Sunday, July 30, 2006

College football preview: Big 12 South


1. Oklahoma Sooners
At 75-16 in his seven years at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops could probably run a successful campaign for governor at this point. I know it’s cliché-ish, but it’s true. Stoops owns this state, and for good reason.

The Sooner Schooner needed a makeover in the late 1990s. The hiring of the immortal John Blake led the Sooners into an unheard-of tailspin. In the five seasons before Stoops’ arrival in 1999, OU had gone a very un-OU-like 23-29-1 overall, and just 14-24 in conference play. Only in the 1994 season did Oklahoma appear in a bowl game. Stoops led the Sooners to a bowl game in his first season, and the program took off from there, appearing in four BCS bowl games, three of them for the national championship. Stoops’ 75-16 overall record is supplemented by a 4-3 record in those seven bowl appearances.

All the accolades aside, the Sooner Schooner sputtered a bit in 2005. OU dropped their home opener to heavy underdog (25 points, to be exact) TCU, got blown out by Texas, and ended up with an uncharacteristic four losses on the season. Don’t expect that to happen again in 2006.

In good shape: Um, running back? I know it’s probably too easy, but I am allowed a few layups during the preview. Adrian Peterson ran behind a poor offensive line, missed two full games with an ankle injury, and still ran for over 1,100 yards and 14 scores. Peterson went for eight touchdowns on 101 carries in the final four Big 12 games, while rushing for around 156 yards per game. With a healthy Peterson back, and four offensive linemen back with starting experience, there’s little doubt that Peterson will have another big season. He’s set a goal of 2,200 yards. That’s attainable, but only if you-know-who gets better.

Needs work: Quarterback. This is all about Rhett Bomar and how much he can develop this year. There were signs of promise a year ago, including 269 yards and two TDs against Baylor, 298 yards against Texas A&M, and an okay performance in the bowl loss to Oregon. But the body of work wasn’t impressive, as Bomar hit just 54 percent of throws while posting a mediocre 10-10 TD-INT ratio. He was only a freshman, and his star offensive talent was hurt for at least part of the season, but Bomar has to get better. With star-in-the-making Malcolm Kelly back at WR, and Peterson back in the backfield, there’s little question that Bomar will be at least in a good position to improve.

Overview: I don’t want to ignore the OU defense, but Bomar and Peterson will drive the Schooner in 2006. With nine starters back, including stud corners Reggie Smith and D.J. Wolfe, and senior linebackers Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer, the defense should be nothing short of outstanding. They have good size, athleticism, and playmaking ability, and they’re exceptionally well-coached by Stoops and co-coordinators Brent Venables and Bobby Jack Wright. The schedule shows a trip to Oregon, a very tough place to play, the annual Texas State Fair game with Texas at the Cotton Bowl, and four road games in five weeks from late October through Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a doozy, but Oklahoma has the goods for another national title run.

2. Texas Longhorns
I may have mentioned this before, but I think it’s a really big deal that Mack Brown got the “HAHAHAHAHA YOU CAN’T WIN THE BIG GAMES!” ape off his back. Even with the roster turnover that you get in college football, it’s nice for the coaching staff that they (along with the aforementioned players) don’t have to hear about it every time they give an interview to a non-Texas-based reporter. The question heading into 2006 changes: How can Mack Brown and his team follow up on the national title?

13 starters return, leaving the Longhorns in good shape. However, two of the departed are do-it-all QB Vince Young and secondary stud Michael Huff. Also missing is Ramonce Taylor, who scored 12 touchdowns last year but has been asked not to return because of off-field issues.

In good shape: Linebacker. Actually, “in good shape” is a gross understatement. When redshirt freshman Rashad Bobino stepped in and made 58 tackles, 7 sacks, and 8 tackles for loss, it only added to a pretty formidable group. Junior Robert Killebrew returns after a strong season, and junior Drew Kelson should be the other starter. Shockingly, Texas has plenty of blue-chip talent here, led by redshirt freshman Roddrick Muckelroy and sophomores Jeremy Campbell and Nic Redwine. There’s plenty of speed and strength here, and the middle of Texas’ defense is certainly in good hands.

Needs work: Quarterback. This is hardly meant as a knock on Colt McCoy, the presumed starter as a redshirt freshman, or on true freshman Jevan Snead, who could be the top backup. Both are great talents who should eventually be very good at Texas. But neither are Vince Young, and despite that, they’ll both have to live with the unending comparisons to the departed star. Young ran for 1,050 yards and still found time to throw for more than 3,000 yards, and he was responsible for 38 touchdowns. Need I remind you what he did in the Rose Bowl? McCoy and Snead could split time at the start of the season, and I promise you that, while neither will do what Young did, both will be better by the end of the season.

Overview: Replacing Huff at corner/safety won’t be easy, but the ‘Horns also have to replace CB Cedric Griffin. Luckily for them, they have senior Michael Griffin back at free safety, and two seniors (Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown) slated to start at cornerback. The secondary should be okay, and the defense in general won’t drop off much from the group that permitted just over 16 points per game last year. It’s the offense that should concern Texas fans. The line loses two All-Big 12 players in Will Allen and Jonathan Scott), Young is gone, and Taylor is also gone from the backfield. Selvin Young is back at running back, along with youngster Jamaal Charles, who was the second-leading rusher as a freshman last year. I think Texas will be in the mix for a national title, but they will have a hard time dealing with tests against Ohio State and Oklahoma in the first half of the season without stumbling at least once.

3. Texas Tech Red Raiders
After being known for his wide-open, take-no-prisoners offensive philosophy, it appears that Mike Leach is starting to understand something very important in the Big 12:

You don’t go anywhere without a defense.

The Red Raiders are on the way to becoming more consistent in this department. They allowed only 18.8 points per game last year, and actually pitched a shutout in Big 12 play (albeit against Baylor). It was the first Big 12 shutout for Tech since 2001. Suddenly, the defense doesn’t appear to be Tech’s biggest issue. In fact, it’s well on its way to becoming a strength.

In good shape: Wide receiver. I wanted to choose the defensive line, but it’s hard to ignore this group. Starters Jarrett Hicks, Robert Johnson, Joel Filani, and Danny Amendola combined for 241 catches last year, along with 25 of the 34 passing touchdowns that Tech recorded. Filani was over 1,000 yards, while Johnson was close. Johnson, Hicks, and Filani made the all-conference team last year. Sophomore Todd Walker also fits into this mix with his 4.25 speed, and sophomore L.A. Reed also should see some action.

Needs work: Believe it or not, the offensive backfield. It’s not a shock that Tech loses a starting quarterback. Cody Hodges did what B.J. Symons, Kliff Kingsbury, and Sonny Cumbie did. He ran the offense well. And he’s moved on. Also gone is star running back Taurean Henderson, who ran for 17 scores and also caught 67 passes out of the backfield. The Red Raiders have to replace both backfield stars this year, and will try to do it with highly-touted sophomore QB Graham Harrell (the first “NFL arm” they’ve had in this system) and sophomore RB Shannon Woods, who made an impact last year returning kicks. For some reason, I’m sure Leach isn’t worried too much about this, but it’s the most glaring question mark on this football team.

Overview: I will ask no questions about the offense, because despite the major losses I already chronicled, I’m not the least bit concerned about their ability to score a ton of points. The defensive line is going to be good, led by hulking DT Ken Scott and speedy DE McKinner Dixon, and the Red Raiders should be able to start three seniors at linebacker. If the secondary can recover from some big losses (safeties Vincent Meeks and Dwayne Slay will be tough to replace), Tech might have their best team under Leach. Leach owns a school record for most wins by a coach in his first six years (48). Expect him to add nine or ten more to that career total by year’s end.

4. Texas A&M Aggies
What has become of the Wrecking Crew defense?

For five straight years from 1997 to 2001, the Aggies allowed fewer than 20 points per game to opposing offenses. At no point during that run did they win fewer than seven games or lose more than five in a season. They won eleven games in 1998.

Since then, things have been tough on the A&M defense. The 4-8 disaster that was 2003 found the Wrecking Crew wrecked, having allowed just short of 40 (!) points per game, including 59 to Texas Tech, 48 to Nebraska, 77 to Oklahoma, 45 to Missouri, and 46 to Texas. Last year, the defense regressed again, allowing over 30 points per game for the second time in three years (they dropped the average to 24 in 2004). So entering 2006, it’s pretty obvious what Texas A&M has to improve if they are to return to the bowl picture.

In good shape: Running back. The Aggies jumped all the way to 235 rushing yards per game last year, and they posted 200 or more yards in eight of eleven games. The key to the running game was a two-headed monster at running back. Courtney Lewis is the starter, but he has had trouble staying healthy, which opened the door last year for Jovorskie Lane, who scored nine touchdowns as a true freshman. Assuming Lewis can stay healthy, he is a 1,000-yard back, and Lane is a great complimentary back. Also a part of the running game will be athletic QB Stephen McGee, who got some time last year when senior Reggie McNeal was banged up. His signature performance came against Texas, when he went over 100 yards and scored twice.

Needs work: Secondary. The Aggies took some shots in 2005, giving up an incredible 305 yards passing per game, while not generating much pass rush or picking off a lot of passes (12 in 11 games). The secondary looks like it could emerge as a strength this year, but only if every starter steps up and plays much better than anyone did a year ago. The key player is probably senior safety Melvin Bullitt. He needs to be more of a factor in the passing game (two picks a year ago), but he’s a good tackler and a strong presence in the secondary. The Aggies get five players back who have started games, and there is a good chance they’ll be improved. That’s not saying much, however, and the coaching staff knows that they have a lot of work to do to round this group into form.

Overview: The Aggies will score plenty of points, as they have basically every year under Dennis Franchione. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not they’ll be able to stop anyone from scoring plenty of points. The Wrecking Crew is missing and needs to return to College Station, or the Aggies won’t return to the bowl season, and Franchione might find himself not returning next season. My guess is that the restless fanbase and alumni will find more reasons to smile in 2006, as an eight-win season wouldn’t be a surprise. McGee looks like a good one, and the running game is very good. Franchione has recruited some talented wideouts, and they should mesh well with McGee. But can the young defensive line and linebackers mask a secondary that just doesn’t look like it’s much improved on paper?

