Thursday, August 31, 2006


It's go time, baby.

Let's get it on!

Week One couldn't come any sooner. While I will be in Bemidji tonight for UMD's season opener, meaning that I'm going to miss tonight's action, but I have a full slate of 22 games available to me on Saturday.

For those following our AOL venture, I'll be live-blogging the Wisconsin-Bowling Green game on Saturday.

Division I-A games I plan to watch
Nevada at Fresno State (Friday night)
Vanderbilt at Michigan
North Texas at Texas
Montana at Iowa
Idaho at Michigan State
Northern Illinois at Ohio State
Akron at Penn State
Louisiana Tech at Nebraska
Florida Atlantic at Clemson
Marshall at West Virginia
California at Tennessee
East Carolina at Navy
UAB at Oklahoma
Utah at UCLA
Virginia at Pittsburgh
Wisconsin vs Bowling Green
Washington State at Auburn
Notre Dame at Georgia Tech
USC at Arkansas
Houston at Rice
BYU at Arizona
Florida State at Miami

The picks
Last year: 90-40

Northwestern at Miami (Ohio) --> Emotion should rule the night in Oxford, as both teams honor Randy Walker, who played at Miami before becoming their all-time winningest coach and eventually moving to Northwestern. Walker died of a heart attack in late June, leaving the Northwestern job to former Wildcat star Pat Fitzgerald. The spread offense has to be retooled a bit, as Brett Basanez has graduated. Luckily for Northwestern, the RedHawks debut a new quarterback tonight, too, as Josh Betts has moved on. It's a tough game to call because of the heavy emotions on both sides, but I'll take the Big Ten team to pull it out.
The pick: Northwestern

Minnesota at Kent State --> It's a homecoming of sorts for Glen Mason, whose head-coaching career began at Kent State. Mason went 12-10 in two years there before bolting for Kansas. The Golden Flashes have some talent, especially in quarterback Michael Machen, but they don't have the size or depth to hold up against the physical Gophers. Minnesota will have some trouble running the ball this season because of the heavy personnel losses on the line and at running back, but Kent State won't be able to expose those deficiencies.
The pick: Minnesota

Idaho at Michigan State --> Dennis Erickson returns as Idaho's coach with an interesting sidebar. Before last year's NFL scouting combine, about three months before Erickson took the Idaho job, the family of MSU QB Drew Stanton asked him for advice on whether Stanton should turn pro. Erickson told them that Stanton should return to school. Now, Erickson's defense, which lacks size, speed, and depth when compared to a Big Ten team, has to figure out a way to slow Stanton down. I have a piece of advice: a billy club.
The pick: Michigan State

Vanderbilt at Michigan --> Wow. It sure would have been interesting to see Jay Cutler carve up the Wolverines' defense last year. Instead, we get what looks like a pretty big mismatch. Henne and Hart are healthy, and Michigan has to be motivated to show that last year's 7-5 was nothing more than a hiccup.
The pick: Michigan

Montana at Iowa --> The Grizzlies are getting something like $650,000 in exchange for a big-time pounding. Iowa will be more than happy to deliver said pounding.
The pick: Iowa

Indiana State at Purdue --> In case you're wondering, the policy is that I pick every game involving a Big Ten team. No exceptions.
The pick: Purdue

Akron at Penn State --> Not as big a no-brainer as one might expect. The Nittany Lions lose some big-time players, and Akron returns 17 starters from a bowl team, including senior QB Luke Getsy. I doubt that Akron can win this game, especially if they can't find a way to slow down a returning Reggie Williams, who flashed brilliance as a receiver and returner for Penn State before having his season cut short last year.
The pick: Penn State

Northern Illinois at Ohio State --> The Buckeyes are touted as a national championship contender, but they have to contend with NIU star Garrett Wolfe, who may run like crazy against a tOSU defense crippled by graduation and NFL defections. The spread offense is going to be greatly successful in Columbus this year, and the Buckeyes will score more than enough to cruise past NIU and into next week's showdown in Austin.
The pick: tOSU

Western Michigan at Indiana --> I'm sure that one of these MAC teams has a good chance to prove me wrong, but I'm picking all the Big Ten teams in these head-to-head matchups this weekend. Indiana has some ability on offense, especially with receiver James Hardy and QB Blake Powers. Western can score, but their defense is sorely lacking.
The pick: Indiana

Wisconsin vs Bowling Green at Cleveland --> The Falcons are out their starting QB (Anthony Turner) and their top returning WR (Corey Partridge) for this game, and that means an offense that was already in some kind of trouble is going to have a ton of problems scoring against the Badgers' defense. This has the makings of a 21-6 type of game if Wisconsin can't get their offense cranked up, but a win is a win.
The pick: Wisconsin

Eastern Illinois at Illinois --> See "Indiana State at Purdue".
The pick: Illinois

Boston College at Central Michigan --> This is not an easy road game for BC, but the Eagles should be able to prevail. CMU shows an improved defense on paper, but they have to break in a new QB and they just don't have the kind of athleticism that BC does. If the Eagles come out flat, they could be in trouble, but I don't see an upset here.
The pick: Boston College

Toledo at Iowa State --> Toledo is another MAC team with a challenging opener that has a new QB. Bruce Gradkowski will be sorely missed, but the spread offens should still run efficiently. Iowa State has a very talented offensive group, led by QB Bret Meyer, and I think they'll pull it out at home tonight.
The pick: Iowa State

Nevada at Fresno State --> The Pistol offense returns this year, but coaches have a year's worth of film to look at. Jeff Rowe is back to lead the Wolf Pack, and this team is brimming with confidence after nine wins a year ago. While Paul Pinegar will be missed, the biggest loss for Fresno State might be on the sideline, where offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti left for North Carolina. This matchup might turn out differently later in the season, once Fresno has gotten into an offensive rhythm, but Nevada opens with a win on the road.
The pick: Nevada

Rutgers at North Carolina --> For once, Rutgers has expectations. They went to the Insight Bowl last year, and even though they have to replace QB Ryan Hart, they have two great running backs in Brian Leonard and Ray Rice. Leonard is a terrific player who can run people over and also has enough speed to break big plays. North Carolina starts Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey, and I think they'll really struggle to move the ball, even against Rutgers' somewhat substandard defense.
The pick: Rutgers

California at Tennessee --> With Marshawn Lynch and Nate Longshore back in the offensive backfield, and a loaded defense, Cal is prepped for a run at the Pac 10 title. Tennessee will be better this year, especially on offense, where David Cutcliffe returns as coordinator. But they won't get off to a good start at home. Cal has too much talent on offense for Cutcliffe's troops to keep up.
The pick: California

Southern Mississippi at Florida --> USM has pulled off some road upsets in the past, but the Golden Eagles have too tall of a task in Gainesville. The Gators have talent and experience on offense, and should be greatly improved in their second year in Urban Meyer's system. For USM, a close game would be an achievement, and an upset is just not a realistic thought.
The pick: Florida

Virginia at Pittsburgh --> Two programs looking to get back into conference title contention open the season with what could be a very good game. Virginia loses plenty of talent, but Al Groh has recruited well, and they should be motivated after a somewhat subpar season. Pitt didn't qualify for a bowl game in Dave Wannstedt's first year, and the Panthers are looking to take the first step toward the postseason on Saturday. Pitt's at home, and they have a solid veteran QB in Tyler Palko, so I'll go with the Panthers.
The pick: Pittsburgh

Utah at UCLA --> As I noted in my Pac-10 notes, UCLA was outgained on the season, but still won ten games last year. I think they're going to come back to the pack a bit this season, especially without RB Maurice Drew and TE Marcedes Lewis. Utah is heading in the other direction, thanks to a stout defense and improved consistency at QB. I'm picking Utah to get the mild upset on the road.
The pick: Utah

Hawai'i at Alabama --> The run-n-shoot is going to go like crazy this year, but they could have troubles in this game. Colt Brennan has a great group of receivers to throw to, and they will score plenty of points. The defense is still bad, and it might be bad enough to make people forget about the heavy losses at Alabama.
The pick: Alabama

Notre Dame at Georgia Tech --> Is it Notre Dame's offense, or Georgia Tech's defense? Can Reggie Ball protect the football well enough to give his team a chance? Will Brady Quinn take a step towards the H*i*m*n, or is he going to fall victim to the heavy preseason hype? Believe it or not, I think the Ball-Calvin Johnson combo will come up big for Tech, and they get the upset over the Irish.
The pick: Georgia Tech

USC at Arkansas --> With or without Darren McFadden, the Hogs are going to have trouble keeping up. USC still has talent, they still have speed, and they have the advantage, despite the losses of Leinart and Bush. Someone will trip up the Men of Troy, but it won't be Arkansas.
The pick: USC

BYU at Arizona --> Look out, Mike Stoops. The Wildcats are improved on defense, and the insertion of Willie Tuitama at quarterback really seemed to ignite their offense last year. That said, BYU is also improved on defense, and they have another in a long line of quality quarterbacks in John Beck. Even on the road, I think BYU has a slight advantage. Then again, maybe I'm losing it.
The pick: BYU

Florida State at Miami --> It was absolutely ugly last year. In fact, these two teams have played more ugly games than good ones in their head-to-head meetings recently. In this one, the advantage, however slight, goes to the Seminoles. Miami has just too many suspended players, and they already had plenty of holes. FSU had a flawed season last year, but it ended on a high note with the ACC title win and a good performance in the bowl loss to Penn State. I think they hold off the short-handed Hurricanes.
The pick: Florida State

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


With UMD opening tomorrow night at Bemidji, here's a quick read on the 2006 Bulldogs:

Offense --> Good news: All the skill-position guys return, including sophomore QB Ted Schlafke and preseason All-America WR Greg Aker. Junior Ross Schumacher, freshman Dominique Johnson and sophomore Tony Doherty will also get plenty of catches in the wide-open, no-huddle offense UMD is running this year. Keith Bizzle, Joe Russell, and Marek Seta will get the bulk of the carries. The offensive line is somewhat inexperienced, with senior guard Mark Knudsen the only returning regular from 2005. Junior tackle Russell Foster is a Washington State transfer. Sophomore center Mitch Cady is a versatile player. The line is slightly bigger than it was last year, and the coaches hope they will be more effective opening holes for a running game that was basically non-existent by the time the playoffs hit last year.

Defense --> Very strong up the middle. Inside linebackers Nate Fears and Jon Rufledt are very physical and sure tacklers. Senior outside linebacker Kevin Krenz is the rock of the defense, while junior outside linebacker Cody Ahmann emerged as a serious pass-rush threat last year. At safety, UMD has four guys who can play. Sophomores Jim Johnson and Tyler Yelk are listed as the starters, but seniors Trent Scheidecker and Bryan Dahl will push them. Senior corners Boloy Lokombo, Tim Garceau, and Corey Hughes bring plenty of experience to the outside. The line features returning starting end Matt Beck, but coordinator John Steger may have to rely on a rotation of solid guys here. It doesn't look like there's a star in the group.

Overall --> UMD has the quarterback, top offensive player, and all the runners back this year. Also returning is most of the starting defense. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is installing a similar system to the one used by last year's coordinator, Dan Ragsdale. So even though Longo is the school's fourth coordinator in four years, it seems that the offense has a much better chance of running smoothly from the start this year. Ragsdale is a very good coach, but it appears that head coach Bubba Schweigert got someone who can make this offense even better in Longo, the former head coach at Division I-AA La Salle. Steger is a veteran coach who will make sure his linebackers and safeties have plenty of chances to make big plays, and they are not likely to disappoint him.

