NCAA Top 25 Preview

Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 5 Florida
By Brian Edwards

Urban Meyer is about to begin his fourth season at the University of Florida. To date, his tenure has been a rousing success, especially on the recruiting trail.

Another high-profile class arrives in Gainesville this fall and expectations for the 2008 campaign are sky-high. Meyer has already bagged one national title during his tenure and another appears to be within the Gators’ grasp this year.

2007: At the start of the 2007 campaign, the Gators had a lot of question marks. Where would the leadership come from? Would the offense be productive enough to offset an inexperienced defense? Would Tim Tebow prove that he’s an accurate passer after spending most of his freshman season as a bruising between-the-tackles runner in short-yardage situations?

(For the record, this space had zero questions about Tebow’s ability to throw the ball. I spent last summer laughing at assertions that UF’s offense would struggle through the air when defenses stacked the box.)

By the time Florida waxed Tennessee 59-20 in Week 3, the questions had been erased and a national-title repeat was clearly a possibility. However, those hopes were dashed in a nightmare two-week stretch in early October.

First, Auburn came into The Swamp and shocked UF 20-17 thanks to a game-winning field goal by Wes Byrum as time expired. The Tigers won outright as 17 ½-point road underdogs.

Next, Florida went into Baton Rouge to face the top-ranked Bayou Benglas. Ten years before in 1997, it was the Gators who were No. 1 when Herb Tyler and Kevin Faulk led LSU to an upset win. This time around, UF was in control of the game from the get-go, leading by double digits three separate times.

But LSU converted all five of its fourth-down attempts (and Meyer failed miserably in using his timeouts at crunch time), including one for the game-winning score in the final minute. When Tebow’s Hail Mary pass fell incomplete on the final play, LSU had a 28-24 triumph, although UF took the money as a seven-point underdog.

The Gators answered with a 45-37 win at Kentucky when the ‘Cats were ranked ninth, but they lost for the third time in four games when Georgia took a 42-30 decision in Jacksonville.

UF closed the regular season with four straight wins, including a 45-12 clubbing of FSU as a 14-point home ‘chalk.’ But the season ended on a disappointing note when Michigan captured a 41-35 win as an 11-point underdog in the Captial One Bowl.
   
Strengths: I’ve always felt like quarterback play is the most important aspect of handicapping. A great QB can overcome poor play-calling by the coaching staff, poor blocking by the offensive line and poor production from the running backs. In short, QBs can make things right when everything else goes wrong.

Tebow is one of those QBs. He became the only sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy last year. His numbers were absolutely insane. Tebow completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 3,286 yards. He ran for 23 touchdowns and posted an incredible 32/6 TD-INT ratio.

Have we even mentioned Percy Harvin yet? The dynamic playmaker who lines up at both WR and RB in Meyer’s offense might be the nation’s most explosive player. Harvin, who had more than 1,600 combined yards rushing and receiving in 2007, is coming off surgery on his Achilles’ heel, but he’s expected to be 100 percent by August.

Defenses can’t completely focus on Tebow and Harvin, though. Redshirt freshman RB Chris Rainey stole the show at the Orange and Blue game and USC transfer Emmanuel Moody is also eligible in ’08. In addition, the Gators might have the country’s best tight end in Cornelius Ingram, who had seven TD catches last season.

The defense was a weakness in ’07, but this unit will be improved. Brandon Spikes is one of the nation’s premier linebackers. Major Wright is a rising star at the free safety position, while Jermaine Cunningham is one of the SEC’s top pass rushers.

The return game should be a strength thanks to the presence of Brandon James, who averaged 18.1 yards per punt return last year. James is capable of going the distance on any given touch.

Weaknesses: Just like last year, depth in the secondary is a major issue. This problem grew even worse in the off-season when junior strong safety Dorian Monroe went down with a torn ACL.

There’s no senior leadership on the defensive side of the ball, either. UF’s defensive ends are solid, but there’s a bunch of youth, albeit talented, at the DT position.

Player(s) to Watch: DE Carlos Dunlap and safety Will “Thrill” Hill -- We usually just go with one player in this category, but due to Monroe’s recent injury, I’ll identify a pair of defenders who are going to have to come up big in 2008.

Dunlap got his feet wet as a true freshman, but he only saw playing time in certain situations. As a sophomore, he’ll be expected to be an every-down player. If he can live up to his lofty expectations, the Gators will have another excellent pass rusher opposite of Cunningham.

Hill will be a true freshman, but he might be asked to start right away. Rivals.com rated the New Jersey product as the nation’s No. 1 athlete in the 2008 class.

Returning Starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Florida Schedule

Aug. 30 Hawaii Warriors
Sept. 6 Miami Hurricanes
Sept. 20@ Tennessee Volunteers
Sept. 27 Ole Miss Rebels
Oct. 4@ Arkansas Razorbacks
Oct. 11 LSU Tigers
Oct. 25 Kentucky Wildcats
Nov. 1 Georgia Bulldogs
Nov. 8 @ Vanderbilt Commodores
Nov. 15 South Carolina Gamecocks
Nov. 22 The Citadel Bulldogs
Nov. 29 @ Florida St. Seminoles

Schedule: I feel like Florida has an extremely manageable schedule – for SEC standards -- this season. Certainly, the slate isn’t as difficult as it appears to be on paper.

Normally a non-conference lineup of Hawaii, Miami and FSU would be very daunting, but that’s not the case this year. Hawaii returns only eight total starters and lost its head coach in June Jones. Miami is off a horrible season and this year doesn’t look like it’s going to be much better. Ditto for the Seminoles.