5. Baylor Bears
Let’s see here. Where to start on the history of Baylor in the Big 12?

Heading into 2005, the Bears had been outscored by averages of 35.8, 32.5, 27.5, 34.2, 30.7, and 21.3 in Big 12 games the previous six seasons (HT: Phil Steele). They were a sparkling 6-66 in Big 12 play entering 2005. They had lost 24 straight road games, and 37 straight Big 12 road games, entering 2005.

Last year represented a great improvement for Guy Morriss and his Bears. Baylor won five games, their highest single-season total since 1995. They improved in almost every measurable statistical category.

And now they’re playing the role of copycat. As Blue Ribbon notes, Morriss has brought in new offensive coordinator Lee Hays, late of West Texas A&M, to install a hybrid of the Texas Tech offense, Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid”, and the old BYU system taught by LaVell Edwards. Hays wants to run plenty, but expect Baylor to employ plenty of three- and four-receiver sets.

In good shape: Quarterback. Hopefully, Morriss realizes that Shawn Bell is the best of the bunch. Bell has to improve his consistency, but he’s a good fit for this wide-open attack. He already owns the school record for pass completions in a season (190), and his career completion percentage of almost 60 is also a school record. He doesn’t have a rocket arm, but he probably won’t need it in this offense. He has to be able to make quick decisions and quick throws, and he should excel at both. With top pass-catchers Dominique Zeigler and Trent Shelton back, the Bears should be able to move the ball through the air as long as Bell is healthy.

Needs work: Secondary. Morriss’ toughest task at Baylor is building the depth to a Big 12-caliber level. Because of that, losing safeties like Willie Andrews and Maurice Lane can be a tough blow. Baylor does have some good size at corner, as both C.J. Wilson and Anthony Arline both stand over six feet tall. With good skill at corner, Baylor is halfway to having a good secondary. But unless one of the new safeties steps up, it will be a long year for Baylor’s pass defense, especially in the highly-skilled Big 12.

Overview: In three short years, Morriss has brought the Bears quite a long way. Almost overnight, they went from a true laughingstock in the Big 12 to being a team that could actually win a few games, and one that looks like it may be on the verge of a bowl bid. That bid might have to wait one more year, though. As good a fit as Bell is for this wide-open attack, one has to expect a little bit of period of adjustment to be needed. If the defense can continue its gradual improvement under coordinator Bill Bradley, despite losing eight starters, the Bears might have an outside shot at seven wins, and they do stand a chance of returning to the bowl season for the first time since 1994.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Phil Steele made a really good point in his OSU preview. The 2001 upset of national title contender Oklahoma really started something good for the Cowboy program. Oklahoma State won eight games in 2002, nine in 2003, and seven in 2004. Coach Les Miles left for LSU, though, and OSU never found themselves in a trying 2005 campaign.

New coach Mike Gandy tried to open up the offense, implementing the spread, but he didn’t have the quarterback to do it. The running game was good, but not good enough to carry the offense, which dropped 12 points per game off its 2004 average. The defense also took a hit, allowing more than 30 points per game for the first time in over a decade.

Suddenly, Gandy has a rebuilding project on his hands. And it won’t be an easy one.

In good shape: Running back. Mike Hamilton did eventually emerge as a feature back a year ago, setting an OSU freshman record with over 900 yards rushing (but only one TD). Backup Julius Crosslin accounted for 12 scores in just 71 attempts. Both backs are physical, but Hamilton is more of a home-run threat than Crosslin. JUCO transfer Dantrell Savage adds significant depth to the position. It’s a school that is known for churning out running backs, and OSU will continue the tradition this year, despite the fact that they want to run more of a pass-based offense.

Needs work: Quarterback. You can run the ball out of the spread, but you need to have an efficient quarterback to bring it all together. Sophomore Bobby Reid distinguished himself as the top quarterback a year ago, but that’s like being the skinniest guy in a sumo wrestling tournament. Reid took over full-time for Donovan Woods – who moved to safety and should start there this year – in the third game. Reid ended up losing the job to Al Pena when he injured his foot, but Pena never really did anything to show he was the best fit for the job, throwing 13 interceptions in seven appearances (four starts). Reid should start the season, but look out for redshirt freshman Zac Robinson, who has upside as both a passer and a runner, and ultimately could be the best fit for this attack.

Overview: Gandy needs to find a way to get the offense going. Expect to see Robinson quickly if Reid falters, because Pena just isn’t the right guy to run the spread unless he starts making better decisions. The running game looks good, and D’Juan Woods is back to catch a bunch more passes after nabbing 56 last year. So it really is about the quarterback play here. The defense loses six starters, but still could be improved. The schedule, however, is only favorable until the conference season starts. The “winnable” games against North Division teams (Kansas, K-State) are both on the road, where OSU’s only win last year was against Florida Atlantic. Outside of a visit from Baylor, the home schedule is unbelieveably tough, with visits from Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Six wins is realistic, given the non-conference slate, but only if the defense gets better and Gandy finds a quarterback.

Friday, July 28, 2006

College football preview: Big East


1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Don’t try to tell Rich Rodriguez about the weak Big East.

After all, it was Rodriguez and his Mountaineers who did everything they could to erase that perception in 60 minutes, beating mighty Georgia in a scintillating Sugar Bowl in Atlanta.

Now, Rodriguez has to deal with serious expectations. WVU has been tabbed by many as a national title contender this year, and for good reason: The Mountaineers return all their key offensive players. The spread offense has never looked healthier in Morgantown.

The defensive losses are note-worthy (hang on!), but West Virginia has certainly caught the eye of the nation as they prepare for 2006.

In good shape: Offensive backfield. Sophomore QB Patrick White couldn’t have been better a year ago. Sure, he only threw for 828 yards, but that doesn’t matter very much. The Mountaineers averaged over 270 rush yards per game, thanks in large part to White, who was just 48 yards short of 1,000. Joining him in the backfield is sophomore Steve Slaton, whose freshman year was actually more productive than White’s. Slaton ran for over 1,100 yards and 17 scores, on his way to being named Big East Freshman of the Year. Rodriguez has to avoid the sophomore jinx with both his star offensive players, but WVU can’t complain about having them in the backfield for at least two more years.

Needs work: Secondary. The Mountaineers didn’t have a player the caliber of 2004 star Pacman Jones in their secondary, but they were still very good, taking advantage of a relatively weak group of opposing quarterbacks. However, WVU does lose first-team All-Big East FS Jahmile Addae and second-team CB Anthony Mims. This year, WVU expects to start juniors Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams at corner. Can they continue to slow down opposing offenses at the same rate? It’s a huge question mark, because the defense is relatively undersized in the front four, and it might be tough to consistently stop the run or generate pressure on quarterbacks.

Overview: White and Slaton will drive the offense. If they stay healthy, WVU could approach 300 rushing yards per game, though White’s improvement as a thrower might prevent them from doing that. Brandon Myles and Darius Reynaud both return at wideout, and they should improve on the 64 combined catches and eight TDs from a year ago. If the defense holds up, the Mountaineers have a favorable schedule, and they could make a run at an unbeaten record and a second straight Big East title.

2. Louisville Cardinals
When the Big East had to regroup after the departures of Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College, and most notably, Temple, no one thought it would be able to recover. However, the addition of Louisville, among others, couldn’t have worked out any better in Year One.

The Cardinals play an exciting brand of football. It’s a relentless offensive attack, both on the ground and through the air. Calling it the “spread” isn’t fair, because Bobby Petrino runs a lot of sets that aren’t a part of a “typical” spread offense. It’s a speed-based system, and the Cardinals have plenty of speed.

In short, they’re a great fit for the Big East, and Louisville proved last year that they can hold their own in a BCS conference.

(In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a fan of those who dog the Big East. I think it’s interesting that everyone has already dismissed any chance this league has at being competitive, but I’d argue that their top two is very good, and the depth of this league is only going to improve as teams try to catch up to West Virginia and Louisville.)

In good shape: Um…offense? Yeah, the whole thing. The ringmaster, Brian Brohm, is back from a torn ACL. Before he went down, he managed a decent season, with 2,883 yards passing and 19 TDs (oh yeah, he hit a measly 69 percent of his passes). Hunter Cantwell took over for Brohm and led Louisville to a 1-1 record, so he’s got some experience should Brohm have any complications from the knee this summer. Michael Bush is one of the top running backs in college football. He scored 24 TDs (23 rushing) last year and posted 1,150 rush yards. Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas are the top returning receivers, and Notre Dame transfer Chris Vaughn is a great fit for this offense.

Needs work: Pass rush. Thanks in large part to 20-sack man Elvis Dumervil, the Cardinals posted a whopping 3.7 sacks per game a year ago. With Dumervil gone, along with end Chad Rimpsey and tackle Montavious Stanley, Petrino’s defense staff has the tough task of trying to rebuild a pass rush that is essential to the Cardinals’ success defending the pass. Expect to see at least one freshman starting along the Louisville defensive line, which could spell trouble.

Overview: The offensive line bears watching, as they lost three starters. With Brohm coming off a major knee surgery, it’s very important that they be able to block for Bush so defenses can’t key on the passing attack and try to get after Brohm. If the pass rush is visible, the secondary will be good, especially at safety, where senior Brandon Sharp will roam around and try to decapitate people. All in all, the Cardinals have the horses to challenge West Virginia for the Big East title, and not much separates the two teams. Both should find themselves playing on or after New Year’s Day, and this might even be the year that Louisville knocks off a “big boy” in non-conference play, as Miami visits on September 16.

3. Pittsburgh Panthers
Go ahead. Laugh. I know you want to.

Last year was a hiccup. The 0-3 start was killer, even though two of the teams Pittsburgh lost to (Notre Dame, Nebraska) combined to go 17-7 on the season, and their three Big East losses all came on the road to bowl teams. You just can’t start 0-3. I don’t care how worthless your conference is perceived to be.

This year, Dave Wannstedt will have the Panthers better. I’ll promise you that. Tyler Palko will benefit from an improved running game and better protection in front of him, and the defense will continue to get better as it rounds into form under Wannstedt.

