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NCAA Top 25 Preview

NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 25 Oregon
By Judd Hall

2007: The Ducks and their fans have to look back on last year and wonder what might have been. Oregon was positively dominant with Dennis Dixon under center, outscoring opponents 385-198 en route to an 8-1 start and a No. 2 ranking in the country. Then Dixon’s injury took down any hopes of making a trip to the national title game as the Ducks  lost their final three regular-season contests. Oregon was still a popular club to back, going 9-4 against the spread.

Things may look bleak on the offensive side of the ball due to the loss of the top two skill players (Dixon and Jonathan Stewart), but not so much. The reason being the Ducks have three of their five starting offensive linemen returning, while the other two spots are being filled by players with at least two years in the system. With all that being said, Oregon must get a full season out of senior Max Unger at center.

Defensively, the Ducks are poised to improve even more than they did in 2007 as only three starters from last year’s squad are gone. Oregon will be returning five of its defensive front seven that allowed just 132.7 yards per game on the ground. While that number is high, remember they were giving up 146.5 rushing YPG in ’06. The odds are pretty good we’re going to see a much tighter defense

Oregon’s offensive and defensive lines are relatively set for the year. The running back position will take care of itself in time with either Jeremiah Johnson or Andre Crenshaw will claim the No. 1 job. Instead, the Ducks’ success will hinge on who will be lining up as quarterback this season.

The QB job is up for grabs between sophomores Justin Roper and Nathan Costa. At the beginning of last year, Costa would have been your man to wind up under center had it not been for blowing out his knee last October. His pain was Roper’s gain for when Dixon went down, particularly in the Sun Bowl against South Florida. The Douglasville, Georgia native completed 17 of 30 passes that day for 180 yards and four touchdowns.

Will that performance merit the starting job? Not necessarily as both he and Costa are in a virtual dead heat in practices right now.

The plus side to this situation is having two quarterbacks that will be firmly ensconced in Mike Bellotti’s system. Unfortunately, will the maturation process be ahead enough for either of them to make the Oregon faithful forget about Dixon turning up the corner for a huge gain.

Oregon Schedule

Aug. 30 Washington Huskies
Sept. 6 Utah State Aggies
Sept. 13 @ Purdue Boilermakers
Sept. 20 Boise State Broncos
Sept. 27 @ Washington State Cougars
Oct. 4 @ Southern California Trojans
Oct. 11 UCLA Bruins
Oct. 25 @ Arizona State Sun Devils
Nov. 1 @ California Golden Bears
Nov. 8     Stanford Cardinal
Nov. 15 Arizona Wildcats
Nov. 29 @ Oregon State Beavers

Player to Watch: It’s going to be awfully hard to replace Jonathan Stewart in the Ducks’ backfield, but like was mentioned earlier, it won’t be the end of the world. Last year the gameplan was for Stewart to platoon with Johnson at the running back position. Johnson went down with a knee injury last season and was sidelined.

The Los Angeles, California native did post respectable numbers in his junior season…rushing for 344 yards and five touchdowns in just six games of service in 2007. If his knee is healthy, he’ll be very formidable.

Returning Starters: 16 (6 on offense, 8 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: The Ducks doesn’t play any favorites, facing off with six teams that went bowling last season. It also won’t help matters that Oregon’s toughest battles of the year (Southern California, Arizona State and California) all come away from the Autzen Zoo.

Let Down: October 11 versus UCLA. Oregon will be coming off of its third road game in four weeks when coming back home to face the Bruins. UCLA should be “run and gun” with Rick Nueheisel at the helm. And the Ducks will be coming off of a big game against at the Trojans the week before. Don’t be surprised if “the Quack Attack” come up lame in this spot.

Look Ahead:
September 27 at Washington State. It’s hard to think of the Cougars as a team to be wary of at this point of the year, but that is where we stand. Wazzu will enter the game with a new head coach after playing a hectic schedule of its own under new coach Paul Wulff. Yet the Ducks will be coming off of a home tilt with Boise State and will follow up this Sept. 27 affair the following Saturday by traveling to Southern California. If that doesn’t sound like a trap to you, nothing will.

Prediction: This year for the Ducks will open with lowered expectations, which are actually merited. The loss of Dixon won’t be nearly as bad this year now that they’ve had time to prepare some gunslingers for the job. However, they will miss his production and that will be what holds Oregon down to a 7-5 record and hoping to get into some obscure bowl game at the end of the year.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 24 South Carolina
By Judd Hall

It was the tale of two seasons for the Gamecocks last year. The first part was terrific, South Carolina surged out to a 6-1 start with wins over Georgia and Kentucky. They even played LSU respectably in their lone defeat in the first half of the year. The Gamecocks’ success translated into a No. 6 BCS ranking in Steve Spurrier’s third year in Columbia.

The second half of the season was mired in numerous mistakes. A pair of heartbreaking defeats to Vandy and Tennessee helped get the stone rolling down the mountain as the Gamecocks lost their final five games.

Bettors weren’t big fans of South Carolina either as they went 5-6 against the spread.

Strengths: It’s not what you think of first in a Spurrier offense, but South Carolina has a formidable running game. And that is something you wouldn’t expect when you consider the Gamecocks were dead last in the Southeastern Conference last season with an average of 113.7 yards per game on the ground.

Despite the low numbers in 2007, the ‘Cocks have a solid tandem running game between senior rusher Mike Davis and sophomore Brian Maddox. Both Davis (5-9, 214) and Maddox (5-11, 220) have are good sized and can bruise the defense on a steady basis for about four yards a carry.

USC also has an offensive line that is chocked full of experience from last season, returning all five starters. And that o-line comes in at an oh so petite 310 pound average per player.

Carolina has the ability to bring the offense along slowly, thanks to the ground game. The only question is if Spurrier will actually acquiesce to keep his club competitive.

We also can’t stop to think of the South Carolina defense, which started the year by holding its own against some of the nation’s best squads. Meanwhile, they’re going to have to find a way hold tight late in games after what we witnessed in way too many breakdowns defending in the second half of 2007.

Weaknesses: It’s hard not to harp on the Gamecocks’ rushing attack right now when the quarterback position is in such chaos for the team. And gunslingers are what Spurrier prides himself on, if nothing else.

Last year, Chris Smelley was the man under center for South Carolina and played admirably, completing 56.8 percent of his passes for 1,176 yards with nine scores. He even entered the spring as the top signal caller.

Unfortunately for Smelley, the spring game was a chance to prove he was the man for the job. Well he proved he was the right guy if you want someone to toss five picks in a scrimmage amongst the fans.

The other option to play QB is Tommy Beecher and he wasn’t much better, tossing a few interceptions of his own to make Spurrier throw his visor down.

As bad as the situation looks, both throwers have a whole summer to work on their game. And if neither can cut the mustard, Stephen Garcia will be available just before the start of the season due to suspension.

Player to Watch: Even though he’s been out with turf toe this spring, wide out Kenny McKinley is the man who’ll be the catalyst for making much of the offense work this year. The senior for Mableton, Georgia was one of the top receivers in the SEC last year, averaging 80.7 YPG on 6.4 catches per game.

While McKinley will be entrusted with making the signal callers look semi-competent to start the year. Don’t be surprised to see him lining up as a tight end or as a running back or even as the quarterback since he was one in high school.

What he provides the offense is a way to constantly keep the opposing defense off guard and mismatches the Gamecocks can exploit.

South Carolina Schedule

Aug. 28 North Carolina State Wolfpack
Sept. 4 @ Vanderbilt Commodores
Sept. 13 Georgia Bulldogs
Sept. 20 Wofford Terriers
Sept. 27 Alabama-Birmingham Blazers
Oct. 4 @ Mississippi Rebels
Oct. 11 @ Kentucky Wildcats
Oct. 18 Louisiana State Tigers
Nov. 1 Tennessee Volunteers
Nov. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks
Nov. 15 @ Florida Gators
Nov. 29 @ Clemson Tigers

Returning Starters: (8 on offense, 11 on defense, 1 specialist)

Let’s be honest, the Gamecocks’ schedule features about eight games they could conceivably lose. The season opens against an improved North Carolina State squad and a road trip to face the Commodores, who beat them 17-6 last season at Williams-Brice Stadium.

South Carolina still has the Bayou Bengals on its home schedule, along with the Vols and Razorbacks. As if that weren’t enough, you’re going to close out the year with road tilts at Florida and Clemson.

Not an easy schedule at all.

Let Down: November 1 versus Tennessee. The Volunteers were able skirt by Carolina in the Smokies in overtime last season, which really helped send them on the downward spiral. Now this tilt comes fresh off the heels of a showdown with LSU that the Gamecocks will most certainly have revenge on their minds. It’s not a far out theory to think it’s a spot to back the Vols this early.

Look Ahead:
November 8 versus Arkansas. No sooner than the Vols have left Columbia, the Hogs come to town. This time around South Carolina is in that rare hangover/look ahead spot against offensive guru Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas side. Provided the Gamecocks’ defense doesn’t get smacked around like what happened in the second half of last year.

Prediction: Sure, the schedule isn’t an easy one. Sure, the quarterback situation is as suspect as who wins American Idol. Yet this team returns more than enough starters to mean this is a “now or never” type of year…and perhaps will put a stamp on Spurrier’s tenure in Columbia. This team will use that veteran experience to the fullest this season and find itself with a legit shot at winning the SEC Title after a 10-2 season.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 23 Connecticut
By Judd Hall

2007: The Huskies didn’t get as much love as teams like West Virginia or South Florida in the Big East last season. Yet they found a way to take home a piece of their first conference championship. Connecticut could have received more hype though if it could have came out of its two biggest road tilts (at Cincy and at West Virginia) with at least one more win.

Strengths: You don’t think of offense when you think of UCONN on the gridiron, but maybe you should. The Huskies are returning nine starters from last year’s attack, highlighted by gunslinger Tyler Lorenzen.

Lorenzen will have three of his four receivers coming back with a year of experience under his belt. Connecticut will also benefit from Rob Ambrose will have learned more after his first season as the offensive coordinator, which should improve his play calling a great deal. And that can only help since Lorenzen had a league low six interceptions.

Given the amount of talent coming back to Storrs this fall, we can expect to see more of the spread offense that helps give the Huskies some favorable matchups. And we’ll even see more of the spread option attack with Lorenzen either taking the ball himself up the box or tossing off to Andre Dixon or Donald Brown.

Weaknesses: While Connecticut’s defense appears to be fairly strong on paper (and was on the field last year, for the most part), it failed against high end offenses.

The proof really is in the pudding. UCONN allowed 18.6 points per game and 187.8 yards per game through the air. In the Huskies’ two conferences defeats against West Virginia and Cincinnati, they gave up 46.5 PPG and 191.5 passing YPG.

What was even more surprising is the Huskies gave up 661 rushing yards in those two road matches. Compare that to the 158.5 YPG on the ground UCONN allowed for the season and you can see how bad they need to shore up the ranks in the middle.

Player to Watch: At the end of last year, receiver Terence Jeffers would have been the top man to look for in the Connecticut lineup…well, that would be the case if he didn’t decide to transfer.

Now the No. 1 receiver job rests squarely upon Brad Kanuch’s shoulders. There isn’t a major drop off in talent when you place Kanuch into this role since he was second on the team with 27 catches for 433 yards and a score.

What he gives Lorenzen is a bonafide deep threat that will help stretch out many defenses, giving the Huskies a chance to get the ground game going. Don’t expect him to be the reception leader; he’s not built for that. But Kanuch will give do his part in changing the opposition’s gameplan.

Connecticut Schedule

Aug. 28 Hofstra Pride
Sept. 6 @ Temple Owls
Sept. 13 Virginia Cavaliers
Sept. 19 Baylor Bears
Sept. 26 @ Louisville Cardinals
Oct. 4 @ North Carolina Tar Heels
Oct. 18 @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Oct. 25 Cincinnati Bearcats
Nov. 1 West Virginia Mountaineers
Nov. 15 @ Syracuse Orange
Nov. 23 @ South Florida Bulls
Dec. 6 Pittsburgh Panthers

Returning Starters: 19 (9 on offense, 8 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: The scheduling Gods have smiled upon the Huskies this year, giving them a real chance at being 7-0 before heading into the meat of their season. That’s not to say that teams like Virginia, Baylor and North Carolina are pushovers…they’re not, but they’re in the early stages of rebuilding which can only help UCONN.

Then you get a pair of road scuffles against Louisville and Rutgers, two Big East teams they made short work of in 2007. Toss in Hofstra and Temple and you’ll get a nice ramp up to Oct. 25 and beyond.

