NCAAFB Conference Previews

Re: NCAAFB Conference Previews

By: Sean Higgs     Date: Jul 28, 2008
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Sean Higgs

VegasTopDogs

Pac 10 Conference

1 USC ---- HC Pete Carroll. This guy doesn't rebuild, he reloads! No surprise teams in the Pac 10 this year to get in Trojans way so they should cruise their 7th straight Pac 10 Title. Their test will be against Ohio State when they show up in September. USC has my #2 rated defense overall and if they take that game vs the Buckeyes, they will cruise to the National Championship Game.

2 Oregon --- Ducks have a tough schedule with road games at USC, Cal and Arizona State. They do have the 2nd best offense in the Pac 10. Their loaded secondary and strong front should line should be good enough to give USC a run in their match-up Oct 4.

3 California --- The Golden Bears could easily flip flop with Oregon for #2 bragging rights, since they get some of their tougher match-ups at home. I like Nate Longshore at QB but injuries really dragged him down late last season. Sophomore Kevin Riley may push the senior for looks. HC Jeff Tedford is bringing in a new OC but that won't slow down the QBs or a deep RB corp led by Jahvid Best. The defense is solid with 8 returning starters.

4 Arizona State -- Sun Devils will look to build off last seasons success. A tough schedule with a game vs Georgia, and road games at Cal and USC leads me to believe they won't reach the 10 win plateau this year. QB Rudy Carpenter is the best in the conference and with RB Keegan Herring in the backfield, points shouldn't be a problem in Tempe.

5 UCLA --- I am looking at UCLA to have a surprise year. Lots of injuries last season. They have what I feel is the best special teams in the conference. If Ben Olsen returns, then they may pull out a few wins and get more than 6 wins. New HC Rick Neuheisal has his work cut out for him on defense where the Bruins were ranked dead last in '07. 6 Oregon State ----Beavers lost the meat of their D, as in their front 7 but HC Mike Riley will try to work a miracle. The offense returns 7 and Riley is a good coach, but there is no way they get to 9 wins this season.

7 Arizona --- The Wildcats have HC Mike Stoops on the hot seat and anything less than a bowl will spell his end. QB Willie Tuitama heads the list of 10 offensive starters back so the offense should be more than potent. The defense with 3 starters remaining will be the critical spot on this team. They should top last seasons 5 wins and end their bowl-less drought.

8 Stanford --- HC Jim Harbaugh has 16 starters back for his second year with the Cardinal. Stanford should top last seasons 3 conference wins, but might be a year away from the big jump to the top of the league. The defense is solid and experienced. They open early Aug 28 vs Oregon State and should set a tone that they won't be walked over at home.

9 Washington --- HC Ty Willingham must find a way to win some games in Seattle. He has 13 starters back and QB Jake Locker must take a huge step from freshman starter, to sophomore phenom for this team to have a chance.

10 Washington State ----New HC Paul Wulff is bringing with him a high-flying no huddle, 5 wide out set from East Washington. Well, this is the Pac 10, not the Big Sky. It will take some time to get his players and system in order.

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Re: NCAAFB Conference Previews

SEC Preview
Brian Edwards

For loyal listeners of the Power Hours and readers of our Top 25 previews, some of my SEC predictions will be old news at this point. Nevertheless, I want to get it all down on the same page and touch on the squads that didn’t make VI’s pre-season Top 25.

I like the Gators to not only win the SEC, but I also say they will win their second national title in four seasons under Urban Meyer. I have UF beating a 10-2 Auburn team at the Georgia Dome in the SEC Championship Game.

Sportsbook.com has both Florida and Auburn listed with 5/2 odds to win the league, while Georgia is the 2/1 ‘chalk.’

Tommy Tuberville’s team will win the West, but its six-game winning streak in the Iron Bowl will end in 2008. Auburn’s other loss will come at West Virginia on a Thursday night (10/23).

Georgia will go 11-2 and win a BCS game, but its schedule is too tough for the Dawgs to win their first national title since 1982. Before UGA even gets to the meat of its schedule, it will have to play at South Carolina and at Arizona St., not to mention home games against Alabama and Tennessee.

Mark Richt’s team has to travel for four consecutive weeks beginning with a road game at LSU. Although I think UGA will win in Baton Rouge, the physical and emotional toll of that contest will linger into the next week’s game against Florida in Jacksonville.

The Gators, who are 2 ½-point favorites over UGA at most books that have posted an early number, will avenge last year’s 42-30 loss to the Dawgs. Georgia will bounce back at Kentucky, but it won’t have enough left in the tank to win at Auburn the following week.

What about South Carolina? The Gamecocks, who return 10 starters on defense and seven on offense, climbed to No. 6 in the polls after starting 6-1 last year. However, they lost five in a row down the stretch and missed out on a bowl game.

What went wrong? For starters, the run defense suffered immensely when All-American middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley tore his ACL in a 28-16 Week 4 loss at LSU. In addition, USC lost a pair of heartbreakers – 27-24 at Tennessee in overtime and 23-21 vs. Clemson – on last-second field goals.

Brinkley announced himself “100 percent healthy” at last week’s SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Also, DT Nathan Pepper returns to the mix after going down with a season-ending injury in Week 3.

On Tuesday, Scott Hood of GamecockCentral.com reported that redshirt freshman QB Stephen Garcia would most likely be reinstated to the team early. Garcia, who has had three minor brushes with the law since arriving in Columbia, missed spring practice and was suspended by the university until Aug. 15.

