John Roberts College Football

Friday, August 12, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the Independents

The wonderful world of being an independent has two members that were not independent last year. Notre Dame, Navy, Army, and Temple are the lone independents now. It is clear that it is a dying breed. However, three of the nation's most tradition rich programs are independents (Notre Dame, Navy and Army). Temple is just stopping over until they join the MAC next year. The Independents are worth paying attention to, and play a lot of fun games.

1. Notre Dame (6-5)- The first year under Charlie Weiss has potential to be a great year for the Irish. Quarterback Brady Quinn looks like he is prepared to have a breakout year. The offensive line returns completely intact. Darius Walker ran for almost 800 yards a year ago as a freshman and this year will be given the starting role. Rhema McKnight, Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija lead a talented group of receivers and Athony Fasano is a top flight tight end. In other words, this offense has potential to be a monster. Derek Landri returns as the team's lone returning defensive lineman. He had an excellent season last year and Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws both are expected to have breakout seasons this year. Brandon Hoyte is the lone returning starter at linebacker. He has the makings of a standout linebacker. Corey Mays also is expected to have a big year as a fifth year senior. Tom Zbikowski is the only returning starter in the secondary. Mike Richardson has some solid potential that has been unrecognized to this point. For the Irish, nothing comes easy. There are five road games, and four of them will be done by the end of October 1. The road games are against Pittsburgh, Michigan, Washington, Purdue, and Stanford. All of them are teams that could beat the Irish. The home games are against Michigan State, BYU, Navy, Syracuse, and of course the two killers, USC and Tennessee. Six wins may be pushing it for the Irish. But the pieces are in place for a turnaround. If the Irish get off to a 4-1 start in first five games (a possibility), then the home game with USC on October 15 may be the most anticipated game Notre Dame has played since 2002.

2. Navy (6-5)- Coach Paul Johnson must know that he has built a solid foundation at this point. After winning 18 games the last two years, only six starters return, and people still expect the Midshipmen to make a push for a bowl game. Lamar Owens will be the new starting quarterback. He is the key to the triple option offense. The running game will be lead by Adam Ballard, Matt Hall, or Ron Kimbrough at fullback. The slotbacks are Marco Nelso and Trey Hines. Jason Tomlinson is a capable returning wide receiver when the Midshipmen decide to throw it. The offensive line returns just one starter, and that could spell big trouble for the Middies. The defensive line is lead by Jeremy Chase. Chase is good at getting pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers are all new except David Mahoney, who had five sacks a year ago. The secondary appears to be solid with corners Jeremy McGown and Hunter Reddick returning. The schedule presents some winnable games early with home games with Stanford, Air Force and Kent State, and road trips to Rice and Duke, and a neutral site game against Maryland. Those are their first six games, and there is a chance to be 4-2 or better after those games. If they are, Tulane, Temple, and Army remain on the schedule and the Middies should beat all three of those, meaning a winning season will be well within reach.

3. Army (3-8)- The Black Knights have a chance to be much improved this year. The schedule is softer due to the move from C-USA to independent status, and the team is more experienced. Bobby Ross is rubbing off on them, and four games were lost by ten points or less a year ago. Change those to wins, and Army would have been 6-5 a year ago. Zac Dahman is the returning starting quarterback. He is a presence in the pocket. Jacob Murphy and Jeremy Trimble make receiver a strength of the team as well. Carlton Jones ran for over 1000 yards a year ago and Scott Wesley looks to be a more than adequate back up. The defensive line is also a strength of this team. Tommy Ryan, Seth Lotts and Cameron Craig are all very capable of being dominant forces. Craig had four sacks a year ago and is the leader of the defense. The linebackers will be starting three new faces. Carson Shrode is expected to be the leader of the linebackers. The secondary returns three starters. Caleb Campbell and Dhyan Tarver are the two best. The team has a serious chance to win several games this year. Baylor, Connecticut, Central Michigan, Massachusetts, and Arkansas State all come to West Point as potential wins for the Black Knights. The road trips to Akron and Air Force and the date with Navy in Philadelphia are also potential wins. That's eight very winnable games for Army. Can they do that in the end? Maybe, maybe not. The only thing we know for sure is that Ross has them believing that they can win again.

4. Temple (1-10)- Let's just talk about Temple Owls football before we get into the scheduling issues. Mike McGann has started for the Owls in the past, but lost his job in the middle of 2003. Now, he is a senior and all Temple has at quarterback. Tim Brown is the team's returning starter at running back, and Umar Ferguson was a more than adequate back up a year ago. The offensive line has a chance to be a strength with three starters back on the line. The receivers are unproven, but have shown in practices that they have some big play potential. Mike Mendenhall anchors the defensive line. He is the unquestioned leader of the defense. Adam Fichter, Rodney Wormley, and Antwon Burton (who was injured and missed all of last year) are also back on the line. The linebackers are totally unproven and look to be a real weak spot on the defense. Ray Lamb is the leading playmaker in the secondary, where the team has more depth than at any other position. Even if the Owls are improved, this schedule may be one of the tougher ones ever faced by a mid-major program (which is what the Owls are for all practical purposes at this point). They go on the road to face Arizona State, Wisconsin, Bowling Green, Clemson, Virginia, and Navy. They play host to Toledo, Middle Tennessee, Maryland, Miami (FL), and Miami (OH). On that schedule, only Middle Tennessee even looks like it MIGHT be a win. It is a brutal schedule for the Owls. This may help them in the long run as they get experience this year before jumping into the MAC next year. The big question is, how competitive can the Owls be in the MAC? We get a sneak peak at that with Toledo, Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio appearing on the schedule.

ALL INDEPENDENT

Offense
QB Brady Quinn, Notre Dame
RB Darius Walker, Notre Dame
RB Carlton Jones, Army
WR Rhema McKnight, Notre Dame
WR Maurice Stovall, Notre Dame
TE Anthony Fasano, Notre Dame
OL Pete Bier, Army
OL John Gross, Temple
OL Ryan Harris, Notre Dame
OL Bobby Morton, Notre Dame
OL Dan Stevenson, Notre Dame

Defense
DL Mike Mendenhall, Temple
DL Cameron Craig, Army
DL Jeremy Chase, Navy
DL Derek Landri, Notre Dame
LB David Mahoney, Navy
LB Brandon Hoyte, Notre Dame
LB Corey Mays, Notre Dame
DB Hunter Reddick, Navy
DB Tom Zbikowski, Notre Dame
DB Mike Richardson, Notre Dame
DB Jeremy McGown, Navy

Specialists
K D.J. Fitzpatrick, Notre Dame
P D.J. Fitzpatrick, Notre Dame
KR Jeremy McGown, Navy
PR Rhema McKnight, Notre Dame

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the WAC

The wacky WAC has never been stronger at the top of the conference. Both Boise State and Fresno State could contend for BCS bowl bids by season's end. However, the rest of the conference leaves much to be desired. There is not much at the bottom of the conference to help build any national momentum for the conference, which is why Boise State is taking trips to Georgia and Oregon State and hosting Bowling Green out of conference, while Fresno State goes to Oregon and USC while playing host to Toledo. Those are two tough out of conference schedules. If either team goes unbeaten, they will have a shot to crack the BCS thanks to the scheduling they have done.