Let Down: November 15 at Syracuse. The Orange aren’t world shakers by any means, but they will get to play Connecticut after it has faced off against Cincy and WVU. There is no chance that Syracuse will win this game, but covering the spread is a distinct possibility.

Look Ahead: October 18 at Rutgers. They may not have Ray Rice anymore, but Rutgers still can be a thorn in the sides of a few squads out there. And one of them is going to be UCONN. This will be the final game of a three-game road trip for the Huskies. And this match is the last before squaring off with the two clubs that pummeled them the year before in Cincinnati and West Virginia.

Prediction: The Huskies have been waiting to have a breakthrough season under Randy Edsall. They’re not going to wait any longer as 2008 proves to be their best chance at not only sharing a Big East crow, but owning it outright and a BCS Bowl bid. In the end, a 10-2 record should give that to the boys in Storrs.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 22 Fresno St.
By Judd Hall

2007: If Pat Hill wanted to know what kind of team he had last season, all he needs to do is look at how they performed in their first two road tilts.

The Bulldogs proved they had the talent to contend with the bigger name programs in the country…that much was clear when they took Texas A&M into triple overtime. Yet they also showed they weren’t quite ready for primetime when they got pole axed in Eugene by the Ducks the following Saturday.

Fresno State also held its own against conference powers Hawaii and Boise State to keep in the WAC title race to a lesser extent.

Strengths: Aside from the Bulldogs taking on any and all comers, they also possess one of the more solid offenses to return this season. Hill was an offensive line coach for many years in the NFL before heading to the college ranks. That means two things: you’re going to have a sound o-line to work in the trenches and the running game will flourish.

The o-line will not be a problem since the entire unit returns for the 2008 campaign, which is great since they allowed a league low 18 sacks last season. That can only help senior quarterback Tom Brandstater, who completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,654 yards with 15 scores and five picks. If you need to see how much of an improvement that is, just know that Brandstater threw 13 touchdowns and 14 picks in 2006.

As great as the passing game might turn out to be this year, this is still a running offense at heart. The Bulldogs were second in the WAC with 204.7 rushing yards per game last year, 180.0 in 2006 and 161.0 the season before. That level of success will not be in danger in 2008 with Ryan Mathews and Lonyae Miller in the backfield. Don’t be surprised if Mathews takes full control of this job though before the start of the season.

Weaknesses: Defensively, Fresno State is set from the standpoint of secondary and the linebacking corp. The front line, on the other hand, could be a problem. Gone are three of last year’s starting front four. A defensive line that gave up 144.8 YPG rushing last year can only see more running plays coming at them this season.

The relatively new d-line will also be hard pressed to match the league leading 32 sacks it had in 2007. That means the linebackers will have to cheat more at the start of the season, thus leaving the passing lanes above 15 yards not as tightly covered.

Player to Watch: Like I said earlier, Mathews might be platooning right now, but he’ll be the feature back before too long. The Bakersfield, California native led the Bulldogs with 866 yards and 14 touchdowns on 145 carries as a freshman. He’ll be getting a lot more national attention as the top back in the offense, especially since Fresno State will be playing its customary BCS conference schools.

Fresno State Schedule

Sept. 1 @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Sept. 13 Wisconsin Badgers
Sept. 20 @ Toledo Rockets
Sept. 27 UCLA Bruins
Oct. 4 Hawaii Warriors
Oct. 11 Idaho Vandals
Oct. 25 @ Utah State Aggies
Nov. 1 @ Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Nov. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack
Nov. 15 New Mexico State Aggies
Nov. 21 @ San Jose State Spartans
Nov. 28 @ Boise State Broncos

Returning Starters: 17 (10 on offense, 7 on defense)

Schedule: When you think of Fresno State, you think of insane out of conference schedules. And the Bulldogs don’t disappoint this time around with tilts at Rutgers, versus Wisconsin and then at UCLA all before the end of September.

Let Down: September 20 at Toledo. Just a week after a big home game against the Badgers, Fresno State will be making the cross country trip to Northeast Ohio. The Rockets will be a better than it was last year and the Bulldogs could easily be resting on their laurels in this tilt.

Look Ahead:
November 21 at San Jose State. This is a tricky spot for the Bulldogs. On the one hand, they should have no issues in dispatching the Spartans. Then again, a de facto WAC Championship Game the following week in the land of “Smurf Turf” will make most teams. And even though the Broncos will be rebuilding, at that point of the year it won’t matter.

It’s been a while since the Bulldogs have been relevant in the country. That’s going to change this year with a stellar offense that can attack via the air and ground, leading to nice ‘over’ plays since the defense won’t been that good against the run. Fresno State shouldn’t have any issues winning the WAC title at 9-3 this season…and I’m sure they can sneak a surprise win over Big 10 “power” Wisconsin to get into double-digit victories.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 21 Illinois
By Judd Hall

2007: Many experts figured that the Illini would be much better than they were in 2006. And as high as the expectations were, nobody penned them in for making a trip to the Rose Bowl. That’s what a prototypical spread offense will yield in a conference like the Big Ten…especially in a year that was well below standards.

Strengths: Much of the success Illinois had everything to do with its offense in 2007, particularly how well they ran the ball. A lot of that will rest on the shoulders of what Juice Williams is able to do orchestrate on the field. Williams came alive last year by accumulating 2,489 yards of total offense…871 of which came on the ground.

Now Williams will have to figure out how to make smarter decisions this season because even though he threw for 13 touchdowns, he got picked off 12 times. Luckily the Illini have three of their four receivers coming back to Champaign this fall. And the junior gunslinger should have learned even more from his mistakes of last season to help make the offense run smoother.

Weaknesses: Last year, Illinois was able to win as many games as they did because the defense was much more advantageous. The Illini was able to pick off 17 passes last year, up from 10 in 2006…three of those interceptions coming in their huge win in Columbus over then No. 1, Ohio State.

Now the Fighting Zooks have to replace half of their secondary thanks to graduation. It’s not like Bo Flowers and Nate Bussey will run into one another on the field. Yet you can’t help but think the learning curve will be large for these two safeties as the last line of defense. And with a unit that allowed 240.9 YPG through the air in 2007, it can’t bode well for the year ahead.

Illinois Schedule

Aug. 30 Missouri Tigers @ St. Louis, MO
Sept. 6 Eastern Illinois Panthers
Sept. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
Sept. 27 @ Penn State Nittany Lions
Oct. 4 @ Michigan Wolverines
Oct. 11 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Oct. 18 Indiana Hoosiers
Oct. 25 @ Wisconsin Badgers
Nov. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes
Nov. 8 Western Michigan Broncos @ Detroit, MI
Nov. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes
Nov. 22 @ Northwestern Wildcats

Player to Watch: Now that Rashard Mendenhal is out of the picture, Daniel Dufrene gets to carry the 600 pound gorilla of Mendenhal’s ghost into the backfield. The junior out of Fort Lauderdale, FL has speed to burn like his predecessor. However, Dufrene will need to be more willing to run up the middle and take the punishment that Mendenhal was able to absorb en route to 1,681 rushing yards. If he can average 100 YPG this year, then Dufrene can silence any doubters.

Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 7 on defense, 1 specialist)

Illinois would normally be thankful for playing in a Big Ten Conference that is set to have what many believe to be another down year. However, when you have road games against Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, you can’t help but think the Illini’s back are against the wall before the end of October. And let’s not forget the season opener with Mizzou in St. Louis or the Nov. 15 showdown at home versus Ohio State.

Let Down: October 11 versus Minnesota. Don’t be surprised if this game slips by the Illini. Zook’s club will be fresh off of a trip to Ann Arbor to scuffle with the new look Wolverines. The Golden Gophers should be much improved over the team that fell over themselves time after time in 2007.This will be another test for their secondary as Minnesota was third in the league in passing.

Look Ahead:
November 8 versus Western Michigan at Detroit, Michigan. This is another one of those games you wouldn’t expect to see as a bump in the road, but you need to look deeper. Eight starters are back on the Broncos’ offense and 10 on their defense. They won their last two games of 2007 against Iowa and Temple. Add in the fact that the Buckeyes are on the menu the following Saturday and you can expect this to be an upset.

Prediction: Last year, the Illini were light years ahead of expectations in terms of making it to the Rose Bowl. This season, however, reality will be the cold pimpslap back to earth. Three early road tilts in the league to go along with that game with the Tigers will put Illinois in catch up mode for the rest of the year. And the best that Zook’s crew will muster is a 7-5 mark and maybe make an appearance in the Alamo Bowl if they’re lucky

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Top 25 Preview, No. 20 South Florida
By Judd Hall

2007: Perhaps no other team in college football best showcased how crazy last season was than the Bulls. They open the year with an impressive road win against Auburn and followed that up with a victory over then No. 5 West Virginia for the second straight year. That resulted in South Florida in getting second place in the BCS standings. Three straight losses knocked Jim Leavitt’s program off that lofty perch and into a Sun Bowl defeat against Oregon.

Not bad for a program that has been in existence for 11 years.

The Big East is a league known for the offenses that dot its landscape. And one such attack lives in Tampa as South Florida returns nine of its starting 11 players on offense.

Leading the way for the Bulls’ offense is junior Matt Grothe, who led the club in passing (2,670 yards) and rushing (872 yards). He’ll be helped by an offensive line that is returning four of five starters from 2007, headlined by senior guard Ryan Schmidt, while averaging just over 309 pounds per behemoth.

Grothe won’t have to worry about throwing to targets he isn’t used to seeing as all three starting wideouts had at least 22 catches last year. Although Carlton Mitchell, Taurus Johnson and Marcus Edwards will have to improve on the nine touchdown passes they snared in 2007 to put this offense on par with the upper echelon of the league.

Weaknesses: Sure the Bulls are getting back world beating defensive end George Selvie returning to the trenches this year along with six other starters from a unit that was in the Top 30 in the nation. The problems for South Florida in snuffing out the opposition will lie in how well Alonzo McQueen can make fans forget about Ben Moffitt at middle linebacker.

USF will also be starting a brand new duo at cornerback as sophomores Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts to replace the recently departed Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins. The pair Murphy and Roberts are taking over for had nine interceptions and three touchdowns amongst them. Now that sounds like a tall order, in terms of replacing major cogs of the defense. Yet Williams and Jenkins were partly responsible for allowing 751 passing yards and seven touchdowns in their final three games…so maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.

Player to Watch: running back Mike Ford gained 645 yards last season, but you might not have noticed it as Grothe was the main focus. In 2008, expect Ford to have a larger role in the offense because Leavitt is starting to realize he needs to broaden the attack for his club to be successful. The former five-star recruit from Sarasota, Florida got just over 11 carries per game last season. Expect that number to double this season so Grothe can do more on play action or at least in an option capacity.

South Florida Schedule

Aug. 30 Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks
Sept. 6 @ Central Florida Golden Knights
Sept. 12 Kansas Jayhawks
Sept. 20 FIU Golden Panthers
Sept. 27 @ North Carolina State WolfPack
Oct. 2 Pittsburgh Panthers
Oct. 18 Syracuse Orange
Oct. 25 @ Louisville Cardinals
Oct. 30 @ Cincinnati Bearcats
Nov. 15 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Nov. 23 Connecticut Huskies
Dec. 6 @ West Virginia Mountaineers

Returning Starters:
18 (9 on offense, 7 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: South Florida has a simple plan towards their non-conference scheduling; two BCS schools, two non-BCS schools and one tilt against a Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).

The Bulls didn’t make things easier for themselves this season, but it is much more manageable than the table they ran to start 2007. Road scuffles with Central Florida and North Carolina State will allow for nice out of conference spots. And a home matchup with the Jayhawks on Sept. 12 means USF will be able to make a serious statement if they can come away with a victory.

League wise, the schedule is well paced, but finishing off versus Connecticut and at West Virginia will set up a round robin finish for the Big East Championship.

Let Down: November 15 versus Rutgers. It might seem strange to post a match that could be pegged for revenge as the “let down,” but you have to look at where it comes in relation to the season. The previous week South Florida will have been looking to cut the Bearcats down to size in Southern Ohio while trying to exact some revenge from a late season loss from the year before. Meanwhile, the Scarlet Knights are in spot where they could be forgotten about with USF also getting the Huskies the following week.

Look Ahead: September 6 at Central Florida. The Golden Knights took a big step forward last season, but will be hurt by the loss of Kevin Smith going pro. That might not be totally noticeable when the Bulls come to Orlando near the start of the 2008 season. Now USF will be looking towards a matchup with a Jayhawks club that took home the hardware in the Orange Bowl the year before. Now I’m not saying the UCF will come back and win this game after tanking 64-12 the year prior. But I will say the Knights can keep it a lot closer in their own house.