The conference is tough, as usual. New addition Central Washington is a huge question mark, because they're a pretty successful program that has never played this kind of schedule (tough teams and very tough travel). How will they respond? Outside of that, last year's quad-champions should all be considered threats once again this year. South Dakota loses a great QB in Wes Beschorner. Nebraska-Omaha loses their leading rusher, receiver, and starting QB. North Dakota lost the leader of their defense, Digger Anderson, and they also lost the rock of their offensive line. Also, St. Cloud State is missing a starting QB and record-setting running back. Augustana will be improved, as should Minnesota State. It's a tough league, but UMD has the goods to win it. I think South Dakota and North Dakota will be right there again, and Augustana could surprise with a very good QB (Tommy Flyger).

I think the best way to lay this league out is by tiers, because the top of the league could shake down a number of different ways. And as we saw with UMD last year, even teams that are counted out in preseason previews can be very dangerous (in other words, none of this means anything, because it's probably 100% wrong).

Tier I: UMD, North Dakota, South Dakota
Tier II: Augustana, Central Washington, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State
Tier III: Minnesota State, Western Washington

Game-by-game, here's what I expect out of UMD (MGoBlog style):

Should win
September 9 - Mary
September 30 - at Western Washington
October 7 - Augustana
October 21 - Nebraska-Omaha
November 11 - St. Cloud State

August 31 - at Bemidji State
September 23 - Central Washington
October 14 - at Minnesota State

Probable losses
September 16 - at South Dakota
October 28 - at North Dakota

Best case: UMD overcomes a tough road game in Mankato, takes care of business at home, upsets a Dakota on the road, and finishes 9-1, 7-1.

Worst case: UMD is not that good away from home, leading to another season-opening win over an NCC team for Bemidji State, and Central Washington is tougher than expected. That leads to a not-as-attractive 5-5, 4-4.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Randomization: 08/29/06

And you thought John Madden was bad. Once again last night, ESPN NFL "analyst" Joe Theismann took "Sucking up to Brett Favre" to levels previously unheard of. Working the Packers' unmitigated disaster of a loss to Cincinnati, Theismann spent most of the first half alternating his slobbering between Favre and Bengals starter Carson Palmer. Palmer looked good in the first half, but he had trouble, especially in his first few throws, planting that left leg and throwing with proper mechanics. Of course, Theismann refused to discuss any of this after Palmer's first throw, instead talking about how great Palmer looked and how well he was throwing.

Meanwhile, Theismann didn't ignore his boy (Favre). He praised Favre at every given opportunity, and was quick to try to make excuses for Favre's horrific fumble that led to Cincinnati's first touchdown. In fact, Theismann's excuse manufacturing wasn't even deterred by visual evidence that countered what he was saying (Joe argued that Favre's hand hit fullback Vonta Leach, even after a replay made it crystal-clear that he was wrong).

Since it was ESPN's first broadcast of a Packers game since Favre decided to return, I figured I'd hear about the decision and how Favre reached it and what the analysts thought about it.

What I didn't think I'd hear is Joe Theismann, at least a dozen times, reminding us that Favre "loves to play football" and just "wants to play the game". Really? I just figured that Favre wanted to get knocked around like Eric Hipple for another season. Never would have guessed that Favre loved playing and wanted to give it a go for another season.

What's worse is that normally solid play-by-play guy Mike Tirico mis-identified Packers receivers at least four times, even though the Packers were still using their starters, and the same four receivers were being used for at least two quarters.

So, yeah, it's going to be a long year of bad broadcasts on ESPN. For that matter, the stuff you see on FOX and CBS won't be much better.

He's baaaack. The Raiders signed Jeff George yesterday.

Yes, Jeff George.

That Jeff George.

George hasn't thrown a pass in the NFL since 2001, and the veteran may be called upon to compete for the Raiders' starting job, as Aaron Brooks has been positively dreadful so far in the preseason.

Speaks wonders to the state of quarterbacks in the league that George could get a gig at this point.

Good news out of Vikings headquarters. No one got arrested or caught naked in a stairwell yesterday. It might seem minor, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The FanHouse

Yay! I can reveal my state secret.

I hope you'll all enjoy reading this stuff as much as I've helped doing my part to help create it.

America Online is in the process of launching a massive sports blog on their AOL Sports site. The AOL Sports Blog is going to consist of many die-hard football fans (I believe the number is near 100) posting daily updates on their favorite team(s). The NFL portion of this site launched today, and the full college football effect is coming soon (early next week).

I am proud to announce that I have been selected to take part in this project. I will be covering the Wisconsin Badgers for the NCAA portion of the AOL FanHouse. While the NCAA site hasn't launched yet, I have been posting regularly, and you are able to read the stuff I've posted in one simple place.

Please bookmark this page. I will be posting updates regularly (daily, actually, with some days featuring more than one update). Audience participation is completely encouraged.

(Please note that our MGoBoy, Brian, is one of the lead bloggers, which means I'll be harassing him all season long with stupid questions. By mid-October, if he doesn't want to already, he'll want to shove me off a bridge.)

That doesn't mean posts will go away here. But it will mean that much of the Wisconsin-leaning content will be moving to the AOL site. The BlogPoll stuff, the weekly national previews, and Randomization will be staying here.

Hats off to Jamie Mottram and all the crew at AOL for hatching this idea and working exceptionally hard to make it happen.


Alas, it is just Monday. More to come throughout the week.

For now, bask in the glory of the football.

(Minnesota State fans will say "HEY! We already played!". That's great, but I was unable to attend or view the game. I'm glad that everyone was able to dodge tornadoes enough to get the game in, but it just isn't right to start a week before everyone else does.)

Game previews are coming. So are predictions. And if you remember last year, when I was uncharacteristically sharp, you'll realize that my predictions are as good as gold (well, at least they are when they're right).

I'll also whet the appetite of the locals with a preview of UMD's season, which should be quite the exciting one.

You'll also start to see some NFL stuff in the next week or so, and hopefully I'll be able to reveal the "venture" I hinted at last week.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Real life intervention - College football preview: Everyone else

As football season approaches, I am again besieged by real job/real life issues.

This year, those issues don't involve me having to travel to Chadron, Nebraska, for a UMD football game, but they do involve me doing other things that aren't related to writing college football previews. As a result, the ongoing series of college previews is going to end without a conclusion for a second straight year.

(By the way, I'll explain in full what is going on in the next week or so. It's a very exciting venture, and it's something that I hope I'll have your support in.)

So I hope you enjoyed the previews that I was able to complete. They were a lot of work, but it's been fun pouring through the various yearbooks and online previews and such things. It's the kind of research that I really enjoy. I was able to mark down certain teams that I want to make sure I see at some point this season, even in the conferences where I ran out of time to do previews.

The rest of the conferences, the Pac-10, SEC, Sun Belt, and WAC, are good leagues. Even the Sun Belt, where I really like what Louisiana-Lafayette is doing, and I think the new Florida schools will eventually help carry that league to a higher profile.

So before I close the book on the previews, here are some quick thoughts on the leagues I couldn't get to. Again, when you learn of what has been going on in the last week, you will see why I was forced to eschew those previews.

1. California --> Everyone likes USC in this league, but I already know how good Marshawn Lynch is, and I have a pretty good feeling about new QB Nate Longshore.

2. USC --> Losing Leinart and Bush, along with LenDale White, Taitusi Lutui, Winston Justice, Dominique Byrd, and Frostee Rucker, will be too much to overcome, especially with Cal breathing down their necks.

3. Oregon --> Best of a rather mediocre crop. Offensive line could be dominant, and the secondary could sport two All-Pac 10 safeties.

4. Arizona State --> Until they grow a defense, the Sun Devils will continue to miss out on the big-time bowls.

5. Washington State --> Look out for junior QB Alex Brink. He could be special, especially with the return of wideout Jason Hill for his senior season.

6. Arizona --> Averaged 28 a game with freshman QB Willie Tuitama in the lineup. Probably won't be that good offensively with the loss of RB Mike Bell, but the continued improvement on defense should make up for that.

7. UCLA --> Gave up 468 yards per game a year ago, meaning they were outgained on the season despite winning ten games. No Maurice Drew, Drew Olson, and Marcedes Lewis means the Bruins will come back to Earth.

8. Oregon State --> Lot likely to be as bad defensively or in turnovers as they were last year, but the schedule says they could conceivably go 0-6 on the road, making a bowl appearance tough to attain. The Beavers need to get better play out of the quarterback (Matt Moore threw 19 picks last year).

9. Stanford --> Opening "new" Stanford Stadium (old stadium was torn down, and a new one built, over the offseason), but not with a particularly strong team. The offense will be improved behind QB Trent Edwards, but the defense could be the worst in the league.

10. Washington --> Despite proclamations of optimism from Seattle, the Huskies don't appear ready to make the step away from the bottom of the Pac-10. Tyrone Willingham's team is just not deep enough, and the defense, while it should improve, is too big of a question mark.

SEC East
1. Florida --> With talented seniors littering the offensive skill positions, including Chris Leak at quarterback, the Gators are poised to return to the SEC title game. There are questions along the offensive line and on defense, but Florida should be very dangerous again this year.

2. South Carolina --> Spurrier's second year will be better than the first. Mitchell to Rice will continue to be spectacular on offense, and Captain Visor should have the offense performing at an even higher level. The defense is iffy, with just five starters back, but there is plenty of talent there, including senior CB Fred Bennett.

3. Georgia --> Potential star in RB Thomas White, but senior QB Joe Tereshinski is a question mark, and the Bulldogs only have nine total starters back. There's enough talent to predict a pretty good season, but not enough to hold on to the top spot in the division.

4. Tennessee --> This spot in the standings won't be indicative of the overall improvement. After a disastrous 5-6 season where bowl eligibility came crashing down with a loss to Vanderbilt, Phil Fulmer will have the Vols on the rebound. They'll get back to a bowl game thanks to the work new/old coordinator David Cutcliffe will do with the offense.

5. Kentucky --> Rich Brooks, meet the Hot Seat. If it weren't for Andre Woodson and Rafael Little in the backfield, it would be hard to be this optimistic.

6. Vanderbilt --> Too many losses, especially that of QB Jay Cutler. The top two tacklers also depart. Starting out at Michigan and Alabama seems almost unfair for a program that needs to develop a running game and a new signal-caller.

SEC West
1. Auburn --> Picking them to win it all is silly, but Auburn certainly has the talent for a division title run. Kenny Irons is a H*i*m*n candidate if things fall into place around him.

2. LSU --> The Tigers don't have as many starters back as Arkansas, but they have more front-line talent, and they benefit from the fact that we don't expect their preseason preparation to be disrupted by a horrific hurricane.

3. Arkansas --> With 19 returning starters, including stud RB Darren McFadden, the Hogs could be in line for even bigger things than this. If the offensive line can pick up the new scheme quickly, Arkansas could be a huge surprise.

4. Alabama --> Without Brodie Croyle calling the shots, the Tide will not be as good offensively, and a road schedule that includes Arkansas, LSU, Florida, and Tennessee will be tough to overcome.

5. Mississippi --> The Rebels only get ten starters back, but should still be an improved team. At the very least, they should be able to hold off Mississippi State...

6. Mississippi State --> ...for at least one more year. Sly Croom knew this would be a tough job, and it's proven to be just that. Getting the first three at home helps, but it would help even more if the first two weren't against South Carolina and Auburn.

Sun Belt
1. Louisiana-Lafayette --> Tied for the league title last year with a season-ending five-game winning streak. If QB Jerry Babb, a great athlete, can be a better passer, the Ragin' Cajuns (how's that for "hostile and abusive", Myles Brand?) might be able to flirt with eight or nine wins.