1. Boise State (10-2, 8-0)- Last year's unbeaten regular season was not without its challenges. Surviving BYU, Tulsa, and San Jose State was not what BCS folks wanted to see, and this is why the Broncos were on the outside looking in come bowl time. This year's team should be even better. Remember, last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Jared Zabransky is back at quarterback. Zabransky completed 63 percent of his passes for nearly 3000 yards, rushed for 13 touchdowns, threw for 16 more, and threw just two interceptions. The running game will be held down by Lee Marks, who rushed for nearly 1000 yards a year ago. Jon Helmandollar and Brad Lau will also get their hands on the ball a considerable amount of the time. Three offensive lineman return, which should open up enough holes to continue both Zabransky and Marks great play. The receivers are undeveloped at this point, thought Drisan James does return after a season of 40 catches. The defense is always the weak link for the Broncos. The Broncos return three defensive lineman. Alex Guerrero, Andrew Browning, and Mike G. Williams all played very well against the run a year ago. Korey Hall, the linebacker, is the key to the whole defense. He could become a star this year. The secondary, which got burned for 254 yards per game a year ago, good for 99 in the country, returns three starters. Gerald Alexander has the most potential, but has yet to realize it. The schedule opens with trips to Georgia and Oregon State and a home date with Bowling Green. Win 2 out of 3 and the Broncos should be considered one of the Top 25 teams in the country. Win all three and they may be a Top Ten team. The trip to Fresno State on November 12 will not be pleasant, but the Broncos have manhandled the Bulldogs lately, and until that changes, the Broncos have to be considered the favorite.

2. Fresno State (10-2, 7-1)- This has to be the year for the Fresno State Bulldogs. Everything is set up for the taking. Paul Pinegar returns at quarterback. He is experienced and seems to always make the right decision. Bryson Sumlin and Wendell Mathis return at running back. They rushed for over 2000 yards combined last year. Clifton Smith may also make some appearances at running back this year and becoming a dominant force. Joe Fernandez, Adam Jennings, and Jermaine Jamison are all possession receivers, but Paul Williams exploded in the spring game as a potential deep threat. This could open up the offense. Four offensive lineman return which means this offense could improve on their Top Five scoring offense from a year ago. The defense needs to fill some holes on the line. Garrett McIntyre was All WAC last year, but is changing positions to make room for some very talented underclassmen to step in. Marcus Riley, Dwayne Andrews, and Alan Goodwin all are very good players at linebacker. Richard Marshall and Marcus McCauley may be the best cornerback tandem in the conference. The Bulldogs go to Oregon and host Toledo early on and go to Hawaii on October 29. If they win those games, the season is set up perfectly for the Boise State/USC double. An 8-0 start would mean that beating Boise State would be not only for a shot at the WAC title, but possibly a shot at the national title if they could take down USC the next week. Things could be very interesting in Fresno this year.

3. Nevada (7-4, 6-2)- Jeff Rowe will be under center again for the Wolfpack. Actually that is inaccurate. He will be in a pistol formation, just three steps behind center. This junior season could be a breakout season for Rowe. With only one returning starting offensive lineman, he needs to have a few more steps back up center to have more time to throw. Nichiren Flowers and Caleb Spencer both are very talented receivers. Flowers is probably the best receiver in the conference. B.J. Mitchell and Robert Hubbard will be depended on to revitalize the running game. The defense will be lead by J.J. Milan. Craig Bailey and Charles Wilson will also be dynamite forces coming off the defensive line. Linebacker Jeremy Engstrom is coming off of offseason surgery, but if he is back healthy, he is one of the better linebackers in the conference. The secondary has some very solid talent in it, as long as everyone stays healthy. Paul Pratt, Kevin Stanley, and Joey Garcia are all going to have to live up to their potential this year. Nick Hawthorne intercepted five passes a year ago. The season opens nicely enough for Nevada. But the second half is loaded with Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, and Fresno State at home, while going on the road to face Boise State. A split in those four games would be good news for the Wolfpack and probably mean a winning season and a bowl game.

4. Louisiana Tech (4-7, 4-4)- Matt Kubik is the returning starter at quarterback, but Donald Allen is pushing him for time. They will be asked to run a lot of option this year and also to make plays throught the air. Johnathan Holland could be the key to the passing game. He caught just 19 passes a year ago, but had 422 yards. He is speedy and has solid hands and is ready to really start shining. The running game lost Ryan Moats to the NFL, but still should be OK with Freddie Franklin and Mark Dillard. The offensive line returns three starters and should be solid. THe defense must replace all of its defensive linemen. Ladarius Love is the key to the entire defensive line. The linebackers may be the best in the WAC. Byron Santiago is outstanding, and Barry Robertson and Jeremy Hamilton offer a lot of support. The secondary is a big weakness at this point as only Tramon Williams has any starting experience. The schedule does not feature trips to Miami, Tennessee, and Auburn with a home game with Fresno State smashed in between like last year. It does however, still feature tough road games...to Florida and Kansas. This does not even include the trips to Nevada and Fresno State and the home game with Boise State. The Bulldogs will be challenged to come up with a winning record yet again. They need to develop on offense after the loss of Moats and hope that the secondary does not get them beat.

5. Hawaii (5-7, 4-4)- How long was Timmy Chang at Hawaii, 35 years? It may seem that way to the average college football fan, but like after Chang begins this year for the Warriors. The quarterback options are Jack Rolovich, Kainoa Akina, Jeff Rhode, Tyler Graunke, Inoke Funaki, and Colt Brennan. One of these six will emerge to run the Warriors offense. More than likely, they will put up nice numbers. There is no experienced running back on the team either. Nate Ilaoa is the favorite to become the starter, but due to an assortment of injuries has played in just one game since the end of 2002. The receivers are also pretty thin. If Jason Rivers becomes eligible in time, the Hawaii offense will count on him a lot. The offensive line returns four starters, which is the lone bright spot for this normally electrifying offense. The defensive line has a lot of experience and depth. Melila Purcell is the best lineman on the team. Kila Kamakawiwo'ole also has a lot of potential. The linebackers could be lead by four freshman that were recruited to come in immediately and fill a need. Kenny Patton is the corner that this team needs and Leonard Peters had four interceptions a year ago, making the secondary pretty solid. Aloha Stadium is an always tough place to play. Just ask Northwestern and Michigan State, who both went there looking for bowl bids late last year, and both left without bowl bids. The Warriors stole the bowl bid to the Hawaii Bowl and promptly dispatched of UAB. Their struggles on the mainland are well documented, but USC, Fresno State, Boise State, and Wisconsin all come to Aloha Stadium this year. It is likely that at least one will leave an upset victim. Kainoa Akina is the team's leading returning passer (7 completions in 19 attempts for 84 yards and four interceptions with zero touchdowns) and rusher (12 carries, 102 yards, zero touchdowns). Ouch.

6. San Jose State (3-8, 2-6)- Adam Tafralis is the most likely to start at quarterback for the Spartans. He played in nine games as a back up last year and threw for over 400 yards. The good news is that three receivers return who could be among the best in the conference. Rufus Skillern, James Jones, and John Broussard are all solid options are receiver. Lamar Ferguson is the leading returning rusher. He run for just under 150 yards a year ago. The offensive line returns just two starters and must be reshaped. The defense must improve on some numbers- namely being the nation's worst scoring defense from a year ago. They ranked 18 in passing yards allowed per game, but that is deceptive, since most team's only needed to run the ball on them, since they were 116 in rushing defense, allowing 252 yards per game on the ground. The secondary returns virtually in tact. Josh Powell and Brian Nunez make up the safeties on this team and should be very solid. The linebackers are small, but tough. Bobby Godinez needs to step up and become a star this year. The defensive line will probably start three seniors, but is very thin. The seniors Larnell Ransom, Kinji Green, and Justin James all need to step up and have big seasons. The Spartans go to Boise State and Fresno State. They nearly stunned Boise State a year ago, and don't be surprised if there is someone this year that they nearly shock.