As for the SEC, Auburn is replaced by Arkansas in the non-divisional rotation. The Tigers have beaten the Gators in the last two years, while the Razorbacks are in a transition year after losing Houston Nutt, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

There are only three SEC road games and at Arkansas and at Vandy look like lay-ups. The trip to Knoxville won’t be easy, but UF has won in five of its last seven trips to Neyland Stadium and it gets an open date prior to facing the Vols.

The toughest games on the schedule – besides at UT -- are vs. LSU and vs. UGA in Jacksonville. The LSU game sets up a little better for the Tigers, who have a bye the previous week. On the flip side, the UGA game sets up better for the Gators, who have a home game against Kentucky the prior week, while the Dawgs have to go to Baton Rouge.

Letdown Spot: Nov. 8 at Vanderbilt – UF has won 17 in a row over the Commodores, but there have been plenty of scares along the way. In fact, two of the last three games have been decided by a TD or less. This game comes the week after the Gators play Georgia in what might be the most anticipated UGA-UF game ever. Don’t look for an upset, but Vandy might be a good play catching a bunch of points.

Look-Ahead Situation: Oct. 4 at Arkansas – I could see UF overlooking the Hogs with the LSU game looming on deck. The fact that Arkansas is going to be down this year also plays into this thought process.

Good Bets: Play On Florida Sept. 6 vs. Miami -- The Gators have lost six in a row to UM. They haven’t tasted victory against the hated Hurricanes since Kerwin Bell led UF to a 35-23 win in 1985. The last four losses have been especially painful.

1-In the 2001 Sugar Bowl, the only time Steve Spurrier ever faced Miami, the ‘Canes won 37-20 as seven-point ‘chalk.’ The game was preceded by a brawl between members of the two teams on Bourbon St. several days before kick-off. The results of the melee left UF’s All-American DE Alex Brown with a black eye in the days before the game. Translation: After the rivalry had been doormat for more than a decade, the ‘Canes came to New Orleans and kicked the Gators’ ass on and off the field.

2-Two years later, Miami dealt out a 41-16 pimpslap at The Swamp in Ron Zook’s first home loss (of many). How painful was that shellacking? Consider this: Florida lost five games by a combined 25 points during Spurrier’s 12-year tenure, only to lose by the same margin in Zook’s second home game.

3-The Gators jumped out to a 33-10 lead at the Orange Bowl and appeared to be cruising to a revenge victory in South Florida. But then former Gator Brock Berlin, who had transferred because he couldn’t beat out Rex Grossman for the starting job, guided a remarkable comeback. The ‘Canes rallied to win 38-33 and Berlin left the field mocking the UF fans with the Gator chomp.

4-With Zook out of the picture and Meyer on the way, UF met up with UM in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. Charlie Strong’s head-coaching debut in the interim role went terribly, as Miami thumped Florida by a 27-10 count.

Therefore, there will be more than two decades of revenge in the air when the ‘Canes come to the Swamp in Week 2 for a prime-time affair. The number will be large, but don’t let it scare you because this game has pimpslap written all over it.

Prediction: Florida is my pick to win the national title in 2008. With the possible exception of the Georgia game, I see the Gators as favorites in each and every spot.

There’s a good chance that UF could run the table, but that’s not a necessity. The Gators could lose at Tennessee and still be fine if they win out from there.

As long as Tebow and Harvin remain healthy, Florida will have the best offense in the country. There is some vulnerability on the other side of the ball, but I think Tebow’s greatness will outweigh that factor.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--To be clear, VI's pre-season poll is compiled by votes from several members of the staff. That's why UF is No. 5 in 'our' rankings, but No. 1 in mine.

--Since Spurrier left UF after the 2001 season, the Gators are an abysmal 3-13 ATS as road favorites. On the flip side, Florida has been real nasty as a road underdog since 2003, cashing tickets in all seven such situations.

--Florida hasn’t lost a home opener since 1989 when Ole Miss won 24-19 in Gainesville. Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Gators as 27-point home favorites for their lid-lifter vs. Hawaii.

--Tebow is the 5/2 favorite to win the Heisman at Sportsbook.com. The offshore website has the Gators with 13/2 odds to win their third national title in school history. They have UF with a season win total of 10 ‘over’ (minus 160).

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 4 Southern Cal
By Judd Hall

2007: Another season in Los Angeles and another season of having a team that underperforms…At least that is how the fans of the Trojans feel after seeing them lose to Stanford and Oregon midway through the year. Despite those setbacks, it could be argued that Southern Cal was playing the best football at the end of the year by outscoring opponents 165-68 in the final five matches.

Strengths: When you’re in a position to rebuild your offense from scratch, it helps to have a defense to lighten the load.

There was no better defense in the Pac 10 last year, surrendering just 15.9 points per game. And seven members of that unit return to stop the opposition in 2008. That type of success starts up front with a unit that allowed 79.2 rushing yards per game. Seniors Fili Moala and Kyle Moore anchor the trenches this season while Everson Griffen and Averell Spicer feel out their roles as starters this season.

Since they know they don’t have to back up the line too much against the run, the linebacking corp is freer to spread out on the field. The beneficiary of this is none other than Rey Maualuga. The sure fire first rounder had six sacks, 10 ½ tackles for loss and an interception for good measure in his junior campaign. Maualuga, along with Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava, provide a challenge for opposing offenses, averaging about six-feet two inches tall and weighing 238 pounds.

Weaknesses: There is no doubt that Pete Carroll knows how to recruit top notch talent for his program. Yet it is hard to think he’ll be able to mesh together four new starters onto the offensive line this season. I will say that this o-line isn’t a bunch of green thumbs as they’ve all played in the past two campaigns. However, they have a combined 26 starts at the FBS level.

