COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW 2007

We’re less than two weeks away from the start of the College Football season, and I couldn’t be more excited. Due to the continuing trend of weak preseason scheduling, many teams appear to have a chance to run the table if they can survive their conference schedules. Without further adieu, here is my preseason Top 25:

#25: OREGON STATE (10-4), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning

The Beavers are my sleeper pick to make some noise in the Pac-10 this year. They fought back gamely to beat Missouri in one of the best Sun Bowls ever played, and at their best last year were a scary squad, holding on to beat a USC team that could have easily been playing for the national title. Talented senior tailback Yvenson Bernard returns to lead the offensive attack, while sophomores Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevo will battle for the quarterback position. Their transition will be eased by the return of senior wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. The offensive line returns four starters and should be among the nation’s strongest. Oregon State’s defense wasn’t exceptional last season, but they return eight starters, which should provide some experience. I look for them to be a big factor again this year.

#24: GEORGIA (9-4), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 3 Defensive Starters Returning

Bulldog fans were ready to write off the 2006 season after losses to teams like Vanderbilt and Kentucky, but Georgia really turned things around to win its last three games, all of which were against difficult teams. Sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford returns and is expected to be improved. Top target Mohamed Massaquoi returns at receiver and the tailback duo of Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown is back and hoping to improve after injuries bogged down the rushing attack last season. The offense looks to be much improved, although the line will still need some development. The larger questions lie on defense, where the Dogs will have to replace eight starters, although leadership from senior defensive back Kelin Johnson should provide some structure.

#23: GEORGIA TECH (9-5), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning

The general consensus about the Yellow Jackets this season comes twofold: Calvin Johnson is gone; that is bad. Reggie Ball is gone; that is good. While Tech will miss their star receiver a great deal, the departure of the often turnover-prone Ball opens the door for new offensive opportunities. Senior running back Tashard Choice will be the focal point of the new offense, as he returns from a season in which he rushed for nearly 1500 yards and averaged over 130 yards in his last seven games. The defense should be strong, especially on the line, while there is also depth in the secondary behind senior safety Jamal Lewis. The Yellow Jackets should also benefit from having the nation’s top punter in Durant Brooks, who averaged 45.5 yards per punt last season. Let’s just say that nobody expected Georgia Tech to give a talented West Virginia team such a tough time in the Gator Bowl. This is certainly a program on the rise.

#22: UCLA (7-6), 10 Offensive Starters Returning, 10 Defensive Starters Returning

The best thing that UCLA has going for them is that nearly the entire 2006 team is back, and this is a team that hit their stride late in the season and put together a nearly perfect effort to knock arch rival USC out of the national title race. The Bruins don’t have any bonafide stars, but should have a lot of experience and depth. Look for juniors Ben Olson and returning starter Patrick Cowan to share duties at quarterback and for senior tailback Chris Markey to make some noise running the football. Defensively, UCLA should also be loaded, although they’ll need to be a bit more consistent than they were last season. The nation’s ninth rated rushing defense returns behind star defensive lineman Bruce Davis, and the secondary should be strong as well behind safety Chris Horton. I’m not sure that this team is talented enough to earn a BCS berth, but they should be scary enough for those who are.

#21: OHIO STATE, (12-1), 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning

The heartbreak for Buckeye fans of watching what might have been the most talented team Ohio State has ever had get demolished in the national title game by a team that half of the country believed didn’t deserve to be there is still stinging. Unfortunately, I don’t think this season is going to offer any consolations and could be quite disappointing as far as the standard in Columbus is concerned. Ohio State returns five offensive starters, but they are all offensive line positions, and losing the offensive firepower power of NFL draftees Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Antonio Pittman and Anthony Gonzalez is going to leave a huge void as far as scoring points is concerned. They’ll have talent; sophomore tailback Chris Wells is expected to do big things, but it will be a work in progress. Luckily, what Ohio State does have going for it is two first team All-America candidates on defense. Linebacker James Laurinaitis returns from a stellar season and will be the backbone of this defense, while cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will be smothering. Of course, another thing that Ohio State has going for them is coach Jim Tressel, but he’s going to have his hands full in a rebuilding season. At least Texas isn’t on the schedule this year.