7. New Mexico State (2-10, 2-6)- The offense will be lead by either Muammar Ali or David Romaka at quarterback. They played to a dead heat in the spring. The running game will be lead by Muammar Aliu and David Romaka, both of whom have a lot of talent. The receivers return Tim Tolbert and Brandon Allen. But the go-to guy is Paul Dombrowski, the converted quarterback. Three starters return along the offensive line. The defense will need to see some vast improvement on the line. Chase Spicer and Jared Naylor appear to be the most likely to give the help they need. Jimmy Cottrell is a phenomenal linebacker and is looking to lead the Aggies in tackles for the fourth consecutive season. The secondary is lead by Gill Byrd, Shukree Shabazz, and Matt Griebel. They should be a very good unit. The schedule offers six home games for the first time since 1997, and the nation will get a chance to see the Aggies on September 23 in a nationally televised home date with California. Moving from the Sun Belt to the WAC probably does not mean improvement, but with new coach Hal Mumme around, the offense could be exciting and the team could be a potential surprise team for this year, although maybe next year is more likely.

8. Idaho (2-9, 2-6)- Michael Harrington is the returning starting quarterback for the Vandals, but he is being pushed by Steven Wichman. Jayson Byrd and Rolly Lumbala provide an excellent duo in the backfield. They will be helped by the return of five starting offensive linemen. The receivers are the real trouble spot on the offense. Wendell Octave and Desmond Belton both need to explode onto the scene this season. The defense forced 27 turnovers a year ago. There was little pass rush from the defensive line, but the depth is there. Jeff Edwards and Siua Musika are the two players that coach Nick Holt is most hoping will contribute. The secondary provides more questions than answers. Dan Dykes is the lone returning starter and the secondary needs to find several other pieces to help out or else many teams will exploit their passing defense. The linebackers are one of the more solid units on the team. Cole Snyder and Mike Anderson are two of the better linebackers in the conference. Avoiding the conference basement has to be the goal for the Vandals, who are into baby steps right now. They were 0-3 last year against current WAC members (Boise State, Hawaii, Utah State), and got beat by an average of 43.7-11.7.

9. Utah State (2-10, 1-7)- Eric Sobolewski and Leon Jackson III are battling it out for the starting quarterback job for the Aggies. They will not be aided much by the running game, which returns Beau Herbert and Marcus Crawford from injury and Chris Forbes from a decent freshman season. Wide receivers Kevin Robinson and Tony Pennyman are both excellent returning threats that caught a combined 87 passes for 1200 yards a year ago. The offensive line returns just two starters, but the starting five should be experienced. The back-ups, on the other hand, are not. The defense will be lead by an experienced front seven. John Chick and Michael Gates are both very talented pass rushers. The linebackers only return one starter (Nate Frederick) but they return plenty of depth. The secondary is solid in the starters, but lacks any true back ups. Cornelius Lamb has a chance to really be something special for the Aggies secondary. The schedule opens with Nicholls State, but after that there is no game on the schedule that the Aggies should feel too confident in. They should pull off one upset along the way, but it would be a surprise if they were favored the rest of the season after the first game.

ALL WAC

Offense
QB Jared Zabransky, Boise State
RB Lee Marsk, Boise State
RB Bryson Sumlin, Fresno State
WR Nichiren Flowers, Nevada
WR Drisan James, Boise State
TE Derek Schouman, Boise State
OL Dartangon Shack, Fresno State
OL Kyle Young, Fresno State
OL Daryn Colledge, Boise State
OL Aaron Lips, Louisiana Tech
OL Nick Cole, New Mexico State

Defense
DL Melila Purcell, Hawaii
DL Alex Guerrero, Boise State
DL Garrett McIntyre, Fresno State
DL J.J. Milan, Nevada
LB Jeremy Engstrom, Nevada
LB Byron Santiago, Louisiana Tech
LB Jimmy Cottrell, New Mexico State
DB Richard Marshall, Fresno State
DB Marcus McCauley, Fresno State
DB Leonard Peters, Hawaii
DB Josh Powell, San Jose State

Specialists
K Jarrod Jakubiak, Utah State
P Kyle Stringer, Boise State
KR John Broussard, San Jose State
PR Kevin Robinson, Utah State

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the Pac Ten

USC has won back-to-back national titles (according to the AP Poll) and is considered the strong favorite to win a third consecutive title this year. The rest of the Pac Ten has taken a beating because of this. It is popular opinion that USC plays nobody each and every year as they run through their schedule and their weak conference to the national championship game. If you were not paying attention, you would think that USC plays a schedule full of Cal Poly and Tennessee-Chattanooga rather than teams like Washington, California, and Arizona State. While the Pac Ten may not be the best conference in the world, it is a conference that is far more than just USC.

1. USC (11-1, 7-1)- The Trojans start with Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at quarterback. The difference between last year and this year is that this year Leinart will actually have experienced receivers to throw the football to. Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are now experienced and one of the better pass catching duos in the country. The offensive line returns four starters and should once again be solid. Throw in that Reggie Bush might be the starting tailback this year and there is little room to believe that this offense is not one of the tops in the country. LenDale White (last year's starting tailback) also returns and should see plenty of playing time. They did lose offensive coordinator Norm Chow, but that may not make much of a difference with all the talent on this offense. The defensive line returns just two starters and even lost back up Manuel Wright to the NFL Supplemental Draft. That makes it questionable whether or not the Trojans will be successful stopping the run this year. The linebackers also lost two All Americans, but with players like Keith Rivers ready to step in, things still look pretty bright. The secondary, which was the weakest spot in the defense a year ago, returns two starters, including Darnell Bing, a big strong safety. The Trojans have to play five of their first seven games on the road with trips to Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Washington and a trip to California in November. Home dates include Arkansas, Fresno State, and UCLA. That schedule looks like their should be one slip up somewhere along the way, but one slip up may get them back to the national championship game.

2. UCLA (9-2, 6-2)- The Bruins played very well against USC last year, but followed that up with a whimper against Wyoming in their bowl loss. That was a microcosm of the Bruins season. Their wild inconsistency should improve this year. Drew Olson returns at quarterback, but he will be pushed hard by Ben Olson (no relation), a former #1 recruit who went to BYU and hasn't played football in three years. Maurice Drew is one of the more underrated running backs in the country. He is speedy. Chris Markey provides very valuable depth at that position. Marcedes Lewis is one of the better tight ends in the conference. Junior Taylor is the team's leading returning receiver, and Marcus Everett and Joe Cowan both are up and coming stars. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a solid group. The defensive line should be vastly improved over a year ago because of experience. With three starting defensive linemen returning, lead by Kevin Brown and Justin Hickman. The linebackers are lead by the excellent duo of Justin London and Spencer Havner. The secondary is very deep for the Bruins. They should be one of the better units for the defense. Last year, the Bruins defense ranked 106 in total defense. If they are to get into the Pac Ten title chase, that must improve. The Bruins will be on display on September 17 when they host Oklahoma. They also get California, Orgeon State, and Arizona State at home. The toughest road trip of the year is at USC on December 3, but no other road game looks too tough. This is a team that has a nice schedule and plenty of experience and could be one of the real surprises this year in college football. If they are not, Karl Dorrell might want to start looking for another job.