Player to Watch: Mark Sanchez was in the running to replace Matt Leinart two years ago as a freshman. Now the junior comes into the season as the No. 1 quarterback. Sanchez has the size (6’3”, 225 lbs.) and mobility to get out of the pocket if needed. And he’s looked good in his six appearances in 2007 by completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 695 yards, but had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7:5.

As if being the No. 1 gunslinger for one of the premier programs in the nation isn’t enough, Sanchez has serious competition should he screw up. That competition is in the form of former starter at Arkansas, Mitch Mustain. The former Mr. Football in Arkansas played well with the Razorbacks considering it was a run-first offense, connecting on 52.3 percent of his throws while throwing 10 scores to nine interceptions.

USC Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Virginia Cavaliers
Sept. 13 Ohio State Buckeyes
Sept. 25 @ Oregon State Beavers
Oct. 4 Oregon Ducks
Oct. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils
Oct. 18 @ Washington State Cougars
Oct. 25 @ Arizona Wildcats
Nov. 1 Washington Huskies
Nov. 8 California Golden Bears
Nov. 15 @     Stanford Cardinal
Nov. 29 Notre Dame Fightin' Irish
Dec. 6 @ UCLA Bruins

The reports out of the spring were the Sanchez was firmly ensconced in the starters role, but could be on a short leash.

Returning Starters: (5 on offense, 7 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: One thing you can say about Pete Carroll is that he isn’t afraid of a challenge when it comes to non-conference scheduling. Starting the year at Virginia is a nice warmup before a major throw down with Ohio State. And let’s not forget about a late season road trip to South Bend to square off with the Fightin’ Irish. Plus, you can’t forget about a tougher than normal run through the Pac 10 that awaits them.

Let Down: September 25 at Oregon State. Just when the Trojans get through with one OSU, they get another one to play. The Beavers don’t instill fear into many opponents, but have been good on defense recently. Yet that’s going to be tough to have this year with just three starters coming back. One thing going for Oregon State is it has played USC closely in Corvallis, going 1-1 SU and 2-0 ATS the last two games played at Reser Stadium.

Look Ahead: November 2 versus Washington. The Huskies are still learning under Ty Willingham, but they’ve played progressively better against Southern California. In Willingham’s first year, they were blown out 51-24. Yet the last two games were decided by nine points. Besides, the Trojans will have Cal on their mind during this matchup anyway.

Good Bets:

Aug. 30 at Virginia…Not a big gamble on this one for bettors as Virginia is in a rebuilding phase. And the Trojans have won seven consecutive road games against non-conference BCS programs.

Oct. 11 versus Arizona State…The Sun Devils are another in the long line of teams waiting for a shot in the Pac 10, but still has a way to go. Given that the Trojans have won eight straight over ASU means the odds are long that will change in 2008.

Prediction: There are certain clubs that don’t rebuild, they just reload. Carroll has done just that in Los Angeles. Southern Cal has its toughest matches at home this year while still controlling its own league. The chances of finishing the season unbeaten are excellent and most likely will happen. But the Trojans won’t finish worse than 11-1 this year.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 3 Oklahoma
By Judd Hall

2007: The Sooners weren’t so sure where they would be in the first year without Adrian Peterson in the backfield and with a freshman signal caller. The skepticism was all for naught as DeMarco Murray, Allen Patrick and Sam Bradford helped Oklahoma keep winning…culminating in their fifth Big XII championship and second straight Fiesta Bowl defeat.

Strengths: The Big XII arguably has the highest powered offenses amongst its programs. The best of this bunch has to be the unit hailing from Norman, where they return 10 starters that averaged 43.4 points per game.

To keep an offense firing on all cylinders, you have to have a top shelf signal caller. And the Sooners have got just that in Bradford as he was the most efficient passer in college football (176.5 rating). And his 36:8 touchdown to interception ratio is one of the best in the school’s storied history. Bradford’s numbers can only go up in the eyes of Bob Stoops and company as they’re prepping him to run a lot of no-huddle plays this season…not a normal occurrence for a sophomore.

Murray will also be a force to be reckoned with this year…hell, he was one already as a true freshman by compiling 764 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground in 11 games. His importance to the Sooners was felt at the sportsbooks as well by accounting for at least one point on the line at the end of 2007.

Oklahoma isn’t just strong on the offensive attack; they possess a pretty solid group in the trenches on defense too. Auston English, DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy combined for 15 sacks total and 28 tackles for a loss. This returning trio also was integral in the Sooners giving up 91.9 rushing YPG.

Weaknesses: There aren’t too many glaring weaknesses on this team, but you have to pick any it’s going to be the secondary. Marcus Walker and Reggie Smith are off to the paydays of the NFL, which are two bodies difficult to replace in a group that had eight picks last year.

While the cupboard isn’t completely bare with safety Nic Harris returning. The All-American Senior is one of the hardest hitters in the college ranks right now, but won’t be up to speed right away after coming off of shoulder surgery. Despite the repair work, he’s in the early favorites for the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in the nation.

The two openings appear to be filled by Quinton Carter at safety, which can be good since he’s getting compared to Sooner great Roy Williams. Taking care of the other cornerback assignment is speedy sophomore Dominique Franks. While both players possess great skills, they are untested, making the opening month of the season an important one.

Oklahoma Schedule

Aug. 30 Chattanooga Moccasins
Sept. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats
Sept. 13 @ Washington Huskies
Sept. 27 TCU Horned Frogs
Oct. 4 @ Baylor Bears
Oct. 11 Texas Longhorns @ Dallas, TX
Oct. 18 Kansas Jayhawks
Oct. 25 @ Kansas State Wildcats
Nov. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Nov. 8 @ Texas A&M Aggies
Nov. 22 Texas Tech Red Raiders
Nov. 29 @     Oklahoma State Cowboys

Player to Watch: The linebackers are a little on the thin side right now, but that just means Ryan Reynolds will be the man in the spotlight. Reynolds had no problems in finding his way into the backfield last year by logging two sacks, 60 stops and eight tackles for a loss. Perhaps more impressive was that he did this with just six stars in 2007 after a couple of seasons with knee problems. If he can help his green thumbed cohorts in the linebacking corp for the first month, Reynolds will have no doubt done his job.