Prediction: The Bulls won’t catch anyone off guard this season, but that might be a good thing considering how they wilted under the spotlight in ’07. Tempering expectations will be at least one early non-conference loss in September. And closing out the year with the top two clubs in the Big East means that a 9-3 record will be in South Florida’s future.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 19 Penn State
By Judd Hall

2007: The Nittany Lions could have easily been a 10-2 or 11-1 squad last season had it not been for some odd bounces during games. Statistically, Penn State was one of the better teams in the Big Ten. However, taking bad sacks, fumbling the ball, interceptions and poor decision making resulted in PSU failing to make a New Year’s Day bowl game for the third straight year.

Strengths: If there is anything for the Penn State fans out there to hang their hats on is the fact that both the offensive and defensive lines will be return this season.

The Nittany Lions d-line helped solidify a unit that was ranked 11th in the nation for total offense. In league play, they were second in points allowed (17.6), second in rushing defense (87.9) and fifth against the pass (218.7).

The beasts on the offensive side of the ball come back to help make the transition much easier to what will be a freshly rebuilt backfield, starting at the quarterback position no less. What that means is a front five that will not be prone to making bad penalties like false starts, holding and whatnot…hell, Penn State was the least penalized offense in Big Ten play, seeing just 56 flags come its way.

Weaknesses: Penn State needs its o-line to be the anchor right now because like previously mentioned, the backfield will be brand new.

The early talks are that Evan Royster will be the main running back in the PSU lineup this season. He ran for 513 yards and five touchdowns last year in limited service in 2007. Although there is a belief that redshirt freshman Stephfon Green, who can run a 4.3 40, will be the feature back before the end of the season. If Green ends up No. 1 on the depth charts, he’ll be facing some tough defenses as the year goes on with Wisconsin and Ohio State chomping at the bit.

Much like their offensive counterparts, the d-line has to step as the Nittany Lions will be sporting a linebacking corp that will be returning just one starter. It should have been two with Sean Lee becoming the next big no-neck coming out of PSU, but a torn ACL has relegated him to redshirt status until next season.

The current lineup in the middle of the defense for Penn State should be Tyrell Sales, Bani Gbadyu and Josh Hull. All three defenders have ample field experience, but will be pushed amongst some rather mobile quarterbacks and rushers this year when the Lions reach league play.

Player to Watch: Now that Anthony Morelli is out of the picture, PSU will get back to the spread offense that it ran so well when Michael Robinson was under center. The new mobile gun slinger the Nittany Lions will be turning to is senior Darryl Clark.

The signal caller from Youngstown displayed his legs against the Aggies in the Alamo Bowl, rushing for 50 yards and a touchdown on six carries. It was a little surprising that he didn’t receive more playing time last season to stretch out the opposition.

Penn State Schedule

Aug. 30 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Sept. 6 Oregon State Beavers
Sept. 13 @ Syracuse Orange
Sept. 20 Temple Owls
Sept. 27 Illinois Fighting Illini
Oct. 4 @ Purdue Boilermakers
Oct. 11 @ Wisconsin Badgers
Oct. 18 Michigan Wolverines
Oct. 25 @ Ohio State Buckeyes
Nov. 8 @ Iowa Hawkeyes
Nov. 15 Indiana Hoosiers
Dec. 22 Michigan State Spartans

Something else to consider with Clark no running the show is having all three starters back in the wide receiver position. Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood should all have decent years. However, they could just be decoys for Clark to run the spread option more effectively.

Returning Starters: 17 (9 on offense, 6 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: Penn State won’t be going through its normal trials to start the season. Opening 2008 with Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, at Syracuse and versus Temple means a quick surge to 4-0 is possible. Road contests in the Big Ten against Purdue, Wisky and Ohio State will serve as true tests to the program.

Let Down: October 4 at Purdue. After a proper revenge spot at home against the Illini, PSU will be making the trip to West Lafayette and the always potent Boilermakers. This matchup also is nasty due to the fact that a road scuffle with Wisconsin immediately follows in the schedule. If there was going to be a bump in the road, this would be the one.

Look Ahead: October 18 versus Michigan. This is another opportunity for the Nittany Lions to trip up. The Bucks loom large in Columbus the following Saturday and they’ll be thinking the Wolverines won’t be that much of an issue. That can pose a problem as Rich Rodriguez will have six games under his belt with the Maize & Blue, which can only help in his first season in Ann Arbor.

Good Bets:

Sept. 20 versus Temple…Penn State rules teams from the Mid-American Conference as evidenced by the 49-5 mark. And never losing to the Owls under Joe Paterno’s tenure (24-0) helps matters for bettors.

Oct. 25 at Ohio State…The Nittany Lions have beaten Ohio State at the Horseshoe, but that was back in the late 70s. Penn State has yet to win a road tilt with the Buckeyes since joining the Big Ten.

Prediction: While Penn State is starting fresh faces at a few skill positions on the offense, it is still one of the better teams that JoePa has fielded since the turn of the millennium. The defense will keep them in a lot of games, but two losses…most likely against the Badgers and Bucks will put this club at 10-2 for the year.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 18 Brigham Young
By Judd Hall

2007: The Cougars could very well be the quietest 11-2 team you’ll ever see in college football. They ran through the Mountain West Conference once again to win their second straight title. And Capping off the season with a revenge win against UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl is always a nice touch.

Strengths: The only thing better than having an offense that was the best in its league the year before is having all but two starters coming back for an encore.

Brigham Young’s offense soared with Max Hall under center. He threw for a single season sophomore record of 3,848 yards with 26 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions.

Hall’s proficiency in the aerial assault meant his receivers did big things, leading the Mountain West with 323.3 yards per game and in first downs with 173. Given that Michael Reed and Austin Collie will be back on the line this year, the passing attack will be in good hands.

The Cougars weren’t all about the pass as they could run the ball fairly well in 2007, gaining 153.6 YPG on the ground. Harvey Unga, the six-foot, 243 pound juggernaut ran for 1,227 yards and 13 scores en route to the MWC freshman of the year award. Now he’ll be platooning with redshirt freshman J.J. DiLuigi, who has been likened to LaDainian Tomlinson, to give defenses a change of pace.

Weaknesses: While the Cougs have an offense that is sure to be firing on all cylinders, their defense might take a bit more time to congeal.

Gone from last year’s defense are eight starters that allowed the second fewest points (18.8) and No. 1 run defense (92.1). The defense gets two of its three linemen back this year. The problem is when running a “3-4” scheme, you need an experienced linebacking corp to help cover the edges and keep the middle of the field occupied.

BYU won’t just have problems with the linebackers either. No, sir… They’ll have issues in the secondary as well. No starters will be returning to the program this year. One of the new first-stringers, Jordan Pendleton, will be starting as a redshirt freshman. As bad as it might seem, it actually could be a blessing in disguise since the Cougars were seventh in the league with 226.2 YPG through the air.

Brigham Young Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Iowa Panthers
Sept. 6 @ Washington Huskies
Sept. 13 UCLA Bruins
Sept. 20 Wyoming Cowboys
Oct. 3 @ Utah State Aggies
Oct. 11 New Mexico Lobos
Oct. 16 @ Texas Christian Horned Frogs
Oct. 25 UNLV Runnin' Rebels
Nov. 1 @ Colorado State Rams
Nov. 8 San Diego State Aztecs
Nov. 15 @ Air Force Falcons
Nov. 22 @ Utah Utes

Player to Watch: It’s going to be hard not to be unnoticeable when you’re the reigning freshman of the year, but Unger will be in that spot this year.

He broke records all across the board last season, but Unger has plenty more to prove. He’s got a veteran line in front of him and teams on the Cougars’ schedule aren’t the best at defending the run. Expect him to explode in 2008.

Returning Starters: 15 (10 on offense, 3 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: The gauntlet will begin early for the Cougars with showdowns with Washington and UCLA before the end of September. Road tests with TCU, Air Force and Utah will go a long way towards making it a hat trick for conference championships.

Let Down: September 20 versus Wyoming. The improved Cowboys will be waiting on the other side of a tough two-game stretch against Washington and UCLA. Wyoming had the top defense in the Mountain West Conference.

Look Ahead: November 15 at Air Force. The Falcons went 9-4 in 2007, but will be returning just eight starters from that team. Despite that fact, BYU will be in a position to be thinking about what could end up being the league title game the following week with Utah. This won’t be an upset victory, but it will end up being much closer than the spread indicated.

Good Bets:

Nov. 1 at Colorado State…We could say that the Rams coming into this match with a new coach would be enough to bet big on the BYU. However, it’s much easier to tell you that the Cougars have won 11 of their last 13 games in Fort Collins.

Nov. 8 versus San Diego State…I’m sure the Aztecs will be good again, perhaps in the next decade. In the meantime you can rest assured on backing Brigham Young as it has won 24 of its last 32 matches with the boys of Southern California.

Prediction: We’ve had two straight years where non-BCS schools have crashed the big money party. And the Cougars have the makeup of being that type of program in ’08. The schedule certainly lends itself to running the table, but that game against UCLA’s new offense testing a rebuilt defense could prove to be the lone bump in the road. Despite that loss, BYU could steal a BCS Bowl berth with an 11-1 record.

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Top 25 Preview, No. 17 Tennessee
By Brian Edwards

2007: Tennessee got off to a rough start last season, losing by double digits in two of its first three games. Even worse, the Volunteers’ defense gave up 45 points at California and 59 at Florida. Of course, this once again had the UT faithful all over head coach Phillip Fulmer, who has been under increasing scrutiny since the Vols went 5-6 in 2005.

But the 2007 Vols were a resilient bunch, bouncing back with three straight wins, including a 35-14 clubbing of Georgia as 1 ½-point home underdogs. After getting smashed 41-17 at Alabama, UT answered with five consecutive wins to take the SEC East.

Tennessee needed overtime to beat South Carolina and had to rally for a 25-24 win over Vanderbilt. With the division crown on the line at Kentucky, the Vols went to four overtimes before pulling out a 52-50 triumph.

In the SEC Championship Game, UT lost a 21-14 decision to eventual national champ LSU. Once again, the Vols bounced back to beat Wisconsin 21-17 as 1½-point favorites in the Outback Bowl. They finished 10-4 straight up and 8-4-2 against the spread.

Strengths: With the exception of quarterback Erik Ainge, who finished his career as the third-leading passer in school history (8,700 yards), all the offensive skill players return. Senior Arian Foster is probably the SEC’s second-best running back – behind only Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno – with 2,394 career yards and a 4.6 yards per carry average.

Foster will run behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines led by All-American OG Anthony Parker and three-year starting OT Ramon Foster. There’s also depth in the backfield with junior Montario Hardesty and sophomore Lennon Creer.

A trio of outstanding wide receivers emerged last year. Senior Lucas Taylor is the best of the bunch, garnering second-team All-SEC honors last season with 73 catches for 1,000 yards and five touchdowns. Austin Rogers (56 receptions, 624 yards, four TDs) and Josh Briscoe (56-557-6) round out the starting wideouts.

If junior Jonathan Crompton can provide adequate play at the quarterback position, the Vols should have one of the SEC’s best offenses.

The defense has a couple of All-American candidates in LB Rico McCoy and SS Eric Berry. McCoy was UT’s second-leading tackler in 2007, making 106 stops. Berry intercepted five passes and had 86 tackles.

As for special teams, the kicking game is in good shape with PK Daniel Lincoln.

Weaknesses: Crompton was highly regarded coming out of high school, but he doesn’t have much experience after playing behind Ainge for two years. The junior signal caller has one career start, 498 passing yards and a 5/4 touchdown-interception ratio.

The defense will have to replace MLB Jerod Mayo, who was UT’s leading tackler last season before going to the New England Patriots in the first round of the NFL Draft. That job will fall to Gerald Williams, a juco transfer.

Due to punter Britton Colquitt’s off-the-field woes, someone will have to step up at this position.

Player to Watch: Crompton is the key to the 2008 Vols. If he’s not sharp, defenses will stack an extra man in the box to defend against UT’s strength – Foster and the ground attack. If he’s accurate, the play-action game can be dynamic.

Returning Starters: 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Schedule: For the second straight season, UT opens up out west against a Pac-10 foe, UCLA. The rest of the non-conference slate is soft with home games versus UAB, Northern Illinois and Wyoming.

The Vols get Florida, Mississippi St., Alabama and Kentucky in Knoxville. They go on the road to face Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Letdown Spot: Oct. 18 vs. Mississippi St.: The Bulldogs come into Neyland Stadium the week after Tennessee goes to Athens to face Georgia. Sylvester Croom’s team will be a healthy underdog, but this on-the-rise squad is capable of causing UT trouble if the Vols are flat. Remember, Mississippi St. won at Auburn early in the season last year.