2. Troy --> Should be greatly improved on offense with eight starters back, including all the skill-position players. Defense might be a sore spot again, and it probably will cost the Trojans a bowl berth.

3. Middle Tennessee --> Needs to get better on offense, where they averaged just 19 points per game. Defense loses eight starters from a pretty good group, and with Maryland, Oklahoma, and Louisville on the schedule in the first six weeks, there won't be much time for guys to learn on the job.

4. North Texas --> Went from 25 straight Sun Belt wins to 2-9. They'll moderate a bit this year, and with a little luck, UNT could find themselves contending for the league title again.

5. Arkansas State --> Losing a starting QB and a 1,000-yard rusher from a 6-6 team doesn't bode well. The Indians have a tougher schedule this year, and they still don't have much depth anywhere on the field.

6. Louisiana-Monroe --> Lost season finale to Lafayette last year, and it cost them the league title. Even worse is that QB Steven Jyles is gone, as are 20 other letterwinners.

7. Florida Atlantic --> Should be better than last year's 2-9 disaster, but the improvement probably won't net them much in the standings. Howard Schnellenberger has a more veteran team, but next year looks more promising than this one does (example: the starting defensive front seven is projected to include five sophomores, a junior, and a redshirt freshman).

8. Florida International --> Returning a decent QB in Josh Padrick is nice, but there isn't much else there. The Golden Panthers just completed their fourth season of varsity play, which means heavy losses. Padrick and his favorite target, Chandler Williams, will both have good years, but it won't be enough to keep FIU out of the cellar.

1. Boise State --> Even with Dan Hawkins gone for Colorado, I'm a big believer in tradition. And tradition says the Broncos don't lose on the Smurf Turf. They get Fresno and Hawai'i on the Smurf Turf this year. Therefore, they will win the league. In all seriosness, expect big things out of senior QB Jared Zabransky, who was turnover-prone last year, and receivers Jerard Rabb, Drisan James, and Legedu Naanee.

2. Fresno State --> Losing Paul Pinegar hurts, but also gone are RB Wendell Mathis and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who went to North Carolina. The defense was uncharacteristically bad down the stretch, giving up an average of 43 a game in the final three regular-season games, then yielding 31 to Tulsa in the bowl loss. That won't happen again.

3. Hawai'i --> It's not a shock that the defense probably won't be good again. But the offense could explode. QB Colt Brennan will only get better, and all his top receivers return, including Ryan Grice-Mullen and Davone Bess (combined 174 catches). Look out. If they can learn how to win on the mainland, this team has BCS-busting potential. I'm just not counting on them learning to win on the mainland.

4. Nevada --> Won nine last year behind the Pistol formation, but star running back B.J. Mitchell is gone. Jeff Rowe and favorite target Caleb Spencer return, and the Wolf Pack have seven starters back on defense. They carry a five-game winning streak into the season opener at Fresno State.

5. Idaho --> This is a longshot, but I think Dennis Erickson will have a huge impact in Moscow. He gets 16 starters back, and if coordinator Jeff Mills can find a way to improve his defense (38 points per game allowed last year), Idaho could threaten an upper-division finish.

6. Utah State --> Things are quickly looking up here. QB Leon Jackson III is solid, and he has some good receivers in Tony Pennyman and Kevin Robinson. Early schedule is insanely difficult, but USU could post three league wins and continue the overall improvement.

7. Louisiana Tech --> Got robbed of a bowl bid last year after a late-season upset win at Fresno State got them to 6-2 in the WAC. This team looks like it's in rebuilding mode, especially on defense. Matt Kubik wasn't a special quarterback, but he'll be hard for LT to replace. Eight road games make the schedule look practically impossible.

8. San Jose State --> Dick Tomey is trying to restore some pride here, and it's not easy. He made improvement on defense last year, allowing ten fewer points per game, but the offense sputtered for much of the year. This year, the offense should be better, but the defense loses nine starters. The schedule is more manageable, but it will still be tough for SJSU to win more than three.

9. New Mexico State --> It doesn't get much worse than 0-12. Hal Mumme has his kind of quarterback in SE Louisiana transfer Chase Holbrook, and he has six seniors projected to start on defense. The offense will be better, and the defense will still be bad. It should lead to a few close games, and NMSU will be fortunate to win more than one or two of them.

Next week: Week One preview...yay!

Every week, I will have predictions, analysis, and the list of games I'll be watching. That starts next Thursday with the first in a series of weekly predictions.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Randomization: 08/22/06

Get this crap off my television. I'm not one to get into discussions about things like "what baseball games get on national TV". It's not because I don't think it's a worthy issue (after all, we're talking about sports here, so there isn't much that can't be fairly brought up and discussed). It's just not something that needs to be brought up every 30 seconds.

But I've had enough. I've finally been driven to the point of no return when it comes to Major League Baseball.

Here is the national television schedule for the current NFL preseason from (not counting delayed broadcasts on NFL Network):

Sunday, Aug. 6
Oakland vs. Philadelphia (HOF Game) (NBC, 8 p.m. ET)
Thursday, Aug. 10
Indianapolis at St. Louis (FOX, 8 p.m. ET)
Friday, Aug. 11
New England at Atlanta (CBS, 8 p.m. ET)
Saturday, Aug. 12
Pittsburgh at Arizona (NFL Network, 4 p.m. ET)
Sunday, Aug. 13
Washington at Cincinnati (NBC, 8 p.m. ET)
Monday, Aug. 14
Oakland at Minnesota (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Thursday, Aug. 17
Kansas City at N.Y. Giants (FOX, 8 p.m. ET)
Friday, Aug. 18
San Diego at Chicago (CBS, 8 p.m. ET)
Saturday, Aug. 19
Arizona at New England (NFL Network, 8 p.m. ET)
Sunday, Aug. 20
Seattle at Indianapolis (NBC, 8 p.m. ET)
Monday, Aug. 21
Dallas at New Orleans (Shreveport, La.) (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Thursday, Aug. 24
Miami at Carolina (FOX, 8 p.m. ET)
Friday, Aug. 25
Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Saturday, Aug. 26
Tampa Bay at Jacksonville (CBS, 8 p.m. ET)
Sunday, Aug. 27
Houston at Denver (NFL Network, 8 p.m. ET)
Monday, Aug. 28
Green Bay at Cincinnati (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)

16 games. 24 of the 32 NFL teams featured. Repeat appearances for Cincinnati, New England, and Pittsburgh, three playoff teams from 2005, along with recent Super Bowl participants Oakland and Philadelphia. Arizona got two live games on NFL Network, with one of them being against media darling New England, and the other being the opening of their new stadium against the reigning and defending champions.

It could always be better, but this is pretty good.

Now, here is a month's worth of games scheduled to air on FOX Saturday Baseball. These are the only baseball games scheduled to air on over-the-air network television on a national level. Every market gets one game per week.

Saturday, August 12, 2006
1 p.m.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at New York Yankees
Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox
Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox
4 p.m.
San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers

Saturday, August 19, 2006
1 p.m.
New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs
4 p.m.
Arizona Diamondbacks at San Diego Padres

Saturday, August 26, 2006
1 p.m.
Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals
Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves
4 p.m.
New York Yankees at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Saturday, September 16, 2006
1 p.m.
Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees
Florida Marlins at Atlanta Braves
4 p.m.
San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals
Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros

For good measure, here is the ESPN schedule from the last week and for this week:

Wednesday, August 16
Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox
Thursday, August 17
Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers
Friday, August 18
New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Sunday, August 20
New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Monday, August 21
New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres
Wednesday, August 23
Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers
Thursday, August 24
St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets
Sunday, August 27
Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

23 total games. 19 of 30 teams are featured. The best part? Four teams with winning records, including AL West-leading Oakland, combine for ZERO appearances. One of them, Minnesota, just went head-to-head with the White Sox for three games, and they meet again this weekend. Six games featuring the top two teams in the AL Wild Card race, and none of them are televised nationally. Meanwhile, seven sub-.500 teams make national television appearances.

Just what I want to see on a Saturday afternoon. The 59-65 Braves against the 54-71 Nationals.

The Yankees are featured in nearly one-third of those games. The Red Sox are on in seven games. The Cubs, inexplicably, are featured three times, one more time than the cross-town rival White Sox, who have a noticeably better record.

Baseball's best team, the Tigers, are on four times. The National League's best team, the New York Mets, are on once.

And when you decide to hate on ESPN for their selections (which admittedly suck), look for a few moments at FOX's games. When they're not busy jamming the Yankees and/or Red Sox down everyone's throat, they're torturing Midwest viewers by continually airing Cubs games, even though the Cubs are absolutely wretched. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and get that Braves-Nationals game instead. That oughta be a barnburner.

No wonder the Blue Jays can't keep up. The Shea Hillenbrand thing happened. When it did, people talked about it and moved on.

(Hillenbrand was DFAed by Toronto after he got into a heated argument with Jays manager John Gibbons that ended with Gibbons challenging Hillenbrand to a fight.)

But when the manager and a player get into an argument that ends with the manager getting a bloody nose, people aren't going to be so quick to move on.

The Blue Jays have problems. Last night, starting pitcher Ted Lilly didn't like being taken out of the game. He got into it with Gibbons, and the argument spilled into the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse, where things apparently got physical. Gibbons ended up with a bloody nose, but said after the game that he talked things over with Lilly. Team president Paul Godfrey said he doesn't think either man will be disciplined.


Your manager got into a physical altercation with a player - in a public setting of all places - and you don't think discipline is necessary?

I'm not calling for a trade or a firing here, but to say that no discipline is necessary is a joke.

Happy Madden-oliday! Today marks the national release of Madden NFL 07, the latest edition of EA Sports' signature video game. The popularity of video games, and even the popularity of sports video games, can be, in part, credited to this game. As usual, early reviews are mixed, though it's hard to imagine that the game will be a bigger disappointment than last year, when the only significant changes were the "passing cones" that were strangely conceived and somewhat difficult for the non-hardcare gamers (they were also optional, so you didn't have to master the concept) and the emphasis on the passing game (cover boy was Donovan McNabb).

They are emphasizing the run this year, featuring Seattle running back Shaun Alexander on the cover. The major change is the ability to take control of the lead blocker on running plays. One of the minor changes, allowing QBs to scramble without taking down the passing icons (makes throwing on the run and evading the pass rush more effective) is similar to one made in the NCAA 07 game.

I'm not going to tell you to go buy the game because I'm not sure I'm going to buy it yet. But chances are that most Madden junkies are going to buy the game, many of them today, whether I tell them to or not.

Monday, August 21, 2006

College football preview: Mountain West


1. Utah Utes
It was a struggle, but it appears that Utah is ready to return to the top of the Mountain West. First-year coach Kyle Whittingham had his problems in his rookie campaign, losing the first three road games of the season and also dropping conference home games against New Mexico and San Diego State. The result was an unattractive 4-4 league record, and Utah needed to win in overtime at BYU to save a chance to play in a bowl game.

Entering this season, Whittingham has a potential monster on his hands. No, not the team, which should be pretty good, returning 13 starters. I’m referring to the three-man quarterback controversy that looms this fall. It should be a position of strength, regardless of who wins the job, but watching 2005 starters Brian Johnson (63.6 percent completions, 2,892 yards, 18 TDs) and Brent Ratliff (62.3 percent, 642 yards, 8 TDs) battle with Oklahoma transfer Tommy Grady will be interesting. Johnson tore an ACL late last season, and his first significant on-field work comes during fall practice. He enters as the incumbent, and I’ll guess that he will start the opener at UCLA.

