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16. Wake Forest (Athlon No. 24, Phil Steele No.27, SI No. NR, ESPN No.22)
Overall: Do you like Wake Forest? Do you like Jim Grobe and the work he has done building this program? (By the way, Grobe has built and not rebuilt, because you have to have previous glory to rebuild)
Of course you like WF and Jim Grobe. You are a college football fan. Wake Forest was mostly a perennial doormat from 1888 to 2006. Then, all of a sudden, the Demon Deacons were in the Orange Bowl. Despite many detractors, Wake managed a perfectly respectable 9-4 last year, including a win over UConn in the Meineke Bowl. Do they have a chance to improve on that record in 2008? Certainly.
Wake Forest returns 6 starters on offense. While the offensive line returns three starters, none of those players started more than 8 games last year and some experts challenge the overall quality of the unit. QB Riley Skinner and RB Josh Adams are easily the two best players on a relatively weak looking offense. Adams has good speed and might be worked in with redshirt freshman Brandon Pendergrass. Skinner is going to be the difference maker this year for this offense. He has decent numbers, including the best completion percentage in the NCAA (72.4 completion percentage, 2,204 yards passing, 12 TDs and 13 INTs). This is a good offense and the staff is fantastic at developing talent. Developing quality wide receivers from good talent and little game experience is another test for offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke. Chip Brinkman is the only returning wide receiver. Overall this is not an offense that would rival many other teams I have written about previously, but should do well in a relatively weak ACC.
Defense is the key for the boys in Winston-Salem this year. The defense returns 9 starters this year (losses at DT and DE). Last year’s defense was ranked 27 in total defense. Improvement here could really cause a stir in the ACC. While the defensive backs struggled against the pass earlier in the year, then Brandon Ghee started at corner and the pass numbers became much better. The turnover margin of plus 9 (18th best in the NCAA) speaks for itself.
Opponents: While credit is due for scheduling 3 out of conference games in BCS conferences, I do not think any reasonable college football fan believes Wake Forest’s schedule to be anything but a cakewalk. Here are the out of conference games: at Baylor, Ole Miss, Navy and Vandy. Here is the stat about these four teams that speaks for itself – the last major bowl between all of them was Alabama’s 1981 thumping of Baylor 30-2. (Yes, Ole Miss went to the Cotton Bowl in 2004, but the bowl has not been prestigious since the SWC collapsed).
Expect victories until Wake’s October 9 date with Clemson. While this will be a great Thursday game, Clemson should take Wake Forest and pound them. Wake’s other loss will come on October 25 at Miami. While Wake has lost to the Hurricanes the last four times, this Miami win will be an upset. A weak ACC should give this team 10 victories, but scorn at the polls because of their loathsome conference affiliation.
17. Arizona State (Athlon No. 15, Phil Steele No.29, SI No.16, ESPN No.15)
Overall: Offensively, the Sun Devils return 6 very talented starters. QB Rudy Carpenter has more starts than any other QB in Division IA (FBS). The numbers he put up last year were equally as provocative - 3202 passing yards, 63 completion percentage, 25 TDs and 10 INTs. In the rest of the backfield, RB Keegan Herring averaged 5.3 yards per gain over 815 yards and RBs Ryan Bass and Dimitri Nance look promising. Chris McGaha and Michael Jones head up one of the better receiving corps in the country.
This is not a BCS-bound offense because of the offensive line. The Sun Devils lose three starters from a line that gave up 55 sacks. Another year like last year and that impressive backfield could have injuries become an impressive sideline.
Defensively, the Sun Devils return 7 starters and fewer glaring weaknesses. DEs Luis Vasquez and Dexter Davis had a combined total of 15 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss. Safety Troy Nolan anchors the defensive secondary. He had 6 INTs last year. Dennis Erickson also signed two JUCO players to bolster his defense against the pass. The linebackers might prove to be the weak link on this year’s team. Overall, this is probably the second or third best defense in the Pac-10.
Opponents: Why not Arizona State? Because of Georgia and USC. Arizona State does not have the talent to hang with the big boys yet. While that may not be true two or three years from now, Dennis Erickson should be dampening any BCS hopes before his fan base begins to expect the (nearly) impossible. I remember last year, and yes, anything can happen. However, I think title-bound Georgia will trounce the Sun Devils in Tempe on September 20 and USC will take their ninth straight win in Los Angeles on October 11. You would have to be a fan to expect a different outcome. On the other hand, I think the Sun Devils lost too much to run the table in the rest of the Pac-10. I think their other loss will come at Arizona where Mike Stoops is furiously trying to save his job. Or it may also be Oregon.
18. Oregon (Athlon No. 19, Phil Steele No.22, SI No.20 ESPN No.21)
Overall: Oregon was the shining example last year of how much of a difference one player can make. Dennis Dixon might have a Heisman (and Oregon might have a crystal football) had his knee not been injured against Arizona State and torn apart against Arizona. I hated seeing Dixon go down and apparently, I was not the only one. The Oregon Ducks were winless from November 3 to December 31. That three loss skid culminated in an embarrassing overtime loss to Oregon State at Autzen Stadium. This year should have lower expectations than last year, but it should be a 9 win regular season, not like last year’s 8 wins.
Offensively, this year’s squad returns 5 starters. While that may seem like a small number, there is quite a bit of talent on the offensive line, especially in Center Max Unger. LaGarrette Blount, a JUCO transfer, had a great look at spring practices and looks to become the next Jonathan Stewart at tailback. The QB question is a little dicer. While Nate Costa is the Dennis Dixon dual threat type of QB, he did not look as good as Justin Roper. Roper is a more traditional QB and he threw 4 TDs in the Sun Bowl against South Florida. The receiving corps is led by Jaison Williams. Williams does not have any competition on the squad for the number one receiver and looks to be the best set of hand for the Ducks, even though some experts believe he is inconsistent. This is one of those rare offenses that does not look very promising on paper but could end up being the best offense in the Pac-10. I would not put money on it, but all the pieces are there.