Returning Starters: 17 (10 on offense, 6 on defense, 1 specialist)

Schedule: The Sooners actually have amped up the quality of their non-conference schedule this season with Cincinnati, at Washington and against TCU to close out September. As far as OU’s Big XII table goes, its only major hurdle away form home is the Red River Shootout with the Longhorns.

Let Down: October 25 at Kansas State. This is a make or break year for Ron Prince with the Wildcats and he’ll be looking for any statement win to give him a chance of staying in Manhattan. That could be a downer for Oklahoma after playing the Longhorns and the coming home to scuffle with the Jayhawks. It’s easy to think that K-State will make this game a little too close for comfort for the Sooner Nation.

Look Ahead: November 6 at Texas A&M. Outside of last year’s blowout loss to OU, the Aggies had played well against them in the past three outings. It’s going to be tough to think that Mike Sherman will win in his first go round with Stoops, but the program will know its new identity better. Also, a revenge spot looms ahead for the Sooners when they host Texas Tech.

Good Bets:

Sept. 6 versus Cincinnati…The Bearcats are one of the many up and coming teams in the Big East, but that doesn’t mean anything to OU. You can have that attitude when you’ve got 18-3-1 against the programs currently in the Big East.

Nov. 1 versus Nebraska…What once was a great rivalry, now has turned into a one-sided beatdown. The Sooners have won four of the past five meetings and are 16-2 in their last 18 games in November. Sounds like another tough match for Bo Pelini in Year 1.

Prediction: The quality of competition has gotten better around the Sooners, but it is still their world the rest of the Big XII is living in up to this point. Every one of their matches this season are easily winnable, thanks to having to not play Mizzou until a conference title game. Bottom line is that anything less than a 12-0 record will be a disappointment.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Top 25 Preview, No. 1 Ohio State
By Judd Hall

2007: Nobody expected Ohio State to be relevant in any capacity after seeing the majority of its offense from the year before. Yet the Buckeyes were able to take advantage of a soft early schedule, a better than anticipated performance out of Todd Boeckman and the fact that every top team in the nation decided they didn’t want to win a championship saw them back in the BCS Title Game.

Unfortunately for the Buckeye faithful, it was a repeat butt whipping at the hands of an SEC program, LSU…in their back yard no less. Despite the sour taste of a repeat ending, OSU’s season was a surprising success.

Strengths: It’s hard to pinpoint a single strength on a team that returns 21 starters that played in the national championship game just the previous season.

On one hand you have an offense that averaged 31.4 PPG last season, ranked 18th in the nation on third down conversions (45.9 percent) and a rushing attack that is in the Top 30 of the country with 196.9 YPG.

Highlighting that offense is Chris “Beanie” Wells in the backfield. Wells is tough target to take down at 6’1”, and he likes to run straight up the gut on most occasions to punish the opposition as often as he can. The result of his running style was 1,609 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, good for 11th in the nation.

As effective as Wells has been over his career in Columbus, he’d not be able to do anything if it weren’t for the men up front. Ohio State’s offensive line returns four starters for a unit that allowed just 19 sacks in 2007, second in the Big Ten. And let’s not forget that they let the rushers do their job to the tune of 196.9 YPG on the ground.

The running game isn’t the only thing benefitting from that stout o-line. Todd Boeckman is also expected to be better in his second full season under center. The senior gunslinger was amongst the most efficient players at his position last year, completing 63.8 percent of his passes for 2,372 yards and 25 touchdowns. There were only 12 quarterbacks in the country better than him in that capacity.

As strong as the offense has been, the defense is where Jim Tressel’s crew wins its games. Ohio State was home to the best defense in the country, giving up just 233.0 total YPG. Only 82.8 yards of that average were gained on the ground…and just three rushing touchdowns were scored on this unit in 14 games.

The odds are good that the defensive line will be able to put up numbers that are comparable to those made in 2007 thanks to returning three of four starters. The lone newbie, Lawrence Wilson, actually played in the season opener last year so his knowledge of the schemes is well known.

The linebacking corp is loaded with James Laurinaitis poised to take a run at the Butkus and Nagurski Awards once again considering how he can play against the pass and/or run. His compatriot Marcus Freeman is a quality pass defender, but now can plug the gaps in the rush defense too.

Weaknesses: The talent is definitely there for the Buckeyes to make their third consecutive national title game. However, will the coaching be there when it matters the most?

That’s hard to say when you think of how well Tressel and his staff have done since 2001. Yet you have to look at the recent body of work in the big games…particularly the inability to protect against the short pass.

Florida and LSU were able to keep their offenses on the field by being able to routinely convert on third and five yards or fewer. How frequent did they move the chains in this situation? Well the Gators converted nine times out of 12 in this situation. Meanwhile the Tigers went 11 of 12 to keep their drives alive in short yardage converts.

This issue reared its ugly head late against the Illini in Columbus on Nov. 10 as Juice Williams and company converted their final three third-and-short chances to seal the deal.

It’s hard to imagine that a staff could not prepare for such a play considering how it was exploited so effectively by Urban Meyer. This shortcoming can be major when you think about having to take on Southern Cal along with tilts against zone offense teams like Michigan will be with Rich Rodriguez and Ron Zook’s side at Illinois.

