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.

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