Look-Ahead Situation: Oct. 4 vs. No. Illinois: UT faces the Huskies in the middle of an Auburn-Georgia road sandwich. The Huskies might be worth a look as huge underdogs with the Vols clearly looking ahead to the UGA game.

Good Bets: Nov. 22 at Vandy: The Vols have an open date before facing Vandy on the road. However, ‘road’ games against the Commodores are a different beast, as UT fans gobble up most of the tickets in Nashville. Vandy has played UT tough recently, so the Vols should be focused and likely facing a team running on fumes, as the ‘Dores lost a lot of talent from last year. Anything less than 14 will garner a UT play, especially if Crompton is in a good groove at this point in the year.

Prediction: I have UT finishing 8-4 and fourth in the SEC East. The Vols are going to lose to Florida at home, in addition to dropping road games at Georgia, Auburn and South Carolina.

The home games against Mississippi St. and Alabama will be tough, but I’ve got the Vols winning those contests by narrow margins. They will also beat UCLA.

Again, Crompton is the key. If he plays like one of the best QBs in the SEC, maybe UT can go 9-3 or even 10-2? If UT has the QB woes it endured during the 2005 collapse, a 7-5 or 6-6 campaign isn’t out of the question.

Best Players:
1-Anthony Parker (OG)
2-Eric Berry (SS)
3-Rico McCoy (LB)
4-Arian Foster (RB)
5-Lucas Taylor (WR)

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 16 Arizona State
By Judd Hall

2007: There were hopes that Dennis Erickson would be able to right the ship at Arizona State after a 7-6 season in 2006 cost Dirk Koetter his job. What the Sun Devils faithful got was a team that reeled off eight consecutive victories to make it to No. 6 on the Associated Press poll. Three straight defeats quelled any hopes of a national title, but not even the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas could put a damper on ASU’s 10-3 season.

Strengths: Not all of the magic will be lost in the upcoming season seeing as several of the skill players for the offense will be coming back. The most important cog returning will be the man under center, Rudy Carpenter.

This former platoon-mate with Sam Keller showed very few ill signs of having to deal with a brand new offense as so many quarterbacks have before him. Carpenter completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 3,202 yards with a touchdown to interception ratio of 25:10.

Standing alongside of Carpenter in the backfield is fellow senior Keegan Herring. The Peoria, Arizona native rushed for 815 yards but just five touchdowns. Dimitri Nance was the bully for the Sun Devils rushing attack up the middle scoring seven times to lead all runners. However, he must improve on 3.8 yards per carry in order for the ground game to be truly multi-dimensional.

We can’t forget about the wide receiving corp that returns complete from last year to resume what they started. Chris McGaha, Michael Jones and Kyle Williams all had at least 29 receptions in 2007. Meanwhile the trio combined to have 1,959 yards and 17 scores amongst themselves.

Weaknesses: Arizona State was able to compete at such a high level last year because the defense was able to keep opponents honest on the field. We can believe in that because they allowed just 20.1 points per game in 2007 and 100.9 YPG on the ground.

As great as those numbers are, they could be considered misleading since the teams the Sun Devils defeated last season had a combined record of 49-63.

Many of the pieces in the trenches and middle of the field will be back, so the numbers could be close to what was achieved in the past year. However, rebuilding a secondary with a community college transfer named Terell Carr will give some experience to the cornerback position.

Another issue the Sun Devils will have to contend with this year is an offensive line that will be starting three new big men this year. Considering the ’07 edition of the line was mostly responsible for Carpenter getting sacked 54 times. So maybe this rebuild might actually be a blessing in disguise.

Player to Watch: The passing game shouldn’t be devoid of fire works, but not every throw will be highlight reel material. Enter Kerry Taylor, a sophomore that had just eight catches for 53 yards last season.

Taylor possesses great speed and can make collect poorly thrown balls. Given the new o-line coming in, we can reasonably say that Carpenter will toss up his fair share of lame ducks. Those passes will definitely give Taylor a chance to make a name for himself.

Returning Starters: 16 (7 on offense, 7 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: The non-conference schedule will go a long way to affording ASU some legitimacy in the nation when Georgia comes to Tempe in the first month of play. Road contests with California and Southern Cal will also let the Devs know where they stand in the Pac-10.

Let Down: October 25 versus Oregon. The Ducks will be two months into their new offense, so the chemistry should be there. Couple that with the fact that Arizona State will be two weeks removed (bye week between the games) from a road scuffle with the Trojans and a hangover is very possible.

Look Ahead: September 13 versus UNLV. This might be hard to swallow, but you have to consider the following. ASU has a major non-conference clash with Georgia the following week, which will no doubt be on Erickson’s mind. And this Rebels’ squad will be improved from the 2-10 club that took the field last season as they return nine starters on offense.

Good Bets:

Sept. 20 vs. Georgia…The Sun Devils are good against non-conference BCS programs, posting a lifetime 8-3 record. Yet they have never beaten an SEC squad, going 0-3 all time.

Dec. 6 at Arizona…Normally you throw the records out in a big intrastate rivalry like this one, but Arizona State winning five of the last six is something we just can’t discount.

Prediction: Arizona State had designs on getting into the BCS last season, but fell short. This year the Sun Devils have the right pieces to be a force in the Pac-10 and relatively quiet September to build some early momentum. An undefeated season is a longshot with Georgia and USC on the ledger, but a 10-2 record would be impressive. The actual result will most likely be a 9-3 campaign as the meeting with California will prove to be more difficult than anticipated.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 15 Virginia Tech
By Judd Hall

2007: Virginia Tech had its national title hopes crushed early when LSU beat them down in Baton Rouge. That defeat helped the Hokies refocus their efforts and roll onto 10 wins in their next 11 matches en route to their third BCS bowl bid in school history. And despite losing the Orange Bowl to Kansas, the season came off as a success.

Last season, the Hokies had one of the worst offensive lines in the country and it showed. Virginia Tech gave up the third most sack at the FBS level when its o-line allowed 54 sacks.

Fast forward to this season and V-Tech has a front line that returns four starters from last year. That includes junior big man Ed Wang, who went down with a broken leg in August, leaving just one returning starter for the 2007 season.

Now Wang is back at full strength and along with him are three other starters looking to atone for a poor campaign.

We’re going to see how well the Hokies’ o-line is doing this year in regards to how well the passing game does since the receivers weren’t getting many deep balls to catch.

Weaknesses: Virginia Tech was able to make it to the Orange Bowl last season thanks to having a defense that ranked as one of the best in the nation…particularly against the run, where it allowed just 86.0 yards per game on the ground. They were effective getting to the opponents quarterback as evidenced by ranking fifth in the country with 47 sacks.

It will take a big effort for the Hokies to mirror those numbers in 2008 as only Orion Martin returns to the defensive trenches. Va Tech is coming in with Jason Wrilds, Cordarrow Thompson and John Graves to reload, but none of them have yet to prove themselves on a consistent basis.

Virginia Tech Schedule

Aug. 30 East Carolina Pirates @ Charlotte, NC
Sept. 6 Furman Paladins
Sept. 13 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Sept. 20 @ North Carolina Tar Heels
Sept. 27 @ Nebraska Cornhuskers
Oct. 4 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Oct. 18 @ Boston College Eagles
Oct. 25 @ Florida State Seminoles
Nov. 6 Maryland Terrapins
Nov. 13 @ Miami Hurricanes
Nov. 22 Duke Blue Devils
Nov. 29 Virginia Cavaliers

Player to Watch: Given the improvement the offensive line will show, we can expect better numbers from the Hokies’ wide receivers. The man to keep an eye out for is Cory Holt. This former signal caller possesses blazing speed and soft hands to catch any ball thrown his way. Holt will more than likely be the fourth choice on the field to start the season, but that will change after a few weeks. And let’s not forget that he can easily be installed under center to keep defenses honest.

Returning Starters: 15 (9 on offense, 5 on defense, 1 specialist)

Schedule: Virginia Tech will prove its worth in the first month of the year when they travel to North Carolina and Nebraska. The ACC schedule won’t let up for the Hokies as the year progresses by they get Florida State and Miami away from Blacksburg.

Let Down: November 22 versus Duke. You wouldn’t normally think a game against the Blue Devils would be a problem for a team. That is until you look at the fact V-Tech will be coming off of a road match with a much improved Hurricanes squad. Add in Duke having more time in David Cutcliffe’s offense and we could see a match that might be a little too close for comfort for the Maroon and Orange.

Look Ahead: September 20 at North Carolina. The Tar Heels are going to be in their second full year under Butch Davis, so you know the team will be a little better already. Plus, Nebraska looms large on the schedule, if only by name. This could be the match that upends Virginia Tech’s national title hopes real early.

Good Bets:

Aug. 30 vs. East Carolina…The Pirates may have played it close last season. But you must remember that the Hokies are 11-1 in their last 12 season openers.

Oct. 25 at Florida State…Some folks think Frank Beamer’s bunch turned the corner when they crushed the Seminoles last season, 40-21. The problem is that people forget that Virginia Tech hasn’t won in Tallahassee since the 1974 season...that’s a seven-game losing skid.

Prediction: The Hokies usually are amongst the short list of teams picked to win the national championship. And 2008 will be no different as they should reel off seven straight victories. Those road matches with the ‘Canes and ‘Noles will be V-Tech’s undoing though to hold them into another 10-2 season.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 14 Texas Tech
By Judd Hall

2007: Another year, another bowl trip for Mike Leach’s Red Raiders and their “Air Raid” offense. Yet Texas Tech still can’t find the consistency to make itself a power as shown by losses against Mizzou and the Cowboys, despite beating the Sooners. The season can’t be considered a letdown though, as they came away with a victory over Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

Strengths: It’s a rare thing for Texas Tech to come into a season fully loaded on offense, but this year will be outside the norm. The Red Raiders are returning 10 starters for their aerial attack…by far the most Leach has ever had come back in his nine seasons in Lubbock.

The most important piece of the Red Raider offense has to be senior gunslinger Graham Harrell, who threw for 5,705 yards and had a touchdown to interception ratio of 48:14.

Returning with him is three of his four wide outs from last year. Harrell’s favorite target, Michael Crabtree, caught a national freshman record of 134 passes for 1,962 yards and 22 scores. Along side of the phenom will be Eric Morris and Edward Britton. That duo accounted for 1,398 yards and 13 touchdowns.

As set as the skill positions are for this squad, nothing would really work if the line wasn’t coming back complete from 2007. And there is something to be said for an offensive line that averages 331 pounds per man.

Weaknesses: There are a lot of problems that revolve around the running game. The offense doesn’t seem to know how to do it and the defense can’t seem to stop it.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here, the Red Raiders don’t know how to run the ball. When they have a lead late in a game, they’re still passing. This mindset killed TT in a 49-45 heartbreaker at Oklahoma State last season.

Shannon Woods is listed as the incumbent in the backfield, but Aaron Crawford took over midway through the year. And neither were worth cooing over by compiling just 653 yards on the ground with 12 touchdowns.

Now this isn’t either Woods or Crawford’s fault…this really falls onto Leach trying to utilize the rushing attack to hold onto a lead better. Time will tell if he uses veteran o-line to his advantage.

Texas Tech’s rushing defense isn’t anything to write home about either. The Red Raiders’ defense allowed 171.0 rushing yards per game in 2007, which wasn’t the worst in the Big XII. This unit has the chance of improving this year thanks to Ruffin McNeill’s promotion to defensive coordinator. He’s a longtime assistant and the players like him a lot. While popularity contests won’t improve a unit that 25.8 points per game, it will go a long way to snuffing out comebacks that have happened in the past.

Texas Tech Schedule

Aug. 30 Eastern Washington Eagles
Sept. 6 @ Nevada Wolf Pack
Sept. 13 SMU Mustangs
Sept. 20 Massachusetts Minutemen
Oct. 4 @ Kansas State Wildcats
Oct. 11 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Oct. 18 @ Texas A&M Aggies
Oct. 25 @ Kansas Jayhawks
Nov. 1 Texas Longhorns
Nov. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Nov. 22 @    Oklahoma Sooners
Nov. 29 Baylor Bears

Players to Watch: Crabtree took the nation by storm with the numbers he put up as a freshman. Now he’s going to be the top target of anyone, on the field or off. There is no doubt he’ll be double teamed by opponents all season long. While that will help his fellow receivers in getting some catches, Crabtree will still be the main option all year long. If he can put up numbers close to what he did as a freshman, he might be a Heisman candidate in 208.