Player to Watch: Boeckman was making the good people of Columbus forget about Troy Smith to start out the year. Unfortunately, his productivity started to wane as the regular season came to a close against his toughest competition.

From Sept. 1 to Nov. 3, Boeckman connected on 156 of his 237 passes for 1,762 yards and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 23:8. In his final three starts (against Illinois, Michigan and LSU) he was 35 of 62 for 414 yards with two scores and six picks.

Ohio State Schedule

Aug. 30 Youngstown State Penguins
Sept. 6 Ohio Bobcats
Sept. 13 @ USC Trojans
Sept. 20 Troy Trojans
Sept. 27 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Oct. 4 @ Wisconsin Badgers
Oct. 11 Purdue Boilermakers
Oct. 18 @ Michigan State Spartans
Oct. 25 Penn State Nittany Lions
Nov. 8 Northwestern Wildcats
Nov. 15 @ Illinois Fighting Illini
Nov. 22 Michigan Wolverines

There is no worry about him losing the starting role just yet to super phenom Tyrelle Pryor. However, if he starts screwing up early on, especially on the road versus the Trojans, we can see Joe Bauserman call some plays. Or we could even see Pryor come in like Smith did for Justin Zwick from years gone by.

Returning Starters: 21 (10 on offense, 9 on defense, both specialists)

Schedule: The Buckeyes were the beneficiaries of a soft schedule to start out 2007. Critics won’t be able to make that comment this time around as OSU makes a trip out to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans. The league schedule isn’t going to play favorites either with road tilts with the Badgers and Illini at opposite ends of the schedule. And of course, the always important showdown with Michigan to close out the regular season at home.

Let Down: October 11 versus Purdue. The Boilermakers always have the possibility of being a difficult out when you play them. Joe Tiller has built that offense that is deadly from the air. And he’s had moderate success against Ohio State in the past, going 1-2 SU and ATS. This will be Tiller’s last hurrah as the Purdue coach and with OSU coming off of a road game with the Badgers, his Boilers could make it interesting.

Look Ahead: November 15 at Illinois. Don’t be so surprised to see the Illini in this spot. The next game on the schedule is against the new-look Wolverines and it’s easy to look past a team that is rebuilding for the most part in 08. Yet Zook’s squad is still led by Juice Williams, who gave Ohio State fits last year. This could be another nail biter for the Buckeye Nation.

Good Bets:

Sept. 27 versus Minnesota…The Gophers are bound to get better under Tim Brewster, but now isn’t their time. Ohio State’s 13-2 SU record in Big Ten openers and 17-1 SU against Minnesota in Columbus makes sure that the upset won’t happen.

Nov. 22 versus Michigan…OSU is a long way from the days of John Cooper screwing the pooch against the Maize and Blue. The Bucks are 5-1 SU and 4-2 ATS versus Michigan in Tressel’s tenure. They’re 3-0 SU and 2-1 ATS in Columbus in that time. Of course, the Buckeyes have never beaten Michigan five straight times.

Prediction: The Bucks were playing with house money for the most part last year en route to the title game. Ohio State is still the class of the Big Ten and will win the conference with no problems, but that game against the Trojans will determine if it’s playing in a third straight BCS Title Game or the Rose Bowl. Luckily for the Buckeyes, they take on a young Southern Cal club early in the year. That means OSU will go unbeaten in the regular season and make a trip to Miami.

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Re: NCAA Top 25 Preview

Gold Sheet Top 25 College Football Teams

1-GEORGIA...Was that the wrong SEC team in last January’s BCS title game? Perhaps, as more than few keen observers thought the best squad in the land by the end of the season wasn’t LSU, but rather Georgia. And they might have been right, because once scintillating RB Knowshon Moreno found some traction at midseason, and the lights finally went on for QB Matthew Stafford, the Bulldogs were unbeatable down the stretch. Most of Mark Richt’s catalysts return on both sides of the ball, and Moreno & Stafford are ready to pick up where they left off in the Sugar Bowl romp past Hawaii. Get ready for plenty of “hunker down” calls from legendary announcer Larry Munson, as excitement beckons with a slate that includes the usual collection of SEC landmines (try the back-to-back LSU and Florida games just past midseason). And for good measure there’s a tasty intersectional on tap September 20 at Arizona State. But the Dawgs are loaded enough to deal with all of it, and can likely survive one slip-up on the way to Miami.

2-CLEMSON...Ohhh, lawdy, lawdy, imagine the buzz along I-85 if nearby Georgia and Clemson square off in the BCS title game! Sure, the Tigers have been a tease for most of Tommy Bowden’s tenure, but with 16 starters returning, this really does look like Clemson’s best shot to win the ACC title since the loop’s pre-Florida State days of 1991. Since RB James Davis opted to stay in school and not test the NFL Draft, all of the key playmakers on offense (RBs Davis & C.J. Spiller, QB Cullen Harper, & WR Aaron Kelly) are back in the fold. There’s some re-tooling needed along the OL and in the LB corps, but mid-Atlantic scouts say Bowden is comfy with the talent he’s about to plug into those gaps, while the veteran secondary might be one of the nation’s best. Sure, the polls could dock the Tigers for non-league games against nearby The Citadel and South Carolina State (can’t Clemson at least find some Sun Belt or MAC opposition, rather than dipping down to the next level?). But we’ll know how serious the Tigers are about national honors right off the bat in their opener vs. Alabama at the Georgia Dome. If Clemson clears that hurdle, the ACC probably provides the road with the fewest bumps to this year’s BCS title game.