In good shape: Quarterback. Palko certainly could have made more big plays last season, but it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly running for your life. The Panthers overhauled the offense, and Palko had trouble grasping it. Now that he has another offseason of work in, I expect Palko to be more accurate and take even better care of the football. Keep this in mind: Only five of Palko’s nine interceptions last year came in the last nine games of the season. He threw four in two games to start the season off.

Needs work: Running game. I only say this because of the obvious. After all, Pittsburgh has averaged all of 3.2, 2.6, and 3.2 yards per carry over the last three seasons, and they haven’t even averaged 3.5 yards per carry since 2001. That’s some Sun Belt-quality running. Wannstedt expects improvement, and I think he’ll get it. He better get it. Soon. The best chance for improvement this year comes with sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had one 100-yard game as a freshman but was hampered by an ankle injury.

Overview: Even though leading receivers Greg Lee and Erik Gill are gone, Palko should have a better time finding targets this year. Especially enticing are lanky TE Darrell Strong and freshman WR Dorin Dickerson, who could turn into a huge big-play threat as a freshman. LB H.B. Blades, now in his twelfth year at Pitt, leads the defense, which will be plenty physical and has a ton of talent, especially in the secondary, where the Panthers might have the best starting CB tandem in the Big East (Reggie Carter and Darrelle Revis). With four of the first five games at home, and no Notre Dame on the schedule, Pittsburgh should improve significantly off of last year’s 5-6 finish.

4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Yes, that was Rutgers in a bowl game last year.

No, I’m not kidding. Really, you can get off the floor now. It happened.

After four years of near-complete futility in his rebuilding effort, Greg Schiano finally got a richly-deserved payoff in 2005, as the Scarlet Knights won seven games and qualified for the Insight Bowl. Schiano has recruited like a madman at Rutgers, trying to stockpile talent that would make this program a perennial bowl contender.

As Schiano continues to improve the talent level at Rutgers, the Knights will slowly climb the Big East ladder. This season could be difficult, thanks to the departure of record-setting QB Ryan Hart (especially when you consider that new starter Mike Teel threw ten picks in 101 pass attempts while filling in for Hart). But the program is on the rise, and Schiano was rewarded with a seven-year extension on his contract last winter.

In good shape: Running back. Wow. You don’t get much better than the one-two punch of Raymell Rice and Brian Leonard. Rice is a shifty type who went over 1,100 yards as a true freshman, averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per attempt. Leonard is a dual-threat fullback who has the athleticism to make people miss in the open field and the power to run them over if necessary. Leonard ran for over 700 yards and also contributed 55 receptions for over 550 yards, accounting for a team-high 17 touchdowns. His decision to return for his senior season means that Rutgers could end up with one of the top rushing attacks in the conference. Also worth noting is the presence of freshman Kordell Young, who could be good enough to push Rice for playing time.

Needs work: Quarterback. Hart wasn’t ever a consistent playmaker, and he didn’t ever take good care of the ball, so he’s definitely replaceable. But Teel didn’t make a good first impression with his interception-happy performance as a freshman. The talent is there at receiver, with guys like Shawn Tucker, Willie Foster, and talented sophomore Tiquan Underwood. Undoubtedly, the running game will be there, and with two seniors and three juniors along the offensive line, Teel should be well-protected. He’ll have no excuse not to be efficient.

Rutgers needs to shore up their defense. Despite the overall improvement and the bowl berth a year ago, the Knights still allowed 25.6 points per game and permitted opposing quarterbacks to complete 61 percent of their passes. Those numbers were improvements over 2004, and Schiano, who took over as defensive coordinator, deserves some credit for that. But let’s not get too gushy about a team that allowed 679 yards and 33 first downs to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl. Expectations will be especially high for a secondary that includes two senior starters at cornerback (Derrick Roberson and Joe Porter). Despite a tougher schedule and the change at quarterback, the Scarlet Knights should still be good enough to win six or seven games and go bowling again.

5. South Florida Bulls

South Florida’s win totals since 1998. Pretty solid, especially when you consider that the program wasn’t even born until 1997.

Last year marked USF’s first trip to a bowl game. It was a 14-0 loss to North Carolina State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and for the Bulls, it ended a long journey that started in Division I-AA. The next step is to improve on their 6-6 overall record, and the personnel might be in place to make that happen.

Well, it might be…if they can overcome the loss of starting running back Andre Hall, who approached 1,400 yards on the ground and carried an otherwise mediocre offense.

In good shape: Pass defense. The Bulls allowed quarterbacks to hit all of 52 percent of their throws a year ago, a pretty solid number. USF also averaged 3.1 sacks per game, and they return many key pieces, especially in the secondary. Junior CBs Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams combined to start 23 games. Sophomore SS Carlton Williams started all 12 games as a FS last year, but moves to make room for sophomore Danny Verpaele, who missed the 2005 season with a broken foot. Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas also returns, one year after leading the team with 12.5 sacks.

Needs work: Quarterback. Again. Last year, then-junior Pat Julmiste started 11 games and hit just 49 percent of his passes while throwing 11 picks. That won’t work, especially if USF longs to move up the Big East ladder. Coach Jim Leavitt pointed out to Blue Ribbon that Julmiste was the starter when the Bulls beat Louisville and Rutgers last year. What Leavitt conveniently forgot to point out was that Julmiste was a combined 17 of 30 for 230 yards and one interception in those games. Sophomore Carlton Hill could push Julmiste for playing time, but he also is in dire need of work on his throwing accuracy.

Overview: The Bulls have some nice pieces in place. Leavitt likes sophomore RB Ricky Ponton, who takes over for Hall, but no one can possibly expect Ponton to carry the offense like Hall did. I expect junior WR Amarri Jackson to have a very good season if the Bulls can solve the QB situation. As for the defense, it should shine again. USF is a bit undersized along the front, but they are very athletic. The schedule includes non-conference trips to 2005 bowl teams Central Florida and Kansas, along with North Carolina of the ACC. Unless USF gets a quarterback who can be efficient, it will be very difficult for them to win enough games to gain bowl eligibility.

6. Connecticut Huskies
Connecticut completed the transition to Division I-A in 2003, when they reached the full allotment of 85 football scholarships. In 2004, a senior-laden UConn team blasted Toledo 39-10 for the program’s first I-A bowl victory.

A rebuilding year was anticipated last year, and coach Randy Edsall was able to restock some key positions. However, struggles at the quarterback position kept the Huskies from returning to the bowl season, as they lost five of their last six games to finish 5-6.

It’s a young program, but it’s a young program in a BCS conference that has a nice new stadium to play in. The future is definitely bright for Connecticut.

In good shape: Defensive line. The Huskies had to replace four of their top five players from the 2004 team, but the line actually got better. The Huskies averaged 2.5 QB sacks per game and allowed just 3.4 rush yards per carry. Senior DTs Rhema Fuller and Ray Blagman will anchor the run defense, while Edsall and his staff try to find a way to generate more pass rush. Sophomore Cody Brown has tremendous upside as one of the starting ends.

Needs work: Quarterback. When Dan Orlovsky left after the 2004 season, everyone knew it would be a struggle to replace him. It probably wasn’t assumed that things would be this hard. The Huskies used three quarterbacks last year, and the three combined for an ugly 50.8 percent completions for just 149 yards per game. D.J. Hernandez only completed 51 percent in limited duty last year, but he did have six TDs to just one pick. He won the job this spring and will start the opener.

Overview: If Connecticut can solve the quarterback woes that plagued them last year (their passing yardage went from 281 a game with Orlovsky in 2004 to 149 a game last year…that’s bad), they have some nice pieces in place for a bowl run. The schedule, however, is not all that forgiving, with non-conference home dates with bowl candidates Wake Forest, Army, and Navy, along with a trip to improved Indiana, who will probably mention something about the 34-10 waxing UConn put on them in 2003 to open Rentschler Field. The defense looks very good, especially in the secondary, where Edsall has recruited very well (look out for cornerback Darius Butler). However, the questions at QB and a pretty tough schedule will conspire to keep Connecticut from the six wins required for a bowl trip.

7. Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats sat in a pretty good position after eight games last year. In their first Big East season, they were holding up, with a 2-2 conference record (4-4 overall). With two wins in their last three games, the Bearcats would have been bowl-eligible for the fifth time in six seasons – not bad for what had been a “mid-major” program that was trying to make the move up to a BCS league.

Unfortunately for Mark Dantonio and the Bearcats, that was where the roof fell in on them. Cincinnati lost their last three games by an aggregate of 113-25. What had been at least a moderately successful running game fell flat on its face, gaining just 128 yards on 91 attempts, including a ghastly -23 yards against Rutgers. Year Two in the Big East is upon Cincinnati, and they have 17 starters returning for it.

In good shape: Running back. The Bearcats used three different backs last year, with the best of the bunch being junior Bradley Glatthaar. Glathaar totaled just a shade over 600 yards, including a 123-yard effort against Connecticut. He missed spring practice, which gave senior Greg Moore a chance to shine. Moore went for 75 yards in the loss to Louisville, but only totaled 297 yards. Junior Butler Benton is also in the mix after a strong spring.

Needs work: Passing game. For a freshman, QB Dustin Grutza wasn’t bad last year, completing 56 percent of his throws for 11 TDs. But Dantonio and coordinator Don Treadwell are eager for Grutza to take better care of the football (11 picks). The receiver position is in flux. Senior TE Brent Celek is their best target, while junior WR Earnest Jackson has the most upside, but he needs to be a bigger factor in the red zone. Sophomore Dominick Goodman and senior Bill Poland (if healthy) need to step up and provide depth at receiver.

Overview: Cincinnati lost 27 seniors and entered 2005 as one of the least experienced teams in the league. They still had a shot at a bowl game until the disastrous performance down the stretch sunk them to 4-7. The Bearcats will field a very strong defense. After giving up 31 a game last year, the ten returning starters should show massive improvement. UC is especially strong at linebacker, where seven players with starting experience are back. There are still many question marks, however, especially in the passing game and the pass defense. If they can improve in those areas, Cincinnati might sneak towards bowl eligibility.