He spent the summer in Tampa living with his parents and has apparently done all the right things, including passing random tests for both alcohol and drugs. Garcia is considered South Carolina’s best talent at QB, but he hasn’t had the practice reps to be ready to play anytime soon. With that said, don’t be surprised if Garcia gets his chance by mid-season. Tommy Beecher is considered the starter going into the year, followed by Chris Smelley.

Since Georgia, LSU and Tennessee all come to Williams-Brice Stadium, each of SC’s first 10 games are winnable. That won’t happen, but there’s a decent chance the ‘Cocks will face LSU on Oct. 18 with a 6-1 record. I have Carolina finishing 8-4 in the regular season and then beating an ACC team (a Bowden-Spurrier matchup here would be nice, but I’m not sure the Seminoles can go 8-4) in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

Staying in the East, let’s talk about Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Both schools lost a lot of talent and neither squad will be as formidable as it was last year.

This space was calling for Rich Brooks’ pink slip at this time two years ago, and we won’t hesitate a bit to point out the utter ineptitude of such a forecast. Brooks has done a sensational job the last two seasons, and we should (belatedly) point out the difficult situation he inherited with lingering NCAA sanctions from the Hal Mumme Era.

The Wildcats have won 16 games the last two years, including a thrilling 43-37 triple-overtime win over top-ranked LSU last season. They have also beaten Clemson and FSU in back-to-back trips to the Music City Bowl.

However, UK only has four starters back on offense in 2008. QB Andre Woodson, the school’s second all-time leading passer, is gone. WR Keenan Burton, UK’s second all-time leading receiver, is also gone, along with RB Rafael Little, the school’s third all-time leading rusher.

On the bright side, eight starters are back on defense. Junior CB Trevard Lindley is one of the SEC’s best playmakers, while junior DE Jeremy Jarmon is coming off a nine-sack season.

Even though Little is gone, there’s a trio of RBs – Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith – who each averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry and combined to rush for 11 touchdowns in ’07.

As for the QB situation, things aren’t as clear. Mike Hartline, a third-year sophomore with six career pass attempts, appears to be in line to start following the off-season arrests of Curtis Pulley and Will Fidler. Pulley came out of spring practice as the No. 1 guy, but he has been arrested twice this summer. It is unclear whether or not Pulley will face an early-season suspension.

Bobby Johnson is going into his seventh year at Vandy. He has steadily improved the talent base and the Commodores have come close to getting to their first bowl game since 1982. In 2005, Vandy started 4-0, only to finish 5-6. The ‘Dores went 4-8 and 5-7 the last two years, respectively.

Although a bowl bid has been elusive, Vandy has the respect of the rest of the league these days. In ’05, the ‘Dores won at Wake Forest, at Arkansas, at Tennessee and took the Gators to double overtime at The Swamp. In ’06, Vandy won at Georgia and led Alabama nearly the entire game before dropping a 13-10 decision in Tuscaloosa. In ’07, the ‘Dores won at South Carolina and simply beat themselves in a 20-17 home loss to Georgia.

With that said, I think Vandy might eat a bagel in conference play this year. The most winnable league games are on the road – at Ole Miss, at Mississippi St. and at Kentucky.

The ‘Dores have just three starters returning on offense and six on defense. OT Chris Williams went to the Bears in the first round of the NFL Draft, while WR Earl Bennett and LB Jonathan Goff were also drafted. According to Phil Steele, Vandy has the least experienced offensive line in the nation with the returning players logging just three career starts.

The secondary is the team’s strength. Junior cornerback D.J. Moore garnered first-team All-SEC honors after breaking up 10 passes and picking off six last year. Steele ranks the secondary as the 25th best in the country.

Now let’s shift gears back to the SEC West. In our Top 25 countdown, I wrote previews for the top two teams, Auburn and LSU. I have Alabama as the third-best team in the division.

The Crimson Tide was on the cusp of taking command of the SEC West when it held a seven-point lead over LSU late in the fourth quarter last year. They even had the Tigers facing a fourth-and-long situation, but Matt Flynn hooked up with Early Doucet for the first down and a broken tackle resulted in a touchdown.

Moments later, John Parker Wilson fumbled and LSU scored the game-winning TD a few plays later. From there, ‘Bama’s season completely fell apart. Wilson threw an awful interception that turned into a pick-six right before halftime the next week in Starkville, where the Bulldogs captured a 17-12 victory.

Next, ULM – that’s right, Louisiana-Monroe – went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and shocked the Tide by a 21-14 count as a 24 ½-point underdog. They lost to Auburn (17-10) for the sixth straight time to conclude the regular season.

Nick Saban’s team has 13 starters (7 offense, 6 defense) coming back and his second recruiting class was ranked as the nation’s best by most publications. Most importantly, Saban landed a big-time playmaker in WR Julio Jones, who is expected to step into the starting lineup immediately.

As Wilson enters his senior campaign, he has 26 career starts under his belt. Despite a decent 37/22 career TD-INT ratio, he has come under intense scrutiny from the Alabama fan base. Nevertheless, it says here that Wilson will have an outstanding year assuming Jones is ‘as advertised’ and can be the deep threat needed to stretch opposing defenses.