3-OHIO STATE...Can we deal with Ohio State qualifying for another BCS title game, then getting whipped once it gets there? Well, just in case, we ought to get ready (after all, the NFL didn’t ban the Buffalo Bills from the Super Bowl because they lost four of them in a row in the early ‘90s, did it?), because it would be no surprise if the Buckeyes land there once again, especially since there’s a chance Jim Tressel’s upcoming version might be the best of his recent string of powerhouses in Columbus. An imposing collection of experienced juniors and seniors populate the roster, with DE Vernon Gholston the only significant early defection to the NFL from a year ago. RB Beanie Wells is a legit Heisman candidate, QB Todd Boeckman welcomes back his top receiving targets, and there’s always super frosh Terrelle Pryor waiting in the wings should Boeckman go down. Scouts also say as many as 11 current Bucks could get drafted next April. Ohio State won’t have to worry about facing another SEC team unless it makes it back to the title game, but it does have an early showdown at Southern Cal (and a chance to claim early pole position for another BCS run).

4-SOUTHERN CAL...Okay, Pete Carroll lost 10 starters to the NFL, but does he look worried? Not really. (Ask him about the pending Reggie Bush matter and the possible penalties that could ensue, however, and you might get a different response.) Those departures just mean that Carroll gets to a chance to plug in another wave of blue-chippers in their place. Not that there aren’t a few question marks, especially at QB, where Mark Sanchez didn’t make anyone forget Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart in a sneak preview last fall, but did beat out ballyhooed Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain for the starting job in spring. What figures to be a prime-cut group of wideouts also collectively suffered from a case of dropsies in ‘07. But as usual, there’s plenty of firepower on hand, and Pac-10 sources say this might be the best defense of the Carroll era. Besides, the brand name alone is good enough for a top four rating, where Troy has finished every season since 2002. Why should 2008 be any different?

5-FLORIDA...The SEC East is a decidedly rough neighborhood, to be sure. But the 2008 Gators should be a bit better equipped to cope with it than a year ago, when Urban Meyer had to deal with replacing a national championship defense almost en masse. Now, that stop unit is a mostly-veteran group, and good luck to any opponents trying to trade points Heisman Trophy winner QB Tim Tebow, dual-threat Percy Harvin, USC transfer RB Emmanuel Moody, and the newest discovery, slippery soph RB Chris Rainey, the star of spring and perhaps the fastest-ever player (with a documented 4.2 clocking in the 40) in the Meyer regime. That group will make defending the lethal Florida spread more difficult than ever. Of the expected toughest dates, only Tennessee is a true road game, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the winner of the annual “we can’t call it the world’s biggest outdoor cocktail party anymore” showdown vs. Georgia in Jacksonville has the inside track to an eventual BCS title game berth.

6-OKLAHOMA...The Sooners couldn’t avoid a few well-placed banana peels last fall, unexpectedly dropping games at Colorado, Texas Tech, and in the Fiesta Bowl vs. West Virginia. And postseason flops have become something of a ritual for OU, as Bob Stoops’ teams have conspired to routinely whiff in most of their recent bowl appearances. But when the Sooners were good last season, they were irresistible, and we shudder to think what havoc the offense could wreak with most of its components (including the entire OL and QB Sam Bradford) back in the fold and now operating out of a no-huddle, ostensibly to give the attack force more snaps and chances to dent the dish. Stoops has to fill some gaps in the secondary, but the slate breaks pretty well, as the Sooners miss Missouri entirely, and get Kansas and Texas Tech in Norman.

7-WEST VIRGINIA...The bad taste of the Rich Rodriguez departure lingers in Morgantown, and even the most diehard Mountaineer supporters are wondering if new HC Bill Stewart (given the permanent job a day after last January’s Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma) was something of a knee-jerk hire. We’ll eventually find out if he proves a good or bad knee-jerk, but for the time being most indicators are still pointing at WVU. Stewart hasn’t changed much of the Rodriguez recipe, and with sr. QB Patrick White back for a last hurrah, helped by a seasoned OL and versatile RB Noel Devine, the Mountaineers are still equipped to prevail in shootouts, which might be a necessity if replacements in the rebuilt secondary can’t cut the mustard. The road through the Big East might not be as tough as last year, either, with most major competitors having important gaps to fill.

8-TEXAS...Mack Brown’s best offseason recruit? Even mascot Bevo could tell you that it’s new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, whose aggressive schemes earned lots of praise at LSU and Auburn and could be just what the doctor ordered for a Longhorn “D” that hasn’t been the same since the national title season three years ago. And Muschamp seems the perfect fit for Brown’s edict to get more physical after Texas spent the last few seasons trying to outrun the opposition. Replacing catalyst RB Jamaal Charles is a priority, but Texas is rarely caught short of skill-position weaponry, and QB Colt McCoy is now a seasoned veteran. The schedule offers a great chance for a quick start before the annual showdown vs. you-know-who at the Cotton Bowl October 11.

9-AUBURN...It’s a transitional period for Auburn football, but HC Tommy Tuberville (pictured above) got a head start on 2008 by plucking noted spread guru o.c. Tony Franklin from Troy before last December’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, and then watching the Tigers absorb a crash course in their new offense before an exciting eventual overtime win over Clemson at the Georgia Dome. Franklin is still looking for the right QB to run his system, with soph Kodi Burns (the hero of the bowl win) appearing to get the hang of things by the time spring workouts concluded, and Texas Tech transfer Chris Todd an intriguing possibility once he’s past the shoulder problems that limited his spring work. In the meantime, a crackling OL and a stable of established runners will keep opposing defenses on their toes, and new d.c. Paul Rhoads has the usual abundance of athletes on hand defensively. By later in the season, the Tigers could be a load.