Returning Starters: 19 (10 on offense, 8 on defense, one specialist)

Schedule: If you want to see cream puffs on a schedule, look no further than the Red Raiders. Opening the season against Eastern Washington, at Nevada, SMU and Massachusetts will assure an unbeaten September. Yet road tilts at Kansas and Oklahoma, along with having Texas at home, will dictate how successful the season can actually be.

Let Down: November 29 versus Baylor. Texas Tech will be coming off of a matchup with the Sooners where it could be for the Big XII South title. Baylor will be under first year coach Art Briles, but could be pesky enough to keep the game close enough to make bettors sweat.

Look Ahead: October 18 at Texas A&M. Keeping with that first year coach trend, I give you the Aggies. The Red Raiders will no doubt be thinking about a road tilt with Kansas the following weekend. Now it could be a blowout in Mike Sherman’s inaugural season in College Station. But if the Aggies can adapt to his schemes quickly, this could be a major bump in the road.

Good Bets:

Sept. 6 at Nevada…The Red Raiders have been great against teams in the WAC, going 8-1 SU. But they’re also 16-3 against teams out of conference.

Oct. 11 vs. Nebraska…The overall record against the Huskers isn’t all that great for Texas Tech (2-7). Yet those two wins came in the most recent meetings.

Prediction: Times are looking good for the Red Raiders this season as they should have no problem running well into the Top 10 with nine straight winnable games. However, expectations will be tempered when playing the Jayhawks, Longhorns and Sooners. Still, a 9-3 record will be impressive when you consider the depth of talent that is running wild in the Big XII.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 13 Auburn
By Brian Edwards

2007: Auburn overcame an abysmal start to win eight of its last 10 games and finish on a strong note. The Tigers went out in style, besting Clemson 23-20 as two-point underdogs in an overtime thriller at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

The 2007 campaign started with a scare, as Tommy Tuberville’s team beat Kansas State 23-13 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated. Next, the Tigers couldn’t overcome five turnovers in a 26-23 home loss to South Florida in overtime.

Auburn seemingly hit rock bottom the following week, losing a 19-14 decision to Mississippi St. as a 13-point home favorite. At that point, the Tigers were 1-2 and senior quarterback Brandon Cox was playing like the most disappointing player in America.

However, Cox’s play would come around. Two weeks after losing as a double-digit ‘chalk,’ Auburn went into The Swamp and captured a shocking 20-17 triumph as a 17½-point underdog.

When the Tigers went to Baton Rouge in late October, they had a four-game winning streak and a chance to take control of the SEC West. But it wasn’t to be, as LSU won 30-24 thanks to a last-second touchdown pass by Matt Flynn.

Auburn would recover to win a sixth consecutive Iron Bowl over Alabama, but it failed to produce another road win in its bitter rivalry with Georgia. The Dawgs took the Tigers behind the woodshed with a 45-20 clubbing.

Strengths: Auburn has a deep backfield with three running backs – Ben Tate, Brad Lester and Mario Fannin – who combined for 1,881 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Those backs will run behind an improved offensive line that returns all five starters, including three sophomores that started as true freshmen.

The Tigers have their go-to wide receiver back. That’s senior Rodgeriqus Smith, who had 52 receptions for 705 yards and five touchdowns last season.

In 2007, Auburn finished sixth in the nation in pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. This unit returns speed galore and should be able to put plenty of pressure on opposing QBs. Junior defensive end Antonio Coleman had 8 ½ sacks last season, and he’s joined on the d-line by junior DT Sen’Derrick Marks, who has 26 career starts to his credit.

Will this finally be the year that junior LB Tray Blackmon lives up to his potential? Only time will tell, but if he does, SEC offenses will be in trouble. The secondary – led by sophomore safety Zac Etheridge junior CB Jerraud Powers – is also expected to be outstanding.

Special teams should be a strength for the Tigers, who return punter Ryan Shoemaker and Wes Byrum. Shoemaker was a second-team All-SEC selection last year, while Byrum converted game-winning field goals in the finals seconds at Florida and at Arkansas.

Weaknesses: Can sophomore QB Kodi Burns be an accurate passer in Tony Franklin’s pass-happy attack? As a true freshman, Burns was a running QB who was rarely asked to pass, completing just 10-of-26 throws with a 2/1 touchdown-interception ratio.

We know can Burns can run, though. He scrambled for 203 yards and three touchdowns last year, reminding Auburn fans of former mobile QBs like Dameyune Craig and Jason Campbell.

Burns had an entire month of bowl preparation and spring drills to master Franklin’s new offense brought in from Troy, where Omar Haugabook put up big numbers the last couple of seasons. But don’t be surprised if Burns shares time with Chris Todd, who is a transfer from Texas Tech that played for Franklin in high school.

The thinking here is that Auburn has enough talent to replace DE Quentin Groves and DT Pat Sims, but will their leadership on that side of the ball be missed?

Players to Watch: A wise man once said potential is a word that means you haven’t done anything yet. For the most part, LB Tray Blackmon defines potential. He’s dealt with a few injuries and some off-the-field problems that have limited his playing time, but Blackmon has Jevon Kearse-like size and skills. If he can keep his head straight, this could be his breakout campaign.

Auburn Schedule

Aug. 30 ULM Warhawks
Sept. 6 So. Miss Golden Eagles
Sept. 13 @ Mississippi St. Bulldogs
Sept. 20 @ LSU Tigers
Sept. 27 Tennessee Volunteers
Oct. 4 @ Vanderbilt Commodores
Oct. 11 Arkansas Razorbacks
Oct. 23 @ West Virginia Mountaineers
Nov. 1 @ Ole Miss Rebels
Nov. 8 UT-Martin Skyhawks
Nov. 15 Georgia Bulldogs
Nov. 29 @     Alabama Crimson Tide

Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

Schedule: The non-conference slate includes a monster matchup at West Virginia on a Thursday night in late October, when cold weather could be a factor in Morgantown. The three non-conference home games are against ULM, Southern Miss and UT-Martin. Remember, ULM won outright at Alabama last year, and the Golden Eagles are notorious for giving SEC teams fits.

Auburn’s four SEC road games are all winnable: at Mississippi St., at Vandy, at Ole Miss and at Alabama. The toughest league games are at home with LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia coming to the Plains. The two open dates precede at West Virginia and at Alabama.

Letdown Spot: Nov. 1 at Ole Miss – I think the West Virginia-Auburn game is going to be built up as a colossal showdown, possibly with national-title implications. With that in mind, Auburn’s focus might be off going into Oxford. That would be a mistake because I feel like the Rebels will only get better as QB Jevan Snead gets more experience.

The trip to Ole Miss will be even tougher if Auburn emerges from Morgantown unscathed. However, if the Tigers lose to the Mountaineers, this letdown scenario will lose its luster to the bounce-back situation that’ll be created. Also, let’s remember that Auburn will have two extra days of rest after playing West Virginia on a Thursday.

Look-Ahead Situation: Sept. 13 at Mississippi State - Even though Auburn’s trip to Starkville represents a revenge spot, I’ll still dub this matchup as a dangerous look-ahead situation. The Tigers will have LSU on deck and the winner of that game will be in the driver’s seat of the SEC West.

Good Bets: Play On Auburn vs. Georgia on Nov. 15 - I’m not a big fan of calling for a wager this far in advance, especially when we have no clue what sort of number we’ll be dealing with. Nevertheless, this is going to be an immensely difficult spot for Georgia.

The Dawgs will be playing their fourth game on the road in as many weeks. This brutal stretch for UGA starts with a trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU. Next, the Dawgs go to Jacksonville to face the Gators before venturing to Lexington to face UK. Finally, UGA comes to the Loveliest Village to wrap up this daunting four-game stint.

Meanwhile, Auburn will have a home game against UT-Martin leading up to the UGA game. In the past, Tommy Tuberville has had no reservations about resting multiple starters to get healthy when Auburn faces a cupcake squad (think Tennessee Tech last year and Arkansas St. in 2006).

Play On Auburn vs. LSU on Sept. 20 – We don’t know who LSU’s starting QB will be yet, but we do know that this will be his first career road start. In college football and the NFL, I love going against inexperienced QBs making their first career road starts in hostile environments. When we add in the revenge factor from last year’s heartbreaker in Baton Rouge, we have the making of a successful wager with a play on the home team.

Prediction: I see Auburn going 10-2 and winning the SEC West, but the Tigers will lose to Florida at the Georgia Dome in the SEC Championship Game. Tuberville’s troops will start 7-0, only to fall at West Virginia. From there, the Tigers will win out until Alabama snaps its six-game losing streak by beating Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--Auburn’s Top Five Players:
1-Antonio Coleman
2-Jerraud Powers
3-Sen’Derrick Marks
4-Tray Blackmon
5-Lee Ziemba

--Two SEC West teams have lost their starting middle linebackers recently. Arkansas will be without Freddie Fairchild, the team’s leading returning tackler who had 92 stops in 2007. Bobby Petrino dismissed Fairchild from the Razorbacks program earlier this month. Fairchild was suspended back in March after getting arrested on domestic violence charges.

--Nick Saban kicked LB Jimmy Johns off the Alabama squad on June 24 following his arrest for selling cocaine to undercover officers. Authorities searched Johns’ off-campus apartment and found 10 grams of cocaine and ecstasy pills. The Crimson Tide is already thin at the LB position because Prince Hall is also facing an indefinite suspension.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 12 West Virginia
By Judd Hall

2007: A berth in the national championship game was served on a platter for the Mountaineers last season. Unfortunately for West Virginia, they couldn’t play up to the moment and choked against the Panthers in Morgantown to close the regular season on a sour note.

The music didn’t get much sweeter when alumni Rich Rodriguez left home to take on the challenge of coaching Michigan, while taking most of his assistants with him. Bill Stewart took over as head coach after his Mountaineers squad thoroughly dominated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Strengths: The coaching staff might be brand new, but Stewart and company won’t exactly be starting from scratch. He’ll be inheriting one of the more veteran offensive lines in the nation. It also doesn’t hurt to have a quarterback and running back that are some of the best known in the country.

Pat White returns for his senior campaign with the Heisman Trophy squarely in his sights. The gunslinger out of Daphne, Alabama lead WVU in passing (1,724) and rushing (1,335) yards last season. It’s going to be interesting to see how well White performs this year as the offense shifts to a more balanced attack under new coordinator Jeff Mullen. That could mean we’ll see him installed at wide-out or the running back position while Jarrett Brown lines up under center. And that doesn’t even take into account White’s problems with the injury bug, which probably is one of the reasons to smooth out the gameplan

Regardless of who takes snaps, they’ll get the benefit of handing the ball off to Noel Devine in 2008. Devine proved he was worth the hype in his freshman season, gaining 627 yards on the ground…125 of which came on just three carries against Maryland. While he was used mostly in a “gadget” capacity behind Steve Slaton last year, this will be his first foray into being the No. 1 back at this level.

West Virginia’s o-line returns all five starters from a unit that cleared the path for the fourth best rushing offense (292.9), while giving up the sixth fewest sacks (13) in the nation. Four of the five big guys are seniors this season, with junior Greg Isdaner holding down one of the guard spots. If there are any questions about this unit, it would be based on overall size (average weight of 298) since it was geared towards a more mobile spread attack and not for a pro-style scheme. I’m thinking talent will overcome in this spot.

Weaknesses: The Mountaineers may still have the more important cogs to their offense back this season, the defense will be in a rebuilding phase.

Gone from the d-line are Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle. The duo helped anchor a line that allowed just 107.6 yards per game rushing. And let’s not forget that they also combined to log 13 sacks (10 coming from Dingle). Chris Neild and Zac Cooper are now tasked with making the Morgantown faithful forget about their predecessors. That will be easier said than done with Cooper, a 225 pound converted linebacker, has to finesse by offensive linemen that are 300 pounds.

West Virginia’s defensive woes don’t end in the trenches as its secondary will be practically brand new with just one returning starter to a set that utilizes five in its schemes. Quentin Andrews is the lone holdover from the 2007 unit that allowed 184.3 YPG through the air. His services will be in high demand during the season as he’ll be used to help double team the opposition’s top receiver. Unfortunately, that will leave the unproven cornerback corp to fend for themselves.

Player to Watch: Devine has to be the player that everyone is looking at as the wear up for the regular season. He was electrifying last year in a role that he was used primarily as a change of pace. The major question everyone has about Devine is how able he’ll be to handle the No. 1 role when he’s just 5’8” and 170 pounds. If he’s not up to the challenge, then the running game will be severely shorthanded.