In good shape: Secondary. The Utes are very solid in the secondary. Senior Eric Weddle was the Mountain West Player of the Year last year. He started the season as a safety, but moved to cornerback, where he led the league with 16 passes defensed and also picked up 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions. It sounds like he will move back to safety this year, as the Utes have improved their depth at corner. Seniors Eric Shyne and Shaun Harper will be joined by JUCO transfer Mombroso Washington and sophomore Brice McCain. Junior free safety Steve Tate posted 11 tackles and a pick in the bowl win over Georgia Tech, and senior strong safety Casey Evans will play when the Utes use Weddle as a nickel cornerback.

Needs work: Running back. Guys like Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther have carried the ground game the last couple years. Neither of them won many national or even league accolades, but both were capable runners who fit the system well. This year’s starter should be USC transfer Darryl Poston, who picked up an extra year of eligibility after an injury-ravaged career. Also in the mix will be freshman Mike Liti. The Utes have been extremely reliable on the ground in recent years. For that to continue, they need Poston to be as good as advertised, and they need him to stay healthy.

Overview: Whittingham should be able to count on strong play from both his lines this year. The offensive line returns three starters, and they also add center Jeremy Inferrera, a Hawai’i transfer who started 13 games there before moving east. The defensive line returns senior end Soli Lefiti and senior nose tackle Kelly Talavou. The loss of receiving standout Travis LaTendresse will hurt whoever wins the quarterback job, but it will be nice to have talents like junior Derrek Richards and sophomore Marquis Wilson available. Utah has a very tough opener at UCLA, but games against Northern Arizona and Utah State. The non-conference date at home with Boise State should be magnificent. I think Utah has the talent and the balance to potentially run the table in the MWC this year.

2. TCU Horned Frogs
Quietly, Texas Christian has developed quite the football program. There was a thought that the program might be on the decline after Dennis Franchione bolted for Alabama before the 2000 Mobile Alabama Bowl. Instead, defensive coordinator Gary Patterson took over, and he’s been able to build on what Franchione started. There have been hiccups along the way, including a 6-5 mark in Patterson’s first year and a 5-6 record in 2004.

No such hiccup occurred in 2005. Well, unless you count a shocking 21-10 loss at SMU that followed the Horned Frogs’ 17-10 win at Oklahoma. TCU finished 11-1, including a win over Big 12 foe Iowa State in the Houston Bowl. There are some heavy losses to the depth of the defense, but most of the headline players return on both sides of the ball, with the exception of kick returner and receiver Cory Rodgers.

In good shape: Running back. And how! The Horned Frogs have a stable of capable runners, and if past injury history is any indicator, they’ll use most of the available bodies to get through the season. Last year, TCU started the season with senior Lonta Hobbs as the top back, but Hobbs hurt his groin in the second game and took a medical redshirt. Robert Merrill and Aaron Brown split most of the time at running back, with Brown going for 163 yards in the upset win over Utah, while Merrill gained 170 in a win over San Diego State. All three return this year, and the embarrassment of riches continues at TCU, as sophomores Detrick James and Justin Watts could also push for some carries. Believe it or not, the Frogs could improve on their 192 yards per game average from a year ago.

Needs work: Secondary. This shouldn’t be a huge source of concern, as TCU is traditionally very good in the secondary. However, there is a noticeable lack of experience here entering the fall. The good news for Patterson is that he has seniors to start at corner in Vernon Russell and Mike Salvage. However, the bad news is that the two had just 14 total tackles in 2005. Senior free safety Elvis Gallegos is also new, though he does have eight starts in three years. Senior safety Marvin White is the lone holdover, and he is a good one. White was honorable mention All-MWC last year, posting 67 tackles and three picks in nine starts. He’ll be the leader in the secondary while the new faces get their feet wet, and he should get help from the fifth safety, senior Eric Buchanan, who is more of a center-fielder than a physical threat.

Overview: This team is full of senior leadership. Merrill and Hobbs are both seniors, as is quarterback Jeff Ballard, who was 8-0 as a starter after Tye Gunn got hurt last year. Two of the Horned Frogs’ projected starting wideouts, Michael DePriest and Quentily Harmon, are seniors. Both projected starting tackles are seniors. All five secondary starters are seniors. Many were surprised when TCU took the Mountain West by storm last year, but this has been a good program for some time, and they had everything go their way last year. This year, the non-conference schedule is tough, with visits to Baylor and Army that could prove difficult, along with a home game against high-flying Texas Tech, who hung 70 on the TCU defense in 2004. In league play, TCU must travel to Utah and Colorado State, but their other big games are at home. This team could once again post ten or eleven wins, but I like Utah to edge them out for the conference title.

3. BYU Cougars
For Gary Crowton, it was all downhill after his first season. Called on to replace the legendary LaVell Edwards, Crowton’s first team went 12-2 and threatened to cause the BCS some headaches with a 12-0 start. Crowton’s wide-open offense averaged 44 points per game and posted over 500 yards per game. In his last three years on the job, BYU’s combined record was 14-21, and they never got back to a bowl game. Not only that, but the legendary record of 361 games without being shut out ended under Crowton’s watch.

Needless to say, Crowton lost popularity, and when he was replaced by defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall, one of the priorities was restoring the pride in the BYU program.

It took one season.

The Cougars gradually improved as the season wore on, and they ended up earning a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they took Pac-10 foe California to the limit before losing 35-28. The performance validated all that had been done well by Mendenhall and his staff in their first season, and while the Cougars have some holes to fill on defense, the stage is set for the revival in Provo to continue this season.

In good shape: Quarterback. Gee, where have we heard this before? Look, I’m not here to argue that John Beck is going to end up in the Detmer/McMahon/Bosco category when it comes to great BYU quarterbacks. But when it’s all said and done, he has a chance to set himself up for a nice pro career if he keeps improving like he did last year. Beck struggled for two years under Crowton, but exploded under Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae (Texas Tech guy, in case you’re curious). Beck increased his completion percentage from 56 in 2004 to 65.5 last year, throwing for over 3,700 yards and 27 touchdowns. His nearly 310 yards per game ranked fifth in the country. Mendenhall told Blue Ribbon that he’s not yet buying into the hype surrounding Beck (some of it BYU-generated), and that he has to win a conference title before he can be compared with those who came before him. But with the wealth of talent surrounding Beck, a huge season cannot be ruled out.

Needs work: Defensive line. While the offense looks very strong, the defense was hit hard by graduation, losing eight starters. Particularly hard-hit was the defensive line, which lose three starters. In a 3-4 defense, that’s a bad thing. Senior Halo Paongo started the bowl game last year, and he should start at nose tackle. Surrounding him could be two redshirt freshmen, though one of them is in a battle for a starting job. Jan Jorgensen should start at one end position, while the other end will be manned by either sophomore Kyle Luekenga or redshirt freshman Brett Denney, whose brother Ryan played for BYU in the early 1990s. Mendenhall, who is his own defensive coordinator, has to hope that the youngsters mature quickly, or it could be a long year for his defense.

Overview: After a rough start, the running game came around last year, thanks to 1,100-yard rusher Curtis Brown, who is back for his senior season. In fact, BYU projects to have six senior starters on offense, including Beck and his leading pass-catcher, tight end John Harline. The offense, built around the passing game, should be proficient once again this season. Beck is mobile when he needs to be, he is deadly accurate, and he has a good offensive line in front of him, anchored by senior tackles Jake Kuresa and Eddie Keele. Junior cornerback Keyle Buchanan is a potential star, and considering that the defense allowed 269 passing yards per game and a completion percentage of 63.0 last year, BYU could use more guys like him in the secondary. The first three games will be tough for the Cougars. They open at Arizona, then host Conference USA power Tulsa, and follow that up with a game at Boston College. If BYU can go 2-1 in those games, they may be able to make a run at Utah and TCU for the conference title, even though the Cougars play both on the road this year. The Cougars have the talent to win eight or nine games, and they should qualify for a bowl game for the second time in as many seasons under Mendenhall.

4. Colorado State Rams
Since the ten-win season Colorado State posted in 2002, things have not been well in Fort Collins. The Rams have fallen behind in terms of team speed, and they have had a ton of trouble defending, well, anything. CSU has finished last in the Mountain West in run defense for two straight years, allowing 222 and 223 yards per game. And the scoring defense has gone downhill, too. The Rams allowed more than 30 points per game last year after allowing 29.5 per game in 2004, an average that was the worst posted by a CSU defense since Sonny Lubick took over the program.

Lubick is safe here, and I’m certainly not calling for his head. However, it’s obvious that teams like Utah and TCU have passed Colorado State. The Rams now have to replace the key players in their passing offense, as well as their top three tacklers from last year.

In good shape: Running back. The Rams only averaged 122 yards per game rushing last year, a far cry from the three-year run of 195, 206, and 191 yards per game in 2001-2003. Not only that, but in CSU’s first four losses last year, the running game averaged a mere 60.75 yards and 2.1 yards per carry. There were positives, though, like the 257 yards against Nevada and 213 the next week against Air Force. For Kyle Bell, the season was similarly up-and-down. Bell got just four rushing attempts in a blowout loss to Minnesota, but rebounded with 183 yards against Nevada and 197 (with three scores) against Air Force. Bell posted four more 100-yard games on the season and ended with over 1,200 yards and a team-leading ten scores. The junior has a chance to become the first Ram runner in 20 years to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Backup Nnamdi Ohaeri moves to defensive back, but the Rams have high hopes for redshirt freshman Alex Square. Junior fullback Kyle Van Horn should help provide some muscle in the backfield, though he won’t get too many carries.

Needs work: Passing game. It would be fine if they weren’t both gone. Quarterback Justin Holland ended up leading the Rams to a bowl in his senior season, and he rebounded after throwing five picks in CSU’s first two games to post pretty solid numbers, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 23 scores. Wide receiver David Anderson shattered the school record for career receiving yards with over 3,600. He caught 86 (breaking his own school record) for over 1,200 yards and eight scores as a senior. There are capable players at both positions now, but it will be hard to replace Holland and Anderson. The new quarterback is likely to be junior Caleb Hanie, who made five starts in 2004 and has appeared in 13 games over his first two years. At receiver, Johnny Walker, a junior, is the best receiver on the team entering fall camp. He caught 43 passes last year. Juniors Damon Morton and Luke Roberts should also be factors.

Overview: For Colorado State, a high priority is improving the run defense. Junior end Jesse Nading will lead the defensive line. Sophomore Matt Rupp and junior Blake Smith both return at tackle, and middle linebacker Jeff Horinek gained valuable experience last year as a freshman by starting 11 games. Ohaeri could make an impact as a nickel back, and the Rams also have starting corners Darryl Williams and Robert Herbert back from last year. Senior safety Ben Stratton returns after missing the 2005 season, and his presence should be a boost to the run defense, which suffered last year – in part – because no one seemed able to step up and fill his shoes. The Rams have opened three straight seasons with losses to in-state rival Colorado, but they are going to open this year by hosting I-AA Weber State as a tuneup of sorts for the Colorado game, which is in Denver this year. I expect solid improvement out of the run defense, and while Hanie might not be as prolific as Holland was, he still has the personnel to put up decent numbers and keep CSU bowl-eligible.

5. San Diego State Aztecs
When Chuck Long took over the SDSU program following the dismissal of Tom Craft, the former H*i*m*n Trophy runner-up and Oklahoma assistant made his intentions clear, declaring that the goal was to win championships. The Aztec program has been far from a title contender, even in the “mid-major” Mountain West, for quite a while. After a 7-4 season in 1998, things started going in the wrong direction. 2003’s 6-6 season was followed by consecutive seven-loss campaigns, and that was it for Craft. The offense improved, but the defense took steps back each of those two years, allowing nearly 28 points per game last year, a ten-point increase over 2003.

