-upperclassmen starting lineup that will be very solid.

On defense, the line is the major concern for Hawkeye fans. They lost three very talented players to graduation, and this will be the area that teams will try to exploit. The starters had a combined total of nine tackles last season, so they must get ready in a hurry.

The linebacking corps, on the other hand, will be one of the best in the country. Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are among the top duos in America, and will prove it this season. These guys combined for 229 tackles in 2004 and they will need to do even better this year. Hodge will be the primary stopper against the run, and Greenway will shut down opposing backs and tight-ends in pass coverage.

The Hawkeye secondary will be among the best in the conference again this season. They have two seniors at cornerback (Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen) and the safeties have had playing time together as well. The key to this unit will be how well Marcus Paschal does after coming back from ACL surgery. He is not yet slated to start, but if he can even play as well as he did before he got injured, Iowa fans will be very pleased.

The key to this team’s season will be the game against Ohio State in Columbus on September 24. If the Hawkeyes win that one, they just might go undefeated, and make me look like a genius. They won’t sneak up on anyone anymore, but they have the talent to win the conference outright.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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