West Virginia Schedule

Aug. 30 Villanova Wildcats
Sept. 6 @ East Carolina Pirates
Sept. 18 @ Colorado Buffalos
Sept. 27 Marshall Thundering Herd
Oct. 4 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Oct. 11 Syracuse Orange
Oct. 23 Auburn Tigers
Nov. 1 @ Connecticut Huskies
Nov. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats
Nov. 22 @ Lousiville Cardinals
Nov. 28 @ Pittsburgh Panthers
Dec. 6 South Florida Bulls

Returning Starters: 14 (8 on offense, 4 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: Opening the season against Villanova, at East Carolina, at Colorado and against Marshall is the perfect way to wean new players into the fold. A home tilt with Auburn will go a long way to determining if the Mountaineers are still national title contenders. Meanwhile, a road match with the Huskies is the lone bump in the Big East table.

Let Down: November 8 versus Cincinnati. West Virginia will be entering this game after hosting the Tigers and then traveling to Storrs to face the Huskies. The Bearcats played WVU tight last year. And while this won’t be the same caliber Cincy squad as Brian Kelly had in ’07, it could put another scare into the Mountaineers.

Look Ahead: November 28 at Pittsburgh. It’s hard to imagine that you could look ahead of a club that knocked you out of title berth. But when you have a big match with South Florida staring you in the face for the following week, you’ll tend to overlook the task at hand. Also, the Panthers have 15 returning starters from last year’s team. An upset for the second straight year is very possible.

Good Bets:

Sept. 18 at Colorado…The Buffs should be better in Dan Hawkins’ third year in Boulder. However, West Virginia is 6-1 in its last six tilts when taking on non-conference foes away from home.

Oct. 23 versus Auburn…Big game for both programs, but the Mountaineers have the distinct edge in this battle. WVU is 11-5-1 at home when facing teams form the SEC, winning three straight.

Prediction: This West Virginia squad will be largely unproven with a coach that has only one game under his belt at this level. That doesn’t mean the Mountaineers will fail to prove itself this season. Games against UCONN, Auburn and South Florida will mean that they’ll most likely lose once this year. Still, an 11-1 record will be an improvement and a great way to start the Bill Stewart Era.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 11 LSU
By Brian Edwards

2007: LSU overcame a pair of triple-overtime defeats to win the SEC West. Then on a thrilling, drama-filled Saturday, just seven days removed from a home loss to Arkansas, Les Miles shot down an ESPN report that he was going to Michigan with authority. Hours later, LSU emerged from the SEC Championship Game with a 21-14 win over Tennessee.

Even better, Pittsburgh simultaneously shocked West Virginia in Morgantown, capturing a 13-9 win as a 29-point underdog. The Panthers’ jaw-dropping upset paved the way for LSU to return to the BCS title game in New Orleans, where the Tigers had beaten Oklahoma four years before.

This time around, LSU not only won the BCS title, but it dealt out woodshed treatment in a 38-24 triumph over Ohio St. as a four-point ‘chalk.’ After falling behind 10-0 early, the Bayou Bengals dominated the Buckeyes in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.

Although LSU won it all – which is all that matters in the big scheme – I would be remiss by failing to mention its failures for our purposes. The Tigers were an atrocious 2-8-1 against the spread in their last 11 games.

They pulled out three mid-season wins in come-from-behind fashion. Against Florida, LSU rallied from three separate double-digit deficits and converted all five of its fourth-down attempts – two that went for touchdowns – to win a 28-24 decision.

LSU also beat Auburn on a last-second touchdown. With one tick left on the clock, Matt Flynn threw a 22-yard TD pass to Demetrius Byrd in a 30-24 win.

Against Alabama, LSU trailed 34-27 and faced a fourth-and-long situation with 2:49 left. Next, Flynn found Early Doucet, who didn’t settle for the first down, breaking a tackle and shaking another defender on his way to the end zone. A few plays later, thanks to a sack and forced fumble on ‘Bama QB John Parker Wilson, the Tigers had a 41-34 victory over their former coach, Nick Saban.

Strengths: When it comes to athleticism, size and speed, LSU can match any team in the country once again this year. The offensive line and the defensive line are stacked, with both units among the best in the nation.

The d-line has three of the country’s best ‘front-four’ players in Tyson Jackson, Ricky Jean-Francois and Kirston Pittman. Senior LB Darry Beckwith was a second-team All-SEC selection last year.

Jacob Hester is gone, but the backfield is still loaded. LSU has four running backs who each averaged at least 6.6 yards per carry. Keiland Williams, Trindon Holliday, Charles Scott and Richard Murphy combined for 1,396 rushing yards and 15 TDs in 2007.

The Tigers lost Doucet, but Brandon LaFell and Byrd are back in the mix at the WR position. LaFell had 50 receptions for 656 yards last year, while Byrd had 35 catches for seven TDs and a 17.7 yards per reception average.

LSU Schedule

Aug. 30 Appalachian St. Mountaineers
Sept. 6 Troy Trojans
Sept. 13 North Texas Mean Green
Sept. 20 @ Auburn Tigers
Sept. 27 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Oct. 11 @ Florida Gators
Oct. 18@ South Carolina
Oct. 25 Georgia Bulldogs
Nov. 1 Tulane Green Wave
Nov. 8 Alabama Crimson Tide
Nov. 22 Ole Miss Rebels
Nov. 28 @ Arkansas Razorbacks

Weaknesses: Will the leadership be as strong as last season? Hester and Glenn Dorsey were the heart soul of the LSU program before moving on to the NFL. The same can be said for guys like Flynn, Craig Steltz, Ali Highsmith and Chevis Jackson.

Most importantly, who will be the starting QB? Like I said, LSU has the talent – in terms of o-line, d-line, RBs and WRs -- to repeat as national champs, but next to nobody expects that to happen because of the QB situation.

Ryan Perrilloux was supposed to be the incumbent under center, but the dynamic local product couldn’t stay out of trouble. Following several suspensions, Perrilloux was finally dismissed from the program during spring practice.

That leaves the defending champs without a QB that’s ever taken a significant snap at the collegiate level. The candidates are Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee. Jordan Jefferson is a true freshman that might play himself into the picture.

If there’s a weakness on defense, it might be in the secondary. Steltz, Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon are gone, so the DB unit isn’t heavy on experience.

However, true freshman Patrick Johnson was considered the best cover corner in the nation coming out of high school, and he’s expected to start from day one. Senior safety Curtis Johnson is the veteran of the group, while sophomore SS Chad Jones made the All-SEC freshman team in 2007.

Player to Watch: Freshman CB Patrick Johnson – Few true freshmen can come into the SEC and step into the starting lineup as a team’s lockdown cover corner. Nevertheless, that’s what Johnson will be asked to do, and if he’s ‘as advertised,’ he’ll be up to the task.

Returning Starters: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Schedule: The non-conference slate looks weak because there are zero teams from other BCS leagues. With that said, veteran bettors are well aware of the talent within the programs of Appalachian State and Troy.

After all, the Mountaineers went into the Big House last year and beat Michigan in their season opener. As for the Trojans, they are 16-8 against the spread in the last two seasons. During that stretch, they have taken the cash in road games against Florida St., Ga. Tech, Arkansas and Georgia.

When you have an inexperienced quarterback, you’d hope your first road games wouldn’t be too daunting. However, that won’t be the case for the LSU signal caller that wins the job. The Tigers’ first two road games are at Auburn and Florida. The other SEC road games are at South Carolina and at Arkansas.

The SEC home games include Mississippi St., Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss.

Letdown Spot: Sept. 27 vs. Mississippi St. – LSU has won eight straight over the Bulldogs, outscoring them 340-81 in the process. So obviously, it would be understandable if the Bayou Bengals overlooked Sylvester Croom’s team, especially since LSU will be coming off a colossal showdown at Auburn the previous week. With Croom steadily improving his team during his tenure, you might look at Mississippi St. catching a huge number in this spot.

Look-Ahead Situation: Oct. 18 at South Carolina – This trip to Columbia sets up well for the Gamecocks, who will be returning home after back-to-back road games (and likely victories) at Ole Miss and Kentucky. Steve Spurrier’s bunch will also be looking to avenge a 28-16 loss in Baton Rouge last season.

Not only will LSU be playing its second road game in as many weeks (at Florida beforehand), but it could very well be looking ahead to a home game against Georgia the following week. Remember, there’s a decent chance UGA could go into that game undefeated and possibly No. 1 in the nation.

Good Bets: Play Against LSU at Auburn: -- Whether it’s Lee or Hatch at QB, the signal caller will be in a super-hostile environment for his first career road start. Plus, the War Eagles will be looking to avenge last year’s heartbreaker at Death Valley.

Play On LSU at Florida -- I think the Gators win this game, but the situation sets up nicely for Les Miles and Co. The Tigers have an open date the prior week and they will probably be catching a healthy number. Since I think Auburn will knock off LSU and also feel the Gators will be unbeaten, we might even be looking at a double-digit number. If that’s the case, LSU will be the play, as I anticipate the Tigers losing a nail-biter at The Swamp.

Prediction: LSU is the toughest team in the SEC – and possibly America – to forecast for the 2008 campaign. Why, you ask? Well, if Lee and/or Hatch give Miles better-than-decent (not even outstanding) play at QB, then the Tigers will have a chance to win every game they play.

Then again, if the QB play is awful (which seems to be a possibility), there are five or six lose-able games on the schedule. I’m going to guess – the only option without seeing Hatch or Lee under fire – that we’ll see average production from the passing game.

With that in mind, I’ll call for LSU to finish 9-3, losing at Auburn, at Florida and vs. Georgia. The team’s defense and ability to run the football should be good enough to win nine games. Again, though, that could swing by a game or two either way depending on how things turn out at quarterback.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--LSU Top Five Players:
1-Ricky Jean-Francois (DT)
2-Tyson Jackson (DE)
3-Herman Johnson (OG)
4-Darry Beckwith (LB)
5-Demetrius Byrd (WR)

--Three University of Georgia players have been arrested stemming from incidents on June 28. The Athens Banner-Herald and are reporting that starting OT Trinton Sturdivant and reserve OG Justin Anderson have been charged with simple battery, as a woman has accused them of touching her stomach without her consent. Five UGA players have been arrested since the conclusion of the 2007 season.

--I watched some clips of the Ole Miss spring game last night and really liked what I saw out of QB Jevan Snead, the transfer from Texas. Snead has a big-time arm and Rebel fans should start getting excited about him being in the starting lineup for the next three years. My initial prediction for Ole Miss to go 5-7 might get some adjusting in the coming days/weeks.

--Other Ole Miss observations: Houston Nutt is going to use WR Dexter McCluster in the same manner in which Darren McFadden would line up at QB in the shotgun in Arkansas’ Wild Hog formation. And look for McCluster to have a huge season. Also, RB Cordera Eason looked impressive and should be an adequate replacement for the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 10 Wisconsin
By Judd Hall

2007: Bret Bielema’s 12-1 record in his inaugural campaign gave the Badger faithful some hopes for an even better mark last season. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the sophomore slump affects coaches as well as it went 9-4 with bad losses to Illinois and Penn State. All in all, a tough year for Wisky considering what the expectations were at the onset.

Strengths: When you have a new quarterback and a running back coming off of an injury, you want to have a front line that can protect them as much as possible. Luckily for Wisconsin, they have all five starters returning to the offensive line.

It might sound strange to think this group of big men can hold people back when they gave up 33 sacks the season before. However, 10 of those sacks came against Ohio State when the unit was badly banged up. Now all five starters are back at full strength. And since they average 316.2 pounds per body, the chances of pushing them around is slim (pun not intended).

The Badgers’ defensive line is nothing to sneeze at either, returning three members of a unit that allowed 139.8 yards per game on the ground last season. The stalwarts of this crew are DT Mike Newkirk and DE Matt Shaughnessy, who combined for 32 tackles and seven sacks. Those numbers are bound to increase this season with the help of a mobile linebacking corp right behind them.

Weaknesses: It’s hard to think of the Badgers’ receiving corp as a weak point since they return three starters back from last season. But that number might be misleading as two of those happen to be lining up at the tight end position.

Sophomore David Gilreath enters the starting lineup this season after having just one reception in all of 2007. Outside of incumbent starter Kyle Jefferson and Gilreath, the combined reception total of the remainder of the receiving corp is three…not three per game, but three for the year.

If there is any silver lining to this issue it is that they’ve had the spring to learn the offense. Plus the receivers will also be back on the field in August. So while the beginning of the season will most likely be bumpy because of that inexperience, it will get better by the end of 2008.

Player to Watch: Another issue the receivers will contend with, as well as everyone else on the field, is how well Allan Evridge performs under center. Evridge hasn’t had a storied career up to this point. He only completed 47.9 percent of his passes in Manhattan and had more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six).

