The Cougars have one thing that will put them on the list of top 25 status, and that is Heisman hopeful Max Hall. Hall threw for 35 TDs a year ago, but with the departure of Austin Collie and Michael Reed, they may not come quite as easy this season. Harvey Unga keeps the defenses honest, as the bruising back has topped the 1,000 yard mark in each of the last two seasons. Jan Jorgensen anchors the defense as he is the Mountain West career sacks leader with 24, and the unit is solid across the front seven. The weak link for this team will be in the secondary, where they have just one returnee. The schedule is loaded, as they must face Oklahoma and Florida State, but they do get both Utah and TCU at home. They will be in contention for the MWC title.
24. TEXAS TECH
Texas Tech will take some big hits as Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree have departed. Harrell threw for over 5,000 yards the last two years, and Crabtree had 93 receptions and 18 TDs. Taylor Potts will take over at QB, and if nothing else has been learned about the Mike Leach system, you can bet he is going to have some big numbers. The defense will be solid up front, but the secondary is depleted, and that will be a problem as the conference is loaded with star-studded QBs. The Red Raiders won’t match their run at the BCS Title game a year ago, but there is enough talent around to crack the top 25.
Coming off of last year’s win in the Sugar Bowl will be a tough act to follow. The Utes replace their QB Brian Johnson, have a new punter and place kicker, and various components of a tough defense. The biggest shoes to fill will be Johnson, and the likely candidates are junior Corbin Louks, or redshirt freshman DeVonte Christopher. The good news is that they have an outstanding offensive line, so if either steps up, they should be well protected. The defense will be the team’s strength, and be able to keep them in games. The bad news for the Utes, is their three toughest games all come on the road, at Oregon, BYU and TCU.
22. NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina is being built slowly in the blueprint of the Miami program where Butch Davis was a defensive assistant during the Jimmy Johnson era. Davis is building a team with great speed, special teams prowess and a pro-style offense. The weakest points, still remains up front, where the Tar Heels’ rebuilding process is not complete. If this team gets above expectations type play from the offensive and defensive lines, they could be a force to reckon with atop the ACC.
Kansas had great expectations a year ago, but was mostly the residual of their success in ’07. The reality was an upgraded schedule, and key personnel changes made those expectations unachievable. They have less expectations, but perhaps a chance to exceed them, with QB Reesing returning. The Jayhawks don’t have to play at Missouri or Nebraska this year. The Jayhawks have made defensive adjustments, going with a two-linebacker set, because of the wide open offenses in the Big 12. If they can defend better than a year ago, expectations will be exceeded this time around.
20. WEST VIRGINIA
This might appear to be too lofty a ranking for a team that loses QB Patrick White but the reason I have them here is the Big East just has no elite teams. Some are good, but most are just ordinary. The Mountaineers will get Jock Sanders back, who was suspended a year ago at WR, and they have two top notched running backs. The new QB will be Jarrett Brown and he has a strong accurate arm, and the Mountaineers will likely be throwing more. Add in a top Big East rated corp of recruits, and West Virginia should emerge from a powerless Big East.
19. FLORIDA STATE
The Seminoles kind of went south for a bit and landed on four year’s worth of probabtion and lost six scholarships in the process. That is now behind them, and although they aren’t back to the level of their glory years, the program is once again on the rise. The defense suffered a lot of losses, with just three returning starters, but there is enough influx of talent that will keep them competitive on the defensive end. The offensive line is the team’s strength and everyone returns – none of them yet seniors. The Seminoles put together the top recruiting class in the ACC and may be a year away from really getting back to the level they once were. For now, they are starting their come back.
18. NOTRE DAME
Charlie Weiss has made a lot of progress with Notre Dame, but the expectations are so high that it would be improbable that he could live up to them. What he has done is put respectability back into the program. That respectability starts with an offense that may be ready to explode. Jimmy Claussen matured last year, but as much potential he has to blossom into a star this year, there is redshirt freshman Dayne Crist that might be in the mix as well. The running game could get a boost if Cierre Wood emerges as what he is anticipated to be, and he may get a shot. The offensive line returns four and should be better. Defensively the Irish may struggle early, but outside of USC all the games on the schedule are winnable, and they should finish as a top 20 team.