#20: FLORIDA STATE (7-6), 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning

Florida State football certainly hasn’t been what is used to be over the past half decade, and this has been mostly due to anemic offense. There is hope for the running game behind talented junior tailback Antoine Smith, and the experienced duo at quarterback of Drew Weatherford and the athletic Xavier Lee should be much improved. They’ll have some fairly agile targets at receiver between De’Cody Fagg and Greg Carr, but that’s nothing new at Florida State. The ‘Noles strength should be on defense. The defensive line returns Andre Fleullen and Everette Brown, who helped last season’s twelfth ranked rushing defense. The schedule isn’t easy, but the ACC is down this year, and I’m betting the Seminoles will improve upon last season’s seven victories.

#19: BOSTON COLLEGE (10-3), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning

The Golden Eagles are my upset pick to win the ACC Atlantic. BC didn’t get a lot of respect last season despite losing only three games and by a combined total of 12 points. Most of that team is back for a 2007 campaign, led by superstar senior quarterback Matt Ryan, who is the best the ACC has to offer. He’ll have a formidable target in senior Kevin Challenger, although the running game needs to improve. The nation’s fourteenth ranked scoring defense returns nine starters, led by defensive lineman D.J. Rahi and a deep secondary behind DeJuan Trouble and Jamie Silva. Boston College always seems to be a forgotten team, but they look to have to tools to sneak into a BCS game if the cards fall right this season.

#18: NEBRASKA (9-5), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning

Is this the year that Nebraska football puts itself back on the map? The Huskers got a huge break when Arizona State incomprehensibly pushed star quarterback Sam Keller out of his starting position two years ago, the result of which caused Keller to transfer to the higher profile Nebraska program to take the starting role. He’ll have one of America’s top receiving units to ease his transition into the Big 12, as returning starters Terrence Nunn and Maurice Purify should help to change the look of the Nebraska offense. The running game has some question marks, although junior tailback Marlon Lucky is perfectly capable of producing a 1,000 yard season. The offensive line returns three starters and should help the Nebraska offense increase its productivity. On defense, the linebacking corps and secondary look strong, while the defensive line will have to replace four starters. The Cornhuskers get a big home game early in the season against top-ranked USC, which will be a huge challenge. A win there would be program-re-creating. Still, Nebraska should be favored to win the weaker North division of the Big 12.

#17: TEXAS A&M (9-4), 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning

The rebuilding process in College Station is nearly complete, and the Aggies should be able to compete at a level on par with their rivals this season. Leading the charge of a talented offense is junior quarterback Stephen McGee, whose leadership and combination of rushing and passing threats sets up the A&M offense nicely. He’ll have the assistance of one of the nation’s top offensive line units and returning starters like tailback Jorvorskie Lane and receiver Earvin Taylor. On defense, the secondary returns three starters and should be the strongest area, while improvements will need to be made on the line and in the middle. The Aggies only lost three games in last year’s regular season and by a combined margin of a mere 6 points before getting their doors blown off by Cal in the Holiday Bowl, and have potential to make some noise if they can win the close ones.

#16: HAWAII (11-3), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning

You heard it here first- Hawaii isn’t going to lose a game this season. The nation’s most productive offense returns led by dominating passer Colt Brennan, who returns from a 5500 yard season that left him sixth in the Heisman voting.  He’ll have a foursome of one of the nation’s best receiving crews as his targets, led by returning starters Davone Bess and Jason Rivers. The Warrior passing game should be devastating and the primary source of its scoring, as there isn’t much of a threat in the backfield. Eight starters return from an average defense that should be strongest in the middle, as leading tacklers Adam Leonard and Solomon Elimimian return. The secondary should be experienced but average, while there are some question marks on the line. Nevertheless, Hawaii’s relatively weak schedule and ability to put up 50-plus points against nearly anyone gives them a real shot to run the table.

#15: TENNESSEE (9-4), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning

Senior quarterback Erik Ainge finally came into his own last season after taking over the starting job on a regular basis and looks poised for a big year in 2007.  He won’t have quite the talent at receiver that he had last season, but expect bigger production from the Volunteer backfield behind LaMarcus Coker and Arian Foster. On defense, the linebacking unit is experienced, returning three starters led by junior Jared Mayo. Free safety Johnathon Hefney will be the leader of an otherwise inexperienced but talented secondary. The Vols get a rough start to the season at California in what figures to be a revenge game for the more talented Golden Bears, and could be a wake-up call for Tennessee that propels them through the season. After a trip to the Swamp early in the season, the rest of the schedule looks winnable if all the pieces are clicking properly.