The popular belief is that he’ll grow into the offense fast and be able to improve that completion percentage. If that doesn’t happen as quick as everyone thinks, Evridge will use his speed to make things happen. And that isn’t a bad option considering he ran for 203 yards and four touchdowns back at Kansas State in 2005.

Wisconsin Schedule

Aug. 30 Akron Zips
Sept. 6 Marshall Thundering Herd
Sept. 13 @ Fresno State Bulldogs
Sept. 20 @ Michigan Wolverines
Oct. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes
Oct. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions
Oct. 18 @ Iowa Hawkeyes
Oct. 25 Illinois Fighting Illini
Nov. 1 @ Michigan State Spartans
Nov. 8 @ Indiana Hoosiers
Nov. 15 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Nov. 22 Cal Poly Mustangs

Returning Starters: 19 (10 on offense, 9 on defense)

Schedule: Wisky’s schedule is relatively manageable outside of one four-game stretch, but what a gauntlet it will be. It starts with a road tilts at an improved Fresno State squad followed up to a trip to Ann Arbor for a scuffle with the Wolverines. Not making matters any better is following that run is home matches versus Ohio State and Penn State in what will dictate the Badgers’ chances in the Big Ten.

Let Down: October 18 at Iowa. That four-game run we just mentioned lead directly into this road battle with the Hawkeyes. And no matter how well conditioned Bielema has his players, it will be a rough game with an Iowa squad that should be much better than it was in 07.

Look Ahead: September 6 versus Marshall. It’s been a while since the Thundering Herd could be in a spot to put a bit of fear in a BCS school. And while we’re not talking of an upset, the thoughts of the trip out West could prove difficult for the Badgers.

Good Bets:

Sept. 13 at Fresno State…The Badgers don’t travel well to the West Coast and didn’t play great at UNLV last year. While the Bulldogs aren’t the Runnin’ Rebels, there is some history we can play in this spot. Wisky is just 7-7 SU and 8-6 ATS when playing out West since 1986…nothing major there, but the ‘under’ is 9-5 in that time.

Oct. 11 versus Penn State…It’s safe to say that Joe Paterno isn’t a member of the Bret Bielema Fan Club after the stalling tactics Wisconsin pulled on a few kickoffs two years back. Or perhaps he doesn’t like the Badgers in general as they’re 5-2 when facing Penn State in Madison.

Prediction: This Badgers club could have the trappings of a team that would surprise a lot of people. The problem with that actually happening is having their toughest stretch of games near the beginning of the season when the new starters are still feeling themselves out. The game at Fresno State will temper expectations right off the bat and the home tilt with Ohio State will put them in their place in the Big Ten. But what will hurt the Wisky faithful is a tough loss to Iowa for another 9-3 record for the regular season.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 9 Clemson
By Brian Edwards

During Tommy Bowden’s 10-year tenure at Clemson, the Tigers have consistently knocked on the door of earning a BCS bowl bid. They have had several seasons in which greatness was within reach, including last season.

But here’s the thing: Clemson always loses at least one game it shouldn’t, costing itself a chance to break into the nation’s elite echelon of programs. In 2007, the Tigers lost to Boston College as an 8 ½-point home favorite in what was essentially a play-in game for the ACC Championship.

Back in 2006, Bowden’s bunch jumped out to a 7-1 start, only to lose two home games down the stretch. As a 19 ½-point home ‘chalk,’ Clemson lost 13-12 to Maryland. The Tigers also lost 31-28 to South Carolina as 5 ½-point home favorites.

In 2005, they lost a pair of overtime games at home, not to mention a 10-9 loss at Georgia Tech. In 2004, the Tigers blew a double-digit lead in the last two minutes of a 28-24 loss to Georgia Tech as seven-point home favorites. Later in the year, they lost 16-13 at Duke as 12 ½-point ‘chalk.’

Going into 2008, Clemson appears to be the class of the ACC. Miami and FSU are down, while Virginia Tech lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad.

With the league title seemingly within its grasp, can Clemson avoid its annual letdown game? When the Tigers face a ‘man-up’ contest on the road (possibly Nov. 8 at FSU) with everything on the line, will they step up and take care of business?

2007: With a chance to advance to the ACC title game in Jacksonville, Clemson fell behind early and lost to BC by a 20-17 count. Then in their bowl game, the Tigers lost 23-20 to Auburn in overtime.

Clemson won its first four games, including a 24-18 season-opening win over FSU on national television. The 4-0 start had the Tigers ranked 13th, but then they lost back-to-back games (13-3 at Ga. Tech and 41-23 vs. Va. Tech). Next, another four-game winning streak preceded the clunker against Boston College.

Clemson finished 9-4 straight up and 6-7 against the spread. Between the losses to BC and Auburn, the Tigers beat their arch-rival South Carolina 23-21 on a last-second field goal.

Strengths: It says here that Clemson has the best 1-2 punch of running backs in the nation. James Davis and C.J. Spiller have enjoyed stellar careers. Davis will become the school’s all-time rushing leader in November (at the latest) if he stays healthy, while Spiller is considered to have better big-play potential and will probably be a higher NFL draft choice.

As for the quarterback position, you have a similar situation. Senior Cullen Harper is one of the top 5-10 QBs in the country, producing a 27/6 touchdown-interception ratio last year. His back-up is redshirt freshman Willy Korn, who many considered the premier prep QB coming out of high school in 2007.

Harper has all of his WRs back in the fold, including All-American candidate Aaron Kelly. The senior wideout had 88 receptions for 1,081 yards and 11 TDs as a junior.

Defensively, Clemson returns 16 of its top 19 tacklers. This unit has some big-time playmakers like junior DT Ricky Sapp, who has nine career sacks. Also, bettors should keep an eye on true freshman DE Da’Quan Bowers, who is expected to start right away after many publications dubbed him as the nation’s No. 1 recruit.

The secondary is one of the best in the country. Phil Steele ranked Clemson’s DBs as the nation’s third-best, behind only Oregon and Ohio State. Senior safety Michael Hamlin was second-team All-ACC last year, making 97 tackles to go with four interceptions and six passes broken up. Senior safety Chris Clemons was in on 94 stops in 2007.

Weaknesses: The offensive line has some holes to fill, but I can’t find a glaring weakness with this team that I feel is Bowden’s best since leaving Tulane for Clemson. All the ingredients for a great season seem to be in place.

Veteran QB that doesn’t make mistakes? You’ve got it in Harper. Playmakers on offense? Davis might be the best between-the-tackles RB in America, while Spiller might be the best home-run threat from the same position. Also, Kelly is one of the country’s top WRs, while Tyler Grisham and Jacoby Ford can also make plays.

Solid defense? With the exception of the Virginia Tech game last season, no Clemson opponent scored more than 26 points and seven foes were held to 18 points or less. And, as I mentioned, this unit nearly returns intact with the exception of leading-tackler Nick Watkins.

If anything, I have to question the mental toughness (or lack thereof) that’s resulted in the aforementioned losses in key games during recent years. Furthermore, does this squad have the type of championship leadership it takes to hoist a trophy (whether it is of the ACC or national variety)?

Player to Watch: Da’Quan Bowers – Clemson fans are hoping Bowers is the second coming of Gaines Adams. It’s hard for true freshmen to have an immediate impact, but it’s easier for one-dimensional players (thinking RB and/or DE). That’s not to imply that Bowers can’t play well against the run, but it’s easier for a true frosh to contribute if focusing on one specialty. In other words, RBs can just take a hand-off and run, while DEs can just get after the QB on passing downs. Look for Bowers to do just that and if he’s ‘as advertised,’ he will wreak havoc in opponents’ backfields.

Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Schedule: The opener is a non-conference doozy – vs. Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The setup is like the Florida-Georgia rivalry with a 50-50 split of tickets for each school. With that said, I suspect ‘Bama fans to probably have a 60-40 advantage, but it’s a neutral game for the most part. In fact, Clemson is a little closer to Atlanta (two-hour drive) than Tuscaloosa (three hours).

If Clemson can beat the Crimson Tide (I say it can and will), it should cruise into a Thursday game on Oct. 9 at Wake Forest with a 5-0 record. An open date precedes a crucial two-week stretch of road games (at BC and at FSU on 11/1 and 11/8). The Tigers close the regular season at home against arch-rival South Carolina.

Letdown Spot: Oct. 18 vs. Georgia Tech – There will be a lot of hype surrounding the Wake Forest game, so this home tilt against the Yellow Jackets could be a flat spot, especially if the Tigers beat the Demon Deacons. Paul Johnson’s team should improve as the season goes, so G-Tech might be attractive ATS-wise in a double-digit underdog spot.

Look-Ahead Situation: Nov. 22 at Virginia – The Cavs have had a tough off-season, so not a whole lot is expected of UVA in 2008. And that’s what could make this contest all the more dangerous for Clemson. This might be ‘that game’ the Tigers seemingly lose every year, and it could be a spot in which they are looking to clinch a trip to the ACC title game. The look-ahead aspect is in play because of the rivalry game against South Carolina scheduled for the following weekend.

Good Bets: Play On Clemson 9/13 vs. N.C. St. -- Clemson is clearly the superior team and will be looking to make a statement in its ACC opener. This matchup has pimpslap written all over it, so go ahead and lay the healthy double-digit number in this spot.

Play Against Clemson 11/29 vs. South Carolina – The Gamecocks will be looking to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss in Columbia. They also get an open date to prepare for the Tigers, who have to go to Charlottesville the prior week. South Carolina won outright at Clemson in 2006 as a 5 ½-point ‘dog, and the ‘Cocks will probably be catching at least that many points again this year.

Prediction: With the possible exception of the trip to Tallahassee, I expect Clemson to most likely be favored in every game. The tone-setting contest will be the opener against Alabama, and I think the Tigers will win a tight game as three-point favorites (my guess for what the spread will be).

Clemson will have a tough time winning at Wake Forest. Likewise, the trip to face the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium will be daunting. I say the Tigers lose one of those games, but that’s it.

I’m calling for this team to avoid that bad loss that’s plagued it recently. For the first time since Danny Ford stalked the Clemson sidelines in the early 1980s, Clemson will be a player in the national-title hunt. The Tigers will go 12-1 and win the ACC title, but they won’t play for all the marbles because Florida, USC and/or Missouri/Oklahoma will be ranked higher.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--Clemson's Top Five Players:
1-RB C.J. Spiller
2-RB James Davis
3-QB Cullen Harper
4-SS Michael Hamlin
5-WR Aaron Kelly

--I say Wake Forest is the second-best team in the ACC. The Demon Deacons have the best coach (Jim Grobe) in the league and the second-best QB (Riley Skinner). Look for Wake to go either 9-3 or 10-2.

--Another Clemson strength that I failed to mention is its special teams. In Spiller and Ford, you have dynamic speed guys that score on any touch in the return game. Also, kicker Mark Buchholz is the second-best at his position in the ACC, behind only Wake Forest’s Sam Swank, who is the country’s best punter-kicker combo player.

--Random ACC thoughts:

1-FSU will go 8-4 at best, possibly just 7-5.
2-Virginia Tech will win the Coastal Division.
3-It looks like another long year in Coral Gables. I say the ‘Canes go 7-5.
4-Don’t be surprised if Duke is good ATS and wins 4-5 games outright.
5-Sleeper Squad: North Carolina

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 8 Kansas
By Judd Hall

2007: In a year that saw the college football world set on its ear, the Jayhawks were a shining example of the “didn’t see that coming” moments. Kansas took advantage of its soft opening to the season and not having to face either the Sooners or Longhorns en route to making the Orange Bowl…even though they may not have deserved to go over Mizzou. That’s an argument for another time though.

Strengths: The ‘Hawks were known better for their offense last season, but they also had a defense that was one of the most impressive in the nation.

Sure, they lost Aqib Talib early to the NFL but he’s the only major departure from a unit that allowed just 318.3 total yards per game last season. All told, nine starters return to Kansas’ defense.
Defensive success for the Jayhawks will begin in the trenches where Russell Brorsen and Caleb Blakesley anchor a unit that allowed a league low 91.4 rushing YPG in 2007. Mark Mangino will expect more out of the duo in way of getting to the quarterback as they combined to get to the gunslinger twice last season.

Kansas’ secondary will be returning three of four starters from a corp that was second in the Big XII with 226.8 YPG given up through the air. Darrell Stuckey, Chris Harris and Justin Thornton combined for nine of KU’s 23 interceptions last year, which should continue with not problems in ’08.