8. Syracuse Orange
Let’s see. What went right for Syracuse last year?


Um, well, um, well, they beat Buffalo 31-0. Too bad it was the Bulls and not the Bills.

The Orange finished 1-10, the worst record for a Syracuse football team since 1948. The offense was nothing short of embarrassing, and the defense didn’t really come around in coach Greg Robinson’s system, though there were games where they performed admirably, but were simply worn out because the offense couldn’t muster anything better than a three-and-out.

Now, they return just ten total starters (lowest in the Big East), and only four of those are on defense. Robinson told Blue Ribbon that he believes his team was starting to round into form late last season, but unfortunately for them, their last two opponents were Notre Dame and Louisville, meaning it was next-to-impossible to show any real improvement.

Year Two for Robinson will be better than Year One, but that’s not saying much. The Orange still have a long way to go before they can return to bowl contention.

In good shape: Wide receiver? Not much is really “in good shape” in this program. The Orange return WRs Rice Moss (second cousin of some guy named “Randy Moss”) and Tim Lane, and Robinson welcomes (probably with open arms) transfer Taj Smith, who is a crisp route-runner, and will fit in perfectly in the West Coast system. It remains to be seen if Robinson has the quarterback to get these guys the ball, but this position is clearly the best on the football team heading into the season.

Needs work: Secondary. In last year’s disaster, the secondary came the closest to putting together a good season. Opponents, probably too busy picking on Syracuse’s porous run defense, only threw for 186 yards per game. Furthermore, Buffalo, Connecticut, Rutgers, and South Florida all failed to complete half their throws against Syracuse. But the Orange lose safety Anthony Smith, who went in the second round of the NFL Draft, along with starting corner Steve Gregory. Hoping to increase the athleticism at this position, Robinson wants to move QB Joe Fields to free safety. But no one has stepped up to claim Smith’s starting job, and there were too many personnel losses here for Syracuse to overcome quickly.

Overview: Perry Patterson has one more shot as the starting quarterback. After 13 TDs and 21 picks the last two years, he really has nowhere to go but up. He may have to fend off a challenge from redshirt freshman Cameron Dantley or true freshman Andrew Robinson, but it’s hard to imagine either of them being ready to play this season. Unless the defense can hold up heroically while the offense continues to plod along, Syracuse will struggle to win more than three games. Even if the offense comes around, it’s hard to imagine the Orange climbing out of the Big East cellar this year. Hopefully, patience rules the roost, because there should be noticeable improvement this year.

Randomization: 07/28/06

200. It's just the beginning, but I wanted to mention that this is the 200th post on The Ciskie Blog. Yay. Lots more to come.

Landis tests positive. I'm hearing a lot of "Now we can't trust anyone!" laments from media types today.

Why were you trusting these people in the first place? Hasn't enough gone wrong over the years that if you're going to call one guy into question, you have to call pretty much everyone into question?

I think Patrick Reusse said it best on "Garage Logic" yesterday. He said he wasn't going to pass judgment, and he wasn't going to be shocked. I'm willing to buy Landis' explanation until the second test comes back, but I'm not going to react with shock, awe, horror, or any other extreme reaction, because it's simply not that terribly surprising to me.

The sport of cycling should probably not be taken all that seriously. It's incredibly difficult, both from a strength and endurance standpoint, but there have been too many allegations of serious, organized cheating in the sport. Having a champion ripped off the podium may end up being the wake-up call these athletes need to realize that they are really taking their chances when they cheat, but it probably won't do any good.

Poker is not a sport. I don't care. It's still over huge in this country, and ignoring something like the Main Event of the World Series of Poker would be just stupid on my part. Today begins the Main Event, with something like 8,000 or so players expected to take their shot at a grand prize that will likely exceed $10 million.

Congrats to Phil Hellmuth, who won his tenth WSOP bracelet earlier this week. I'm just happy that he was able to keep his head screwed on straight long enough to win one (maybe he learned from Mike Matusow's Main Event final table appearance last year, along with Matusow's win in the Tournament of Champions, where he bested, among others, Hellmuth at the final table).

(Good luck, by the way, to Brian of MGoBlog, a friend of The Ciskie Blog despite his Michigan biases. Brian is on his way to Vegas for his shot at the grand prize.)

Here's hoping Mount Hellmuth makes a token appearance at the Main Event. The best entertainment of last year's Main Event, outside of Matusow's war of words, and almost fisticuffs, with Shawn Sheikhan, was Hellmuth tearing down the players at his table as he slowly made his way toward an early exit.

I don't know if the expanded poker world is ready for Hellmuth to win this whole thing again.

Later today. The Big East football preview should be up later today. I'm putting the finishing touches on it this afternoon, once my real job duties are complete for the week.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I don't normally talk about politics, but...

I found this relatively interesting.

For those who don't know, my "real job" (if anything in radio can be tabbed as a "real job") is as Program Director of two radio stations. One of those stations, WDSM-AM in Duluth, is a talk-radio station that has a lot of political content (we air Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage, along with Imus, among others).

One of the perks of my job is that any e-mail that goes to the address info (at) ends up in my mailbox. As a result, I get a lot of e-mail from publicists, community event organizers, and, unfortunately, politicians.

Among the politicians who are always e-mailing stuff to me (well, to WDSM, but it goes to me) is U.S. Representative Mark Kennedy, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton (insert Dayton-related "How can a vacant seat be vacated?" jokes here). Kennedy seems like a relatively geeky fellow, and he currently trails in the polls to Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar, an attorney from the Twin Cities.

Anyway, Kennedy's communications director, Anne Mason, likes to send e-mail statements to the media. These statements talk about stances Kennedy has taken on certain issues, votes he has cast in Congress, and about bills he is sponsoring, supporting, or not supporting. So far, thankfully, the KennedyMail hasn't included anything attacking his opponent or the ficticious liberal media.

In the subject line for these e-mails, Mason will summarize what the e-mail is about.

"Kennedy Supports Israel's Right to Defend Itself"
"Kennedy Votes to Prohibit Internet Gambling" --> BOOO, by the way, to this bill...completely unnecessary government intervention - something I thought Republicans hated
"Kennedy Celebrates Ten Years of Personal Independence for Millions of Americans"

Stuff like that. Unfortunately for the Kennedy camp, however, some of this stuff is just ridiculous:

"Kennedy Reacts to Terrorist Attack in India"

"We will continue to oppose those who kill innocent civilians in an attempt to plunge the world into darkness."
I'm glad you oppose this, Congressman. I really thought there was a groundswell of support among our elected officials for this type of behavior.

"Kennedy Lauds Positive Economic News"

No kidding. I figured he'd hate the fact that the economy is looking up. Why would you want people to have money??

And my two personal favorites...

"Kennedy Acts to Protect Our Children"
"On the 25th Anniversary of the tragic kidnapping and murder of young Adam Walsh, Congress has sent a clear message that protecting our children from sexual predators remains a top priority."
Seriously? I never would have guessed that anyone would want to do this.

You know what? I'm inspired. I would like to state, for the record, that I am in favor of keeping kids from being sexually assaulted. I'm such a great American!

"Kennedy Supports Protecting Children from Online Predators"
"Parents should have the peace of mind to know that their children, when not under their supervision, will be protected from dangerous sexual predators stalking the Internet."
That's good, because it frees up the parents to have that threesome they've always wanted to try.

You hear that, parents? You don't have to supervise your kid when s/he's surfing the internet. The government is here to protect them from sexual predators.

What's that? You don't feel better and safer?

Good. Neither do I.
In the interest of fairness, and because I don't want to be seen as just picking on poor Congressman Kennedy, here are some fun e-mails from Rob Vernon, who works for the campaign to elect Republican Mark Green as the new governor of Wisconsin. Sadly, I think I'd like to see current Governor Jim Doyle voted out of office, but I'm not sure the GOP got the right guy to run against him. Anyway, enough of my viewpoints.

I love e-mails like these, too, by the way. Why try to be nice like Congressman Kennedy when you can just go for the throat?

"NEWS RELEASE: Jim Doyle's Dirty Campaign Sets New Low"

“Jim Doyle should stop his dirty campaign, and give the people of Wisconsin a campaign based on issues – not negative, false ads. Unfortunately, it looks like Doyle’s campaign is going to be as negative as his four years as governor.”
So in response to an allegedly dirty and negative campaign, I get a dirty and negative e-mail. Thanks, fellas.

"NEWS RELEASE: Dirty Doyle's Campaign Allies Launch Another Untrue Attack Ad"

"The Greater Wisconsin Committee, a shadowy special interestgroup with close ties to Governor Jim Doyle, has launched another false andmisleading television advertisement attacking gubernatorial candidate Mark Green."
"The ad is the exact type of false and misleading advertising that MarkGreen's clean campaign pledge is trying to prevent. Jim Doyle should stop running such a dirty campaign, agree to limit spending, and put the specialinterests on the sidelines where they belong."
Such vitriol. Really, is it necessary to stoop to the level that you accuse Doyle of stooping to? I mean, at least Doyle's camp isn't sending out these stupid e-mails at least once a day.

Really, do you think that this kind of stuff is what the voters want? I know that there are polls that state that voters are more apt to respond to negative advertising, but that's because the only non-negative advertising that ever makes it to TV, radio, or newspaper are the ads where the candidate trots out their spouse and family to show how much s/he loves the family and is all about the family.

And no one wants to watch some random 12-year-old girl try to tell us that Dad would make a good Senator because he drives her to all the soccer and softball games and took her to a concert once just to spend time with her.

(No, I'm not trying to tell you campaigners to stop sending out mass e-mails. I'd rather you did that than stuck some flyer to the knob of my front door or under my windshield wiper. Actually, keep the e-mails coming, because after a long morning of work, it's neat to sit down and get a chuckle or two out of what you think passes as important news.)

I have some important stances, too.

I'm against murder.
I don't like drunk driving.
I am opposed to spousal abuse.
Not a big fan of beating kids.
I am in favor of putting felons in jail.
I think education is important.
I am 100% opposed to terrorists.