#14: PENN STATE (9-4), 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning

Of all of last year’s bowl games, I don’t think anything surprised me more than Penn State’s 20-10 victory over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. Eight starters return from that offense, led by senior quarterback Anthony Morelli. He’ll have a solid group of receivers to throw to, led by junior Deon Butler. The running game needs development, as not a single back returns with more than 200 yards rushing from last season. Despite losing All-American Paul Posluszny, the linebacking unit will be solid, as Dan Connor returns and should step up to fill Posluszny’s shoes. The line and secondary is young but talented, and will have to step up if the Nittany Lion defense hopes to be as dominating as it was last season. The pieces are definitely there for a big year in Happy Valley, especially considering after Wisconsin and Michigan, there isn’t much strength in the Big Ten this year.

#13: OKLAHOMA (11-3), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning

Things couldn’t have gone much worse last year in Sooner country, and it was only fitting that the season culminated with a loss to Boise State in a trick-play filled, too-impossible-to-be-true Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, this season begins with even more question marks, not the least of which is finding a suitable leader at quarterback. All-world running back Adrian Peterson is gone, but senior Allen Patrick will try to improve upon his impressive performance during his subbing role last season, and he’ll have a strong offensive line blocking for him. The star of the offense will be junior wide out Malcolm Kelly, who should be an explosive factor if the Sooners can find someone to get him the football efficiently. The defense should be strong across the board with seven starters returning. The secondary will be the most improved, with star-caliber cornerbacks Reggie Smith and Marcus Walker returning. This would be a top ten team across the board if not for the giant question mark at quarterback. If someone emerges to fill that role, Oklahoma could be right in the title hunt.

#12: ARKANSAS (10-4), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning

Most people aren’t giving the Razorbacks a lot of love this preseason, as the rollercoaster offseason that sent quarterback Mitch Mustain to USC left a lot of analysts with the feeling that something is askew in Fayetteville.  Nevertheless, the powerful running attack led by Heisman favorite Darren McFadden and Felix Jones can’t be taken for granted. The innovative Wildcat offense and creative playcalling will assure that Arkansas puts points on the board. Junior quarterback Casey Dick had his fair share of troubles last season, but steps into the starting role on a permanent basis after Mustain’s departure. Starting receiver Marcus Monk returns, and the amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball should help to take some pressure of off Dick. The defense lost some key players in each area, but still has six starters returning and some talented newcomers looking to make a name for themselves. With some improvement from Dick, Arkansas certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Arkansas competing for an SEC title berth.

#11: CALIFORNIA (10-3), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning

Cal finished the season in impressive fashion, destroying what seemed to be a determined Texas A&M team in a 45-10 Holiday Bowl thrashing. Standout back Marshawn Lynch is gone, but the Bears shouldn’t lose much production as the talented and capable Justin Forsett returns to the starting role he filled while Lynch was injured. Nate Longshore returns at the quarterback position for his senior year, and will have one of the most explosive threats in the country in DeSean Jackson as his primary target. Wide outs Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan complete what might be the most deadly receiving trio in America. On defense there are serious concerns in the secondary, which ranked 103rd in pass defense last season, and that was with departed Lott Trophy winner Daymeion Hughes. Without him, Cal will need to find a way to stop the pass. The linebacking unit will be the strongest element of the defense led by junior Zack Follett. Overall, Cal should be productive on offense, and improvements on defense could lead to a big year for the Bears.

#10: LOUISVILLE (12-1), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 4 Defensive Starters Returning

The Cardinals still had quite a season last year even after losing Heisman candidate Michael Bush for the year early on. Bush is gone now, but that’s not the biggest offensive loss for Louisville, as innovative play-caller and head coach Bobby Petrino bolted for th NFL. Nevertheless, the Cardinals still have weapons, led by star quarterback Brian Brohm, who skipped the draft to return for his senior season. With targets like Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia returning at receiver, the Louisville passing attack will be scary. The question marks lay on defense, where only four starters return. The secondary is the most concerning, as only one starter returns from a unit that had its fair share of struggles last season. The replacements will have to step up from last season’s starters to keep Louisville in contention in what again figures to be a strong Big East.