3. Arizona State (9-2, 6-2)- The key to the Sun Devils season could be the continued development of quarterback Sam Keller. He shined in the come from behind win over Purdue in the Sun Bowl. He was subbing for the injured Andrew Walter, who has since graduated. If Keller continues to shine, the Sun Devils could be explosive. Terry Richardson, Derek Hagan, and Moey Mutz are all excellent receivers. Plus, the offensive line returns four starters and should give Keller plenty of time to throw. The question is if they can find a running game. Loren Wade, the former number one running back, was charged with first degree murder in the spring, so the job is falling to Rudy Burgess and possibly Randy Hill. The defense will be lead by two senior linebackers, Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson. They are both solid. The defense is lead by Emmanuel Franklin at safety, and R.J. Oliver, coming off of a medical redshirt, at corner. The defensive line is a real weak spot. There is not much depth and only two real good players on the line. Kyle Caldwell and Jordan Hill each recorded seven sacks a year ago. The trip to LSU on September 10 should be very interesting. The trip to Oregon State on September 24 and the home dates with USC (October 1) and Oregon (October 8) could decide the fate of the Pac Ten season. A November 12 date at UCLA is also huge. The fact is, other than on the defensive line and at running back, this team looks loaded. Remember the last time a two time defending national champion came into Tempe? It was Nebraska in 1996, and they left with a 19-0 loss and the Sun Devils went on to go undefeated in the regular season and narrowly lost the Rose Bowl that, if they had won, would have given them the national title. Are Sun Devil fans in for another ride like that one?

4. Oregon (6-5, 4-4)- The Ducks returns some of the best talent at the skill positions in the conference (outside of USC, of course). Kellen Clemens has proven that he is a solid quarterback. Demetrius Williams has shown off his speed and pass catching ability at receiver. Tim Day has shown how solid of a tight end he is. Terrence Whitehead has been an explosive runner. Jonathan Stewart may push Whitehead for starting time. The line is the real question mark. Only two starters return on the line, and the other three spots could be filled with freshman or junior college transfers. This could be an ugly line. The defense is lead by the defensive line that features Devan Long and Haloti Ngata. Long does a superb job of getting to the quarterback (7.5 sacks a year ago) and Ngata is run stopper. The secondary is also very deep. J.D. Nelson returns at safety and Aaron Gipson is a shutdown corner. The linebackers are the lone weak spot. Anthony Trucks has plenty of experience and will be called on to lead the linebacking unit. The Ducks are always tough in Autzen. They need to be this year with Fresno State, USC, California, and Oregon State all coming in. A couple of years a top rated Michigan team came into Autzen and left with a loss that cemented the Ducks home field advantage as one of the better ones in the country. Of course, last year, home losses to Indiana, Arizona State, and UCLA hurt that image. This team has the potential to pull off an upset at home over USC on September 24 and get into Pac Ten title contention, but they also could lay an egg and have a losing record this season. The Ducks are one of the more intriguing teams in the Pac Ten.

5. California (7-4, 4-4)- The Bears have proven that they can play at a top level despite their bowl loss a year ago. The quarterback situation could prove interesting, but Coach Jeff Tedford has proven that he can mold young quarterbacks. Joseph Ayoob is a junior college transfer, but has a big arm and should put up huge numbers in Tedford's system. Robert Jordan is the only returning receiver with any experience. He caught 29 passes a year ago. Marshawn Lynch is the team's top running back. He was only a freshman a year ago, but showed signs of brilliance a year ago when he averaged 8.8 yard per carry on 71 carries. The offensive line returns four starters, including two first team All-Pac Ten selections from a year ago in Marvin Philip and Ryan O'Callaghan. The defense was decimated by graduation. The line could be lead by junior college transfer Nu'u Tafisi. Brandon Mebane is the lone returning starter on the line. The linebackers are looking for able bodies to fill in in key places. Ryan Foltz is the leading returning linebacker. Junior college All-Americans Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel could be the key to the linebacking unit. The secondary is the deepest position on the defense. Donnie McCleskey was an All-Pac Ten selection two years ago before an injury sidelined him last year. Harrison Smith and Daymeion Hughes, along with back up Tim Mixon, provide a capable core of cornerbacks. The schedule opens up with Sacramento State, at Washington, Illinois, at New Mexico State, and Arizona, which should be five easy wins for the Bears. The junior college transfers will have their feet wet. Then the Bears must go to UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford over the second half of the year, plus host USC, Oregon State, and Washington State. Not an easy finish. But if the talent develops early in the year and the confidence gets rolling, there is no reason to believe that this team can't do big things...maybe even bigger than they did last year.

6. Oregon State (7-4, 4-4)- The quarterback situation could be interesting for the Beavers. Ryan Gunderson and Matt Moore both have some playing time in the Pac Ten and should be able to step in. The loss of Derek Anderson does hurt the Beavers, because he was a good leader and threw for a ton of yards. But, he also threw a lot of costly interceptions. The double edged sword that was Anderson is now gone. The running game ranked dead last (117) in rushing last year. Yvenson Bernard is expected to be the starter. He is the leading returning rusher from a year ago, when he had six carrie for twenty yards. The offensive line may be the strength of the offense, and they may need to be. With three returning starters and a host of talent, the Beavers offensive line looks fairly solid. The receivers are lead by Mike Hass. Anthony Wheat-Brown, Marcel Love, and tight end Joe Newton also have significant playing experience and a ton of big play ability. The defense will be lead by the linebackers, which may be the best overall linebacker unit in the conference. Keith Ellison, Trent Bray, and Chaz Scott are all seniors and all have a load of potential. The secondary will need to get some quick experience, but if they do, Keenan Lewis, Gerard Lawson, Edorian McCullough, and Aaron Miller all have potential to be the shut down corners that Oregon State is known for. Sabby Piscitellihas five interceptions a year ago. The defensive line is fairly solid as well. Ben Sigert and Joe Lemma return on the line, while Alvin Smith and Sir Henry Anderson have gotten enough playing time in the past to be prepared to step up in their senior seasons. The Beavers open the season with Portland State, but then things get tough. Boise State and Arizona State come calling, sandwiching a road game at Louisville. A home date with Washington State is followed by road games against California and UCLA. A 1-6 start is not out of the question. Things then ease up with Arizona, Washington and Stanford, followed by the Civil War at Oregon. How solid is the program? Are they prepared for a major drop off this season? Or are they reloading for another bowl run?

7. Stanford (6-5, 3-5)- The offense is lead by two capable quarterbacks, Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander. Edwards got hurt at the end of last year, opening the door for Ostrander. The offensive line returns five starters, but only one senior. This group has potential to be very solid. Edwards or Ostrander will be protected well, which will give them time to throw the ball to Evan Moore, Mark Bradford, and Justin McCullum. These guys have the potential to become one of the better receiving groups in the conference. The running game will be lead by J.R. Lemon, who continues to show flashes of brilliance, but nothing that can be sustained. The defensive line will start Julian Jenkins, Babatunde Oshinowo, and Casey Carroll, but there is little depth beyond that. The linebackers will be lead by Jon Alston, who recorded 9.5 sacks a year ago. T.J. Rushing and Brandon Harrison return in the secondary. This unit will have a lot to prove after the loss of three seniors. Last year, the Cardinal played USC, Notre Dame, Oregon, Arizona State, and Oregon State all very tight...and lost by a combined 22 points to those five teams. Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, California, and Notre Dame all come to Stanford this year, so new coach Walt Harris will have a chance to prove himself in front of the home crowd. Win the close games, and this team could be looking at a bowl season instead of a losing record.