Remind me in October that I was already complaining in July. Because even though the Presidency isn't up for grabs, it's going to be a long election season, considering that the pain has already started. Buckle up.

(Oh, and I'm in favor of seat belts, too. Almost forgot about that critical issue.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

College football preview: Big Ten


1. Ohio State Buckeyes
It’s spineless, I know.

It takes no guts to pick a team considered by many to be the preseason #1 to win their league.

But I have to do it.

(Please note, because of an attempt to keep this content reasonably focused and less snarky than most college football content will be this season, the coach normally referred to as “Cheatypants Sweatervest” or “SweaterTressel” will instead be called “Jim Tressel” or “Tressel”. The “tOSU” moniker remains in play.)

The Buckeyes have to rebuild their defense because pretty much all their 2005 starters were picked in the first round of the NFL Draft. However, the offense caught fire last season, and tOSU ended up surpassing 30 points per game for the first time since 1998. Many of the key pieces return, and it’s not like the defense is going to fall off the face of the Earth with the new starters. tOSU is the best shot the Big Ten has at winning a national title.

In good shape: Quarterback. Wouldn’t have guessed one year ago that I would be saying this. As recently as the Penn State game last year, Troy Smith was shaky (13-25 for 139 yards and a pick). The Buckeyes’ signal-caller was in a different league after that, averaging 256 passing yards per game and compiling an impressive 13-2 TD-INT ratio. With Ted Ginn back, along with Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall, the passing game is in good shape.

Needs work: Pick a defensive unit. I’ll go with linebacker. tOSU lost A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Anthony Schlegel to the NFL. Hawk and Carpenter were gone by the 20th overall pick. Those three starting linebackers combined for 252 tackles and 19.5 sacks, and the leadership that they got from Hawk will be very tough to replace. Of the new starters, I really like the new middle linebacker, John Kerr. He’s going to be a steady hand in the middle of that defense.

Overview: With a suddenly lethal offense, the sky is the limit for tOSU. Despite the heavy personnel losses, you almost assume that the defense is going to be really good by midseason, and the Buckeyes have to hope it isn’t bad enough to cost them games early in the season. Smith can throw, Ginn can score from anywhere on the field, and Antonio Pittman can run. If Tressel can get anything whatsoever out of this defense, they’ll find a way to get by Texas and cruise into the game at Iowa, a game that will then decide tOSU’s national title hopes.

2. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan fans are going to hate me for this. I really like this team.

The Wolverines were dangerously close to a sub-.500 season a year ago, when they needed overtime wins over Michigan State and Iowa to qualify for a bowl game. The Wolverines were uncharacteristically sloppy in many areas, as turnovers and dropped passes hurt them appreciably in losses to Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl (no mention of Sun Belt refs necessary, because none of us have forgotten).

The running game was spotty, thanks in large part to Mike Hart and the offensive line being unable to stay healthy. Chad Henne “only” hit 58 percent of his throws, but was victimized by a large number of drops. And Michigan lost their first road game of the season for the sixth consecutive year. To make matters worse, Michigan lost three home games (they had a 16-game home win streak before the Notre Dame loss), and they went to a December bowl game for the first time since 1995.

So, yeah, the heat is on good ol’ Lloyd, but I think he can handle it.

In good shape: Running back. The one positive that came out of the Hart injury issues was that Lloyd Carr and his staff were forced to use other backs, including youngster Kevin Grady, who posted 483 yards rushing in spot duty. Assuming reasonable health on the offensive line (which really didn’t happen last year), and reasonable health among the top two backs, Michigan should be able to run the ball practically at will.

Needs work: Defensive line. It didn’t seem like the Wolverines ever got consistent play up front last year. Now, they have to deal with the loss of massive DT Gabe Watson and three-year starting DE Pat Massey. The interior of the line just won’t be the same without Watson’s talent, even though Watson didn’t always keep himself in good shape. At wide receiver, Michigan must get over the loss of leading pass-catcher Jason Avant, which means that someone among the group of Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston must step up and be the leader at that position.

Overview: Michigan wasn’t Michigan last year. In response, Carr didn’t stand in the way when defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann took a job in the NFL, and he also let offensive coordinator Terry Malone move on. The staff changes might cause a bit of uncertainty as fall camp starts, but the personnel is in place for a strong rebound season in Ann Arbor. Chad Henne is developing into a star, and he has some talented athletes to throw to. The offensive line has to be healthier this year, and the defense looks pretty good if they can adjust to the new coordinator. The Wolverines were incredibly unlucky at times, and they dug their own grave in other situations. It’s hard to imagine Michigan having the same issues two years in a row. The road schedule is tough, but you should remember that Michigan only lost one true road game a year ago. That was really the least of their problems.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes
Remember last year? Purdue had the “OMG EASIEST SCHEDULE IN THE LAND!”. Rebuilding Notre Dame at home. Iowa at home. No Michigan or Ohio State.

What happened? 5-6.

Why am I bringing this Purdue story up in a bit about Iowa?

Because Iowa is this year’s “Overhyped Big Ten Team”. Congratulations, guys.

Now I’m not saying that Iowa is on the way to a 5-7 or 6-6 season. But I am saying that it won’t be as easy as everyone is assuming. The Hawkeyes have a chance to be a very good team this year, but they are going to have to get better in a few areas before they’ll be a legitimate national title contender.

In good shape: Offensive backfield. Just a scant two years ago, Iowa had one of the worst rushing attacks in major college football, averaging just 73 yards per game and 2.0 yards per carry. Thanks to Albert Young, the running game wasn’t a problem last year, and it shouldn’t be this year. Young ran for over 1,300 yards a year ago, and Iowa improved their rushing yards per game by 152. Meanwhile, the passing game is in equally good hands, with senior Drew Tate at the controls. Tate improved his completion percentage, passing yards (they were slight improvements, but improvements nonetheless), and his TD-INT ratio. The undersized signal-caller is a quality leader who understands his role and understands the offense.

Needs work: Wide receiver. Tate is great (Ha!), but the receivers aren’t as proven. Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel have moved on, taking 86 receptions and 14 touchdowns with them. That leaves juniors Herb Grigsby and Eric McCollum, and redshirt freshman Trey Stross to pick up the slack on the outside. Iowa has a solid tight end in Scott Chandler to help ease the transition, but Tate had better hope his new receivers pick things up quickly.

Overview: Iowa thrived off quick starts last year. They outscored their opponents 119-37 in first quarters last year. They were incredibly disciplined, too, only committing 4.3 penalties per game (HT: Blue Ribbon). The Hawkeyes will be well-coached as long as Kirk Ferentz is around. And it appears that they have set themselves up for a run at the Big Ten title. Iowa has Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, and Michigan on the road. They don’t play Penn State, and they also don’t have to deal with Michigan State. However, Iowa still needs to do a better job closing games (they had chances to put away games against Michigan and Northwestern last year but failed), and they have to turn around the -1 turnover ratio they posted last year. I really like this Iowa team, but I like Michigan and Ohio State a little more at this point. If Iowa can beat Ohio State at home in October, they should be in the final mix for a BCS bowl berth.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions
After a run of four losing seasons in five years, it looked like Joe Paterno was writing a very sad script for the end of his coaching career.

Then along came Michael Robinson.

Penn State went from a team that couldn’t run the ball to a team that couldn’t be stopped on the ground. They went from a team that couldn’t score (17.7 PPG in 2004) to a team that couldn’t be stopped (34.4 PPG in 2005!). And the defense was a normal Penn State defense, meaning it was good.

With Robinson gone, the Nittany Lions have to rebuild the offense to a certain extent. If they can do that, they have a shot at another double-digit win total.

In good shape: Linebacker. As usual. It helps to have a guy like Paul Posluszny back. Posluszny was set to turn pro before he injured his knee in the Orange Bowl. Penn State will benefit from his return, as he posted 116 tackles and was first team All-American a year ago. Senior Tim Shaw will man the middle,and junior Dan Connor is back after starting the last seven games at the other outside linebacker spot. It’s a quick unit with great tackling ability, and these guys are no slouches when asked to go back into pass coverage.

Needs work: Secondary. Penn State hasn’t allowed more than 225 pass yards per game since 2001, and they’re probably not going to again this year, but it won’t be easy. Sophomore Justin King mans one corner spot. Fellow sophomore Tony Davis is slotted as the other starter, and both are exceptionally quick and athletic (King filled in a bit at wide receiver last year). Senior strong safety Donnie Johnson is the most experienced player Penn State has back, but he’s a converted corner who lacks experience. Can Penn State make up for lost experience with better athletes?

Overview: It’s hard to imagine Penn State being a top team in the Big Ten again, because Robinson was so valuable to the offense. The coaches are optimistic that Anthony Morelli will do well at quarterback, but he’s not the athlete Robinson was. That will put the burden of the running game on senior Tony Hunt, who topped 1,000 yards last year, but benefited from having Robinson in the backfield with him. I really like sophomore receiver Derrick Williams, and his healthy return will help Morelli’s development. I think Penn State will be good enough to win nine or ten games, and they should contend for a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl.

5. Wisconsin Badgers
Bucky surprised many a year ago when they rode the emotion of Barry Alvarez’ final season to a 5-0 start and a ten-win season. There were many reasons for this, but running back Brian Calhoun’s season was a big part of it (2,200+ total yards). Calhoun turned pro, and new coach Bret Bielema’s most difficult job as a rookie will be trying to replace that production.

The Badgers have a favorable schedule, a senior quarterback coming off a strong season, and a loaded defensive front seven. There is still a strong chance that Wisconsin could manage another ten-win season.

In good shape: Defensive line. This unit was beset by injuries last year, and they now have incredible depth across the line because of all the young guys forced to play last year. Likely to start are sophomore DE Jason Chapman, senior DE Joe Monty, and junior DTs Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski. Sophomore DE Matt Shaughnessy impressed before suffering a knee injury, and junior DE Jamaal Cooper is coming off a torn ACL. That said, the line is deep and talented, and should be the team’s strength this year after being a relative weakness last year.