In his fourth season at Mississippi St., Sylvester Croom guided the Bulldogs to their first bowl game since 2000 (when Wayne Madkin led MSU to a thrilling 43-41 overtime win over Texas A&M in the snow in Shrevport). They beat UCF 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl as three-point underdogs.

Mississippi St. should be even better in 2008. For the first time during Croom’s tenure, the QB situation appears settled. As a true freshman, Wesley Carroll stabilized the position in nine starts. Carroll wasn’t spectacular by any means (9/7 TD-INT ratio), but he managed games effectively and got the ball in the hands of the right people.

We’re mostly talking about junior RB Anthony Dixon, who scored 16 TDs (14 rushing, 2 receiving) and rushed for 1,066 yards. When the offense failed, Croom and Co. were lucky to have Derek Pegues, who had crucial interception returns for TDs in wins over Auburn and Alabama. In addition, Pegues had a game-changing punt return for a TD in a come-from-behind win over Ole Miss.

In short, Pegues was the difference between 8-5 and 4-8. I have Mississippi St. going 7-5 in the regular season again this year, but that could swing by a game or two if the offense can develop a steady aerial attack to prevent defenses from stacking the box to stop Dixon.

Ole Miss and Arkansas bring up the rear in the West, but I think the Rebels can be a sleeper team. I stated my case for Houston Nutt’s new squad in a blog a few days ago.

As for the Razorbacks, they lost a lot of talent. The school’s all-time leading rusher (Darren McFadden) is gone and so is Felix Jones. The RB tandem combined for 2,992 rushing yards and 27 TDs last season.

Defensively, the top six returning tacklers are gone, including LB Freddie Fairchild, who was recently dismissed from the program after being arrested on a domestic violence charge.

The biggest question in Fayetteville is how big of an impact Bobby Petrino will have on the program. At this time last year, the team and fan base were immersed in turmoil stemming from the entire Mitch Mustain-Gus Malzahn debacle that was well chronicled in this space (and won’t be revisted right now – except for the chuckle I’m getting out of Mustain’s back-up status at USC).

Nutt was the ultimate Razorback. He was born and raised in the state. In Petrino, you have the antithesis of Nutt. He was born and raised in Montana. Nutt spent 10 years at Arkansas, while Petrino has held six different jobs (and flirted with taking another half-dozen – at least!) during that span.

Loyal readers are well aware of my opinion of Petrino. He’s a shady character and forgive me for using the word ‘character’ in the same sentence with him. With that said, you can’t question his ability to coach, at least not at the collegiate level.

In four years at Louisville, Petrino had an eye-opening 41-9 record. When you think about how Arkansas was spurned by Tommy Bowden, Butch Davis and Tommy Tuberville and was then downright schooled by Jim Grobe (the Wake Forest head coach verbally agreed to take the job, but then dissed the Hogs the next morning when Wake agreed to up the pay of both Grobe and his assistants), Petrino was an excellent hire – warts and all.

Fortunately for the Hogs, Petrino’s image has taken such a hit that it’s doubtful many schools – and certainly no NFL teams – will court him anytime soon. Whether he likes it or not, Petrino is most likely in Fayetteville for at least 4-5 years.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--Since 2004, Vandy owns a 13-4 spread record as a road underdog.

--Florida and Georgia have never made the Cocktail Party with both teams sporting unblemished records. Although the odds are against it, I say it happens this year.

--Pre-Season Power Rankings:
1-Florida
2-Georgia
3-Auburn
4-LSU
5-(tie) Tennessee
5-(tie) South Carolina
5-(tie) Alabama
8-Mississippi State
9-Ole Miss
10-Kentucky
11-Arkansas
12-Vandy

--SEC’s Best Players:
1-Tim Tebow (QB – Florida)
2-Knowshon Moreno (RB – Georgia)
3-Andre Smith (OT – Alabama)
4-Ricky Jean-Francois (DT – LSU)
5-Percy Harvin (WR/RB – Florida)
6-Jonathan Luigs (C – Arkansas)
7-Michael Oher (OT – Ole Miss)
8-Jasper Brinkley (LB – South Carolina)
9-Kenny McKinley (WR – South Carolina)
10-Brandon Spikes (LB – Florida)
11-Trevard Lindley (CB – Kentucky)
12-Derek Pegues (FS/PR – Mississippi St.)
13-Tyson Jackson (DE – LSU)
14-Eric Berry (SS – Tennessee)
15-Greg Hardy (DE – Ole Miss)

--It’s such a difficult task to rank the SEC coaches because there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch. And how are you formulating the rankings? In other words, if it’s based on career accomplishments, there’s no question that Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer are 1-2 (in that order). Do you take into account all the circumstances? For instance, Vandy has higher academic standards. Would Bobby Johnson be as successful as Mark Richt if the two traded jobs? When you consider the last two Vandy-UGA matchups (a 24-22 Vandy win in Athens and a 20-17 come-from-behind triumph for UGA in Music City), wouldn’t you have to say Johnson got the better of Richt from a coaching standpoint? In this year’s coaching rankings, I’m going to take into account a combination of things, including career accomplishments, head-to-head meetings and recruiting prowess. But most of all, it’s a list of who I would want coaching my team on a neutral field with all other things equal and a bunch of cash on the line. With that in mind, here it is:

1-Steve Spurrier (South Carolina)
2-Tommy Tuberville (Auburn)
3-Urban Meyer (Florida)
4-Mark Richt (Georgia)
5-Nick Saban (Alabama)
6-Phillip Fulmer (Tennessee)
7-Houston Nutt (Ole Miss)
8-Bobby Petrino (Arkansas)
9-Les Miles (LSU)
10-Sylvester Croom (Mississippi St.)
11-Rich Brooks (Kentucky)
12-Bobby Johnson (Vandy)

--Again, let me be clear that Johnson is a quality coach. In fact, he clearly outcoached Spurrier and Richt last year. His teams are 2-1 ATS during Meyer’s tenure at UF, and he’s won (outright) on the road against both Fulmer and Nutt.

vegasinsider.com.

