College Football Preview 2008

Yes, it’s true. It’s pigskin time in a couple of weeks! Here’s an early look at who I think the contenders are, which games matter most along way in addition to some commentary on the Heisman Trophy favorites.

PRESEASON TOP 20 OF THE MATTY (last year’s record in parentheses)

#20: FRESNO STATE (9-4, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

This is a team that everyone forgets about every year, but after a dominating win over Georgia Tech in last year’s Humanitarian Bowl capped a three game winning streak to end the season, serious football fans should begin to take notice. All but two starters return to an offense anchored by senior QB Tom Brandstater. The Bulldogs will also have sophomore tailback Ryan Matthews in the backfield who looks to improve on his 866 yard debut season as well as an explosive kick returner in junior A.J. Jefferson. The defense wasn’t terribly strong last season, but there is experience here. Fresno State should improve upon a successful 2007 campaign, especially if it can weather a tough preseason schedule, which includes road games at Rutgers and UCLA and Wisconsin at home.

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

The Nittany Lions lost starting QB Anthony Morelli, but it’s debatable as to whether or not that should be considered a negative. They will have some holes to fill in the backfield as well but should get some help from a strong offensive line. Overall, the offense will be a work in progress, but the defensive unit should be among the nation’s strongest. (Read: Get ready for some low scoring games). The front line will be the strongest aspect of the defense, as all four starters return to a line that ranked seventh in the nation last season in run defense. Junior defensive end Maurice Evans anchors the strong unit. WIth so much experience on the rest roster, Penn State should be near the top of the Big Ten if they can get consistency from a new quarterback.

#18: ARIZONA STATE (10-3, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 3 Defensive Starters Returning)

Most of the squad returns to a Sun Devil team that had its sights set on a BCS bowl bid last season before a couple of late season losses to formidable opponents. Texas exposed the Sun Devil defense in the Holiday Bowl, but the defensive line returns three starters and the unit should be a bit better overall. Senior QB Rudy Carpenter looks primed for a big season after throwing for over 3,000 yard last season, and he’ll have help from a depth of returning starters at receiver led by junior Chris McGaha as well as an experienced senior tailback in Keegan Herring. The wildcard here is sophomore kicker Thomas Weber, who set a freshman record with 118 points last season and might be the best kicker in all the land.

#17: WAKE FOREST (9-4, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

If there’s been a bigger surprise over the past two seasons of college football than the sudden emergence of Wake Forest football, I’m not sure what it is. The trend should continue in 2008 as key offensive starters return in junior QB Riley Skinner and sophomore RB Josh Adams. The strength of the Demon Deacons still lies with its experienced defense, which lost only two starters from a unit that ranked 27th in the country in total defense. The scary secondary returns all four starters anchored by All-American CB Alphonso Smith, who had eight interceptions last season. Head coach Jim Grobe’s strongest attribute has been organizing teams of smart football players who rarely turn the ball over or rack up penalty yards.

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

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I think the Longhorns are going to take a step back this season. Junior QB Colt McCoy returns with a lot to prove, but he’ll have some new faces at receiver and especially in the backfield. After the early departure of Jamaal Charles, McCoy himself is the leading returning rusher for the team. Still, Texas will be strong on both lines. Four starters return on the offensive line, led by senior guard Cedric Dockery, and it should provide McCoy with some much needed protection as this new offense looks to find a groove. Three starters return from a defensive line that ranked sixth in the nation in rushing defense last season, led by senior defensive end Brian Orkapo. Still, with the strength of the Big 12 this season, there are just too many holes to fill here for me to get too excited about a BCS bid.

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

Much to my eternal dismay, Illini football is back thanks to some solid recruiting by head coach Ron Zook. Option-style QB Juice Williams returns from a solid 2007 performance and will be the main rushing threat after the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall, but he’ll have an excellent target at receiver in sophmore Arrelious Benn. The offense may lose a step due to lacking a big, bruising back, but Williams’ dual threat offense will still keep defenses guessing. The defense should be improved although not dominating, with three starters returning on the line and a strong secondary anchored by junior cornerback Vontae Davis. Nothing particular aspect of this team sticks out as incredibly strong, but the depth all around the field will keep the Illini challenging for second place in the Big Ten.