Needs work: Running back. Who starts? Will it be junior Jamil Walker, who has been inconsistent but has the most experience of anyone at the position? Or will it be redshirt freshman P.J. Hill, who came out of spring drills as the starter? Either way, how can it be expected that they will come anywhere near what Calhoun did? The final question is the most important: What effect will the decrease in production at this position have on John Stocco (Stocco threw 21 TDs and upped his completion percentage over 60 percent last year)?

Overview: There’s talent for Stocco to throw to. Paul Hubbard, Marcus Randle El (if he keeps his nose clean), Jarmal Ruffin, and Jarvis Minton all have a chance to start at wide receiver, and one of them has to emerge quickly as a reliable target for Stocco. The beatdown of Auburn in the Capital One Bowl perked up some ears around the country, and now it’s up to Bielema to lead this team. He has been well-taught over his career as an assistant, having worked for Hayden Fry, Bill Snyder, Kirk Ferentz, and Alvarez over the course of his coaching career. Wisconsin’s defense should be stout once again after an off year, and the Badgers should finish with around eight wins in Bielema’s first season.

6. Purdue Boilermakers
As mentioned in the Iowa preview, last season had so much promise, but it went “SPLAT” in a hurry.

The Boilermakers started 2-0, but then lost a gut-busting OT game to Minnesota. They came home and were blown out by Notre Dame, then lost the remaining two games on their three-game homestand to Iowa and Northwestern. They didn’t win a Big Ten game until they were already assured of being home for the bowl season, and they ended up finishing 5-6 in a season where national title hopes were openly discussed in the summer.

Well, this could be a turnaround year for Joe Tiller’s crew. Purdue has an astounding 30 seniors on the roster, and the experience could go a long way toward getting them back in the bowl picture.

In good shape: Offensive line. Despite the poor record, Purdue’s offensive line was a success story in 2005. The Boilermakers posted an impressive 4.9 rush yards per carry, and the line only allowed nine quarterback sacks in eleven games (six of those nine came in the final three games). Four starters are back, including All-Big Ten RG Jordan Grimes and LT Mike Otto. The line should be very good again, and with the improvement expected out of the quarterback position, Purdue has a dangerous offense in the works.

Needs work: Linebacker. Frankly, the whole defense underperformed last year, and the linebackers were no exception. In order for Purdue’s defense to make more than a marginal improvement, they’ll need a bigger contribution out of the linebackers. Plenty of starting experience returns, but can the coaches get this group to play better? Sophomore outside linebacker Jason Werner is undersized, but very talented, and while he’s not listed as a starter right now, he probably will be one by midseason. Middle linebacker George Hall is the only senior in this group.

Overview: Sophomore QB Curtis Painter is a good athlete who ran the option well late last year, but he still has to improve as a passer. Kory Sheets has great quickness at RB, and 6-9 Kyle Ingraham has one more chance to improve his pass-catching consistency. Junior Dorien Bryant is the best player in that group. Overall, Purdue has the experience and the talent to win eight games or more, provided that Painter gives them more stability under center.

7. Michigan State Spartans
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Drew Stanton. Stanton took over the starting QB duties from the troubled Jeff Smoker, and when Stanton has been healthy, he’s been virtually unstoppable.

Problem…he hasn’t been healthy much.

Stanton struggled with a shoulder injury in 2004, but was able to post over 2,300 total yards. Stanton came off the bench to lead Sparty past Wisconsin in a late-season upset in East Lansing. Last year, it was more of the same. When Stanton was healthy, he was in a different league, posting a 15-3 TD-INT ratio. Then Stanton suffered a hand injury that hampered him the rest of the way. He finished with nine picks in Sparty’s last five games, and Michigan State lost three straight when all they needed was one win to qualify for a bowl game.

At some point, the Spartans will need to improve their consistency, especially on defense, and they need to keep Stanton upright. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin really wants to run Stanton more, but I have to wonder if that’s a good move, considering how fragile he’s proven to be.

In good shape: Running back. Not only is Stanton a great running threat, but the Spartans are loaded with running backs, and John L. Smith and Baldwin know how to use them. True freshman Javon Ringer led the team in rushing last year. He’s joined by Jehuu Caulcrick and redshirt freshman A.J. Jimmerson. Did I mention that Stanton can run, too?

Needs work: Defense. 232 rush yards to Michigan. 533 total yards to Northwestern. 221 rush yards to Purdue. 327 rush yards to Minnesota. Only 19 turnovers forced. Six games allowing 30 or more points (all losses). Hope springs eternal in East Lansing, as the Spartans will start seniors at both defensive tackle positions, both cornerback positions, and at one linebacker position. There’s more experience and depth, but still a host of players who have to prove themselves at this level.

Overview: This is the story of two football teams. Well, three, really. There’s the unstoppable Michigan State Spartans, led by a healthy Drew Stanton and a motivated, playmaking defense. There’s the eminently vulnerable Michigan State Spartans, led by someone other than Drew Stanton and backed by a skiddish defense that can’t stop anyone or anything. And there’s the in-between team, which either has a healthy Stanton or a defense that is flying around the field. If they can get more of the healthy version of Stanton, Sparty can climb up the Big Ten standings. If they don’t, or if the defense does its usual disappearing act, they’ll be lucky to be bowl-eligible.

8. Minnesota Golden Gophers
One of the big storylines for this Gopher team is how they’ll respond to a brand new running back, something they haven’t had since Terry Jackson (remember him?), Marion Barber III, and then Laurence Maroney burst onto the scene. Barber left after the 2004 season, and Maroney followed him out the door after 2005. Also gone is Gary Russell, who led the Gophers with 18 touchdowns in 2005 and joined Maroney over the 1,000 yard mark, marking the third straight year that the Gophers put two backs over 1,000 yards (first time in NCAA history).

Russell is gone because of academic issues, leaving the Gophers with Amir Pinnix (467 yards a year ago) and JUCO transfer Brylee Callender, who led the way in the spring game with 110 yards.

Should be interesting to see how the Gophers operate with a retooled backfield.

In good shape: The passing game, believe it or not. Bryan Cupito wasn’t outstanding as a junior, but he was better. He kicked his completion percentage up close to the 60s, and he had a good 19-9 TD-INT ratio. He put together strong performances in wins over Tulsa, Purdue, and Indiana, and he was good in losses to Ohio State and Virginia. He has plenty of experienced targets, including the Shaq of Big Ten football, Ernie Wheelwright. There might not be a better jump-ball receiver in the league than the 6-5 Wheelwright, who needs to work on his hands and his speed to be a more consistent threat. Senior Logan Payne and tight end Matt Spaeth both return, so Cupito’s numbers might improve again.

Needs work: Defensive line. Ouch. The coaches just can’t get a handle on this whole “run defense” thing. New defensive coordinator David Lockwood was able to make marginal improvements in the secondary, but the front four was still painful to watch at times, and the loss of their best player, DT Anthony Montgomery, won’t help matters much. The Gophers need better play up the middle against the run, or they’re not ever going to get out of the Big Ten’s low-rent bowl district.

Overview: Can the Gophers run the ball like they have? They lose three great linemen up front, and both 1,000-yard rushers. Could Minnesota take to the air to be successful this year? Will it matter if they don’t start stopping opposing offenses? It’s going to be an interesting year for Glen Mason, because there’s a good chance he’ll have to venture from what has been his comfort zone at Minnesota (running the ball) in order to score points. That could lead to some entertaining offensive shootouts involving the Gophers this year, but it probably won’t lead to more than six or seven wins and a minor bowl bid.

9. Indiana Hoosiers
Like Illinois, Indiana has struggled mightily in recent years. Unlike Illinois, who won the Big Ten title in 2001, Indiana has struggled mightily for many years. The Hoosiers haven’t been to a bowl game since 1993’s Independence Bowl loss to Virginia Tech, and their last Rose Bowl appearance came in 1967. Terry Hoeppner took over the program last year, and he was able to energize the fan base and take some steps toward removing the stigma of losing from the program.

For Indiana to continue moving forward and end their bowl drought, they’re going to have to find a way to protect the football better while also stopping the run more consistently.

In good shape: Passing attack. Junior Blake Powers is coming off a season where he set a school record with 22 touchdown passes, and he did a great job adjusting to the more wide-open attack. Powers is only going to become more accurate and more dangerous as he grows into the position, and his future is definitely bright. With the improved talent surrounding him (6-7 WR James Hardy had some offseason legal issues but will hopefully be ready to go, and he is an elite player), Indiana could be on the way to a breakthrough season offensively.

Needs work: Run offense/defense. QB Powers is the team’s leading returning rusher. Unless Indiana switched to the wishbone without telling anyone, that’s a bad thing. Marcus Thigpen moves from receiver to running back, and redshirt freshmen Justin Carrington and Demetrius McCray could push for playing time. The run defense, meanwhile, was horrid a year ago, allowing over 200 yards per game and five yards per carry. The Hoosiers yielded more than 225 yards rushing four times, including a ghastly 408 against I-AA Nicholls State. It might be a good thing that IU loses three starters and gets a chance to start over on the defensive line.

Overview: Powers and Hardy should connect at least 60 times, and now they just have to find a running game to complement the dangerous passing attack. It wouldn’t hurt for Indiana to make a few more plays on defense (they weren’t as bad at this as Illinois was, which you’ll read about in a moment, but IU forced just 17 turnovers and recorded 19 QB sacks last year). Hoeppner still has his work cut out for him, but he catches a break with the schedule this year. The Hoosiers play four of their first five at home, and all four non-conference games are winnable. Indiana stands a decent chance at posting six wins and breaking the bowl drought, but that breakthrough might have to wait until 2007.

10. Illinois Fighting Illini
What a difference a recruiter makes. Ron Zook has restored some pride to the Illinois program, thanks to a crazy infusion of talent over the last couple years. Unlike at Florida, where every decision Zook made during games was scrutinized and beaten to death by the culprits of, Illini fans seem to have embraced their new leader.

Now, Zook has to find a way to improve the results. The Illini were just 2-9 a year ago after a 2-0 start that included a win over a bowl team in Rutgers. The defense allowed nearly 40 points per game, and Illinois was outscored by an average of 44-12 in their eight Big Ten conference losses. There’s no way to go but up, as the old saying reminds us.