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Re: NCAAFB Conference Previews

SEC Conference 2008 betting preview
MARC LAWRENCE

SECond to none. That’s what they say in this part of the country, and it’s hard to argue. LSU’s national championship last year marked the fourth time in the seven-year BCS history that a team from the SEC claimed the crown.

The SEC has led the nation in attendance 27 years in a row and, since 2000, has had more teams in the final USA TODAY Coaches Poll than any conference in the land. Indeed, they are second to none.

Here is my take on the SEC for 2008. Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QBs are designated with an asterisk).

ALABAMA - *9 / 6

Team Theme – LIEN ON ME

By our calculations, Nick Saban, the Tide’s 4-million-dollar-a-year man, should be paying a steep capital gains tax from the monies he milked from the haughty houndstooth society in Tuscaloosa last year. Look up the definition of over-hyped and overpaid and you’ll likely find Saban’s mug shot contained in each. Despite a 7-6 record last season, Alabama outstatted only five of its 13 opponents. Along with the nation’s top recruiting class, SR QB John Parker Wilson returns, having started all 26 games the past two seasons (13-13). Wilson, however, is just 1-7 ATS when favored against .400 or better opposition. While Saban has his detractors, the fact of the matter is he has never suffered a losing season as a college head coach. He’s also much better against the number in conference games (51-38-1) than outside (21-20). That makes our decision easy.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Arkansas St (11/1)

ARKANSAS – 5 / 5

Team Theme – READ MY LIPS

Bobby Petrino’s return to the college football ranks is a move generally frowned upon by anyone with a heart. Yes, BP may have helped take Louisville to the next level, but we have a problem warming up to people that speak out of both sides of their mouth. After telling the Arkansas faithful what they wanted hear, the ‘disingenous drifter’ (as labled by ESPN’s Pat Forde) bolted out of Atlanta before season’s end. Thus, it would be no surprise to see him fielding new offers before the final gun has sounded on the 2008 season. This year, however, he’ll hand the keys of his high-powered offense over to SR QB Casey Dick (26/38, 309 yards, 3 TD’s in Spring Game). While Petrino may indeed be Larry Brown in a Maserati, Dick will forever be a quarterback in training wheels.

PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Mississippi State (11/22)

AUBURN – 8 / 7

Team Theme – SPREAD YOUR WINGS

Tommy Tuberville has never been one to sit back and wait for things to happen. Not satisfied with 28 wins in his last 34 SEC games, he signed former Troy OC, and ex-Hal Mumme assistant, Tony Franklin and handed him the keys to the offense. Franklin’s new no-huddle spread offense was implemented for the first time last year in the Chik-Fil-A bowl game, an impressive upset win over Clemson. He also brought in former Pittsburgh DC Paul Rhoads to tighten things up on the defensive front. The QB battle in spring proved that both SO Kodi Burns and big-arm transfer Chris Todd are ready to lead the charges. They will certainly benefit playing behind what may be the best offensive line in the nation (all five starters return). Coupled with the best red-zone defense in the SEC it appears the Tigers are ready to broaden their horizons.

PLAY ON: vs. Mississippi St (9/13) - *Key as dog

FLORIDA - *7 / 8

Team Theme – THE HUNTERS

Let’s play who had a worse season: Florida or Michigan? The defending National Champion Gators lost four games last year, including back-to-back defeats for the first time ever under Urban Meyer. Heck, they even lost to Michigan as DOUBLE DIGIT FAVORITES in the Capital One Bowl game. At least Meyer, unlike Lloyd Carr, is still gainfully employed. He’s directing a wealth of talent, including QB Tim Tebow, the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy. His bowshots were on the money last year. They directed his team to touchdowns on 47.3% of their offensive drives, establishing a SEC record. Along with star WR Percy Harvin, Florida will rely on a bevy (60) of underclassmen in 2008, including FR RB Chris Rainey – the star of the spring game - and USC transfer Emanuel Moody. No longer the hunted, it’s hard to envision this team not hitting the target with great frequency in ’08.

PLAY ON: vs. LSU - *KEY if dog

GEORGIA - *7 / 9

Team Theme – DAWG GONE GOOD

Many wise guys feel the Bulldogs have what it takes to win a national championship this season and it would be difficult to dispute their contention. Winners of seven straight to conclude the 2007 campaign, Georgia welcomes back 16 starters, including JR QB Mathew Stafford, arguably the best signal caller on the scene this season, and RB Knowshon Moreno, the SEC freshman of the year. Stafford will employ a play action scheme to go with a new two-back set with, what is arguably, the deepest squad in the Mark Richt era. Yes, they take on a tough schedule but that’s what good teams do. The Dawgs own the best record in the SEC the last ten years and are a mind-boggling 25-4 in an opponent’s stadium with Richt.