Weaknesses: While the defense appears to take on all comers, the Jayhawks might be a little light on the running game this year. Kansas’ loss of Brandon McAnderson and his 1,125 rushing yards with 16 scores is a tough thing to make up. When you add in the fact that Jake Sharp and Angus Quigley didn’t add up to the same amount of yardage, it could be lean times.

The odds those numbers will improve this year between that duo are long in spite of having an offensive line that returns the middle of its lineup. All is not lost on this crowd as National Junior College Player of the Year Jocques Crawford set to take the next step if either incumbent rusher can handle the load.

Player to Watch: Mangino had been waiting on Todd Reesing to take over under center for a while. And that patience paid off in spades as Reesing threw for 3,486 yards with 33 touchdowns to just seven picks, while proving to be elusive enough to keep some plays alive where they could have died under Kerry Meier in 2006.

Now the spotlight will burn brighter on the Austin, Texas native this fall as quality of opponents he’ll face this season is much better than the FIU’s and Southeast Louisiana’s of the world. If he can perform in all games to a high level and not just the “so-so” outings he had against Mizzou and Virginia Tech, then Reesing could be a legit Heisman Trophy contender.

Wisconsin Schedule

Aug. 30 FIU Golden Panthers
Sept. 6 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Sept. 12 @ South Florida Bulls
Sept. 20 Sam Houston State Bearkats
Oct. 4 @ Iowa State Cyclones
Oct. 11 Colorado Buffaloes
Oct. 18 @ Oklahoma Sooners
Oct. 25 Texas Tech Red Raiders
Nov. 1 Kansas State Wildcats
Nov. 8 @ Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nov. 15 Texas Longhorns
Nov. 29 Missouri Tigers

Returning Starters: 16 (7 on offense, 9 on defense)

Schedule: The questions about Kansas’ credibility won’t be questioned this season as four matches with Top 25 caliber squads dot the schedule. Road matches with South Florida, Oklahoma and Missouri will go a long way towards establishing if the Jayhawks can be more than just a one year wonder.

Let Down: October 25 versus Texas Tech. Kansas will be fresh off of the battle on the road with the Sooners when they come home for this scuffle. The Red Raiders have one of their more loaded rosters that Mike Leach has had in his tenure. This is a perfect spot for the ‘Hawks to falter if not careful.

Look Ahead: November 8 at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers play host to Kansas when they could very well be thinking about the Longhorns the following week. And that could be painful as Bo Pelini no doubt has circled this game on his schedule after KU thrashed Nebraska 76-39 in 2007. If Mangino was expecting any type of retaliation for the prolific offense they had last season, this would be the time for it to happen.

Good Bets:

Oct. 18 at Oklahoma…While Kansas has a lot of talent back, so do the Sooners. Oklahoma has won 17 of its last 20 home matches against the Jayhawks. It also doesn’t hurt that OU has outscored them 75-26 in the last two meetings in Norman.

Nov. 15 versus Texas…The Longhorns and Kansas match up reasonably well against one another. However, the Jayhawks have not won against Texas since 1938, meaning they’re 0-6 in Big XII play. It’s a tough bet to make for KU.

Prediction: The Jayhawks were one of the bigger surprises last season, but the days of sneaking up on competitors are done. Given the way offenses have become more explosive in the Big XII, Kansas will not be able to handle all comers…particularly against the bigger names on the table. A 7-5 record is about where this program will finish the season, but pulling in nine victories could happen.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 7 Texas
By Brian Edwards

2007: Texas finished 10-3 straight up and 6-6-1 against the spread, thumping Arizona State by a 52-34 count at the Holiday Bowl. The 10-win season was the seventh straight for the Longhorns under Mack Brown.

A trip to a BCS bowl game went out the window in a 38-30 loss at Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. Prior to the loss in College Station, Texas had won five in a row, including a remarkable comeback victory at Oklahoma St.

But any shot of winning a second national title in three years was put to bed in back-to-back mid-season losses. Kansas St. came into Austin and pulled a shocker, beating the ‘Horns 41-21 as a 14 ½-point underdog. The next week, Oklahoma captured a 28-21 triumph in the Red River Rivalry.
Strengths: With Brown continuing to produce one elite recruiting class after the other, Texas is as big and strong as any program in the trenches. Phil Steele ranks the Longhorns’ offensive and defensive lines as the second-best in the Big 12.

However, not a single Texas player is on Steele’s first-team All-Big 12 squad. In other words, the Longhorns don’t have a superstar on the roster, yet they are solid across the board.

Although junior quarterback Colt McCoy went through a sophomore slump, throwing 18 interceptions after posting a 29/7 TD-INT ratio as a freshman, he’s still a veteran signal caller that appears poised for a bounce-back campaign. McCoy’s favorite target will be senior WR Quan Cosby, who had 60 receptions for 680 yards and five TDs in 2007.

The secondary should be a strength. Senior CB Ryan Palmer broke up 14 passes last year and isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the fray. Palmer was Texas’ second-leading tackler in ’07 with 80 stops. Junior CB Deon Beasley moves into a more prominent role following a season in which he had nine passes broken up and three interceptions.

When it comes to close games, Texas should be in good shape in terms of its place-kicking. Senior PK Ryan Bailey connected on 8-of-10 attempts from beyond 40 yards last year.

Weaknesses: Who will step up as the featured running back? Jamaal Charles is gone after rushing for 1,619 yards and 18 TDs last season. Redshirt freshman RB Foswhitt Whittaker had an outstanding spring game and appears to have the lead over Vondrell McGee for the starting slot. McGee had 75 rushing attempts last season, scoring eight TDs and averaging 4.0 YPC.

There are a number of holes to fill defensively. Seven of the Longhorns’ top 12 tacklers from 2007 are gone.

Player to Watch: DE Brian Orakpo – The senior defensive end had 5½ sacks last season and 3½ tackles behind the line. The Longhorns are hoping for a breakout campaign from Orakpo.

Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Schedule: There aren’t any major threats in non-conference play. Florida Atlantic is an up-and-coming program, but the Owls aren’t quite ready to compete against Texas, especially in Austin. UTEP gets the Longhorns in El Paso, but there’s no reason to anticipate an upset.

Arkansas had Texas’ number during Houston Nutt’s tenure, but the Razorbacks have to come to Austin and they’re clearly rebuilding this season. The ‘Horns finish non-league play with a home game against Rice before an open date.

Texas has four Big 12 games at home, three on the road and the annual Oklahoma game in Dallas. All three road games – at Colorado, at Texas Tech and at Kansas -- will be formidable.

Letdown Spot: Oct. 18 vs. Missouri – This will serve as more of a letdown situation if Texas beats Oklahoma the previous week. Whatever the case, the Sooners are the Longhorns’ arch rival, so the following game always serves as somewhat of a letdown spot.

Look-Ahead Situation: Oct. 25 vs. Oklahoma St. – With a trip to Lubbock to face Texas Tech on deck, Texas had better not sleep on the Cowboys, who will be seeking revenge after allowing a 35-14 lead to get away against the ‘Horns last season.

Good Bets: Play On Texas Sep. 13 vs. Arkansas -- This rivalry dates back to each school’s days in the Southwest Conference. The Razorbacks have won three of the last four meetings, nearly pulling a shocking upset in their lone loss (22-20 in ’04) when Texas was ranked seventh.

However, Arkansas lost as much talent as any program in the country. Texas will probably be laying a number in the 14-17 range, and that won’t be enough to keep the home ‘chalk’ from taking the cash.

Play Against Texas Oct. 25 vs. Oklahoma St. -- This game is sandwiched between games vs. Missouri and at Texas Tech. There’s a chance the Cowboys will be catching double digits, and that’ll probably merit a play on Mike Gundy’s squad, which only has to cope with Baylor at home the preceding week.

Prediction: I’m calling for Texas to go 10-2, but it’s not a super-confident forecast. I have the Longhorns winning at Colorado and at Kansas, but both of those games are lose-able (not to mention the home tilt vs. Mizzou). I have the ‘Horns falling against OU and at Texas Tech.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--Texas is 2-7-1 ATS as a road favorite in 10 such spots the last two seasons.

--Since 2000, Texas is 4-0 ATS as a road underdog.

--Random Big 12 Thoughts:
1-Missouri will beat Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
2-Highest scoring game: Texas Tech vs. SMU on Sep. 13.
3-Toughest non-conference slate: Colorado (vs. West Va., at FSU in Jacksonville)
4-Toughest non-conference game: Kansas at South Florida
5-Best Freshman: Colorado RB Darrell Scott

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 6 Missouri
July 11, 2008

2007: The Tigers entered last season as a darkhorse to win the Big XII North and came through with flying colors thanks to a great performance by Chase Daniel under center. Huge wins over Kansas and Nebraska were sullied by the two defeats that came against Oklahoma. The result of those losses left Mizzou not only out of the national championship, but out of the BCS party.

Strengths: Missouri’s defense had lower numbers across the board last season than it did the year before, but was still a better unit. How is that possible? Well, you can improve when your defenders are able to make the most of opportunities by taking the ball back 33 times in 2007.

The defensive line is returning three of it starting four, anchored by Stryker Sulak and Tommy Chavis on the ends. Last year, they allowed 118.8 yards per game rushing and had 10½ sacks as a duo.

Their offensive cohorts are also returning a solid group that Mizzou near the top in scoring (40.0 PPG), passing (327.8 YPG) and rushing (164.9 YPG). As great as those numbers are, the best one for guard Ryan Madison and company is they surrendered just 21 sacks all year long.

Weaknesses: If you were to hear that your secondary was bringing back three of four starters from last season, you’d normally be happy. Then I remind you that the Tigers were 96th in the nation against the pass, giving up 256.9 YPG. Now you’re starting to dry click a revolver anytime the opposition throws the ball deep.

Not all is lost though when you have a safety William Moore roaming freely in the second level. He led the nation with eight interceptions last season and forced a couple fumbles, too. The odds are very good we’ll see him double teaming the top receivers is a given. However, Moore can’t be in two or three places at once and that will hurt in the long run.

Player to watch: Martin Rucker got all the attention last season and deservedly so as one of the best tight end’s in the nation. But his understudy, Chase Coffman, has the trappings of a top shelf tight end as well. The senior caught 52 passes for 531 yards and scored seven times…good enough for third on the team.

Missouri Schedule

Aug. 30 Illinois Fighting Illini @ St. Louis, MO
Sept. 6 Southeast Missouri State Redhawks
Sept. 13 Nevada Wolf Pack
Sept. 20 Buffalo Bulls
Oct. 4 @ Nebraska Cornhuskers
Oct. 11 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oct. 18 @ Texas Longhorns
Oct. 25 Colorado Buffaloes
Nov. 1 @ Baylor Bears
Nov. 8 Kansas State Wildcats
Nov. 15 @ Iowa State Cyclones
Nov. 29 Kansas Jayhawks

Now Coffman will get more play this time around as a stopgap of sorts when Daniel can’t find Jeremy Maclin or Tommy Saunders. Don’t be shocked to see this kid pick up another 50+ receptions and gets on the All Big XII team.

Returning Starters: 16 (6 on offense, 9 on defense, 1 specialist)

Schedule: Mizzou has one of the better schedules to traverse this season as its three toughest matches are spread out nicely. Opening the year with Illinois will be the first true test of the program, while closing out against Kansas. And you can’t forget about a road tilt versus the Longhorns as the Tigers’ toughest match away from Columbia.

Let Down: October 25 versus Colorado. The Buffs proved that they were on the right track with Dan Hawkins running the show by beating Oklahoma in ’07. You can bet he’ll have his crew ready to go for this game against the Tigers…especially when Mizzou will be fresh off of a trip to Austin. Another issue could be that Gary Pinkel’s club has not won three straight over the Buffaloes since Ronal Regan was president.

Look Ahead: October 11 versus Oklahoma State. I won’t say that the Cowboys are cut from the same cloth of Mizzou. What I will say is that OSU came back from 17 points down to win its last game in Columbia, 20-17, in 2004. Once you get past history, you’ll also see the Tigers have Texas on the schedule the following Saturday.

Good Bets:

Sept. 13 versus Nevada…The Wolf Pack is still rebuilding their squad and that won’t work against this Mizzou program as its 13-1 against out of conference foes at home in the last 14 games.

Oct. 18 at Texas…The Longhorns are dominant at home. How dominant? The last time they lost at home to Missouri Grover Cleveland was finishing up his second term as President. Tough to bet against that if you ask me.

Prediction: This is a now or never type year for the Tigers. They have 15 seniors on this squad and want to make a solid run at the national title if at all possible. Luckily for Missouri, the rest of the Big XII North is not able to contend with them. The only thing that could upend them this year is Texas, but that still is winnable. Regardless of what happens there, Mizzou is still on target for an 11 win regular season.

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