#9: RUTGERS (11-2), 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning

Last year’s feel good Cinderella story was no fluke, and Rutgers figures to be right in the thick of things again this season. Powerful junior tailback Ray Rice returns as a potential Heisman candidate to lead the offensive attack. The Scarlet Knights also have returning starters in quarterback Mike Teel and recievers Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt, and should be strong once again along the line. One of the least talked about things regarding last year’s team was the strength of its defense, which ranked fourth in the nation last season in total yards per game allowed. They should be strong once again, especially in the secondary and on the line, as safeties Courtney Greene and Ron Girault return along with tackle Eric Foster. If they can adequately replace a couple of linebacker departures, Rutgers will be in contention for a trip to a BCS bowl game again this season, and you know they’re still not happy about being delegated to the Texas Bowl after such a great 2006.

#8: VIRGINIA TECH (10-3), 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning

I’m usually the last person praising the Hokies, as I seem to feel that they are one of the most overrated teams in the county year after year, so putting them in my top eight preseason teams is saying a lot. Believe it or not, I’m going to be on the Hokie bandwagon this year, and think this could be their best team since 1999, when they made it all the way to the national championship. Starting quarterback Sean Glennon returns and will have one of the nation’s top groups of receivers to throw to in Josh Morgan and Eddie Royal. Junior Brandon Ore is back and poised for a huge season of a surprisingly productive 2006 season in which he rushed for 1100-plus yards, and should be a big factor in an offense that should be much improved. Last year’s #1 defense returns eight starters and boasts arguably the top linebacking unit and secondary again this year. Junior Brandon Flowers is an All-America candidate at cornerback along with returning starters Macho Harris and D.J. Parker, and experienced linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi should create nightmares for opposing offenses. Virginia Tech looks stacked across the board, and the offense should be able to score enough points to win a lot of games considering that the opposition will have a lot of trouble moving the football.

#7: FLORIDA (13-1), 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 1 Defensive Starter Returning

Last year’s National Championship team surprised a lot of people, many of whom didn’t think that they belonged in the game to begin with. The Gators will have a lot of holes to fill this season, especially on defense, but have enough athleticism to render repeat talk not unthinkable.  Sophomore Tim Tebow was effective last year as a virtual fullback in the quarterback slot, coming in for sneaks on third or fourth downs with short yardage to go. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to a full-time passing role. He’ll have one of the best groups of receivers in the country to ease his transition, led by Andre Caldwell and the explosive, showstopping Percy Harvin. However, Florida will need to develop its running game in order for the passing attack to reach its full level of effectiveness. The biggest question mark for Florida will be replacing its entire defense, as only one starter returns, leaving many holes to be filled. That defense singlehandedly pulled Florida through some of its closest games last season, and it will be important for this new group to step up and try to fill their shoes. If they can, the Gators will be in contention once again, but I expect this to be a bit of a rebuilding year.

#6: WISCONSIN (12-1), 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning 

Wisconsin is a program that seems to be here to stay after a suprising 2006 campaign that ended with an impressive Capital One Bowl win.  Nearly the entire offense returns, but the Badgers will need to replace quarterback John Stocco, and this will be their biggest challenge. Outside from that, they look to be among the Big Ten favorites. Running back P.J. Hall returns after a strong freshman season in which he rushed for over 1500 yards, and Luke Swan and Paul Hubbard are back at receiver as well. The strength again should be on defense, as seven starters return from a squad that ranked second in the country in scoring defense in 2006. Most of the line returns, led by Matt Shaughnessy, and the secondary should be inpenetrable as well behind returning corners Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu. If probable starting quarterback Allan Evridge can be productive, all the other pieces are in place.

#5: TEXAS (10-3), 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning

Last year was a rebuilding year after 2005’s National Title run, and for the most part, things went pretty smoothly. Most importantly, quarterback Colt McCoy came into his own as a freshman, and should be ripe and ready to lead a powerful Longhorn offense this season. He’ll have prime targets in returning wide-out stars like Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman, while junior Jamaal Charles returns at the running back slot with All-America potential. Texas will need to develop its offensive line, but otherwise it doesn’t look like they’ll have much trouble moving the football. Defensively, the strength will be on the line, as senior tackles Derek Lokey and Frank Okam return to comprise one of the strongest units in the country. Free safety Marcus Griffin leads a secondary that will have to be rebuilt. If all goes to plan, it should be the Longhorns that prevail in the Red River battle in this year’s edition, and after that, they could have a line straight to another championship shot.