In good shape: Running backs. Zook has running backs coming out of his ears. Luckily, there is plenty of room for talented running backs in the spread offense (though Illinois’ offense is officially listed as “multiple”, there are plenty of variations of the spread to be had). Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are experienced starters, while sophomore Rashard Mendenhall has a chance to steal the spotlight. There will be plenty of chances for all three to shine and earn touches.

Needs work: Um…how about the defense. They were equally bad in all areas a year ago. They allowed 234 yards per game rushing at a 5.5 yards per carry clip (San Jose State was the only team that failed to meet or exceed 175 yards rushing, and Illinois allowed more than 290 yards rushing FOUR TIMES). Opponents completed a nauseating 67 percent of passes for 235 yards per game (only three opponents failed to pass for more than 200 yards). They allowd 23 first downs per game. They recorded just 11 sacks in 11 games. They forced eight turnovers all season, and failed to force a turnover in a staggering six of 11 games. Seriously, what more needs to be said?

Overview: There is a feeling that super-freshman Isiah Williams might take over the starting QB job at some point. However, senior Tim Brasic is a good athlete (he rushed for 691 yards last year, a school record for QBs), and he got better as a passer last season, hitting 61 percent of his throws for nearly 2,000 yards. The coaches want him to take better care of the ball and make some more big plays, but he’s a steady hand. The offensive line is better, Zook has recruited some high-level receivers (Chris James will make a huge impact at that position, though maybe not so much this year), and there’s no way the defense is that bad again. Illinois won’t threaten to make a bowl game, but they’ll make some good steps toward respectability.

11. Northwestern Wildcats
This hurts.

My heart still aches for the Northwestern football family, as well as the family of Randy Walker. The coach died suddenly in late June, leaving behind a wife and family of his own, as well as a heartsick football program in Evanston.

Selfishly, I will miss Walker, because I knew that Northwestern had a winner in him. His coaching acumen and ability to mold young men meant that Northwestern, despite the academic standards that have been a thorn in the side of so many coaches in the program’s past, was going to field competitive teams on a regular basis. Walker was the first Big Ten coach to jump on the spread offense, and boy did he make it work. Now, almost every team in the league has at least some parts of the spread in their playbooks.

31-year-old Northwestern football legend Pat Fitzgerald takes over as head coach, but can he keep the team focused amid the heartache?

In good shape: Running back. Two words: Tyrell Sutton. When Jason Wright and then Noah Herron moved on, no one knew who would take over at running back. So why not try a true freshman? Sutton burst on the scene with 104 yards in the opener, and he ended up with over 1,450 yards and 16 scores. He topped 200 yards three times, and while he was held under 100 yards six times, he never averaged less than 3.8 yards per carry in a game. So, yeah, it looks like Fitzgerald has a pretty good running back in place.

Needs work: Quarterback. Brett Basanez broke 30 school records and set a league record by taking part in 1,975 plays during his career (HT: Blue Ribbon). In four years, he consistently got better and was able to put it all together in his senior season, when he led the league in passing yards. Now, Fitzgerald has virtually no experience to call upon. Sophomore C.J. Bacher threw 15 passes last year, and he is joined on the depth chart by freshmen Andrew Brewer and Mike Kafka. Not a good way to break in a new head coach.

Overview: I don’t want to pick these guys to finish last, but I would have been tempted to even before their world got turned upside down on a Thursday night in June. The defense was just awful a year ago, and they suffered heavy losses in All-Big Ten DT Barry Cofield and LB Tim McGarigle. Even with those guys on board, the Wildcats yielded over 200 rush yards per game and almost 34 points per game…hardly signs of promise for the future. With Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa (all road), Ohio State, and Michigan State (home) all on the schedule, it’s very hard to imagine even an inspired Northwestern team winning enough games to escape the bottom of the league, much less qualify for a bowl.

Randomization: 07/25/06

The FJM crew laments...they got the wrong one! Reports flying this morning that ESPN has fired baseball analyst and known hack Harold Reynolds. This New York Post report is the only information I can find on the story right now, and no reason is given for Reynolds' dismissal.
(Please note that I'm not at all complaining, because Reynolds was AWFUL, but I'm just curious what he could have said/done to finally get the ax.)

The bad news here is that Reynolds, while awful, was hardly the worst of ESPN's stable of Baseball Tonight regulars. They'd better hope that Peter Gammons comes back soon, because taking Reynolds away from a group that includes John Kruk, Steve Phillips, Tino Martinez, and Jeff Brantley isn't what I would call "addition by subtraction". The lone voices of reason on that show in Gammons' absence, Tim Kurkjian and Buster Olney, aren't allowed on the show often enough to make a positive impact.

(And Olney is often on too much of a Red Sox/Yankees kick for my taste. The thought that he can be considered a voice of reason really says something about the state of affairs.)

And, of course, the king of overbearing, oft-uninformed baseball analysts at ESPN is still led by that Joe Morgan guy. That's enough to upset just about anyone sensible.

Speaking of ESPN...I sure hope they're enjoying this relentless and merciless destruction of Alex Rodriguez.

After all, they're responsible for about 80% of this.

A grand example of the irrational behavior towards ARod came this past Thursday, when Rodriguez hit a three-run home run that happened to account for all of his team's offense in a loss to Toronto. Yes, ARod committed a horrendous error. Of course, the Yankees were already behind because Jaret Wright is a useless gas can.

And where was Captain Jetes to lead the offense out of its funk? How about the Giam-bino-roid?

ESPN leads the way in pumping up David Ortiz because he's so OMG CLUTCH, even though OMG CLUTCH is a myth that's brought to the frontline by a bunch of walk-off hits that override the body of work. And when ARod is undeniably OMG CLUTCH, it's forgotten about and swept aside because the game isn't important enough.

When he was playing nearly impeccable defense the last two years (especially considering the move he had to make), it wasn't good enough. He's not playing anything remotely close to impeccable defense this year, and he's paying for it. Now, every error he makes kills his team, even though the same fanbase refuses to acknowledge how awful Derek Jeter is at playing his position.

The Yankees are not playing to their full potential this season, and ARod has not had his best year offensively (or defensively).

But Yankees fans and ESPN need to wake up and realize that ARod is really not the biggest problem here. He's just the easiest target.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

College football preview: ACC Coastal Division

Coastal Division

1. Miami Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have won a national championship and have sported a record of 53-9 under Larry Coker.

So why is he feeling any heat?

40-3. That’s why.

The Hurricanes enter 2006 off the worst bowl loss in the program’s storied history, a waxing at the hands of LSU in the Peach Bowl. One can surmise that Miami’s late-season upset loss to Georgia Tech, a loss that cost them a berth in the ACC title game, left them flat and unmotivated, while LSU clearly had the jump from the opening kickoff. But no matter what you say, Miami doesn’t tolerate such humiliation, and Coker fired four assistant coaches after the bowl game.

This year’s edition of the Hurricanes is strong on athletes, as usual, and should be led, at least early in the year, by its defense, which improved in nearly every statistical category in 2005.

In good shape: Safety. Sophomore Kenny Phillips was a freshman All-American at free safety a year ago. He was one of three true freshmen to see regular action a year ago. Phillips posted 88 tackles and reminded many Miami observers of current Washington Redskin star Sean Taylor (only minus the attitudinal issues, for now). Phillips replaced Anthony Reddick in the lineup after Reddick blew out his knee. Reddick, a freshman All-American in 2004, should be back this season. The strong safety, and unquestioned leader of this defense, is senior Brandon Merriweather, who amassed 13 tackles for loss among his team-leading 115 takedowns a year ago. There might not be a better group of safeties in the country, and their ability will offset a relative lack of experience among the Hurricanes’ cornerbacks.

Needs work: Offensive line. The Hurricanes were not as effective up front as usual last year, allowing 36 sacks and only paving the way for 3.7 yards per carry out of the running game (it was Miami’s second straight year averaging 3.7 YPC rushing after averaging 4.5 or more for seven straight years). Miami will need better play out of a line that returns just one starter (though C Anthony Wollschlager is a good one). Pressure will be on Ts Tyrone Byrd and Reggie Youngblood to keep defensive ends away from QB Kyle Wright, who needs to have time to show off his great arm and playmaking ability.

Overview: Wright got better as the season wore on, and he has to be thrilled that Coker brought back former Miami QB mentor Rich Olson to run the offense. Olson was responsible for tutoring former Hurricane QB and H*i*m*n winner Gino Torretta. Miami should be able to count on Wright for even more in 2006, as he has plenty of talent to work with. As usual, the Hurricanes lost a lot, though they have some great potential on both sides of the ball. They’re in the weaker of the two ACC divisions, in my view, and if they can avoid the upset bug in road trips to Louisville, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Virginia, they could be in position to challenge for a national title.

2. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Believe it or not, Georgia Tech is one of only six programs to appear in bowl games for nine consecutive years. This program has been steady, even solid, but not spectacular. And their inconsistency is enough to drive even the most patient fans nuts.

Last year, Tech won road games against quality opponents Auburn and Miami, but lost at home to NC State, didn’t play well at Virginia, and were blown out in their bowl game against an average Utah team. It’s a model for the inconsistency that has plagued this program under Chan Gailey, who probably has one more shot to get this team into a major bowl with stud receiver Calvin Johnson around (the junior is almost a sure bet to turn pro after this season).

In good shape: Receiver. Johnson is an All-American caliber player. He posted 54 catches and led his team with seven scores a season ago, and one is left to wonder what kind of numbers he could post with a more accurate quarterback at the controls (more on that in a moment). It’ll be up to the “other” Johnson in the group, sophomore James, to make sure that Calvin Johnson sees some chances to get open.

Needs work: Quarterback. How many times do you see a team with an incumbent three-year starting QB look so shaky at the position? When Reggie Ball won the Yellow Jackets’ job as a freshman, no one thought he would still be struggling mightily after his junior season. Ball has a career TD-INT ratio of 37-41, and he’s only a 50 percent passer during his Tech career. With a talent like Calvin Johnson at receiver, talented running backs Tashard Choice and Rashaun Grant, and five returning starters on the offensive line, the excuses have run out for Ball. He’s on his last chance to lead Tech to something better than the Champs Sports or Emerald Bowls.