8. Washington State (5-6, 2-6)- The Cougars need to find the answer at quarterback. Josh Swogger and Alex Brink both started and played significantly last year. Swogger is the current leader to be the starter, but if he doesn't play well or gets hurt again, Brink could step in. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a fairly solid unit. That could give the quarterback time to find Jason Hill, who had over 1000 yards on just 45 catches a year ago. The running game will be lead by Jerome Harrison, who had 900 yards a year ago, including a 247 yard effort against UCLA. The defense will need to get a consistent pass rush this year, which puts the pressure on the defensive line. Mkristo Bruce, Aaron Johnson, Ropati Pitoitua, and Adam Braidwood could give other teams fits on the defensive line. Will Derting returns at linebacker. He's one of the better linebackers in the country and always seems to step up in big games. The secondary is not deep, but Alex Teems and Eric Frampton both return back there. Teems had two interceptions a year ago. The Cougars play a soft out of conference schedule to get themselves ready for road trips to Oregon State, California, and USC in the conference, along with the road trip to Washington for the Apple Cup. The offense is good enough to put a ton of points on the board, but the defense could struggle unless the defensive line develops as anticipated and if Derting can find some help.

9. Arizona (4-7, 2-6)- Richard Kovalcheck took firm control of the starting quarterback spot for the Wildcats when he lead them to a stirring 34-27 win over arch rival Arizona State on the day after Thanksgiving a year ago. The Wildcats hope that trend continues. The offensive line returns three starters, which should help give Kovalcheck time to throw. Syndric Steptoe returns at receiver, and junior college transfer B.J. Vickers could open up the field. That would be good for the running game, which never could get going last year without some serious passing threats. Mike Bell still ran for 950 yards a year ago, and looks prepared for a breakout season this year. The defense needs to improve on its 101 ranking in passing defense. That could start with pressure up front. Marcus Smith and Lionel Dotson will be asked on to step up their game, and junior college transfer Byron Smith could be a key to the team. The linebackers are young and the starters will be determined sometime before the beginning of the season. The secondary is actually a strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return in the secondary. Antoine Carson intercepted four passes a year ago and appears destined for greatness. Coach Mike Stoops believes that Darrell Brooks is one of the best safeties in the whole country. He is the team's leading returning tackler with 73 tackles. The defense is pretty good for the Wildcats, so now the offense needs to step up. If the Arizona State game at the end of last year was any indication, this team could make a huge step forward this year, and possibly even contend for a bowl game. Road trips to Utah, California, Arizona State, and USC are extremely difficult. Home games with Purdue, Oregon, and UCLA mean that a bowl game is really going to have to be earned this year. The Wildcats might still be a year away from truly becoming a serious Top 25 threat. But they're coming.

10. Washington (3-8, 1-7)- It is amazing how far things have fallen at Washington. Tyrone Willingham comes in looking to clean things up. Isaiah Stanback and Johnny DuRocher are the players most likely to start at quarterback, but do not count out Casey Paus. The receivers are not a superb group, but Chris Chambers provides some breakaway speed. The offensive line returns four starters along with Joe Toledo, who is expected to be a monster on the line. This is a real strength for the Huskies. The running game appears to be a strength. Kenny James is the returning starter, but Louis Rankin is a solid back up and could be the starter by the end of the year. James Sims is also a good fullback option. The defensive line could be the key to the team. Manase Hopoi, Mike Mapuolesega, and Greyson Gunheim are all returning starters and all look to improve on last season. Jordan White-Frisbee, a former starter, may be demoted, but adds nice depth to the line. The linebackers feature Evan Benjamin, Scott White, and Joe Lobendahn. These three could be one of the better trios in the conference. The secondary is a weak link, with little to no experience at cornerback. The Huskies should be improved under Willingham. How much is the question. On September 24, Notre Dame comes calling in a nice reunion of Willingham and his old school. A win there, and the Huskies could become one of the surprises of the early season. They also get USC at home, but a win there seems unlikely. The secondary must develop and someone has to step up at quarterback. Until that happens, this team ranks as the worst in the Pac Ten.

ALL PAC TEN

Offense
QB Matt Leinart, USC
RB Reggie Bush, USC
RB Maurice Drew, UCLA
WR Mike Hass, Oregon State
WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC
TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA
OL Ryan O'Callaghan, California
OL Marvin Philip, California
OL Sam Baker, USC
OL Mike McCloskey, UCLA
OL Winston Justice, USC

Defense
DL Manase Hopoi, Washington
DL Haloti Ngata, Oregon
DL Kyle Caldwell, Arizona State
DL Frostee Rucker, USC
LB Will Derting, Washington State
LB Spencer Havner, UCLA
LB Trent Bray, Oregon State
DB Justin Wyatt, USC
DB T.J. Rushing, Stanford
DB Antoine Carson, Arizona
DB Darrell Brooks, Arizona

Specialists
K Alexis Serna, Oregon State
P Tom Malone, USC
KR Marshawn Lynch, California
PR Reggie Bush, USC

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the Sun Belt

The Sun Belt has belonged to North Texas in every year of its football existence. The Mean Green does nothing but wins conference titles and heads to the New Orleans Bowl. With the addition of Florida Atlantic and Florida International, the Sun Belt may get slightly more attention this season, but will still be considered the worst Divsion 1-A conference. If they could only pull off a couple of high profile upsets, then things would get better. Troy's win over Missouri last year was nice. Will this finally be the season that more upsets come?

1. Middle Tennessee (8-3, 6-1)- For the Blue Raiders, Clint Marks is the quarterback and the star. He threw for over 2700 yards a year ago in his first year as a starter. He also completed over 70 percent of his passes. Those sparkling numbers should continue. The offensive line returns three starters and has loads of talent at the other two positions. Chris Wright and Cleannord Saintil are both very solid receivers that give Marks some good targets. The key to the offense will be if the running game starts to produce. Eugene Gross is the returning starter, but he only had 412 yards a year ago. The defense will be lead by the stout defensive line. Jeff Littlejohn and Quinton Staton are two of the best defensive linemen in the conference. Marcel Horne, the team's leading tackler a year ago, returns at linebacker. Dennis Burke, a solid linebacker, also returns. The secondary is young, in particular at the corner spot. Bradley Robinson, Roy Polite and Damon Nickson are all only sophomores. The Raiders get North Texas at home on September 10 in the Sun Belt Game of the Year. They also get Vanderbilt on October 1, a team they have beaten the last two times they have played. Trips to Troy, North Carolina State and Alabama make for a very difficult schedule, but all it takes is beating North Texas and the Sun Belt title starts becoming more realistic. They won all four conference home games a year ago.