Long’s first team features 13 total starters back, and eight of them are on defense. If the defense gels under new coordinator Bob Elliott, the Aztecs could surprise.

In good shape: Secondary. Elliott has to be happy. He has four senior starters projected to take the field in the Aztecs’ opener. Both senior corners, Donny Baker and Terrell Maze, broke up a dozen passes last year, while combining for four picks. Safeties Reggie Grigsby and Brett Sturm both have starting experience. Grigsby was honorable mention All-MWC last year. Players like sophomore safety T.J. McKay and redshirt freshman cornerback Kwincy Edwards will push for playing time in a talented, deep secondary that will cause fits for more than a few quarterbacks this season.

Needs work: Wide receiver. Long knows he has a good one in junior quarterback Kevin O’Connell. O’Connell already has 17 starts to his credit, and he did put up some good numbers in 2005, completing 62 percent of throws for 2,663 yards and 19 scores. However, 92 of his 233 completions on the year went to senior receiver Jeff Webb, who took his 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns to the NFL as a draft pick of the Chiefs. Also gone is second receiver Robert Ortiz, who caught 39 passes and five touchdowns. Long projects to start three juniors at receiver in the opener, with Chazeray Schilens being the most experienced of the group. Alex Ghebreselassie and Brett Swain should also see a lot of snaps, and redshirt freshman Mekell Wesley could push the group, too. The development of a solid receiving corps for O’Connell is essential, and Long knows he has to find a go-to guy.

Overview: The defense was nicknamed the “Dark Side Defense” under Craft and coordinator Thom Kaumeyer. Elliott will do good work with this group, and he has plenty of experience to deal with. Only two sophomores, talented end Siaosi Fifita and outside linebacker Russell Allen, are expected to start. The rest of the group is nothing but juniors and seniors. This gives Elliott smart and experienced players to install his defense with, and with any luck, he’ll have a full season to develop his young players in the system and build depth. Junior running back Lynell Hamilton is a keeper. He’s coming off a solid season that saw him post four 100-yard games and over 800 yards for the year. They do need to keep Hamilton healthy, but the offense should improve. A non-conference slate of UTEP (home), Wisconsin (road), Cal Poly (does it matter?), and San Jose State (road) is fairly difficult (all but the Cal Poly game could be problematic), and Long doesn’t catch any breaks because the first three games are against 2005 bowl teams. The Aztecs could surprise and push for a top three spot in the league, but it isn’t likely with the questions in the passing game and along the offensive line.

6. Air Force Falcons
For the first time in coach Fisher DeBerry’s tenure, Air Force is dealing with back-to-back losing seasons. On top of that, the Falcon program is dealing with controversy, after DeBerry’s comments after a loss to TCU last year where he talked openly about the need to recruit more black athletes to the Academy. A host of former Air Force players stood up behind the coach, and the administration gave no reason to believe that he is in trouble. When you win 154 games in 21 years at a place like Air Force, where recruiting is not easy, you end up getting a bit of a reprieve when you struggle for a couple seasons.

The Falcons’ on-field issues can be traced almost solely to the defense. Air Force was strong defensively as recently as 2003, when they gave up 20.2 points per game. But that total ballooned to 31.1 in 2004 and 31.7 last year. For Air Force to get back into the bowl picture for the first time since 2002, DeBerry and defensive coordinator Richard Bell (8th season) have to figure out a way to down the opposition. In an era of wide-open offenses, it’s going to take improved depth, especially in the secondary.

In good shape: Quarterback. Whether Air Force wants to continue the recent trend of throwing the ball a bit more (passing yards per game have been up in three successive seasons now) or not, Shaun Carney is the guy to lead the offense. He’s the kind of dual-threat guy that can make this offense extremely dangerous. Carney led the team with 710 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last year, and he also threw for nearly 1,400 yards and seven more scores. With the Falcons’ top two receivers both having graduated, this could be the year that Carney breaks out as a running threat. A 1,000-yard rushing season is certainly a possibility, and if Air Force can develop a couple of their more inexperienced receivers, Carney could be a 1,000-1,000 quarterback. Honorable mention here goes to the running backs. It’s not necessarily common for Air Force to return three experienced running backs, but they do this year. Seniors Jacobe Kendrick and junior Ryan Williams will split time at fullback, while senior Justin Handley and junior Chad Hall will man the wings. Also a factor here is junior Ty Paffet, who moved from safety and had a good spring.

Needs work: Defensive front seven. It’s more of a “front six” or a “front eight”, depending on how you choose to classify the Falcon positions, which are hybrid linebacker/safety positions. I would tend to lean towards the Falcons being strong safety types, and that would classify Air Force as playing a 4-2-5 defense, though they are “officially” a 4-3. Enough of the semantics. The Falcons have issues in the front seven. Their line is, as usual, undersized. They do return a solid defensive end in senior Gilberto Perez, but the tackle position isn’t deep, and they don’t have a wealth of size available. Seniors Grant Thomas and Kevin Quinn are expected to battle with junior Chris Monson playing time at the two tackle positions. Thomas, at 275 pounds, is the biggest of the group, which isn’t a good thing. Perez is the jewel of the group, and the Falcons hope they can develop enough talent around him so he won’t be constantly battling double teams. At linebacker, junior Drew Fowler returns after a solid 77-tackle season, but the other inside linebacker position is open. Junior John Rabold is the favorite there.

Overview: The controversy surrounding the way he presented his thoughts notwithstanding, DeBerry certainly brought up a valid point. His program is falling behind in terms of athletic ability and overall depth. The argument that it is exceptionally difficult to recruit at a service academy is real, and it is valid. And Air Force will need DeBerry’s coaching acumen now more than ever if they’re going to keep up with the increased athleticism present in the Mountain West. Certainly, the offense is still good enough to baffle opposing defenses. Carney and the backfield are very strong, and the offensive line is always built with strong leaders and smart players. Three returning seniors, guards Curtis Grantham and Tyler Dohallow and tackle Robert Kraay, anchor the line this year, along with senior center Stuart Perlow. Projected right tackle Caleb Morris was a starter in 2004 who sat out last season with a wrist injury. Perez, Fowler, and junior safety Bobby Giannini will lead the defense, but DeBerry has to keep his fingers crossed that his front-line guys stay healthy. The defense lacks depth at all positions. Non-conference games at Tennessee and at home against Notre Dame are almost certain losses, and the games against Army and Navy won’t be easy, either (Air Force lost both last year). All told, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that, if Air Force can rebuild on defense, the Falcons could find themselves bowl eligible. However, it might be too much to ask this season because of the ferocious non-conference schedule.

7. New Mexico Lobos
It’s a stunning development, really, when you consider where the New Mexico program once was. As recently as 2000, the Lobos completed a stretch of three straight losing seasons, but the 1997 season saw UNM make their first bowl trip since 1961. The Lobos have since posted five straight winning seasons and made three more bowl trips. Last year’s 6-5 season was viewed as a disappointment in Albuquerque, which is a really good sign, because it means fans are no longer satisfied with the program scraping to finish with a winning record.

Expectations are now present, and as a result of those expectations, head coach Rocky Long changed offensive coordinators during the offseason. He moved Dan Dodd to special teams and brought in former UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who wants a more pro-style offense instead of the run-heavy attack UNM has been using for quite a few years. In fact, the last time that the Lobos averaged more passing yards per game than rushing yards in a season was way back in 1999. That will probably change this season.

In good shape: Offensive line. The Lobos have another big line in place this season, and they have some experience returning, too. UNM returns both starting tackles, Robert Turner and Anthony Kilby, along with left guard Bo Greer. Toledo likes his front-line players, but told Blue Ribbon that he’d like to have a deeper front line. Junior Vince Natali should start at center, while junior Matt Streid (JUCO) and senior Patrick Hodges expect to vie for the starting job at right guard. With Toledo switching to a pro-style offense where the Lobos expect to be more proficient passing the ball, the sight of experienced starting tackles has to make him feel pretty confident.

Needs work: Running game. Granted, the Lobos are changing a few things offensively. But Toledo isn’t going to want to throw the ball every down. With that in mind, he has to find a way to replace four-year starter DonTrell Moore, who only holds the school’s career rushing record by 1,111 yards. Moore ran for nearly 1,300 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns (3 receiving) last year, and the leading returning rusher is quarterback Kole McKamey. Among the running backs, Toledo and Long are looking at the prospect of a dreaded “running back by committee” this season. Junior Martelius Epps and sophomores Rodney Ferguson and Paul Baker are the key players entering the season. The returning running backs combined for just 53 yards a year ago, who whoever gets the job will be inexperienced. Ferguson has the size and speed to be effective, but Toledo seems committed to the committee approach at least for the time being.

Overview: McKamey enters his senior year with some question marks. He missed some time with a back injury last year, and was up-and-down with his overall effectiveness when he was healthy. The coaches need him to take better care of the football, and with Toledo’s offense probably calling for more passing (UNM averaged 48 running plays and just 28 passing plays a year ago), McKamey will have to perform well with some new targets. Leading receiver Hank Baskett is gone, and Moore was second on the team with 31 catches last year. Baskett will be especially tough to replace because of his size and ability to go after jump balls. Junior Travis Brown is 6-3 and is probably the best option Toledo has for a top receiver this year. On defense, the Lobos have issues. They allowed nearly 30 points per game last year, up 11 from the year before, and they lose seven starters. There is a lot of potential for coordinator Osia Lewis to work with, but that potential is relatively untested. Particularly tantalizing are redshirt freshman corner Ian Clark and sophomore safeties DeAndre Wright and Blake Ligon. Senior outside linebacker Quincy Black enters with very high expectations, as he will be the only senior to return with any significant starting experience. UNM gets a rare home game against a BCS-conference for when Missouri comes to town in Week Three. UTEP also visits, so the Lobos have two very tough non-MWC games. The changeover on offense, along with significant personnel turnover on defense, probably will keep the Lobos in the lower half of the Mountain West.

8. UNLV Rebels
Mike Sanford was one of three first-year head coaches in the Mountain West last year. He ended up at UNLV after being offensive coordinator at Utah under Urban Meyer, and he brought the spread offense with him to Las Vegas. That made for a bit of a difficult transition, and Sanford hopes the second year is much smoother.

The offense was putrid at times last year, using two different quarterbacks but never really finding a rhythm. The Rebels averaged a shade under 19 points per game last year, while only posting 325 yards of offense per game. Opponents averaged 34 points and over 400 yards against the Rebels, so there is quite a gap for Sanford to plug on both sides of the ball.

In good shape: Secondary. Yes, UNLV ranked 109th in Division I-A in pass defense. That’s bad. However, help has arrived. Juniors Eric Wright (USC) and Mil’Von James (UCLA) have transferred in and are eligible. Also back is senior corner John Guice, who is undersized but very fast. There is also new-found depth at safety, where senior Jay Staggs is back, and the Rebels are set to welcome JUCO transfer Tony Cade. Cade originally signed at Oklahoma before moving into the JC ranks. Also back is senior “Rebel” (nickel-back position) Nate Kenion. There is much more talent here than there was a year ago, and the improvement should be quick.

Needs work: Passing game. Yes, the numbers were better last year (UNLV went from 48 percent completions and 167 yards per game in 2004 to 55 percent and 217 last year). But they weren’t good enough. The Rebels have to throw the ball better, and the guy to do that might be USC transfer Rocky Hinds. Hinds was caught in a numbers game in Los Angeles, but he fits in perfectly as the starter in Vegas. He still has to win the job over senior Shane Steichen, who was okay last last season and might earn some playing time early because of his experience in the offense. At receiver, the departures of Greg Estandia and Donell Wheaton leave some openings. The good news is that JUCO Aaron Straiten is now on board. His size and speed should be a good fit for the offense, but he lacks experience at this level. Sophomore Casey Flair should make an impact.