Overview: Choice is the next stud runner at Tech, Calvin Johnson is a future NFL star, and the Tech defense has been pretty good under Gailey. It’s on Reggie Ball. If he improves, the offense will do better than the meager 18.5 points per game average of a year ago, and Tech will find themselves knocking on a Gator Bowl invite. Without improvement from Ball, Tech will be back in Orlando or some other bowl outpost before Christmas.

3. Virginia Tech Hokies
No player in college football caused the swarm of controversy that Marcus Vick did last year. And he was just the tip of the iceberg for a program that continues to exhibit a near-embarrassing lack of discipline, both on the field and off.

Vick’s stomp to the calf of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil marked the end of his Hokie career, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Vick sat a season because of an off-field issue, then proceeded to make an obscene gesture toward West Virginia fans during a game there last season. The Dumervil incident wasn’t penalized, but Tech took 17 penalties in the ACC title game loss to Florida State, and as Blue Ribbon points out, the Hokies were the proud recipients of five personal-foul penalties in the first half of the bowl game, including the ejection of an All-American in CB Jimmy Williams.

If Virginia Tech is going to return to the top of the ACC (and in two years, they have a conference title and a conference title game loss on their resume…not bad), they’re going to have to improve their discipline. Oh, and they’re going to have to replace three All-ACC offensive linemen, Vick, Williams, and five other standout defensive players.

In good shape: Wide receiver. For a team that typically will run the ball upwards of 60 percent of the time (their run-pass ratio was 2-1 a year ago), it’s a luxury to have playmaking receivers. Frank Beamer has that luxury this year. David Clowney, Josh Morgan, and Eddie Royal can all make plays, with Clowney having the most downfield potential. New receivers coach Kevin Sherman will be charged with tapping into Clowney’s immense upside by making him a better every-down player.

Needs work: Quarterback. Vick had his faults, and he was never going to be the energetic face of the program like his older brother was. It’s best for everyone that he has moved on. However, he leaves a gaping hole. Sean Glennon takes over the job for now, but Beamer, according to Blue Ribbon, wants one of his more athletic guys to eventually take over the position. Ike Whitaker and Cory Holt both fit that mold. Glennon was 8-11 in limited duty in 2004, and Phil Steele points out in his preview that all three of Glennon’s incompletions were dropped balls (!). He’s more of a pocket passer, which might not be a bad thing when you consider the talent VT has at receiver. But he has big shoes to fill in Vick, who was solid and durable in 2005.

Overview: Luckily for Beamer, he has recruited wonderfully over the years, so the heavy personnel losses aren’t as big a deal as they could be. However, you don’t lose players like Vick, Williams, LBs Darryl Tapp and James Anderson, RBs Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh, and OL Jason Murphy without feeling some pain. There’s no doubt that Virginia Tech will win nine or ten regular season games, because their non-conference schedule is soft by even Bill Snyder’s standards, but road trips to Boston College, Miami, and Wake Forest, along with a home date with Atlantic Division foe Clemson, will prove too tough to run through unbeaten. Tech takes a bit of a hit this season, but they’re not going anywhere long-term, and they’ll still be a contender for a major bowl bid thanks to their reputation and non-conference schedule.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels
UNC is another team that had serious struggles at quarterback a year ago. Unlike Georgia Tech, however, UNC struggled with an inexperienced starter, as Matt Baker couldn’t get anything going consistently in the place of Darian Durant, who only set 51 school records during his time as a Heel.

Baker is gone, and it’s not possible right now to call the race to be his replacement. Redshirt freshman Cam Sexton is competing with junior and Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey, and head coach John Bunting and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti aren’t prepared to declare a winner just yet.

Whoever does win the job will be charged with improving an offense that averaged only 18 points per game in 2005. While the defense will again be better this year, there’s no way that they’ll be good enough to overcome such shoddy offensive play.

In good shape: Defensive line. Bunting, a defensive coach by trade, has brought this group a long way since they allowed rushing yards-per-game averages of 221, 227, and 218 from 2002-2004. They “only” allowed 138 a game a year ago, and Bunting has six of his top eight linemen back. The interior is anchored by Shelton Bynum and Kyndraus Guy, and Bunting has plenty of depth to call on in the middle, especially with redshirt freshman Cam Thomas showing plenty of promise. I expect that they’ll drop that rushing average again this year, and the defensive line will also produce more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Needs work: Quarterback. Cignetti had a lot of success with Fresno State’s offense, but it remains to be seen if he can coax a quality performance out of one of his new quarterbacks. Dailey was a horrendous flop as the first quarterback to play in Bill Callahan’s West Coast system at Nebraska, throwing 21 interceptions in eleven starts in 2004 before transferring out of the program. Sexton redshirted last year after his spring practice was cut short by a broken ankle. He’s athletic and throws a good ball, and the smart money is that Sexton will start at some point this season, even if Dailey’s experience puts him over the top in the early going.

Overview: Cignetti led Fresno State to top ten national rankings in scoring offense back-to-back years, so he has had success building quality attacks. The personnel doesn’t appear to be in place for such a run this year, even though the running game is in good hands with the powerful Ronnie McGill and the shifty Barrington Edwards. Carolina continues to build the defense, but it’s still not good enough to win the kind of low-scoring games they may be in this year. The Tar Heels have a tough schedule, with non-conference games against 2005 bowl teams Rutgers, South Florida, and Notre Dame. That said, they are strong enough to be bowl-eligible after a year out of the postseason in 2005.

5. Virginia Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have seen an increase in NFL-bound players out of their program since Al Groh took over the coaching duties. However, what Virginia hasn’t seen is any remarkable increase in the level of play in the program.

Virginia is just 21-19 in conference play under Groh, and they were a disappointing 7-5 a year ago. Like Georgia Tech, UVA has been noticeably inconsistent, with wins last year over Florida State and Georgia Tech, but losses to Maryland and North Carolina, and a thrashing at the hands of Virginia Tech.

Groh has to replace offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who left to take over at Kansas State, and defensive coordinator Al Golden, who took the Temple job. Not only that, but Groh lost LB Ahmad Brooks and S Tony Franklin to disciplinary suspensions (Brooks went to Cincinnati in the NFL Supplemental Draft).

In good shape: Secondary. Three starters are back, with Franklin being the only departure. Corners Marcus Hamilton and Chris Gorham are very talented, and they are joined in the backfield by junior safeties Jamaal Jackson and Nate Lyles, who should both see plenty of playing time. The pass defense regressed badly in 2005, and it was a big reason why the UVA defense allowed a touchdown more per game on average, but the pieces are in place for a nice run in 2006.

Needs work: Inside linebacker. Brooks and Kai Parham are both gone, leaving two gaping holes in the Cavs’ 3-4 defense. Groh has always been a defensive guy, and he’s confident that sophomores Antonio Appleby and Jon Cooper will emerge as solid contributors. This is a very young group (Appleby and Cooper by both be backed up by redshirt freshmen), and Brooks and Parham will be very tough to replace.

Overview: Groh has, generally, done a pretty good job with the Virginia program. But the glass ceiling that existed under George Welch (plenty of seven-win seasons but hardly any elite bowl appearances) is still in place. Unless Notre Dame transfer Christian Olsen can replace athletic QB Marcus Hagans, the offense may bog down and have trouble generating any points. The defense will struggle, especially up the middle with Brooks and Parham gone. Virginia still has a ton of young talent (Groh’s biggest strength overall has been his recruiting), but they’re probably a year away from having a chance to make a significant impact in the ACC.

6. Duke Blue Devils
Steve Spurrier left Durham for the Florida gig in 1989. Since then, Duke’s football program has floundered, only posting one season with more than four wins in 16 tries.

When Carl Franks was ousted in 2003, defensive coordinator Ted Roof took over on an interim basis, including posting Duke’s only win over North Carolina since Spurrier left. Roof has recruited hard, but the results have not been good, as Duke has won just five games under Roof (5-22 record).

The talent level is slowly improving, but Duke has a long way to go before they’ll be able to compete in the ACC.

In good shape: Defensive line. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given Roof’s defensive pedigree. What might be a surprise is that I would pick this position when the Blue Devils allowed over 200 rushing yards per game a year ago. Roof signed three very good defensive line prospects for 2005, and all three missed the season with injuries. This year, they’re all expected to play. DT Vincent Oghobaase is the best of the bunch, but DE Ryan Radloff will contribute. Veteran players Eli Nichols and Casey Camero have a combined 46 starts, so there is some experience up front, too. The pass rush, especially from the interior of the line, has to get better, but the talent is there for Duke to have a decent defensive front. Also worth noting here is the three-headed monster Duke has at running back, with Justin Boyle, Ronnie Drummer, and Re’quan Boyette all battling for carries.

Needs work: Quarterback. Not since 1995 has Duke gotten quality play out of the quarterback position. The latest to try to turn around the offense is Zack Asack, who got some time as a freshman and showed promise. While the coaches were encouraged, their hopes for a good sophomore season out of Asack were blown apart when he was suspended for the season for plagiarism (hey, we can’t all be Ann Coulter). Luckily, Roof has recruited well around Asack, and he hopes that an improved running game and the development of the receivers will combine to make whoever starts at QB in Asack’s place into a solid player (smart money is on Marcus Jones to start, though that’s not a certainty). It had better, because Duke isn’t going anywhere without quality quarterback play. The lack of it is a big reason why Duke hasn’t averaged more than 19 points per game in a season since before Franks took over.

Overview: This is a program that has been in constant rebuilding mode for about 15 years now. The talent is there at certain positions, including running back and linebacker (sophomore Michael Tauiliili is a very good player), but the depth isn’t good enough, and Roof is constantly battling to reverse the culture of losing that has owned this program since Spurrier left.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but improvement should be there this season. The problem is that the schedule, which includes non-conference dates with Navy and Alabama (bowl teams a year ago), is deadly. It will be tough for Roof to get more than two or three wins out of this team.