The California Bears see USC breaking-in a new QB and a new defense, as an opportunity to suprise. The Bears have almost every key player back on defense. The issue at hand for them will be the play, or lack of quality play of QB Kevin Riley. Riley was yanked last year, but he is the solution if he plays to his lofty potential. The Bears defense will keep them in a lot of games, as there will be All-Conference talent all over the field. The Bears will go as either Riley or Mansion go, and likely will fall short in the Pac-10 again, but still a top 20 team.
TCU rode their talented defense to an 11-2 mark a year ago, but seven have departed. That may not matter as TCU always seems to be good on that side of the ball. The Frogs have Andy Dalton, a QB that threw just five INTs a year ago and the Frog offense may be their calling card for success this season. The offensive line will be good, and the Horns should be able to put up a lot of points. If the defense begins to gel early, the Frogs could make some noise.
The Bulldogs carried the No. 1 label into last season, and it was more pressure than they could handle. The Bulldogs find themselves in top 10 talk each year because they consistently put together top 10 recruiting classes, and this year shouldn’t be far off, even with the departure of Moreno and Stafford. The Bulldogs may be in a better place mentally, as they had 10 players arrested in 2008. Now all that and the hype is behind them. I would not be surprised if the Bulldogs awaken and pull the surprises this year.
14. BOISE STATE
It seems like this program doesn’t skip a beat and always finds themselves in the top 25 when the final gun sounds. This year will be no different. Last year was a reminder of just that as they had a major rebuilding project that shows they just reload. This year, they have experience back at virtually every position and look for QB Kellen Moore to become special. The key to how high this team will go is on the offensive line, where there are a lot of candidates and talent, but little experience to mesh that talent into a fluid unit. Their biggest test of the season will come against Oregon in game 1, a team they beat on the road a year ago, but get them at the Big Blue Marble this time around. This team is young, but with experience, they could surprise.
13. GEORGIA TECH
The Yellow Jackets are bringing back a lot of talent with 17 starters returning including Jonathon Dwyer, last year’s ACC Player of the Year. Dwyer rushed for close to 1,400 yards a year ago. Paul Johnson was given no chance to succeed utilizing the option, but he was successful without his own players. Now with a year under their belts, we will see. The Jackets have a potent secondary, and will keep the opponents from making big plays and ultimately keep them in most games on their own. They will learn a lot of what they have in a showdown in mid-October playing host to Virginia Tech, which could be a BCS-type showdown. Tech is loaded and could be a top 10 team if injuries are minimized and everything goes well with the option.
12. PENN STATE
Joe Paterno was said to have had the game pass him by, but at over 80-years-old, he has bad news for all those people as he is fielding some of his best teams ever. Paterno has continued to recruit top players into a winning system, and will once again be a force on the national scene. QB Daryll Clark returns and that in itself is enough to keep the Nittany Lions in games. They will also have the return of Shaun Lee, who is perhaps the best player in the Big-10 on the defensive side of the ball. They get Ohio State at home which is a lift, and the Lions will roar again this season.
The Ducks are talented, but a lot of their success or failure could hinge on their adaptation to new head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly was the offensive coordinator, so familiarity is already in place. What might be the decisive advantage for this team is a tough, but favorable schedule. They get the top teams in the Pac-10 all at home – USC, California and Oregon State. They also get two big non-conference games at home vs. Utah and Purdue. The schedule puts this team in position to determine their own fate from a favorable point of view. The offense will be explosive, but the defense has some holes to fill. If they get good production from newcomers filling the holes, and the coaching transition is a success, the Ducks are a player in the Pac-10.
10. OKLAHOMA STATE
The Cowboys are loaded for bear on offense with QB Zac Robinson returning, along with WR Dez Bryant and running back Kendall Hunter. The problem is that the kingpins in the Big-12 have equal weapons, so it will come down to how well the Cowboys can defend, not score. The Cowboys have not ranked better than No. 74 on defense since 2002, and with a league full of NFL caliber QB’s and skill players, the defense, which should be better, might not show it because of the vast offensive resources in the conference. The talent is there, but tough games with equally talented teams will keep this team from top 10 staus.
The Tigers had an off year last year after generating at least 11 wins in each of the prior three. They will build on the eight wins from a year ago. The Tigers had a banner recruiting year, as usual, and many will be on the field for the opening snap. The key is going to be the development of QB Jordan Jefferson. He has a boatload of talent, but was inconsistent a year ago. If his maturation process clicks early, the Bayou Bengals will be a force to reckon with for sure, and will vault into the National Championship picture. Their biggest test will come vs. Florida in Baton Rouge on October 10.