Defensively, the Ducks have 7 starters returning and a wealth of talent. Returning in the defensive backfield – CBs Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond III and Rover Patrick Chung caused a ton of turnovers last year (like Wake Forest, this team also had a plus 9 turnover margin – 18th best in the country). JUCO transfers should prevent an injury or two from destroying the defensive line and DEs Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu should prevent teams from running the ball down Oregon’s collective throat. Like Arizona State, some weakness at the linebacker positions could keep this team from becoming an elite defense.
Opponents: What is great about Oregon’s schedule is that this young team will have 5 games to settle into a rhythm before they have to take on a big time opponent. Provided Purdue or Boise State does not upset the Ducks (a loss early will devastate the confidence team), Oregon should be undefeated coming into their game with USC on October 4. This could be the surprise team of the year if all of Mike Bellotti’s units come together. I still think they will lose to USC in Los Angeles. I also think Arizona State is the better team of the two this year and will beat Oregon in Tempe three weeks later. Look to the game at Cal or at Oregon State for the Ducks to trip again. There is always next year.
19. Texas (Athlon No. 11, Phil Steele No.15, SI No.13, ESPN No.11)
Overall: Texas’ defense was ranked 109th against the pass last year. 109. Here are a few teams with a similar pass defense numbers last year: Louisiana Tech, Baylor, Syracuse, UTEP, SMU and Rice. Heck, Duke was ranked 82 in pass defense last year and they won one game all season! One starter returns from the secondary. Only 5 starters return on defense at all.
Texas’ run defense, on the other hand, was extraordinary (they were ranked sixth in the country). While 4 of the front 7 return, they could not seem to find a pass rush in the last few years. The entire defense notched just 17 sacks all season last year. Will Muschamp the new defensive coordinator who has had stints with LSU, Miami (Dolphins) and Auburn. While he has an amazing talent with defenses, I think this team is a year away from serious Big 12 title contention.
Colt McCoy leads an offense that returns 7 starters. Colt is a talented QB in a conference with many talented QBs. His numbers speak for themselves - 3,303 yards passing, 65 completion percentage, 22 TDs, 18 INTs, and 678 yards rushing. However, Texas lost its best rusher – Jamaal Charles, its best receiver – Limas Sweed, and its best tight end – Jermichael Finley. The whole offensive line returns. They underachieved last year but experience may change the complexion of this line. Again, this is not the team that will win the Big 12 (or even the Big 12 South) this year.
Opponents: This team should be undefeated until October 4 when they travel to Boulder and face Colorado. While they may beat the Buffs, they are not going to win against Oklahoma the next weekend in Dallas. I also doubt they will beat Missouri in Austin the week after that. While this may be considered calling an upset outside of Austin, Texas Tech should beat Texas in Lubbock on November 1. Will they beat Kansas in Lawrence on November 15? Maybe, maybe not. How about Texas A&M on November 27? Same answer. The Longhorns should lose three, maybe four games in the regular season this year. If pressed, these are the three teams who have the best chance of beating the Longhorns: Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas Tech. Kansas would be the fourth.
This is not the year for this young Longhorns team. At least Colt McCoy is only a junior.
20. USF (Athlon No. 20, Phil Steele No.8, SI No. NR, ESPN No. NR)
Overall: What can you expect from the South Florida Bulls this year? If you know, drop me a line. This team was ranked number 2 in the country on October 17 after beating both Auburn and West Virginia. Then came the losses to Rutgers, Connecticut and Cincinnati. After winning its last three games of the season, USF was blown out of the water by Oregon 56-21 at the Sun Bowl.
This team returns 15 starters, 8 on offense, 7 on defense. Matt Grothe is a dual threat QB that reminds many people of the guy a few hours away in Gainesville. Grothe led the team in rushing for the last two seasons. Here are his stats – 2,670 passing yards, 59 completion percentage, 14 TDs, 14 INTs 1138 yards rushing. Four of those TDs came during his meltdown against Cincinnati. The offensive line returns four good starters and Mike Ford should be a breakout sophomore RB. The receiving corps is truly talented, led by Taurus Johnson.
Defensively, DE George Selvie led the unit last year and had 14.5 sacks (just 2.5 sacks short of the entire Texas defense). Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie is certainly fearsome, leading USF in tackles and heading the best linebacking corps in the Big East. While Carlton Williams and Nate Allen are excellent safeties, the Bulls must replace two all-star cornerbacks who remain the only questions on defense. The team as a whole is small and quick. Big, strong teams may be able to manhandle this defense, especially on the ground.
Opponents: This team is the one I feel least sure about so far. While their first two games are cupcakes, the real test is on September 12 against Kansas in Tampa. This is a close one to call, but for the moment I am giving it to the Jayhawks, who look decent this year. Pitt could also prove to be a problem on October 2. I think many people are overlooking the Panthers this year and they should take USF if they are having a bad day. Realistically, USF could have a bad day and lose to Syracuse or have a good day and beat West Virginia in Morgantown on December 6. Who knows? The Bulls are going to be fun to watch precisely because they are such a boom-or-bust team. I think they will lose three – to Kansas, Pitt and West Virginia. Do not bet money on this team, to win or to lose, unless you want an ulcer or two.
Part 5 should be done... hopefully by Tuesday.
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