 #4: MICHIGAN (11-2), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 4 Defensive Starters Returning

The Wolverines will have the nation’s most exciting offensive attack, but what will determine their fate will ultimately be how easily they are able to replace seven valuable defensive starters. Starting with the good news, senior quarterback Chad Henne has tons of experience and is probably the best in the Big Ten. He’ll have athletic receivers in Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. The versatility of the offense is held together by dynamic running back Mike Hart, who is ready for a huge season coming off of a 1500 yard campaign  in 2006. The combination of these elements is going to result in a lot of scoring, and they’re going to need it, as the defense figures to have its hands full after losing a slough of talent to graduation. The talent is there, but it’s going to be a rebuilding year on defense. Luckily, the offense appears to have the potential to negate the likely defensive woes. Michigan’s schedule seems favorable enough to get them to the tenth week undefeated. Then they’ll have a huge showdown at Wisconsin before Ohio State comes to the Big House. If they can get past all of that, it would be tough to leave them out of the National Title game this time.

#3: WEST VIRGINIA (11-2) 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning

The Mountaineers round out a solid contingent of Big East powerhouses that have finally put the conference on the map in the college football world. The devastating 1-2 punch of athletic running and versatile passing quarterback Pat White along with speedy, agile tailback Steve Slaton figures to put up tons of points just as they did last year as the nations third ranked scoring offense. There isn’t much depth at receiver, but this is a primarily spread-based offense, and there is plenty of depth returning on the line. There are more question marks on defense than on offense, although seven starters including two stars. The line should be the strongest unit, as Keilen Dykes returns at tackle to anchor last year’s 13th ranked rushing defense. The secondary needs to improve, but will have help from experienced All-America candidate Eric Wicks. With talent on both sides of the ball and more experience than last season, this year’s Mountaineer squad should the school’s best since the 1988 season.

#2: LSU (11-2), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning

At the end of last season, an argument could certainly have been made that LSU was playing the best football in the nation. Unfortunately, a controversial 7-3 loss at Auburn and a late slip up against Florida cost them a shot at proving that statement. This year, despite the departure of #1 pick JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, folks in the Bayou have even higher hopes for the Tigers.  Replacing Russell won’t be easy, but senior Matt Flynn is waiting in the wings. If that name rings a bell, that’s because Flynn was at the helm in place of the injured Russell for that shocking 45-3 thrashing of Miami two years ago in the Peach Bowl. Flynn will have dynamic receiver Early Doucet as a target. There is depth in the backfield, as fullback Jacob Hester and tailback Alley Broussard return, and sophmore Keiland Williams is expected to make some noise as well. The Tigers were one of the nation’s strongest defenses last year, and despite losing safety LaRon Landry, they still return eight starters and should be very strong. The nation’s top defensive line returns three starters, including senior Glenn Dorsey. Cornerbacks Johnathon Zenon and Chevis Jackson return to anchor what will be a very strong secondary, and all three linebackers return as well to complete an absolutely stacked defense. The Tigers get a test early as Virginia Tech comes to town during Week 2. After that, getting Florida, Auburn and Arkansas all at home will help their chances to run the table, and I full expect to see them in the championship game.

#1: USC (11-2), 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 10 Defensive Starters Returning

USC doesn’t figure to be left out of the championship picture for long, and this season looks to recapture what they missed out on a year ago after losing a close game to archrival UCLA late in the season.  The team really looked to be clicking in that dominating Rose Bowl win over Michigan last year, and most of the important players from that team return. Senior quarterback John David Booty is probably the best in the country, and he’ll have athletic receivers like Patrick Turner to replace departed superstars Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. The backfield will be deep with tailbacks Chauncey Washington and C.J. Cable, who were used somewhat intermittently on a rotating basis last season, both returning. The defense appears to be the strongest group in recent memory, as ten starters return from a squad that ranked 11th in scoring defense nationally last season. Leading the top-ranked linebacking corps will be returning starters Brian Cushing, Keith Rivers, and first team All-America pick Rey Maualuga. Sophomore Taylor Mays leads a tough, deep secondary, while the line will be brutally strong as well, led by seniors Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson. It appears that the Trojans will be stronger on defense than on offense, a situation that we haven’t seen yet in the Pete Carroll era. They get a tough game during week three as they travel to Nebraska, and after that should coast until heading on the road to play what will be a determined Cal team. They have the tools in place to win both of those and earn a trip back to the championship.

HEISMAN FRONTRUNNERS:

  1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas
  2. John David Booty, USC
  3. Ray Rice, Rutgers
  4. Mike Hart, Michigan
  5. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
  6. Colt Brennan, Hawaii
  7. Brian Brohm, Louisville
  8. DeSean Jackson, California
  9. Mario Manningham, Michigan
  10. Jamaal Charles, Texas
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