#14: KANSAS (12-1, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

After a magical 2007 season culminated in an upset Orange Bowl victory, hopes are high for the football Jayhawks, who hope to match the accomplishments of their hoops colleagues. The schedule is much more difficult this time around, with road games at Oklahoma and South Florida before meeting Texas Tech, Texas and Missouri. Junior QB Todd Reesing returns from a spectacular season, and he’ll have a solid target in senior wide out Dexton Fields. However, there are holes to fill on the line and in the backfield, and the offense may be a bit one-dimensional. Still, the strength of the Jayhawks’ surprising 2007 season was its defense, and nine starters return. They’ll certainly miss cornerback Aqib Talib, but the secondary is still experienced and strong, and so is the middle, led by senior linebacker Joe Mortensen. Adding to the explosiveness is senior kick returner Marcus Herford. Kansas has a lot of weapons and should certainly be in the mix, but won’t have as easy a road as last time around.

#13: AUBURN (9-4, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

Let’s face it, Auburn isn’t ever a terribly exciting offensive team, although with eight starters returning, including talented junior tailback Ben Tate, this year’s squad should improve upon last year’s, which ranked 97th in the country in total offense. Changes are coming at quarterback, where sophomore Kodi Burns will step in to lead a new spread offense under coordinator Tony Franklin. The defense will be deep and strong as usual, and although there aren’t any showstoppers here, seven players return from a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring and total defense. Perhaps the Tigers’ biggest asset giving their tendency to get themselves involved in low-scoring contests will be kicker Wes Bynum, who kicked 17 field goals last year, including the forever memorable one at Florida. They won’t get the Gators this season, which has to be considered a plus, and also have the luxury of playing their tougher SEC opponents-LSU, Tennessee, and Georgia- at home. However, hold your breath for an epic, if incredibly bizarre, THURSDAY night showdown on October 23rd at West Virginia.

#12: LSU (12-2, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 4 Defensive Starters Returning)

This is likely as low as you’ll see the defending national champs ranked anywhere, but I just can’t get too excited about a team without any semblance of an experienced QB, no matter how athletic the talent may be around him. Sure, LSU will be stacked with talent at all positions, but many of these faces will be new ones, and it would be a huge leap of faith in raw talent to consider this season anything more than a rebuilding year. Speedy junior tailback Keiland Williams has explosive speed and will benefit from a strong offensive line that returns four starters led by junior left tackle Ciron Black. Quarterback duties will likely be split between freshman Jarrett Lee and junior Andrew Hatch, whose transitions will be eased slightly by a strong receiving corps of Demetrius Byrd and Brandon LaFell. On defense, the Tigers have some holes to fill in the secondary, but should be strong up front as senior ends Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman return. Senior Darry Beckwith will lead a still-developing linebacker unit.

#11: TENNESSEE (10-4, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

This could be the break-out year that Tennessee fans have been waiting for since 1998. The Vols closed last season strong, winning six of their last seven games and giving eventual national champs LSU all they could handle in the one loss, not to mention posting a convincing victory over a Georgia team that was very highly touted by year end. Almost the entire 2007 team returns with one notable exception: the quarterback position. Junior Jonathon Crompton figures to be the man, and he’ll benefit from experienced receivers led by senior Lucas Taylor. The offensive line should be one of the nation’s finest, as all five starters return led by All-American senior guard Anthony Parker, and they should create holes for dynamic senior tailback Arian Foster, who is coming off a 1200 yard season. The defense will need to make some improvements, but with seven starters returning, including a strong secondary led by sophomore strong safety Eric Berry, the Vols should hold opponents to less points this season. The schedule is favorable in SEC terms, as they miss LSU and get Florida at home.

#10: WISCONSIN (9-4, 10 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

Yes, I know that Tennessee made the Big Ten look bad with a surprising, but narrow win over the Badgers in the Outback Bowl, but I’m going to put Wisconsin one spot ahead of them just because of the experience they have returning. The Badgers, who lost only three starters, also will have to fill the quarterback position with senior Allan Evridge, who has yet to throw for a touchdown in uniform. Aside from that gaping hole, Wisconsin is stacked. Junior P.J. Hill is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, coming off back to back 1000 yard-plus seasons, and his backups are solid as well. Five starters return on the offensive line, and this will surely add to the already powerful rushing attack. There are passing options as well, as senior tight end Travis Beckham is among the best in the nation at his position. Defensively, nine starters return from an average squad, but experience is key here. The strength lies in the linebacking corps, led by senior Jonathon Casillas, while free safety Shane Carter returns after intercepting seven passes last season. The main concern for the Badgers will be health issues, as five defensive starters missed most of spring practice.

#9: TEXAS TECH (9-4, 10 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

Mark my words: This will be the best team that Texas Tech has ever had in the Big 12. A high-octane passing attack has become somewhat of a staple for the Red Raiders, and this season will be no exception. Sophomore wide receiver Michael Crabtree may be the best in the nation at his position, and accomplished QB Graham Harrell returns for his senior season after throwing for an incredible 5,700 yards and 48 touchdowns last season. This is a combination that you will hearing a lot about this fall. But what really separates this Texas Tech team from those in the past is its experienced defense. Eight starters return from a defense that improved steadily as last season progressed, including junior cornerback Jamar Wall, who anchors a secondary that was 12th in the country last year stopping the pass. The schedule is favorable, with a late season matchup at Oklahoma looming large.