PLAY ON: vs. South Carolina (9/13)

KENTUCKY – 5 / 8


Team Theme – UNBRIDLED OPTIMISM

Off back-to-back 8-5 seasons, including a pair of Music City Bowl wins, its understandable 66-year old head coach Rich Brooks is concerned over the departure of QB Andre Woodson. That’s because the Wildcats have led the SEC in passing offense the past two seasons. Despite heavy graduation losses, Brooks remains optimistic. “One thing that is totally clear is that this is the best group we have ever red-shirted since I’ve been here,” he says. He’s especially excited about the defense. “I don’t think there is any doubt we were a much better defense last season… it put us into position to have success,” Brooks contends. With eight starters back from a stop-unit that improved 56 YPG, we understand his elation. Now, if he can maneuver his way through a schedule featuring only two losing opponents his words just may prove prophetic.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Arkansas (10/18)

LSU – 7 / 5

Team Theme – LES FORTUNATE

Like him or not, Bengal boss Les Miles walked the walk after talking the talk last year. Three 11-win seasons in a row have catapulted the riverboat gambler to the top of the college coaches’ ladder, making him a very fortunate (read: $$$) individual these days. His team was the only Division 1-A school to go 12-0 in regulation play last season. In fact, the Tigers were one of four teams in NCAA history to lose twice in the same season as a No. 1 ranked team. They beat six ranked opponents during the regular season before disposing of a solid Ohio State squad to become the only team to win two BCS championships. However, success always comes with a price tag. It’s called being a target, or the top-game, on every opponent’s schedule the next season. Sometimes getting what you wished for isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Mississippi (11/22)

MISSISSIPPI – 7 / 9

Team Theme – SOMETIMES YOU FEEL LIKE A NUTT

It’s an economic fact of life. When you sign a contract double ($1.85M per year) that of the coach (Ed Orgeron) you replaced you are automatically on the hot seat. Not that Houston Nutt is unaccustomed to the heat. Despite innuendo and accusations galore, he left an Arkansas program (76-48 in ten years) in a lot better shape than it was before he arrived (40-49-2 previous eight years). Thanks to Orgeron, he inherits three strong recruiting classes and welcomes back OT Michal Oher, 34 consecutive starts, and DE Greg Hardy, 10 sacks in 10 games - both all-SEC 1st team performers. New QB Javan Sneed, a transfer from Texas, was 20 of 26 in the spring game. With Nutt on board, and after going winless in conference play for the first time in 25 years last season, look for the Rebels to come up salty this season.

PLAY ON: vs. Arkansas (10/25)

MISSISSIPPI STATE - *7 / 8

Team Theme – CROOMED FOR SUCCESS

The most improved team in the SEC last season, Mississippi State finally broke on through to the other side by recording its first winning season since 2000. It’s a tribute to the terrific job done by Sylvester Croom who, after three straight three-win seasons, won eight games. They also managed to win a game decided by three or less points for the first time ever under Croom after having gone 0-6 in previous tries. On paper he welcomes 15 starters back, but a closer look finds 15 players on offense that have started at least one game. SO QB Wesley Carroll, who played in all 13 games last year (9 starts), had a solid spring and appears ready to move to the next level. They might not catch teams by surprise this season but Sly will leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing his team for battle.

PLAY ON: vs. LSU (9/27)

SOUTH CAROLINA – 6 / 10

Team Theme – FREE FALLING

Have you ever tried jumping out of an airplane without a parachute? It’s probably the same feeling the Gamecocks endured last season when, after beginning the year 6-1, they finished 0-5 and were body-slammed out of a bowl game (four of the six losses were against ranked teams). This year, at least 10 starters are back on defense, the same defense that ranked No. 4 in the nation in pass defense in 2007. Here’s hoping the Cocks learned their lesson and stand tall early on again this year because all six of their final games are against teams that were bowlers last year. The bottom line is USC's QB difficulites - Fix them and fly first class. Leave them as they are and stay in the exit row. PLAY ON: vs. as a dog vs. Vanderbilt (9/4)

TENNESSEE – 8 / 6

Team Theme – PHIL ER UP

Don’t count the old man out just yet. For all the heat Phil Fulmer has taken lately (14 losses last three seasons) his teams still own the best road record in the SEC since 1992 (48-18) and he is No. 1 in career win percentage among active coaches (.766) with 100 or more victories. What makes Fulmer the happiest, though, is that his NCAA record setting offensive line, the same unit that allowed only four sacks last year, returns virtually intact in 2008. Better yet, QB Jonathon Crompton (replaces Erik Ainge) picked up new OC Dave Clawson’s schemes really well in spring camp. Along with RB Adrian Foster, who needs 684 yards to become UT’s all-time leading rusher, the Bluetick Coonhound just keeps adding to its laurels under Fulmer’s tutelage.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Kentucky - *KEY if Wildcats > .500

VANDERBILT - *3 / 6

Team Theme – GRAY SKIES

For a football team that was top-heavy with returning starters the past four seasons and still failed to produce a winning year (one winning season in 32 years – 1982), the prospect of just nine starters back on this year’s team might seem discomforting. “We have some work to do… we lost some excellent players,” says head coach Bobby Johnson. The defense will have to step up to the table to protect an offense that was hit hard by graduation and player defections. The entire OL is gone, in addition to star WR Earl Bennett, the SEC’s all-time receptions leader, who left early to enter the NFL draft. Despite rain clouds in the forecast, Johnson remains sunny. When he finally removes his rose-colored glasses he’ll see another losing team in Vanderbilt.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Rice (9/13)

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Re: NCAAFB Conference Previews

Sun Belt conference betting preview
By MARC LAWRENCE

Headquartered in downtown New Orleans, the SUN BELT CONFERENCE – like the city itself - yearns for a new identity. They are the only conference in the nation to provide video highlights and features on its website from each of the league’s respective championships from 2005-07. Technologically advanced – yes. Football challenged – that, too. Still, they’ve still got this ‘Louisiana Garbage Can’ image they’d like to kick. And like New Orleans, they figure to do it one game at a time.