Overview: The offense could turn around quickly, if Sanford finds a consistent quarterback and gets better play out of an offensive line that allowed an unsightly 39 sacks last year. The key player up front will be senior center Aaron Mueller, who should have a permanent home after jumping between left guard and center. Senior defensive tackle Howie Fuimaono anchors the front three. He’s huge at 335 pounds, and if he can stay healthy, he’s an ideal nose for UNLV’s 3-3-5 look. With early trips to Iowa State and Hawai’i, Sanford probably can’t afford to be juggling quarterbacks, but that is the likely scenario unless either Hinds or Steichen create some separation during fall camp. The conference schedule is tough, with road trips to BYU, Utah, Colorado State, and San Diego State. The defense will be better, thanks to the improved secondary, but the Rebels will be fortunate to win five games against a difficult schedule.

9. Wyoming Cowboys
The Cowboys went in the wrong direction last year. After a stunning Las Vegas Bowl win over UCLA to close out the 2004 season, the Cowboys fell flat a year ago, finishing 4-7, while losing their last six games. The offense slipped from the year before, scoring fewer points and committing more turnovers. Defensively, they didn’t have as many takeaways, they allowed more points, and while they gave up fewer yards, they had a ton of problems down the stretch, allowing nearly 38 points per game over the last four games.

For the first time since 2000, the Cowboys won’t have a Bramlet at quarterback, as Casey and Corey are both gone. And they lose another key weapon on offense, as star receiver Jovon Bouknight. Leading tackler Ron Rockett is gone, too. So, yeah, there are some holes to fill.

In good shape: Running game. Leading rusher Wynel Seldon returns after gaining 871 yards in his freshman campaign. However, fumble issues continued to haunt Seldon in the spring. As a result, seniors Joseph Harris and Ivan Harrison are listed as co-starters with Seldon, and all three could get playing time early. It might not matter who runs, however, as the Cowboys have the makings of an elite offensive line. Senior center Jason Karcher returns along with senior tackles Hunter Richards and Chase Johnson. Sophomore guard Kyle Howard makes it four returning starters up front. The four have combined for 97 collegiate starts.

Needs work: Secondary. Wyoming took a hit here when cornerback Derrick Martin jumped to the NFL Draft a year early, leaving relatively inexperienced juniors Michael Medina and Julius Stinson to start on the outside. While senior safety John Wendling returns, the other safety position is in flux. Senior Dorsey Golston is the favorite to start, but the job could also go to sophomore Quincy Rogers or JUCO Darryl Gober. Wendling moved from strong safety to free safety last year, and still posted good numbers, finishing second on the team with 75 tackles. Because of the inexperience, this should be a huge area of concern for head coach Joe Glenn and defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

Overview: Also of concern is the passing game. Bramlets are gone, leaving the job for redshirt freshman Karsten Sween, junior Jacob Doss, or sophomore Stinson Dean. Bouknight’s absence leaves the receiving duties for juniors Michael Ford and Hoost Marsh, along with senior Tyler Holden. The three combined for 45 catches last year. The Cowboys’ best defensive unit should be the linebackers. All three 2005 starters return, led by senior Austin Hall, who plays on the strong side. Sophomore Ward Dobbs starts on the weak side, and junior Luke Chase returns to start in the middle. The schedule shows some good news, with three of the first four games at home. The bad news is that one of those games is against Boise State. If Glenn can get a quarterback developed, Wyoming might have a chance to sneak into the top six of this league, thanks to what should definitely be an improved defense. But it won’t be easy for Wyoming to win more than four or five games.

BlogPoll Roundtable 1: Polling issues

Following the release of the BlogPoll preseason list, we get our first roundtable of 2006.

Our first of the season is hosted by The House Rock Built.

In a strange twist of fate, I had an entire post typed out, but a power surge blew it all away. The "Recover post" feature on Blogger is a disgraceful piece of crap, so I am forced to start over.

With that in mind, this is going to be shorter, with fewer links to the BlogPoll ballot and other things. I'm going to make my points and move on with my busy day.

1. What's the biggest ripoff in this preseason poll? Either pick a team that's offensively over or underrated, or you can rag on a particular voter's bad pick (hey, we're all adults here, we can handle it).

A few thoughts.

Notre Dame is overrated. Teams that don't play defense shouldn't be in the top five.

Auburn? I was especially disappointed in Badger Sports Blog, who had to have seen Wisconsin's pounding of the Tigers in the Capital One Bowl. EDSBS has Auburn #1, LSU #5, and Tennessee #8, apparently having forgotten about the other four or five BCS conferences (your mileage on the Big East definitely varies).

So in this poll, I'm tabbing Auburn as the most overrated side.

2. What shold a preseason poll measure? Specifically, should it be a predictor of end-of-season standing (meaning that a team's schedule should be taken into account when determining a ranking), or should it merely be a barometer of talent/hype/expectations?

Like many, I don't care who a team plays. That, to me, is Phil Steele's biggest flaw. He weighs schedules too much in his otherwise pristine analysis.

Consider things like returning talent, experience, and give a team a bump if they have a veteran outfit that is coming off a tough season (just don't vote them #8 in the preseason poll, Orson). Phil's idea of looking at turnovers from the previous year is a good one, because there is an amount of luck that comes with a high turnover margin, either positive or negative.

3. What is your biggest stretch in your preseason ballot? That is to say, which team has the best chance of making you look like an idiot for overrating them?

My decision to call Notre Dame "overrated" is a stretch that comes with a certain amount of admitted bias. With that in mind, I admit that they could very well end up 12-0. I just don't rate it as "likely".

West Virginia could make me, and many others, look completely stupid. I'm hopeful that it doesn't happen, and I think many are underestimating Rich Rodriguez and his program. If Pat White can develop even a smidge as a passer, this team is a serious threat.

Not only that, but both WVU and Texas did get rid of one stereotype that was prevalent for a couple years, and that was the one that said spread teams couldn't win. Not only did WVU and Texas win BCS bowl games with the spread (with Texas winning the national title), but Penn State and Ohio State also won BCS bowl games while using the spread as part of their offense. So lay off the spread, you purist heathens!

4. What do you see as the biggest flaw in the polling system (both wire service and blogpolling)? Is polling an integral part of the great game of college football, or is it an outdated system that needs to be replaced? If you say the latter, enlighten us with your new plan.

The biggest flaw in the polling system is that there is no playoff system set up to help deflect the negatives that are built in to the poll system.

That, and the polls carry too much weight in the BCS. We were told that the BCS was being implemented to offset the impact polls had in the selection process for major bowl games. Instead of doing that, the BCS fixed nothing (see: "2003"), and they tried to fix the BCS by putting the polls back in.

Way to be on top of things and forward-thinking, gentlemen.

5. You're Scott Bakula, and you have the opportunity to "Quantum Leap" back in time and change any single moment in your team's history. It can be a play on the field, a hiring decision, or your school's founders deciding to build the campus in Northern Indiana, of all godforsaken places. What do you do?

First off, I hated that show.

But I'll play along.

I'm going back to 1993 and reminding Darrell Bevell that the Badgers had their white jerseys on for their game against Minnesota at the Metrodome. Maybe then Bevell wouldn't have cost his team an eventual shot (maybe) at the national title by throwing the ball to the Gophers too many times.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Randomization: 08/17/06

Kessel gone. First reported, I think, by Gopher blogger Hammy, and we know he has sources. It was picked up rather quickly by the usually reliable E.J. Hradek of ESPN the Magazine. So even without Sid's approval, I think it's safe to say that Gopher hockey star Phil Kessel is one-and-done at UMTC. Kessel is set to sign his entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins as soon as today (thanks for the birthday present, Phil).

Kessel's signing means that the WCHA has now lost 17 underclassmen this offseason. Chris Dilks, author of the Western College Hockey Blog, was ahead of the game about a month ago when he discussed the losses and what they mean to the WCHA. Chris listed the top returning scorers in the league, but his list has already been significantly altered because of two more departures that have happened since July 25.

As Chris points out, and my counting ability can confirm, only 20 of the league's top 50 scorers from last year return this year. None of the top ten are back, and any list of "top scorers" that includes the name "Dan Kronick" is probably the sign of a lack of depth, since 20 of Kronick's 23 points came over one weekend against UMD, or so it seemed.

The new top ten, removing all the guys who left school early and also those who exhausted their eligibility:

1. T.J. Oshie, North Dakota (11th last year)
2. Ryan Dingle, Denver (T-12th)
3. Travis Morin, Minnesota State (T-14th)
4. Andrew Gordon, St. Cloud State (T-16th)
T-5. Alex Goligoski, Minnesota (T-18th)
T-5. Jonathan Toews, North Dakota (T-18th)
7. Ryan Duncan, North Dakota (T-22nd)
8. Chad Rau, Colorado College (T-30th)
9. Ben Gordon, Minnesota (T-32nd)
10. Mason Raymond, UMD (35th)

One can only figure that this trend will continue over the years, as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement seems to encourage teams to sign their young players early. This heavy of a loss over a single offseason is probably a one-shot deal, because the new CBA didn't go into effect early enough last year to really have an impact on college hockey.

As for Kessel, I have no doubt the kid has a wealth of talent. However, I'm not absolutely certain that his game is ready for the NHL. He will certainly go in with a chip on his shoulder, because he went from "surefire #1 pick" to "falling down the board" before being taken fifth by the Bruins. I won't miss him, because he had the potential to catch fire and carry his team at any time, but on the other hand, his development probably would have been furthered with another year in college as opposed to turning pro early.

I bet Michelle Tafoya feels really stupid over this. On Monday night, during ESPN's broadcast of the Raiders-Vikings preseason game (you did know that ESPN's airing Monday Night Football, right?), sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya took some time to chronicle the rehabilitation and recovery of Vikings wide receiver Koren Robinson, who was run out of Seattle because of his drinking problems (he was suspended for four games in 2004, and he pleaded guilty to DUI in 2005 before getting cut). Robinson spent 28 days in a treatment facility last year after his DUI plea, and he ended up signing with the Vikings after he got out of rehab. Robinson had a Pro Bowl season, becoming the Vikings' best kick returner and most dangerous receiver. Minnesota signed him to a three-year deal in the offseason, and everything seemed great.

When Robinson ended up in a treatment facility again this summer, his agent told the media that he was taking "prevention classes". Robinson said he was not in treatment, but was simply trying to help himself stay sober.

Tafoya talked about Robinson's decision to go back for these "prevention classes", and the game announcers all praised Robinson for being proactive and trying to make himself a better person. The praise, in my opinion, was warranted. Robinson had endeared himself to his Vikings teammates, had a Pro Bowl season, and was set to become the Vikings' top receiver.

All seemed well until Tuesday night. I'll let the Minneapolis Star Tribune take it from here.

Robinson, 26, was arrested Tuesday night after a 15-mile chase down Hwy. 169 toward Mankato. He was charged with one count of felony fleeing and two counts of fourth-degree drunken driving, along with reckless driving, careless driving and driving after suspension.

St. Peter officers clocked him driving 104 miles per hour at 10:46 p.m.