2. North Texas (7-4, 6-1)- For the first time in the history of college football, two individual NCAA rushing champs will be in the same backfield. Patrick Cobbs won it in 2003, but went down with a season ending injury very early last year. Jamario Thomas, only a freshman, came in and also won the rushing title. Now, with Cobbs back healthy, both will be running in the backfield. They will be running behind a very inexperienced offensive line. Just three players even won letters a year ago. Dylan Lineberry is the anchor to the line. Joey Byerly is the new starting quarterback. He threw just twelve passes a year ago. He will be throwing the ball to Johnny Quinn, who is a very talented wide receiver. The defensive line will be all new, but Eli Hutchinson has proven himself. The linebackers return all three starters. Brandon Monroe was the team's leading tackler a year ago. T.J. Covington is the only returning starter in the secondary. It also doesn't hurt any that Ja'Mel Branch returns at the other corner spot. He was out a year ago, but returns this year to help out. The Mean Green will be good if the offensive line can protect the quarterback and give Cobbs and Thomas time to run. It would also help if Byerly protected the football. Games at LSU and Kansas State highlight September, but the bigger game is the road date with Middle Tennessee on September 10. A home date with Troy on October 1 means that before this team has developed a lot of experience, they will have already played their two biggest Sun Belt games.

3. Louisiana-Monroe (5-6, 4-3)- The offense of the Indians needs to improve drastically over the 19.2 points per game that they scored a year ago to make any serious noise in the conference race. Steven Jyles returns at quarterback. He ran for 587 yards a year ago and threw for another 2322. He scored twenty total touchdowns. He could have an even bigger junior season. It certainly helps Jyles to have big wide receiver Drouzon Quillen to throw to. He is a 6'6" star who presents huge match up problems for other Sun Belt teams. The offensive line could be starting five sophomores, two of which are returning starters. That could be a real weak spot. The running game will be lead by Mason Denham, the returning starter. However, redshirt freshman Calvin Dawson emerged in the spring. He looks to be the back that best complements Jyles and Quillen and makes the offense a legitimate threat to put 30 points on the board every time out. The defense will be lead by Brandon Guillory on the defensive line. The senior had 5.5 sacks a year ago and looks to improve on those numbers. Jason Schule is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but Josh Alexander has played a lot. Harry Bradley may have passed Alexander on the depth chart this spring. The secondary is young but Chaz Williams is the team's leading returning tackler. Williams, the corner back, has the attitude of a premier defensive back. In 2003, the Indians went 1-11. Last year, they jumped to 5-6 and 4-3 in the Sun Belt. Road trips to Wyoming and Georgia early in the year could hurt the team's confidence, and battling Arkansas in October is not easy either. Road trips to Middle Tennessee and North Texas probably take winning the Sun Belt out of the question, but if they can beat Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette at home, then a third plac finish in the Sun Belt is a possibility.

4. Louisiana-Lafayette (5-6, 4-3)- Jerry Babb has done it all for the Ragin' Cajuns. He is the team's quarterback and also was the team's leading rusher a year ago. He set a school record a year ago for completion percentage (57.9). Bill Sampy is Babb's best target at wide receiver, but his status is still up in the air after a drug arrest this offseason. All other returning receivers caught five passes a year ago. The running game never got rolling last year, and Chester Johnson is the returning starter. However, Abdule Levier, Josh Harrison, and Caleb Rubin all could figure into the equation. The offensive line returns four starters and should be more solid than they were a year ago, when they gave up 23 sacks. The defense needs to show continued improvement, especially against the run, where they ranked 107 in the country a year ago. The secondary is very experienced. Michael Adams will return at corner, and while his height is a handicap, he makes up for it with energy and athleticism. Tyler Norman and Tre Green have potential to be very talented linebackers. They are undersized, but are always playing at full speed. The defensive line returns Anthony Hills as the key player. Marshall Delesdernier and Eugene Kwarteng also return on the line and need to step up in order to get the running defense to improve. The road game at Texas will not be a walk in the park to open the season. Road dates with Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, and Louisiana-Monroe makes this a challenging, but not impossible schedule. This team has potential for a fast 4-1 start if they recover from the Texas loss quickly. A road game at Eastern Michigan is followed by home games with Northwestern State, UCF and Florida Atlantic. It is far from a guarantee, but it would be a very nice start.

5. Troy (5-6, 4-3)- The quarterback position has never been more important for Troy, as they recover from the loss of all-time leading rusher, DeWhitt Betterson. D.T. McDowell started the final six games a year ago. He has a gun of an arm, but is wildly inaccurate, completing just over 40 percent of his passes a year ago. He also is a solid runner and very athletic. Carl Meadows got a long look in the spring, but he is not as athletic and not as good of a running threat. Zarah Yisrael is the only returning starter on the offensive line, but there is depth there for the Trojans. The receivers pose no deep threat, and James Earl Cray is the best returning receiver. He is solid on the short routes, but fails to open up the field. Kenny Cattouse appears to be the player that will be turned to first to try to replace Betterson. The defensive line was the strength of the team a year ago, but not this year. Every starter must be replaced. Torre Lankford must become the leader on the defensive line. Bernard Davis and Leverne Johnson are the best linebacker duo in the Sun Belt. Johnny Faulk developed into one of the Sun Belt's better corners last year, but stands only 5'10", which could be trouble against taller receivers. Sherrod Martin really came into his own last year and should have an even bigger sophomore year at the safety spot. September is an interesting month for the Trojans. They open against Cal Poly, and then host UAB. They will then travel to Missouri and South Carolina, followed by a date at North Texas on October 1. Middle Tennessee comes calling on November 19, and road dates with Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette litter October. The experience level is just not there this year to contend for the conference title, but they should be building for a strong run next year.

6. Florida Atlantic (2-9, 2-5)- Howard Schnellenberger has built another team, and this one may have been his biggest project. Starting from scratch, this team has gone from not existing to being in Division 1-A in less than ten years, which is unheard of. Danny Embick will be the quarterback. He got a lot of experience last year backing up Jared Allen. He should be a solid fit into the offense. The receiving corps were decimated by graduation, but Cortez Gent is expected to make a huge impact as a true freshman. The offensive line returns just two starters, and is due for some major reshuffling. The running game will be lead by B.J. Manley, but another true freshman, Roderick Ferguson, could be the starter by the season's end. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Willie Hughley had six interceptions a year ago at one corner, and Lawrence Gordon had 63 tackles last year. This is a very solid secondary. Shomari Earls leads the inexperienced linebacking unit. Earls is the undoubted team leader. Josh Pinnick is the lone returning starter on the defensive line that needs to develop quickly to hold everything together. The schedule opens with road dates against Kansas and Minnesota and a home date with Oklahoma State. Welcome to Division 1-A! A trip to Louisville follows on October 1. Ouch. This program may take a step back this year, but expect Schnellenberger's program to continue it's ascent over the next several years.

7. Florida International (FIU) (3-8, 1-6)-Josh Padrick is just beginning to come into his own at the quarterback spot for the Golden Panthers. He will be a junior and the offense is starting to make more sense to him. It certainly helps that Cory McKinney and Chandler Williams are out there catching passes. The offensive line returns every single starter, led by Victor Cernius at center. This is a solid group on the line. Of course, the running game has little or no experience. Julian Reams, the redshirt freshman, was very impressive in the spring. This offense has a chance to be very good this year. The defense could not stop the run a year ago, and that has to start changing. Brandon Higdon is the best player on the defensive line. The linebackers return three starters and have junior Keyonvis Bouie to help things out. Bouie has the tools to be the star at linebacker. The secondary will be lead by Nick Turnbull, who is converting from safety to cornerback. He was a preseason Division 1-AA All American a year ago. The schedule opens at Kansas State and at Texas Tech. The schedule is not particularly easy. The defense must step up, but until it does, the offense could outscore a few teams. That means that Texas Tech and Florida International on September 10 could be a fun game with a lot of points.