Here is my take on the SBC for 2008. Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QB’s designated with an *). Coming up next: the WAC CONFERENCE. Enjoy…

SBC

ARKANSAS STATE - *6 / 5


Team Theme – INDIAN GIVERS

Head coach Steve Roberts has been around the Arkansas State program long enough (six years) to see the team nickname change from Indians to Warhawks (this year). During that time his squads have compiled a 31-41 record, substantially better than the 17-50 mark recorded in the six seasons prior to his arrival. He welcomes the return of QB Corey Leonard, 22-13 as a starter, along with 45 other lettermen from a team that led the SBC in team defense last year. Along with star RB Reggie Arnold (1,000 rushing yards each of the last two years) and SR OL Matt Mandich, a 6’3” 305 lb three-time all SBC lineman who has started every game of his career, the Hawks should post a winning season for the first time since 1995. With four of their first six games at home, we like their chances.

PLAY ON: vs. Southern Mississippi (9/13)

FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Team Theme – HOWIE DOING

Give the man his due. Howie Longname is getting it done, and doing so under adverse conditions. Despite a schedule that found them home only four times last season, the Owls went 8-5 with a bowl win in only their 4th season as a Division 1-A team last year. Now that’s impressive! Schnellenberger built this program from scratch and awaits a new stadium next year. Not that he needs a home field. Life on the road has been good for FAU and the Owls will play six of this season's first eight games away from home. The good news is 55 lettermen are back from last year’s squad, including 6’ 5” JR QB Rusty Smith, MVP of the New Orleans Bowl and SBC Player of the Year. Smith, who has NFL scouts drooling, threw for 3,688 yards and 32 TDs last year. Yeah, they’re doing just fine in Boca these days.

PLAY ON: vs. Louisiana Monroe (10/25) - *KEY if off loss

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL

Team Theme – BABY LOVE

A quick glance at FIU (FIT), and its cross-town rival FAU (FAT), shows many similarities in 2008. FIT and FAT each welcome back 55 lettermen and they both play six of their first eight games of the season on the road. That’s where the comparison stops. The Panthers managed just one win in Mario Cristobal's rookie campaign but they showed dramatic improvement as the season progressed. That’s confirmed with these numbers: FIU averaged 8.8 and allowed 48.8 PPG the first five games, but improved to 21.9 and 37.0 PPG over the final seven games. The Panthers did so behind the 2nd youngest group of players in the land (41 of 67 freshmen and sophomores). In fact, QB Wayne Younger actually outrushed Arkansas’ celebrated RB’s Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in their game against Arkansas! It will be a while before FIT becomes FAT, but the Panthers are getting there, one baby step at a time.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. North Texas (10/4)

LA LAFAYETTE - 7 / 5

Team Theme – HUSTLE AND BUSTLE

For the first time in his tenure with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Rickey Bustle saw his win percentage actually decline last season. That’s if slipping from 6-5 to 6-6 is a steep drop. We know this about Bustle – his teams are well coached and disciplined, having had the fewest penalties in the SUN BELT since 2002. Monroe will open at home in five of their first eight games in 2007 but it’s down the stretch where Bustle hustles. They will be without QB Jerry Babb for the first time in four years so there is a huge void to fill. The feeling here is they will be in synch and looking to climb back up the ladder by season’s end.

PLAY ON: as dog vs. Middle Tennessee St (11/10)

LA LAFAYETTE - *8 / 6

Team Theme – CAGED RAGE

At first glance, last year’s 3-9 effort looked weak. A second glimpse, however, reveals a team that refused to quit. Following five straight losses to open the season, the Ragin’ Cajuns lived up to their nickname in a stirring 3-4 finish, including three season-ending stat victories. Rest assured, head coach Rickey Bustle will utilize that momentum, along with 45 letter winners and 14 returning starters, to build on in 2008. SR QB Michael Desormeaux actually lead the SBC in rushing YPG in conference play. Along with SR RB Tyrell Fenroy, the first SBC player to log three consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons, the running game is on solid ground. A final look inside last year’s ledger shows eight of the nine losses came against bowl-eligible opposition. Not bad for a team forced to play 21 freshmen and 18 sophomores. Yes, the Cajuns are primed to bounce back.