10-MISSOURI...It’s been almost 40 years since Mizzou has had this much to get excited about on the gridiron, and with many of the main of characters from last year’s Cotton Bowl winners opting to stick around for another year rather than test NFL draft waters, it’s no wonder Columbia is abuzz. As long as HC Gary Pinkel can plug a couple of gaps in the OL, QB Chase Daniel should make another spirited run at the Heisman Trophy, while homerun WR/KR Jeremy Maclin might net a few votes as well. The Tigers will score, but it’s going to be up to the veteran defense to step up, and Pinkel is hoping the rash of injuries and “issues” that hit the platoon in spring doesn’t carry over to the fall. This is the team to beat in the Big XII North, and best of all, there’s no Oklahoma (which whupped the Tigers twice last fall) on this year’s regular-season slate. Anything short of a BCS appearance will be a letdown.

11-TENNESSEE...After dodging more sniper fire (from UT backers, that is) than Hillary Clinton believed she once did (?) in Bosnia, Phil Fulmer is back in the good graces of Vol Nation after his troops, and not Georgia or Florida, claimed last season’s SEC East crown. Sure, there are plenty of changes on the offensive end in the wake of o.c. David Cutcliffe’s move to Duke, as Fulmer hired upand-coming Richmond HC Dave Clawson as the new orchestrator, specifically to go hightech and install a nouveau spread that Clawson ran successfully with the Spiders. SEC scouts report new QB Jonathan Crompton (who’s expected to recover quickly from post-spring elbow surgery) seemed comfy running the new look in the spring, while a veteran OL and receiving corps will smooth the transition. And after last year’s injury-marred campaign, d.c. John Chavis’ platoon developed the sort of depth that will come in handy this fall.

12-ARIZONA STATE...Dennis Erickson and ASU proved a marriage made in gridiron heaven, with the Sun Devils immediately taking on many of the characteristics (good and bad) of past Erickson productions at Miami and Oregon State. And Erickson has made some necessary tweaks from last fall’s 10-3 surprise, introducing more four and five-receiver sets to not only take advantage of a deep and talented WR corps, but also to provide a chance for sr. QB Rudy Carpenter to get rid of the ball quicker after last year’s 55 sacks, while reprogramming the defense into an all-attack mode. Georgia’s September 20 visit to Tempe is also a golden opportunity to fire an early warning shot in the direction of the BCS.

13-LSU...Unfortunately for James Carville and other LSU fans, they’ll have to follow Jacksonville State this fall if they want to watch QB Ryan Perrilloux, who was dismissed from the Tiger program by HC Les Miles in spring. Perrilloux’s departure wasn’t the only one of note from last year’s national champs (several other impact performers, including DT Glenn Dorsey, have moved on, not to mention d.c. Bo Pelini, now Nebraska’s new coach), but we still expect another “damn good football team” in Baton Rouge. Either redshirt frosh Jarrett Lee or Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch won’t be asked to do much other than not make mistakes when piloting the attack, and there’s still enough star power on defense (especially with DT Ricky Jean-Francois eligible from the outset) to keep LSU in most of its games. A forgiving non-conference slate, and only four road games, will at least keep the Tigers within sight of the BCS.

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14-BYU...If Utah could do it in 2004, Boise State in 2006, and Hawaii last season, why can’t BYU crash the BCS party in 2008? It’s not out of the question, with 10 starters back on offense from an attack force that scored more than 30 ppg in ‘07 and includes the newest Cougar QB star, Max Hall, plus almost all of his complementary weapons. There’s some retooling going on defensively after the departure of 7 starters, but the schemes masterminded by HC Bronco Mendenhall have resulted in stellar defensive stats the past two seasons (ranking in top 20 total “D” both years). Success vs. nonconference foes UCLA & Washington could get BYU some notice outside of its region in September, and the Cougs are likely going to be favored in all of their Mountain West games.

15-TEXAS TECH...We know Texas Tech can score points, but this season HC Mike Leach might finally have a stop unit to slow down some people as well, with a deeper and bigger defensive front and some impact jucos ready to make immediate contributions. There’s no telling how many yards QB Graham Harrell might pass for in the fall (6000, anyone?) after piling up 5705 YP and 48 TDP in ‘07, especially with almost everybody back (including record-setting soph wideout Michael Crabtree) from last year’s No. 1-rated pass offense. The usual collection of softies in the non-conference slate should provide the Red Raiders a chance to hit the meat of the schedule with a lot of momentum in late October.


16-PITTSBURGH...Well, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while. And every so often throughout his coaching career, Dave Wannstedt has managed to field a pretty decent team. And this appears to be his best chance for a breakthrough year at Pitt, especially with QB Bill Stull (who injured his thumb in last year’s opener and didn’t return all season) displaying a stronger arm and enhanced mobility in spring, when he reclaimed the starting job from soph Pat Bostick. Anything resembling a competent passing game to take pressure off dynamic soph RB LeSean McCoy could result in a fairly-explosive offense, and the Panthers’ growling defense (led by LB Scott McKillop, the nation’s leading tackler in ‘07) is ready to pick up where it left off in its seasonending 13-9 upset win in the Backyard Brawl at West Virginia. The schedule is manageable (with this year’s Brawl at Heinz Field), especially if the Big East is a softer, gentler neighborhood (as most expect it to be) than it was last fall.

17-VIRGINIA TECH...There are a few more questions than usual in Blacksburg, but Frank Beamer’s time-tested recipe of defense, special teams, and big-play offense has been churning out bowl teams for the past 15 seasons, and that shouldn’t change in 2008. True, the dismissal of star RB Branden Ore has created a bit of a dilemma in the backfield, but Beamer does have the luxury of two established and distinctively different QBs (pocket-passing sr. Sean Glennon and mobile soph Tyrod Taylor) at his disposal. And before assuming that the Hokie defense is going to fade after losing impact performers such as LBs Xavier Adibi & Vince Hall, we can’t remember when shrewd d.c. Bud Foster hasn’t fielded a disruptive platoon.