#8: WEST VIRGINIA (11-2, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 4 Defensive Starters Returning)

How the Mountaineers let a chance to play in the national title slip away so shockingly last season will always be an unanswered question. With the departure of head coach Rich Rodriguez and the surprising exit of standout tailback Steve Slaton, West Virginia will have a few holes to fill. Luckily, multi-talented QB Pat White returns and has enough talent on his own to win quite a few ballgames, and should be in the preseason Heisman discussion. Speedy tailback Noel Devine returns and will have big shoes to fill, but he showed moments of greatness last season, and the nation’s best offensive line, led by senior Ryan Stanchek, should give him some help. Last year’s defense was vastly improved from previous seasons, but they’ll have to replace seven starters. Expect the Mountaineers to put up some points, but their downfall could be struggles on defense. Still, if they can win a Thursday night home game against Auburn, the schedule looks very manageable and with some help from other teams, they should be in position to have another shot at the title.

#7: CLEMSON (9-4, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

Is this finally the year that Clemson wins the ACC? On paper, it doesn’t look like there should be any question. The best backfield in the nation, led by “Thunder and Lightning” duo James Davis and C.J. Spiller, should wreak havoc on opposing defenses all season. The dynamic offense will benefit from an experienced QB in senior Cullen Harper, who will have a solid target in senior wide out Aaron Kelly. Defensively, four starters return from a tough secondary that ranked 13th in the nation in passing defense last season. The schedule looks amazingly manageable, and it isn’t a stretch to see the Tigers finishing the season undefeated and in the hunt for not only a BCS berth, but a national title as well. After an intriguing opener against Alabama on a neutral field, games at Wake Forest and Florida State appear to be the only obstacles.

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

Most lists I’ve seen have the Sooners much higher than this, but I have major questions about their defense after the somewhat shocking thrashing they took at the hands of West Virginia in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. The defensive line looks to be among the nation’s best, as three starers return including sophomore tackle Gerald McCoy, but there are big holes in the middle and in the secondary. Nevertheless, sophomore QB Sam Bradford returns from a stellar season in which he led the nation in passing efficiency. He’ll have experienced targets in seniors Jauquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson. Sophomore tailback DeMarco Murray may be one of the most underrated players in the country, and looks poised for a breakout season. He’ll get plenty of assistance from a strong offensive line, anchored by massive senior Duke Robinson. Oklahoma’s schedule is as easy as it’s ever been, and a Big 12 championship game against Missouri could have huge implications.

#5: MISSOURI (11-2, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

Missouri’s performance in the Cotton Bowl last season definitely had to give the team a lot of momentum coming into this season. Nine starters return from a team that managed to hold a dynamic Arkansas offense to seven points in that game. Senior safety William Moore leads a strong secondary, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon leads in the middle after making 130 tackles last season. However, what will really make this a special team is the offense. Senior QB Chase Daniel returns from a spectacular season and will showcase his talent with help from the dynamic sophomore receiver Jeremy Maclin, who doubles as a kick and punt returner. Senior tight end Chase Coffman provides additional options for Daniel (two guys named Chase? What is this world coming to?). The Tigers will have some holes to fill in the backfield, and a slightly one-dimensional offense appears to be their only negative. Expect them to put up tons of points in any event, and an improved defense could carry this team far.

#4: USC (11-2, 4 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

The Trojans are always stacked with athletes, and this year will be no exception. In the backfield, there is depth and strength, with returning leading rusher Stafon Johnson, explosive sophomore Joe McNight, and experienced junior C.J. Gable. Junior QB Mark Sanchez will finally get his shot at running the offense, and his transition will make all the difference for the Trojans’ season. He’ll need improvement from an experienced core of receivers led by senior Patrick Turner. Only one starter returns on the line. Defensively, USC should be dominant once again, and should pick up the slack while the offense transitions. All-American linebacker Rey Maualuga leads the best middle in the land, and junior free safety Taylor mays anchors a strong secondary. The schedule is manageable after a huge game in the third week against Ohio State, the winner of which will likely become the favorite to win the national title. I like the Buckeyes in that game, as I still question how effective the USC offense will be against stout defenses.