PLAY ON: vs. Louisiana Monroe (10/4)

LA MONROE - *7 / 8

Team Theme – UP IN SMOKE

A David vs. Goliath feel-good story occurred when Louisiana Monroe stunned Alabama, and 4-million dollar a year coach Nick Saban, as 24-point underdogs late last season. It prompted head coach Charlie Weatherbie to draw this analogy: “According to the win, I’m undervalued by 97 percent of what I should be paid,” said Weatherbie, who earns a mere $130,000 as the coach of the Warhawks. “I’m looking forward to being paid what I’m truly owed and living out one of my lifelong dreams: buying a monkey, and then training it to smoke and drink beer.” Our question is: smoke and chug what? Seems Charlie and Jimmy Buffett have a lot in common. That’s the sort of euphoria that comes when your team became bowl-eligible for the first time since jumping to Division 1-A in 1994. Unfortunately, seven road games will likely leave the red-shouldered hawk in despair.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Auburn (8/30)

MID TENNESSEE STATE – 6 / 5

Team Theme – SURROUND SOUND

It is said that you are only as good as the people that surround you. If that’s the case, Rick Stockstill is one first-rate coach. Stockstill and his staff own two Super Bowl rings, three National Championships, fifty-three bowl rings and one hundred forty-two years of coaching experience. That probably explains why the Blue Raiders are a lofty +18 in turnovers in two seasons under Stockstill. Let the other team make mistakes and reap the rewards. That’s the solid philosophy being practiced these days in Murfreesboro. Stockstill is most excited about the return of QB Dwight Dasher, who lived up to his name by leading the team in rushing. Dasher was an honorable mention on the Sporting News all-freshman team. Yes, there’s a lot to like about this team, despite it’s daunting seven game road schedule.

PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Troy (8/28)

NORTH TEXAS - *8 / 6

Team Theme – THE DEFENSE RESTS

As expected, the Eagles nearly doubled their offensive output last season under the command of Todd Dodge and his new four-wide spread offense. What they didn’t count on was a defense collapsing like a cheap lawn chair. When the final dust had settled North Texas slipped from 3-9 to 2-10, despite going 6-6 ‘In The Stats’. A 0-5 start and the worst rush defense in the land put them in a bottomless hole. To put it into perspective, had they not played FIT and FAT (Florida International and Florida Atlantic), they would have coughed up 6.5 Yards Per Rush on the season. Sure, Dodge is excited about the prospects of SO QB Giovanni Vizza but it won’t matter a lick unless they address matters on the other side of the ball. Dodge may be ram tough on the outside but his underbelly is too soft for our liking.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Western Kentucky (11/1)

TROY - 7 / 7

Team Theme – WHERE HAVE ALL THE POWERS GONE?

The team prospectus opens: “Larry Blakeney is a winner. Always has been.” It would be hard to refute those words. In seventeen years at Troy he is 136-68-1. That represents the 3rd best record among all programs over the same span. Blakeney will be looking for a Sun Belt three-peat in 2008 but to do so he’ll need to overcome some serious losses from last season. The Trojans’ top two skill players, QB Omar Haugabook and RB Kenny Cattouse (4,6071 combined total yards of offense last year) are gone. So too is OC Tony Franklin who takes his highly successful spread offense to Auburn. To make matters worse, five of Troy's first six games are on the road. Here’s hoping the prospectus proves prophetic.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Oklahoma State (9/27)

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Re: NCAAFB Conference Previews

WAC Conference betting preview
By MARC LAWRENCE

Did you know, over the last six years, the WAC CONFERENCE has the third best winning percentage in bowl games of any conference in the nation! The WAC has sent 22 teams to postseason games from 2002-07 and those teams won 54.5 percent of their games with a 12-10 record. They also produced the only team (Hawaii) in the nation with a perfect record during the regular season in 2007. No sir, things aren’t as wacky in the in the Conference as you might have imagined.

Here is my take on the WAC CONFERENCE for 2008. Returning starters are listed alongside each team’s name (returning QB’s designated with an *). Enjoy…

WAC

BOISE STATE – 4 / 7


Team Theme – SAME OLD, SAME OLD

The accolades are many - Winningest program this decade (86-16); best record the last 10 years (102-24); best home record the last five years (32-1); 43 consecutive regular season home victories; best conference record since 2002 (46-2). Despite it all the Broncos still don’t get the credit they have earned. Much of that lack of respect, we’re sure, is due to the strength of the conference in which they reside. The WAC in not only a non-BCS league, it is laced with a bevy of cupcakes, rivaled only by the Sun Belt Conference. Still, behind star back Ian Johnson (nation’s top returning RB in four categories, including rushing yards) Boise will claim another conference crown, beg for a BCS bowl bid (just 4-17 vs. BCS opposition since 1996) and likely remain the best team nobody knows. Sometimes, the more things change the more they stay the same.

PLAY ON: vs. Hawaii (10/17)

FRESNO STATE - *8 / 7

Team Theme – THE AAA WAY

Meet the nation’s most underappreciated coach, Pat Hill. With the 10th most wins in the nation since 2001 and 11 victories over BCS teams this decade (the most of any non-BCS school), Hill has never had a losing season in WAC play where his teams are 60-27. The four losses suffered by the Bulldogs last year came at the hands of opponents that were 38-10 combined. He welcomes 10 starters back on offense, including 6-foot-5 SR QB Tom Brandstater, the MVP of last year’s Humanitarian Bowl. Brandstater has increased his yards per pass attempt from 5.8 to 7.9, signaling a breakout year is in the offing in 2008. Hill’s motto - Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. – may get him in trouble on occasion but the fact remains his teams will back down from no one. That’s why his teams have averaged nearly nine wins per season the last nine years.