8. VIRGINIA TECH
There is one given each year in NCAAF, and that is a Frank Beamer led Hokie team is going to be in the hunt. Tech, along with Texas and USC, is one of the three schools to win at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons. This team is extremely strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball, vital to success in NCAAF. The Hokies, because of that, are equipped with the talent to win their third-straight ACC Title. What they need is for a talented group of recievers to develop, and the offense will be complete. The Hokies could find themselves with a win over Alabama in their first game and poised to make a run for a BCS Bowl. Perhaps if everything gels, a national title run as well.
7. OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes have played in two of the last three National Championship games. They have also won or shared the Big-10 Conference Title four straight years, so you know that come January, this team is going to still be playing. Ohio State lost three games a year ago – all to top 10 teams, that after loing in the Championship game to Florida in ’07. So this is a good Buckeye team, that can’t seem to clear the final hurdle. They will find out really fast where they are heading this season when USC comes to the Horseshoe on September 12. That game may well determine the fate of this team. A win would be huge, and would vault them into BCS Title conversations. A loss may leave them right where they were a year ago – having a good season, but not able to knock off one of the big dogs.
What a remarkable job Houston Nutt did so quickly at Ole Miss. He took over a program that won no games in the SEC, and led them to a win in the Cotton Bowl. The Rebels will have 19 of 22 starting positions filled with upper-classmen, and QB Jevan Snead returns to employ the Wild Rebel offense that had so much success a year ago. The offensive line will be the key as there were several departures, but a talent void was not left. Up front defensively, this team is going to be very solid. If the Rebels’ offensive line matures, we could be looking at a big game at home vs. the Gators on October 10. If the Rebels get past that one, mark the calendar for Novemeber 7 at Alabama, which has the possibility of being the biggest game in Rebel football history.
The calling card for the Tide this season is that Alabama should have the best defense in the country. Anytime you have a defense such as what the Tide will bring to a game every week, you’re gonna be in the game to the end. The biggest question will be at QB, and the answer to that question is going to be the fate of the Tide. It looks to be Greg McElroy, but there are two other viable candidates in freshman Jackson, and strong-armed Thomas Darrah. If one of these three can provide stability and leadership for the offense, the Tide will be in the National Championship hunt. If not, they will drop from the top 10. They catch LSU and Tennessee at home, and don’t have to play Florida. The big game could be at Ole Miss on October 10, where we will learn a lot about this Tide team.
The Sooners benefitted last year in the Big-12 tie-breaker system and emerged to play for a National Championship. This team was scary on offense, and with Sam Bradford’s decision to return, they will be powerful again. What this team needs is for the defense to step up, as it allowed 343 points a year ago and was exposed by Florida. If the Sooners’ returnees make marked improvements, then this team certainly has the ingredients to win it all. The only thing that concerns me is their lack of experience on the offensive line and that may keep this team from under performing to expectations.
It would appear that the Longhorns will play in a National Title-type game when they face the Sooners in Texas on October 17. Colt McCoy returns, and Texas is going to be a player for the BCS Title, and this game, is going to have the makings of an elimination game. The loser is going to be in trouble, while the winner is going to be looking very good. If the Longhorns get past this one, I would be shocked not to see them in the BCS Title game come January. I love their experience on the offensive line and that could make the difference.
The Trojans are in the National Championship picture every year and under coach Carroll, this year will be no different. The biggest question mark is at QB, as replacing Mark Sanchez won’t be easy. The Trojans will have one of the best, if not the best offensive lines in the country, to help smooth the transition. They have great skill position players loaded with play makers, so if projected QB Aaron Corp can get it done, the Trojans will be deserving of the lofty preseason ranking, if not, they could fall out of the Title hunt. That question will be answered early when the Trojans go to Ohio State on September 12. A Trojan win puts them in the picture, a loss could certainly be fatal to title hopes.
All you need to know is last year’s National Champion returns every defensive starter. They also return a QB that has skill, guts, and leadership. He is also surrounded by skilled playmakers with speed to burn. The out-of-conference slate is a joke, with games against Charleston Southern, Troy, and Florida International, they also get Florida State at home. They have one big obstacle – playing in “Death Valley,” Baton Rouge against LSU. If they pass that test, this team is going to be hard to keep from defending their title come January. They are loaded, have great coaching, and leadership. The only one that can really beat them is themselves.