According to the police report, the officers lost track of him despite pursuit speeds of more than 120 miles per hour. Mankato police finally stopped Robinson's 2003 BMW about two blocks from the Vikings' dormitory at Minnesota State, Mankato.
It's a mess for the Vikings. Owner Zygi Wilf has mandated improved character and accountability from the players, as he's tired of Whizzinator/Love Boat-type embarrassments. This won't sit well, and one can expect Robinson to be gone soon. He'll either be released by the Vikings, suspended by the league, or both (because of his earlier league suspension, he faces a one-year ban this time around). And his career may be in jeopardy, because the odds of a team signing a player with Robinson's risks are pretty low, no matter the high level of talent involved.

Addition to the main Blog page...As you can see, I've re-inserted the BlogPoll on the right-hand side of the main page. You all know what the BlogPoll is by now. The preseason poll came out yesterday. You can check out more about the BlogPoll by clicking the link to your right on the bottom of the top ten. That box will automatically update every week when the poll is updated.

Throughout the season, I'll be posting my ballot here, along with game previews, recaps, and other college football stuff. We will also be hosting a roundtable soon.

The stupidity of the media, part 379. Every time I read a story like the one Hammy penned breaking the Kessel news, I am thankful for the internet. It's a place where information can flow freely, without the constraints of editors or deadlines.

Then, there's, a website so despicable that I won't link it here. If you really want to go there, you can go there. You don't need my help, and it's bad enough I'm giving them publicity with my 13 readers.

The site found a report yesterday on Twin Cities TV station KSTP's website. That report said that Packers QB Brett Favre was going to have a press conference Wednesday at 11:30am, and they didn't know what he was going to announce.

Hysteria followed, as some less intelligent media types began to speculate that Favre was going to retire. Of course, they failed to ignore a few relevant facts:

1. Favre took part in a full practice on Tuesday night, a practice that concluded some 15 hours before this scheduled press conference.

2. Favre has had a regular media session on Wednesdays during football season for about a decade now.

Eventually, PFT's report was amended to say that retirement talk was a "false alarm". Truthfully, there was no alarm at all.

And it's websites like this one that sully the reputation of the internet as a legitimate news entity. I'm not here to say that it is absolutely legitimate as a news outlet, but the internet has exceptional value these days. Blogs have done a lot to keep the "mainstream media" honest (think about the Reuters Photoshop scandal, first broken by a blog), and blogs have become part of the mainstream media.

(You need to look no further for an example of that than many newspaper sites, which have set up blogs for at least some of their writers. The St. Paul Pioneer Press has a "blog" set up to cover Vikings training camp, as does the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Green Bay Press Gazette has two Blogger sites set up for reporting on Packers training camp (if you don't believe me, click here and here.)

KSTP is not without fault here, either. They didn't do any substantive research before reporting something completely meaningless, and it started a chain of speculation that was completely unnecessary. If they had made one phone call, they could have figured out that Favre has press conferences every Wednesday during football season, and that he has for a while.

If you remember, back in April, a similar firestorm erupted when Favre held a media session in Mississippi in conjunction with his annual charity golf tournament. As discussed here, Favre's press conference about nothing but a charity golf tournament in Tunica, Mississippi, really ticked off the mainstream sports media.

They were furious, probably because they flew to Tunica, Mississippi, for absolutely nothing newsworthy. The claim was that "Brett Favre called a press conference to announce that he hadn't made a decision". This absolute falsehood was perpetrated by more than one nationally prominent analyst, and that analyst should have been beaten with a brick for not doing any research on the topic.

Favre called a press conference, an annual press conference to discuss his annual charity event, and it was turned into a "retirement or non-retirement" announcement by the media. When they didn't get what they felt had been advertised, the media turned on Favre, calling him selfish and claiming he was "holding the Packers hostage" without offering any evidence to back up that ridiculous assertion.

With that in mind, PFT may have done the internet a disservice, but the mainstream media does itself a disservice every day. For further evidence of that, check out how much time and bandwidth has been spent by the networks and websites covering the arrest of Jon-Benet Ramsey's killer. Ask yourself a valuable question: If Jon-Benet Ramsey's parents hadn't been millionaires that pushed her into child-beauty pageants, would anyone have cared about this story from the get-go? And how is this a bigger story than the events in the Middle East?

News? Yeah, if you'd like to call it that.

(How's that for a ramble-fest?)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

College football preview: MAC West


1. Northern Illinois Huskies
Would you believe that Joe Novak’s career at Northern Illinois started with a 1-26 run? It did. NIU was in terrible shape before Novak arrived in 1996. At that point, Novak embarked on a hellacious rebuilding project, and he began to see payoff in 1999, when the Huskies won five games and nearly doubled their offensive output (14.5 points per game to 26.3).

1999 was Northern Illinois’ last losing season. Since then, Novak is 40-24, and NIU broke a 21-year bowl drought with a win over Troy in the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic. They’ve produced an NFL running back in Michael Turner, an NFL receiver in Justin McCareins, and they have NFL-caliber talent on hand this year. After a relatively disappointing 7-5 season and a heartbreaking loss in the MAC title game, there should be no shortage of motivation in DeKalb this fall.

In good shape: Running back. This one is easy. Garrett Wolfe posted the following single-game yardage totals last year: 148, 245, 197, 153, 177, 277, 270. For the season, an incredible 175.6 yards per game and 16 touchdowns in just nine games. Just when you thought that Turner’s school-record 4,941 career yards was untouchable, here comes Wolfe, who is a mere 1,705 yards away. If he stays healthy for 12 games and gains yards at the same pace as he did last year, he’ll post a 2,100-yard season and obliterate Turner’s record. With the traditionally strong offensive line returning two starters, including NFL prospect Doug Free at left tackle, and the Huskies returning a senior quarterback, you could argue that a healthy Wolfe is not just a candidate to break a few records, but that he’s a darkhorse candidate for the H*i*m*n if the people who vote on it can look away from Brady Quinn and Adrian Peterson for a few seconds.

Needs work: Wide receiver. McCareins, Dan Sheldon, and P.J. Fleck have all posted quality numbers at NIU in the last ten years, and Sam Hurd followed in their footsteps. Hurd caught 65 last year for over 1,000 yards and 13 scores, and he departs second on NIU’s all time list for receiving yards in a career (behind McCareins). The top receiver this year is likely to be sophomore Britt Davis, who caught 42 passes a year ago. Redshirt freshman Orlando Moore is a Phil Steele-labeled VHT and was impressive in spring practice, as was fellow second-year freshman Preston Williams. That said, the lack of experience at this position is staggering, and it could make life stressful for senior quarterback Phil Horvath, who returns after breaking his arm late last season.

Overview: There is no way to predict how NIU’s offense will perform, though it is certainly tempting to look at past performance. The Huskies have had success filling in holes in recent years, and Novak’s recruiting appears to only be getting stronger. Horvath is backed up by capable sophomore Dan Nicholson, who led NIU to three straight wins after Horvath went down. On defense, the Huskies have there seniors projected to start in what should be a very strong secondary (twins Adriel and Alvah Hansbro are set to start at corner). Also back is senior end Ken West, who will lead the pass rush, and sophomore linebackers Phil Brown and Tim McCarthy both got plenty of playing time last year. For the second straight year, NIU opens on the road against a Big Ten power. Last year, it was Michigan, and it’s Ohio State this year. But unlike last year, when the Huskies went to Northwestern after the Michigan trip, they get a reprieve of sorts this year. The other non-conference games are at home against Indiana State and Temple, with a road trip to Iowa coming in late October (if NIU is healthy, by the way, this one will have “trap” written all over it, as Iowa will be coming off a road game against Michigan). The Huskies have the firepower to win eight or nine games, and they should be able to again hold off Toledo for the division title.

2. Toledo Rockets
Strangely, people thought Tom Amstutz was nuts when he scrapped Gary Pinkel’s run-oriented attack in favor of the spread offense, which was not as “in style” as it is now. The Rockets had carved out quite a niche with their running game, especially with Chester Taylor, who is still the school’s all-time leading rusher and now plays for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

What has followed certainly was enough to quiet the detractors, as the spread has been wildly successful at Toledo. Amstutz and offensive coordinators Rob Spence (left after 2004 season) and John Shannon have seen the offense score no fewer than 32.4 points per game in any of the five years since it was implemented. The Rockets haven’t abandoned the running game that they were so successful with, either, as they’ve averaged at least 161 yards per game, and as many as 217, in those five years.

This year, Amstutz has to break in a new quarterback and a new running back, but a host of receivers return, and the defense looks strong again this year, continuing to rebound after a subpar 2004 season.

In good shape: Defensive line. The Rockets were pretty good up front last year, and things are looking even stronger in 2006. The switch to a 3-4 last season went very well, and now the entire two-deep returns, led by senior tackle J.P. Bekasiak and junior end Sean Williamson. Junior end Patrick Clark is also back, and senior Seth Thitoff will push both starting ends for playing time. Junior tackle Alfred Martin and end Nick Lawrence should both be in contention for snaps, too. With everyone back from the second-best run defense in the MAC, Amstutz and defensive coordinator Tim Rose are in great shape along the line.

Needs work: Quarterback and running back. Of all the shoes to be filled in the MAC this year, none may be bigger than those of Bruce Gradkowski. Gradkowski had to battle injury issues the last two years, but still threw well enough to become Toledo’s all-time leading passer, surpassing Gene Swick by almost 2,000 yards. He also leads in career completions. Since Amstutz took over and installed the spread offense, Toledo has been fortunate at quarterback (Tavares Bolden and Brian Jones, followed by Gradkowski’s three-year run), and they hope that good fortune continues with sophomore Clint Cochran, who hit a mere 74 percent of his throws in limited duty last year. The future is definitely bright, but in the short-term, Toledo is going to feel the loss of Gradkowski. At running back, Trinity Dawson, who gained nearly 1,300 yards and also caught 22 passes, is gone. If freshman Raymond Williams, a former West Virginia prospect who ran into legal troubles and lost his WVU scholarship in 2004, is eligible, he could be a huge factor. Junior Scooter McDougle, if healthy, should get the bulk of the carries, and junior Jalen Parmele is also a candidate.

Overview: The Rockets return a load of wide receivers. Senior Steve Odom was the only player on the team to catch at least one pass in every game last year (he had 55 on the year). Junior Andrew Hawkins and sophomore Nick Moore should also get a healthy number of catches. Outside of the line, there are questions on defense, as the two starting inside linebackers depart, leaving senior outside ‘backers Michael Chamberlain and Mike Alston to lead the charge. Veterans Tyrrell Herbert and Nigel Morris are back in the secondary. Like many MAC teams, Toledo is going to open with a road game against a BCS conference team (Iowa State). The Rockets host Kansas in Week Three, and visit Pittsburgh two weeks later. When all is said and done, the Tuesday night game at Northern Illinois November 7 should decide the division champion. Toledo will stay in the race, but unless they can replace the losses at quarterback, running back, and linebacker, they won’t have enough horses to win the division.

3. Central Michigan Chippewas
It’s been a quick turnaround for Brian Kelly and the CMU program. In just two years, Kelly has transformed the Chippewas into a team that could be considered a contender for the MAC West title this season. Kelly switched CMU to the spread offense that he had great success with at Division II powerhouse Grand Valley State, and while CMU isn’t scoring at a much greater clip than they were when he arrived, the talent level is increasing, and Kelly’s staff has done a great job improving the defense.

It’s that defense that earned accolades last year. CMU cut their points per game against by double-digits last year, and they get seven starters back on defense this year. They also posted the top-ranked run defense in the league in 2005.