PLAY ON: vs. UCLA (9/27)

HAWAII – 4 / 5

Team Theme – JUNE BUGGED

Why are there only eleven months on a new calendar in Hawaii? Because June has departed. June Jones, that is. The former head honcho in Honolulu has set sail for SMU, leaving the defending WAC champions to fend for themselves. Also gone is former Heisman-hopeful QB Colt Brennan, and his 31 NCAA records, along with his entire cast of starting wide receivers. That doesn’t leave new head coach Greg McMackin, the former defensive coordinator, much to work with. Sure, 64 returning lettermen hold promise but just nine are back to reclaim starting jobs. The schedulemaker lends a hand, however, as eight opponents with losing records last year dot the schedule. Still, replacing a quarterback that completed over 70 percent of his career passes will be no easy task. Like Jones, Hawaii's fifteen straight conference wins and an eight-game road win skein are soon to be a distant memory.

PLAY ON: as dog vs. Cincinnati (12/6)

IDAHO - *11 / 5

Team Theme – AKEY BREAKY HEART

A 1-1 start last season under new head coach Rob Akey, including a 21-pointspread cover against powerful USC, found the Potato heads in a state of delirium. They woke up three months later in the state of Idaho, sporting a 1-11 mark for the year. The 2008 season holds possibilities, though, with a bumper crop of talent returning, including all 11 starters from an offense that improved 40 YPG last season. Most promising is SO RB Deonte Jackson, who averaged 98 RPG before suffering a high ankle injury that limited his playing time. Jackson was the No. 4 freshman RB in the nation in 2007. With nine of their first ten games, including the first six, against teams who had losing records last season, look for the Spuds to sprout early and often in 2008.

PLAY ON: vs. Utah State (9/20)

LOUISIANA TECH – 8 / 5

Team Theme – A D T E T

When the Bulldogs hired Derek Dooley last year little did they realize he was not only going to motivate this team but the entire athletic department as well. His mantra – Attitude, Discipline, Toughness, Effort and Team – paid huge dividends in his rookie season when La Tech improved from 3-10 to 5-7. More importantly, the numbers increased on both sides of the ball. As a result, Dooley is now the only Division 1-A combination coach and athletic director. He’ll know better than to schedule a bevy of bowl teams down the road like his successor Jack Bicknell did (38 bowl opponents in his final eight years). He’ll also rely heavily on SR RB Patrick Johnson who needs 1,170 rush yards to become the Bulldogs’ all-time rush leader. With six of the final seven opponents sporting losing records in 2007, look for the Dogs to be barking by season’s end.

PLAY AGAINST: vs. Kansas (9/6)

NEVADA - *8 / 4

Team Theme – THE RED-FACED WOLF

In the wolf world the only species more dangerous on the North American continent than the gray wolf is the little-known red wolf. He’s been known to turn vicious when put into uncomfortable surroundings. Nevada’s Wolf Pack may not be Red Wolves but, after being shutout for the first time in 329 games in the New Mexico bowl last year, they are certainly red-faced. The humiliating loss left them at 6-7 for the season, which sets the table for a few milk bones in 2008. That’s because teams who lost a bowl game to conclude a 6-7 season tend to howl as puppies the following season, especially at home (11-2-1 ATS, according to the 2008 BLACK BOOK™). With eight starters back on offense, including SO QB Colin Kaepernick (WAC Freshman of the Year) and JR RB Luke Lippincott (18 TDs led the WAC in ’07), look for Nevada to pack a bite in ’08.

PLAY ON: vs. as dog vs. Boise State (11/22)

NEW MEXICO STATE - *7 / 6

Team Theme – TOP GUN

There is no denying the fact that Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid Offense” took Kentucky and SE Louisiana to new heights. With only eight wins in three seasons with the Aggies, Mumme will be locking in on the arm of 6-foot-5 SR QB Chase Holbrook this season. And why not, when you have a fighter pilot that has tossed 60 TDs while completing 70.4 percent of his career passes (best among all active QBs). With seven other starters back on the attack side, Holbrook likes his chances to at least duplicate the production of the unit that finished 3rd in the nation in total offense in 2006. Just as important is the addition of new DC Joe Lee Dunn, a mainstay with Arkansas, Memphis, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Look for the Aggies to be on target in ’08.

PLAY ON: vs. Nevada (10/11)

SAN JOSE STATE – 6 /6

Team Theme - DNA

Dick Tomey’s pawprint is all over this team. Tomey works to limit his team's mistakes in hopes that the other team will beat itself. Hence, the Spartans were the least penalized team in the conference last year and have ranked in the Top 15 nationally in turnover margin the last two years. Just as important, SJSU has won 12 of its last 14 home games with only USC owning a better record in the state of California over the same span. After being denied back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 15 years, the Spartans are primed to return to their winning ways behind WRs Kevin Jurovich and David Richmond who combined for 140 receptions last year. Don’t bet against the Tominator. He’ll be back.

PLAY ON: vs. Fresno State (11/21)

UTAH STATE – 6 / 9

Team Theme – OUR GUY

Like Mike Sanford at UNLV, Brent Guy should be living life on the edge. His 6-29 record at USU would rattle even the most staid AD, but it doesn't seem to bother Aggie boss Scott Barnes. Barnes said, "Brent Guy's status is not open for debate. We have our guy - Brent Guy". It’s been 12 years since the program last finished above .500 and for all intents and purposes 13 looks like it’s on the burner. The Aggies, who face seven teams that went to a bowl game last season, played 48 freshmen the last three seasons (22 last year) and return their top four tacklers for the second year in a row. If they can learn to finish games they might have a chance to shake the haunting fear of triskaidekaphobia.

PASS

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