8. Arkansas State (2-9, 1-6)- The offense has been decimated with losses except in the backfield. The offensive line was not particularly good a year ago, and now only Tanner Jenkins returns to the line. Levi Dejohnette is the biggest returning receiver, with 25 catches a year ago. But no receiver has ever started a game for the Indians. Antonio Warren is the team's best offensive threat at running back. He averaged 5.3 yards per rush a year ago. Nick Noce is a solid quarterback. He threw 16 interceptions a year ago, but if that improves he could become one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt. Myron Anderson and Jamarrow James return to the defensive line to try to shore up the defense against the run. Brian Flagg and Elias Ellis lead a linebacker unit that may be the strength of the defense. The secondary is lead by Tyrell Johnson, who intercepted four passes a year ago. Montis Harrison is the lock down corner that the Indians so desperately need. The Indians open the season against Missouri and at Oklahoma State in two of their first three games. If the offensive line comes together, there is a chance this team could make a run at a winning record. If it doesn't, this team will have to rely on the defense to keep them in football games.

ALL SUN BELT

Offense
QB Clint Marks, Middle Tennessee
RB Patrick Cobbs, North Texas
RB Jamario Thomas, North Texas
WR Johnny Quinn, North Texas
WR Drouzon Quillen, Louisiana-Monroe
TE Stephen Chicola, Middle Tennessee
OL Tanner Jenkins, Arkansas State
OL Justom Ernest, Louisiana-Lafayette
OL Brandon Cox, Louisiana-Lafayette
OL Jason May, North Texas
OL Germayle Franklin, Middle Tennessee

Defense
DL Jeff Littlejohn, Middle Tennessee
DL Brandon Guillory, Louisiana-Monroe
DL Tony Hills, Louisiana-Lafayette
DL Jeremiah Chapman, North Texas
LB Bernard Davis, Troy
LB Leverne Jackson, Troy
LB Shomari Earls, Florida Atlantic
DB Willie Hughley, Florida Atlantic
DB T.J. Covington, North Texas
DB Johnny Faulk, Troy
DB Tyrell Covington, Arkansas State

Specialists
K Colby Smith, Middle Tennessee
P Joel Stelly, Louisiana-Monroe
KR Darren Toney, Arkansas State
PR Leodis McKelvin, Troy

Monday, August 08, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the Big East

It's been a long, strange road for the Big East. The loss of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College (particularly this year) really hurts the Big East. The addition of Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati moderately helps it. Dropping Temple sure does help. With Rutgers apparently ready for a breakout year, Syracuse on their way back up, and Connecticut turning into a pretty good football program, the Big East is on their way to be a very solid conference. Maybe not great, but solid.

1. Louisville (10-1, 7-0)- In the Cardinals first year in the Big East, they look to be the team to beat. Brian Brohm is the new starting quarterback. He played a considerable amount last year, and has the potential to bring a Heisman Trophy to Louisville before he graduates. He is only a sophomore. He had phenomenal receivers to throw to as well. Montrell Jones, Joshua Tinch, and Broderick Clark all are on pace to have sensational seasons. The running game is lead by Michael Bush and Kolby Smith, both of which are tremendous players. Four starters also return along the offensive. In other words, there is no weakness in this offense. The defense, on the other hand, has several questions. Nate Harris is a junior college transfer and should start immediately at linebacker, alongside of Abe Brown and Brandon Johnson. That should make up a solid linebacker unit. Montavius Stanley and Elvis Dumervil are returning on the defensive line. They should help make the defensive stout against the run and also provide pressure on the quarterbacks. William Gay and Rod Council are the expected starters at cornerback. Those two could be shut down corners in the Big East. The safety positions are manned by two brothers, Antoine and Brandon Sharp. They are one of the bigger question marks on the team. With a paper thin schedule that features a road trip to Kentucky and home dates with Oregon State, Florida Atlantic, and North Carolina as their out of conference schedule, big things are possible. Trips to West Virginia and Connecticut and a home date with Pittsburgh on November 3 are the biggest conference games. The out of conference schedule may cause a trip up and there may even be a loss somewhere along the way in the Big East, but it is virtually impossible not to consider this team the favorite in the watered down Big East.

2. West Virginia (7-4, 5-2)- The Mountaineers are one of the more intriguing teams in the Big East this season. Adam Bednarik appears to be the favorite to become the starting quarterback. The wide receivers are all inexperienced. It is unclear who the starters will be. Brandon Myles has the most experience of all of them with six catches last year. The offensive line returns three starters, but the back-ups are very inexperienced. The running game is still loaded, with Jason Colson leading the way. Pernell Williams is a more than adequate back up. The Mountaineers defense looks to be very stout. With six capable lineman to start on the defensive line's front three, this unit looks to be solid. Keilen Dykes is probably the best of the bunch. He's only a sophomore, but appears to be on his way to a solid NFL career. The secondary, despite the loss of Adam "Pac Man" Jones, appears to be deep enough and strong enough to be a real strength again, behind the likes of Alton McCann, Anthony Mims, Mike Lorello, Jahmile Addae, and Erick Wicks. The linebackers are the real weakness. Kevin McLee is probably the most talented linebacker, but there is little depth, and hardly anyone else worth noticing for the position. Jeff Noechel is a returning starter at linebacker as well. The season opens at Syracuse, and is followed shortly by dates at Maryland and at home with Virginia Tech. Smashed in between there is two sure wins over Wofford and East Carolina. A road trip to Rutgers next won't be easy, but after that, things get very interesting. At this point, the offense will have gained some experience, and with five games left, only South Florida and Cincinnati are road games. Louisville and Pittsburgh both come to Morgantown, which gives this team a chance. This is one of the most interesting teams in the Big East. They could come out on top of the conference, or they could finish down towards the bottom of the conference.

3. Pittsburgh (7-4, 4-3)- At the skill positions, the Panthers are set. Tyler Palko is one of the premier quarterbacks in the country. With Greg Lee to throw to, things really are pretty easy for Palko. Joe Delsardo also is a very capable second receiver. The running game was a real weakness a year ago, but Raymond Kirkley, Marcus Furman, and Tim Murphy all have plenty of game experience and could improve, particularly in new coach Dave Wanstedt's system. The offensive line returns three starters, including Charles Spencer, who was All Big East a year ago. Defense is where Wanstedt normally makes his mark, and this team needs that mark. H.B. Blades and Clint Session both are very talented linebackers. They may be one of the better linebacker duos in the country. The secondary is lead by sophomore Darrelle Revis and returns two other starters as well. Of course, they ranked 100th in the country last year in passing defense, so improvement is imperative. The key will be the defensive line. Thomas Smith is the best starter up front. The rest of the line is full of nothing but question marks. This will be the position that defines the Panthers defense, and eventually determine how much success the Panthers have this season. The Panthers open with Notre Dame and visit Nebraska on September 17. In conference road games are Rutgers, Louisville, and West Virginia. Yikes. The schedule is not nice, but this team did make it to a BCS bowl game a year ago. They have a shot to make another run at it.