18-ILLINOIS...There will be no sneaking up on anybody like a year ago in Champaign-Urbana, when Illinois came from nowhere to play in its first Rose Bowl in 24 years. We have a feeling the Illini might really miss dynamic RB Rashard Mendenhall, who bolted early to the NFL, not to mention several contributors who formed the backbone of last season’s snippy defense. And it’s about time for jr. Juice Williams to become a more-refined QB, not just a dangerous scrambler out of the pocket, or else backup Eddie McGee will become known as the Mariano Rivera of the Big Ten. But soph WR/ KR Rejus Benn is an established gamebreaker, and Ron Zook’s succession of highly-ranked recruiting classes has now filled the pipeline. The taste of the big-time last season should whet the Illini’s appetite for more in the fall.

19-CAL...It’s hard to believe that Cal was just 12 yards away from the top ranking in the country last October before a series of events that began in the painful final seconds of its loss to Oregon State sent the Golden Bear season careening out of control. But Pac-10 sources believe HC Jeff Tedford (who has stepped back into more of a managerial role) now has a better grasp of the chemistry issues that eventually sidetracked last year’s Berkeley bunch, and he also might have uncovered an improvement from Nate Longshore at QB when more-mobile soph Kevin Riley emerged as a possible star of the future in the Armed Forces Bowl comeback win over Air Force. If the defense makes a successful adjustment to the 3-4, Cal becomes a serious player once more in the Pac-10.

20-KANSAS...Sure, Kansas was good and incredibly fun to watch last fall, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Jayhawks took advantage of a joke schedule that not only provided for several soft landings in non-conference play but also missed some of the heavyweights in the Big XII. This fall, the Jayhawks do not get to skip Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech like a year ago, and Kansas also must negotiate a tricky trip to South Florida in September. And several key components have departed after last year’s breakthrough campaign. KU won’t drop off the map with exciting Todd Reesing back at QB, but don’t expect a repeat of the magical ‘07 run, either.

21-WISCONSIN...It’s back to the future in Madison, where the no-frills Badgers will likely bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the smashmouth teams Barry Alvarez fielded during his days in charge of the program. And HC Bret Bielema will be glad to borrow that formula once more with another mammoth OL blasting holes for a quartet of returning RBs led by P.J. Hill & Zach Brown. But neither Allan Evridge nor Dustin Sherer played well enough in spring to claim the QB job, and the defense hardly looked comfortable last fall when forced to defend the more-sophisticated attacks now en vogue in the Big Ten. We’ll know by midseason (after facing Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State back-to-back-to-back) if the Badgers are serious about making a BCS run.

22-ALABAMA...Bama ain’t quite what it used to be, and no one has to tell Nick Saban that any honeymoon he might have had with the Crimson Tide faithful ended when he lost to Louisiana-Monroe (Louisiana-Monroe?) last November. Further, some SEC observers believe another reason Bama has tailed off in the last decade is that the homegrown talent in the state, long the supply line of the Tide program, has fallen far behind that of Florida and neighboring Georgia in recent years. But Bama played most of ‘em close last year (10 games decided by 7 points or fewer, including all 6 losses), and returns perhaps the best OL in the SEC, all of its top RBs, plus QB John Parker Wilson. The Tide’s schedule is no picnic (Clemson, Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU all away from Tuscaloosa), but if the “D” can fill some gaps, Bama might reverse the outcome of a few of those nailbiters it lost last fall.

23-BOISE STATE...The winningest program in the country over the past decade? Try Boise State (102-24 that span!), and we don’t think the fun is about to end anytime soon. Certainly not with an “O” that returns most of its dynamite skill-position weapons (including RB Ian Johnson, off another 1000-yard season) and could be even more potent with a faster tempo, featuring more no-huddle, spreads, and Nevadalike “Pistol” looks. The mystery is when HC Chris Petersen finds a new QB to detonate the enhanced attack package; how soon RS frosh Kellen Moore takes ownership of the offense will be key. A favorable slate provides remote hope of another BCS run like ‘06, but a more realistic goal might be reclaiming the WAC crown the Broncos relinquished to Hawaii last fall.

24-WAKE FOREST...Sometimes, we think we enjoy watching Jim Grobe’s Wake Forest team almost as much as does Lou Holtz, who positively gushes every time he mentions the Deacs on his ESPN gig. And with a power vacuum still existing in the ACC thanks to Florida State & Miami regenerating their forces, there’s no reason Wake can’t continue to take advantage. Fourteen starters return for the Deacs, including crafty QB Riley Skinner and TB Josh Adams. Although the stop unit has some reloading to do on the DL, Alphonso Smith & Brandon Ghee might be the best CB tandem in the loop. Is it just us, or has PK Sam Swank been at Wake since the days when Arnold Palmer was an undergrad?

25-EAST CAROLINA...Do-it-all RB/KR Chris Johnson has taken his act to the NFL, but don’t feel too sorry for Pirates HC Skip Holtz (who, to the relief of ECU supporters, has stuck around for another year rather than make a move). After all, Holtz has the best 1-2 QB combo in Conference USA, with both Patrick Pinkney and rocket-armed Rob Kass proven commodities, and soph Jonathan Williams has given hints he can fill Johnson’s shoes in the backfield. Sure, the pass defense was leaky, or worse, in ‘07 (ranking 114th), yet spring sessions hinted at significant upgrades, and a robust front seven should be able to apply more than token pressure on opposing QBs. The offconference slate is no picnic (including a date vs. Virginia Tech in Charlotte), but West Virginia must travel to Greenville, and ECU should develop a good head of stream down the stretch vs. C-USA foes en route to an expected third straight bowl trip.

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