#3: FLORIDA (9-4. 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

Let’s just call last season a rebuilding year, as the Gators should be right in the thick of it this year to reclaim their 2006 title. The offense figures to be absolutely explosive, as Heisman trophy winning QB Tim Tebow returns with help at receiver from junior Percy Harvin, who might be a once-a-century type talent for this team. The running game will need to improve, but Tebow is solid running the option, and sophomore Chris Rainey should step up and provide additional production in the backfield. The question marks will lie on defense, but there is strength in the middle, led by junior linebacker Brandon Spikes. Eight starters return, and the defense should take some steps forward from last season, which ended after giving up 41 points to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.

#2: GEORGIA (11-2, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

The Bulldogs might have been the hottest team in the land as last season concluded, but thanks to an incredibly bad luck of the draw, they didn’t get a chance to play eventual champion LSU at any point last season. Georgia has a lot to prove this time around, and has all of the weapons to do it. Junior QB Matthew Stafford returns after an impressive season, and will have a strong option at receiver in senior Mohamed Massaquoi. But the focal point of the offense will be sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno, who is already drawing comparisons to Herschel Walker after rushing for over 1300 yards as a freshman. There are some question marks on the offensive line, and protection issues could be the biggest obstacle that Georgia will face this season. The defense looks solid, especially up front, where junior Geno Atkins returns with a team-leading 7.5 sacks. Suffice to say that this year’s “Cocktail Party” will be as massive as ever, and could be a play-in game for the national title.

#1: OHIO STATE (11-2, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

After back-to-back disappointments in the national championship game against SEC foes, I’m predicting that the third time will be the charm for Ohio State. What makes this team so tough to beat is the very simple fact that no one will score any points against them. This is hands down the best defense in the country, which returns nine starters from a squad that ranked first in scoring, passing, and total defense. Senior linebacker James Lauranitis is an absolute beast, and senior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins anchors the nation’s best secondary. Todd Boeckman returns at quarterback to lead the offense after an impressive 2007 campaign. The difference-maker could be tailback Chris Wells, who showed his true colors in defeat with an explosive national championship performance against a strong LSU defense. Truthfully, if the offense can score even a couple of touchdowns a game with an offense that should be improved, that should be enough to win it all considering the strength of the defense. If they can get past a huge and difficult game at USC early in the season, the Buckeyes should have their eyes set on a championship.

1) Tim Tebow, Florida, QB: While I’m hoping we don’t see a repeat, he has to be the early favorite, especially since this year’s Gator team figures to be better than last year’s.

2) Knowshon Moreno, Georgia, RB: He’s an incredible talent and will be the focal point of an offense that figures to put up a lot of points.

3) Chase Daniel, Missouri, QB: After an amazing 2007 season, he’ll have all of his top targets and will have ample opportunity to put his team into position to play for a championship.

4) Percy Harvin, Florida, WR: The most explosive player in the country will probably have his Heisman hopes dashed by competition with his teammate, but he belongs in the conversation.

5) Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, QB: After leading the nation in passing effeciency as a freshman, he could be the sleeper pick here.

Others to watch: Pat White, West Virginia, QB ; Chris Wells, Ohio State, RB; Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech; James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, LB, Jeremy Maclin, Missouri, WR/PR

THE 20 BEST GAMES OF THE SEASON (and one word to describe them):

1) #1 Ohio State at #4 USC, September 13th- RoseBowl?

2) #2 Georgia vs. #3 Florida, October 25th- CocktailParty!

3) #11 Auburn at #8 West Virginia, October 23rd- Thursday?

4) #6 Oklahoma at #9 Texas Tech, November 22nd- Red.

5) #2 Georgia at #12 LSU, October 25th- Revenge!

6) #15 Illinois at #5 Missouri, August 30th- Stagesetter.

7) #7 Clemson at #18 Wake Forest, October 9th- Undefeated?

8] #1 Ohio State at #10 Wisconsin, October 4th- 4Big10.

9) #12 LSU at #3 Florida, October 11th- NewChamp?

10) Michigan at #1 Ohio State, November 22nd- Blowout.

11) #16 Texas at #6 Oklahoma, October 11th- Rivalry!

12) #12 Tennessee at #2 Georgia, October 11th- Hedges.

13) #14 Kansas at #5 Missouri, November 29th- BigAgain?

14) #10 Wisconsin at #20 Fresno State, September 13th- Statement.

15) #2 Georgia at #18 Arizona State, September 20th- Heat!

16) #2 Florida at #11 Tennessee, September 20th- Orange.

17) #18 Arizona State at #4 USC, October 11th- 4Pac10.

18] #14 Kansas at #6 Oklahoma, October 18th- Why are all of Oklahoma’s hard games at home? (Oops!)

19) #12 LSU at #13 Auburn, September 20th- Jambalaya!

20) Michigan at Notre Dame, September 13th- Future.

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