4. Connecticut (7-4, 4-3)- Not much is expectd from these Huskies this year. After the loss of Dan Orlovsky at quarterback, there is a huge vacancy. Matt Bonislawski, D.J. Hernandez, Billy Cundiff, and Dennis Brown could all compete for the starting quarterback position. Bonislawski and Hernandez are the favorites at this point. The offensive line returns only two starters, and Joe Akers is straight out of high school. But the unit could still be a strength by midseason. Brandon Young is an outstanding talent at receiver, but has struggled to stay healthy. Jason Williams was a solid receiver a year ago. The real talent is at running back, where Cornell Brockington and Terry Caulley both reside. Caulley was leading the nation in rushing when he went down with an injury halway through 2003. Brockington rushed for over 1200 yards last year. This position will be in solid hands regardless of who the starter is. The defense will be lead by the defensive line. There is experience and depth there, though there are no real all stars on the line at this point. This could be good in the end. James Hargrave returns to lead the linebackers. The rest of the linebackers are relatively inexperienced. The secondary is also very inexperienced. Ernest Cole and M.J. Estep both were starters a year ago and both will need to step up their game. Like West Virginia, Connecticut could sink or swim this year. Home dates with Buffalo and Liberty to open the year, and a game at Army on October 1 mean a 3-1 start is a distinct possibility. A home date with Syracuse follows, and that is when we will learn all we need to know about the Huskies. A win, and the Huskies will be looking at a bowl season and maybe contending for the conference crown. A loss, and it could be a long season. They travel to both West Virginia and Pittsburgh, but get Louisville at home on December 3.

5. Syracuse (5-6, 4-3)- The Orange are looking to rebuild under Greg Robinson. This team has talent, but may be a year away from returning to contention in the Big East. The offensive scheme looks like it may take advantage of the speedy surface of the Carrier Dome. Damien Rhodes is a high quality running back that is very speedy. The offensive line returns four starters, meaning Rhodes could have a huge year. The quarterback will be Perry Patterson or Joe Fields, who are both inconsistent. One needs to step up and take control of the job. The receivers are fairly inexperienced. Tim Lane, Landel Bembo, and Quinton Brown all figure to be the main targets, other than tight ened Joe Kowalewski. The defense could be very solid. Kelvin Smith, Kellen Pruitt, and Jerry Mackey are all returning starters at linebacker, but have been reshuffled. James Wyche is the dominant force on the defensive line which returns three starters. The secondary will be lead by Anthony Smith, Tanard Jackson, and potentially Steve Gregory, who was a receiver a year ago. The defense is expected to make huge leaps this season. A home date with Virginia and road dates with Florida State and Notre Dame make this schedule brutally tough. That doesn't include conference road games against Pittsburgh and Louisville. As it was with Connecticut, the game on October 7 with the Huskies is huge. Following the games with Virginia and Florida State, if the Orange can get up and beat the Huskies, a bowl season is a real possibility and maybe something more. A loss, and the team will go back to the drawing board, possibly looking at a 1-4 start.

6. Rutgers (7-4, 3-4)- This year could be special for the Scarlet Knights. If the defense, rushing game, and turnover margin improves from last year, this team might even make a run at the Big East title. Ryan Hart will be the starting quarterback, and he looks poised to have an absolutely monster senior season. Tres Moss is one of the top receivers in the country, Brian Leonard is one of the top running backs in the country if he stays healthy, and Clark Harris is one of the better tight ends. The offensive line returns two starters, anchored by John Glass. The center position is the biggest question mark. The defense has been taken over by head coach Greg Schiano. Ryan Neill and Val Barnaby return to the defensive line, making it a position that could look at a lot of improvement. The linebacker position is as deep as they come, with six players who have started returning. Devraun Thompson is the best linebacker on the team. The secondary is lead by the returns of Joe Porter, Derrick Roberson, and Ron Girault. Girault is the team's leading returning tackler after starting as a true freshman a year ago. If the Scarley Knights can win at Illinois to start the season, then a 3-0 start is very likely. With Pittsburgh and West Virginia coming to New Jersey to open the Big East season, a 5-0 start may be unlikely. But if they are 5-0 on October 9, then they may be in the Big East title chase until they face Louisville on November 11. This may finally be the year to be a Rutgers football fan.

7. South Florida (3-8, 1-6)- The Bulls are known for their home field advantage, but the talent has to be there to provide some sort of advantage. Paul Julmiste appears to finally have a grasp on the offense. Courtney Denson could challenge Julmiste to be the starter at quarterback, as Denson's athleticism plays well into the offense. Johnny Peyton and S.J. Green are the leading returning receivers. Peyton is a deep threat. The offensive line returns just two starters, but also returns John Miller, who has a lot of starting experience. The group could be even better than last year's. The offense revolves around Andre Hall, the running back. He averaged 181 yards per game in the final four games of last season. The defense needs to get stronger on the lines. They could with the return of Tim Jones, Terrence Royal, and Tavarious Robinson. The secondary needs to find a way to come up with more interceptions, after having just four a year ago. D'Juan Brown and Johnnie Jones are the returning seniors to the secondary. The linebackers are the strong suit of the defense. Stephn Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis are the groups two best players. With only three conference home games, things are going to be tough. This is especially true since those home games are against Louisville, West Virginia, and Cincinnati. Florida A&M, UCF, and Cincinnati give the Bulls a chance to win a few games, but a push for a bowl season appears highly unlikely. They played three teams currently in the Big East last year. They went 0-3, getting outscored by an average of 43-15. Ouch.

8. Cincinnati (2-9, 0-7)- The Bearcats picked a bad year to join the Big East. Gino Guidugli is gone as the Bearcats quarterback, and seven QB's are challenging to replace him. None have ever thrown a college pass. Dustin Grutza is the early favorite. The offensive line returns just one starter, but has three seniors on it. The tight end position is manned by Brent Celek, one of the better tight ends in the conference. The receivers are lead b y Earnest Jackson, who has shown a lot of promise. The ground game is the strength of the offense, with Bradley Glatthaar, Butler Benton, and Mike Daniels all in the stable. The defense needs to step it up to help out the inexperienced offense. However, there is just as much inexperience on the defense. Adam Roberts is the defense's best player at defensive end. Anthony Hoke has also shown a lot of potential. The linebackers return no starters or back ups from a year ago. Jon Carpenter has moved from fullback to linebacker to try to brace those losses. JaJuan Hall, Dominic Ross, and Antoine Horton all return in a more experienced secondary. The problem is, no team may ever have to pass on this bunch. Eastern Michigan and Western Carolina are potential wins early in the season. After that, there is not a game that the Bearcats will be favored in. Four conference road games also are not appealing to this group of Bearcats. Next year, things may be better.

ALL BIG EAST
Offense
QB Tyler Palko, Pittsburgh
RB Brian Leonard, Rutgers
RB Damien Rhodes, Syracuse
WR Greg Lee, Pittsburgh
WR Montrell Jones, Louisville
TE Clark Harris, Rutgers
OL John Glass, Rutgers
OL Jason Spitz, Louisville
OL Dan Mozes, West Virginia
OL Charles Spencer, Pittsburgh
OL Steve Franklin, Syracuse

Defense
DL Adam Roberts, Cincinnati
DL Elvis Dumervil, Louisville
DL James Wyche, Syracuse
DL Keilen Dykes, West Virginia
LB H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh
LB Brandon Johnson, Louisville
LB James Hargrave, Connecticut
DB Ron Girault, Rutgers
DB Mike Lorello, West Virginia
DB Anthony Smith, Syracuse
DB Jahmile Addae, West Virginia

Specialists
K Josh Cummings, Pittsburgh
P Adam Graessle, Pittsburgh
KR Marcus Furman, Pittsburgh
PR Montrell Jones, Louisville