In good shape: Linebacker. If you saw the two-deep at linebacker for CMU last year, you have seen the two-deep at linebacker for CMU this year. The starting linebackers are all back, and two of the three are entering their senior seasons. “Drop” linebacker (hybrid LB/safety) Issac Brown posted 73 tackles with three sacks last year. Doug Kress is back after also making 73 tackles last year while starting nine games. The only junior among the starters is Thomas Keith, who led the team with 104 tackles last year while also making four interceptions. The Chippewas have valuable backups in senior Leython Williams and sophomore Jonathan Lapsley. With guys like defensive end Daniel Bazuin (set a MAC record with 16 sacks last year) and junior defensive tackle Steven Friend up front, these guys should have plenty of room to roam and make plays.

Needs work: Secondary. Luckily for CMU, the front seven looks pretty strong, because the secondary took a beating last year, as Kelly jettisoned two starting corners and lost a starting safety to graduation. Senior Pacino Horne will move from safety to corner and is a likely starter, while the other starter will probably end up being redshirt freshman Josh Gordy. True freshmen Chaz West, Tommy Mama, and Kirkston Edwards could all compete for playing time, along with senior Terrance Robinson, who may be one of the odd men out because of his size (5-6, 181). Horne will be replaced at one safety position by junior Curtis Cutts, while Marlin Maxwell’s departure may open the door for another redshirt freshman. Coming out of the spring, Aaron Carr was the favorite to start at strong safety.

Overview: Last year’s 6-5 record marked CMU’s first winning season since 1998. The Chippewas did it despite some up-and-down performances, including a home loss to Eastern Michigan and a win over Miami that ended the RedHawks’ 10-game home winning streak. The Chips also split games against division favorites Toledo (win) and Northern Illinois (loss). QB Kent Smith, who was a big part of that success (2,800 yards, 16 TD, 6 INT), is gone, but Kelly is confident in new starter Brian Brunner, a sophomore, can take over and run the spread efficiently. It helps to have senior receivers back in Damien Linson and Obed Cetoute, and Kelly figures to have a solid running game again thanks to sophomore Ontario Sneed. Sneed stepped in last year when Jerry Seymour’s legal troubles landed him on the outside of the program, and he ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman. For the second straight year, CMU opens at home against a BCS conference opponent, as Boston College will be visiting Mount Pleasant (Indiana was there last year). Trips to Michigan and Kentucky will be very challenging, as will conference road games at Toledo and Northern Illinois. They’ll be favored in their four league home games, and CMU is certainly capable of beating Eastern Michigan, Temple, and Buffalo on the road. If they can split the Toledo and NIU games again, and/or upset Boston College, the Chippewas could very well be bowl-bound in Kelly’s third season.

4. Western Michigan Broncos
Western Michigan’s record-setting season came one win short of a shot at the West Division title, but it still has to be considered a success. Just one year after a 1-10 debacle that cost coach Gary Darnell his job, new coach Bill Cubit took the Broncos on a fabulous ride that ended with the biggest one-season turnaround in league history. WMU finished 7-4, including an impressive 7-1 run that followed season-opening losses to Virginia and Toledo and preceded a season-ending loss to Northern Illinois that ended their bowl hopes.

They did it despite losing starting quarterback Ryan Cubit to a broken leg in the fourth game of the year. Freshman Tim Hiller stepped in and was outstanding, posting a 20-3 TD-INT ratio and leading WMU to four wins in his six total starts.

The challenge this year? Build off that momentum and crack the top tier of the West Division. It’ll be easier said than done.

In good shape: Quarterback. Not many teams return a player as experienced as Ryan Cubit, coach Bill Cubit’s son. Ryan Cubit gained a sixth year of eligibility, and he will be the starter in 2006, as Hiller’s knee injury will cause him to redshirt this season. Cubit was good last year before getting hurt, hitting over 60 percent of his throws and throwing six scoring passes. He is a heady guy who makes good decisions, something that will be necessary this year. Leading receiver Greg Jennings and top tight end Tony Scheffler were both taken in the second round of the NFL Draft, leaving gaping holes at both positions, so Cubit’s presence is key to the development of the new starters. As long as he’s healthy, Cubit should post quality numbers and keep WMU’s offense from going under.

Needs work: Running back and wide receiver. I already mentioned Jennings and Scheffler, who combined for 155 catches last year, along with 23 of WMU’s 30 passing touchdowns. Also gone is running back Trovon Riley, who topped 1,000 yards and scored six times. He was also fourth on the team in receptions. Junior Mark Bonds and sophomore Kirk Elsworth will compete to start at running back, while senior Joe Chapple will be counted on heavily at wide receiver after placing third on the team last year with 33 catches. Junior Scooter McIntosh starts at the other receiver spot, while sophomore Brandon Ledbetter takes over at tight end. The coaches like sophomore Jamarko Simmons, who could see time at receiver and in the offensive backfield. For the offense to work, WMU needs to have one or two receivers show they can make big plays and get downfield, things that Jennings brought the offense.

Overview: The Broncos have plenty of talent returning on defense. Senior end Anthony Belmonte leads a run defense that ranked fifth in the league, but there is still room for improvement along the front four. Much of that improvement could come with experience, as projected starting end Zach Davidson and tackles Nick Varcadipane and Cory Flom are all sophomores. Senior weak-side linebacker Ameer Ismail is coming off an all-MAC season. The loss of junior safety Antwain Allen to a torn ACL hurts, as the Broncos are very inexperienced in the secondary. Early-season games with Indiana, Toledo, and Virginia will test that secondary, and the Broncos’ last three games are all on the road, including showdowns against rival Central Michigan and East Division power Akron. The other road game is a non-conference date with Florida State. There are too many questions at the skill positions and in the secondary for WMU to pull off another surprise. The Broncos will win five or six games and be stuck in the middle of the MAC West. That said, the large number of sophomores and juniors starting on both sides of the ball (five juniors and ten sophomores are projected to start), the future is bright for Western Michigan.

5. Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals went 6-6 in 2002, with all six losses coming to teams that contended for bowl berths. Despite the respectable record, just two years after an 0-11 campaign, coach Bill Lynch was canned, and former Michigan defensive line coach Brady Hoke was brought in to lead the program. Hoke, a strict disciplinarian, has taken a hard line approach to building the program in Muncie, and the Cardinals have taken some hard knocks for it.

Hoke suspended 13 players, eight of them starters, for the season opener at Iowa for their roles in a book loan scandal on campus. The result? 56-0 and a paltry 144 yards of offense and seven first downs. Oh, and Iowa’s quarterbacks combined to hit 19 of 20 passes. Ouch.

Ball State has gone 4-8, 2-9, and 4-7 in Hoke’s first three seasons. The defenses, despite Hoke’s defensive background, have been a huge problem, allowing 32, 37, and 38 points per game. In order for things to turn around, Hoke has to fix the defense. That’s the mission in 2006, as eight starters return, and Ball State projects to start five seniors on defense.

In good shape: Linebackers. Hoke probably has his best set of linebackers since he took the job. That label suffered some damage in the spring when middle linebacker Brad Seiss suffered a knee injury that may cost him the 2006 season. However, Ball State has better depth here than possibly anywhere else on the field. Outside linebacker Wendell Brown is set to move inside if Seiss isn’t able to play, and fifth-year senior Anthony Corpuz will start on the outside, where he has seven starts and 58 tackles in three years. The other outside linebacker, sophomore Bryant Haines, is a good one. He posted 83 tackles and 7 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman while starting all eleven games.

Needs work: Running back. 2004 MAC Freshman of the Year Adell Givens should have been the answer here, but he was dismissed for academic reasons. As a result, the Cardinals fielded a putrid running game last year, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and 110 yards per game. Part of that could be blamed on the offensive line, which didn’t do much of anything right last year (gave up 43 sacks as well). Leading rusher Charles Wynn isn’t back, leaving the job, in all likelihood, to sophomore B.J. Hill and senior Larry Bostic. The two combined for 616 rushing yards and five scores last year, and Hill averaged 5.1 yards per carry, so there’s some promise there.

Overview: Senior quarterback Joey Lynch is a gem in the Cardinals’ backfield. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, and he lacks Michael Vick’s quickness, but he knows this offense, and he’s a good leader. Lynch completed 63 percent of his passes last year, and he compiled an impressive TD-INT ratio of 18-7. With top receivers Terry Moss and Louis Johnson both back, more is expected of Lynch, and he may be able to deliver, if the offensive line improves. Hoke has some big boys available up front this year, led by sophomore tackles Andre Ramsey and Robert Brewster, who both started last year and got better as the year wore on. Fifth-year senior Justin Schneider starts at guard, and sophomore center Dan Gerberry also started all eleven games as a freshman. Hopes are high up front, but how much improvement can realistically be expected? The Cardinals get their first two games at home, including a non-conference date with Indiana, and they also get a home game with North Dakota State. A stretch of five out of six on the road starting in October will be tough to overcome, and a winning season is probably not realistic because of how much improvement Ball State needs to see on defense and on the offensive line.

6. Eastern Michigan Eagles
Considering the past at Eastern Michigan, there were high expectations on this team last year. For a program that has just six winning seasons since 1974, and has been the bottom-feeder among the directional Michigan MAC schools for the better part of a decade, hopes were on the rise for a winning season a year ago.

And despite the complete lack of tangible success over the years, EMU fans have every right to be upset with how things turned out last year. The Eagles finished 4-7 for the second straight year, and the offense, which was expected to improve, actually took some steps in the wrong direction, rendering the great progress made by the pass defense moot.

In coach Jeff Genyk’s third year, it looks like EMU might have trouble climbing very far in the MAC West, despite a large number of returnees on both sides of the ball.

In good shape: Offensive line. While Genyk has to replace his starting quarterback and running back, along with one of the starting receivers, he has four starters back on the offensive line, along with plenty of depth. Leading the way are senior left tackle Courtney Ford and senior center Kevin Minor. Both started 11 games at different positions last year, with Ford playing right tackle and Minor playing left tackle. Junior Chris Thomas is moving from guard to tackle, with junior Tom Schmeding the likely starter at Thomas’ old guard position. The run-blocking needs to improve, which Genyk recognizes, but the line is already very good at pass protection, having allowed just 17 sacks last year on a team that averaged 38 pass attempts per game.

Needs work: Secondary. The Eagles had a solid improvement in their pass defense. Despite a virtual lack of pass rush, the secondary held its own, allowing 210 yards per game (down 68 from 2004). It was a huge part of why the defense went from allowing 42 points per game in 2004 to around 27 last year. There are two primary issues this year. Despite the improvement in yardage allowed, the Eagles only had 11 interceptions in 11 games, and five of those came in the season finale against Buffalo. EMU went without an interception in an astounding seven of 11 games. Not only that, but three of their four starters from last year are gone, leaving only junior corner Duan Bracey and a lot of question marks. Sophomore Corey Reid should be the other starting corner, and redshirt freshman Chris May could earn a starting job at safety. The Eagles are very undersized, too, with three projected starters shorter than 5-10.

Overview: Genyk has problems on offense. Matt Bohnet was efficient, though not spectacular, at quarterback, and sophomore Tyler Jones, the likely replacement, has some shoes to fill there. Jones has two good players to pitch the ball to. Canadian Eric Deslauriers caught 75 passes last year after getting 84 the year before, and tight end Ken Bohnet is back after breaking his arm early last season. Both return, but the second receiver, A.J. Bennett, departs. Also gone is leading rusher Anthony Sherrell, who spent much of his last year in Genyk’s doghouse after almost transferring to a I-AA school last spring. The questions at the skill positions and in the secondary will make this a tough season in Ypsilanti, and a schedule that includes road trips for three non-conference games (Michigan State, Northwestern, and Louisiana-Lafayette) doesn’t help. EMU’s only non-league home game? Navy. Ouch.