NCF Nation: Five early questions 052009

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. Is there another BCS-buster in our midst? Seems like the cool thing to do with the non-automatic qualifying schools is try to figure out which will be the illustrious BCS-buster. Boise State always seems to be in the mix, but teams such as TCU, Utah and East Carolina have a chance to emerge as contenders as well. It's possible, with the schedules for both TCU and Boise State, that we could have a situation like last season where a couple teams are fighting for the lone BCS spot as the year winds down.

2. Will Boise State's schedule be strong enough? Yet another question that arose last year and could surface again this year. Oregon is the toughest game on the Broncos schedule and unfortunately for the Broncos it's at home and it's early in the season. The games against Mid-American Conference teams probably won't carry much weight in the national rankings, but the game against Tulsa should help. It's conference play that tends to hurt Boise State the most. The WAC will be stronger this year, but if the Broncos have to go head-to-head with the Mountain West again for a BCS spot, it's probably going to lose out.

3. Who is this year's sleeper? There are a lot of teams that could make some conference races interesting as the year treks on. Conference USA is the most intriguing because there's a lot more competition in the East than there was a year ago. Teams such as Memphis and Southern Miss will challenge East Carolina, and I wouldn't discount UCF. The West will be equally as tough with Tulsa, Houston, Rice and UTEP all making their case for the division title. My early picks are ECU and Houston, but I think it will be close.

4. What about the Sun Belt? Never want to leave the Sun Belt out, especially this year where teams such as Florida Atlantic and Arkansas State have strong teams that could challenge Troy for the title and the one guaranteed bowl berth. I also wouldn't discount Middle Tennessee and Florida International as sleepers. Both teams showed flashes last season and could surprise a couple teams this year.

5. Who will emerge from the bottom? Teams such as San Diego State, New Mexico State, SMU and North Texas were big disappointments last season, which prompted a couple teams to change coaches. North Texas needs to show progress this year for coach Todd Dodge to feel safe. I also think SMU needs to put up some sort of fight in Conference USA. Both San Diego State and New Mexico State will struggle this year under new head coaches. Both teams lost a couple players in the transition and there wasn't a lot of talent and depth on those rosters to begin with. The team I think will show the most progress from the bottom of the pack will be Idaho.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

A few questions were answered this spring in SEC camps, but there were probably more that went unanswered.

Here are five important questions facing the SEC heading into 2009:

1. Where's the stability at quarterback? Outside of Florida's Tim Tebow and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead, there aren't a surplus of rock-solid quarterback situations in the league. It's wide open at Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, while Alabama's Greg McElroy will be starting in his first college game and LSU's Jordan Jefferson and Georgia's Joe Cox will be entering their first season as full-time starters. Stephen Garcia's the man at South Carolina, but there's nobody behind him if he stumbles or gets hurt.

2. Can anybody catch Florida? It makes sense that the Gators could have some growing pains early next season on offense while they try to find somebody to fill Percy Harvin's role. The toughest game on their schedule would appear to be at LSU on Oct. 10, but they get a week off to prepare for that game. Urban Meyer ain't shabby when he's got more than a week to prepare for somebody. Even if the offense gets off to a slow start similar to last season, the Gators have what should be one of the deepest, most talented defenses in the country to fall back on. There is no such thing as a sure thing in the SEC, but Florida's about as close as it gets next fall.

3. Is Ole Miss ready for prime time? There's a theory making the rounds in the SEC that Houston Nutt is better when his team isn't expected to do much, when he can play the underdog card and motivate his team accordingly. The Rebels aren't going to sneak up on anybody in 2009, not after the way they closed last season. One of Nutt's toughest jobs will be making sure there's the right kind of leadership on this team and that the Rebels don't feel some sense of fulfillment just because everybody's talking about how good they're supposed to be. "Supposed" doesn't win championships in this league.

4. How will Alabama's revamped offensive line look? It's never a good combination when you're overhauling your offensive line and breaking in a new starting quarterback. That's Alabama's challenge next season. McElroy looked more than capable behind center in the spring. What hasn't been established is who will be the five guys in front of him. The most educated guess is James Carpenter at left tackle, Mike Johnson at left guard, William Vlachos at center, Brian Motley at right guard and Drew Davis at right tackle. Chance Warmack, John Michael Boswell and Barrett Jones may all have something to say about the right guard and/or center spot come August, and the left tackle job isn't written in stone, either. Carpenter will have to hold off incoming freshman D.J. Fluker.

5. Which of the new head coaches will make the biggest impact? All three have already made their marks in their own way. Tennessee's Lane Kiffin has done it with what he's said. Auburn's Gene Chizik has done it with what he hasn't said, and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen has done it with a vision that's starting to take hold in Starkville. Kiffin and Mullen would seem to have the most work to do, and Chizik is in a similar boat in that he, too, is trying to figure out who his quarterback is going to be. Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will be the difference, though, and the Tigers' defense will fill in the gaps to get them to a bowl game in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Read in a handful of places that the Pac-10 might be down in 2009.

Balderdash.

Three teams will begin the season as top-25 certainties: USC, California and Oregon.

Two others are close: Oregon State and Arizona.

And the bottom will be much better. Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA, if things fall right, could end up being bowl-eligible. Washington should be much improved with quarterback Jake Locker back and new coach Steve Sarkisian lighting a fire under the program. And Washington State, if the team can stay healthy (knock on wood) will be more competitive than they were in 2008.

Still, there are issues. Here are five to consider.

  1. Will quarterback play return to the Pac-10 standard? In 2008, only USC's Mark Sanchez (No. 6) and Arizona's Willie Tuitama (No. 22) ranked in the nation's top 44 in pass efficiency. And both are gone. Yikes! While the post-spring quarterback vibe at most schools was positive, the summer is often when a new starter can build up chemistry with his receivers in "unofficial" workouts. So get on it, fellas.
  2. Will the rebuilding offensive lines come through? With all five starters back, USC is the only stone-cold certainty on the offensive line. As we noted before: "Three teams that ran the ball well last year -- Arizona, Oregon and Oregon State -- lost three starting offensive linemen, including early-round NFL draft picks. Four others -- Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State -- were just lousy up front last fall. Even Stanford and California, which should be fairly stout, lost their best blockers from 2008." The depth in the conference (read: number of bowl teams) probably hangs on the depth of quality offensive line play.
  3. Can the Pac-10 send a message with nonconference success? A handful of early-season nonconference defeats in 2008 allowed the gadflies to claim the Pac-10 didn't measure up. A 5-0 bowl record mostly reversed that, but at least a few months of trash-talking were lost. The 2009 schedule is, as usual, loaded with big nonconference games: Arizona at Iowa, Arizona State at Georgia, USC at Ohio State, UCLA at Tennessee, LSU at Washington, Stanford at Wake Forest, Oregon at Boise State, California at Minnesota and Washington State vs. Notre Dame in San Antonio, among others. Yes, a lot of these are on the road. Yes, a lot of these don't look good for the Pac-10. But if the conference doesn't want to again listen to the yammering of 2008, it might want to win a few of these games.
  4. Can anyone dethrone USC? Seven consecutive titles is an amazing feat. Yeah, yeah -- three, technically, were shared, but the Trojans always were the first choice either in the bowl selection or the national rankings. So the question that has been asked since 2002 endures: Can anyone slay Tommy Trojan and earn a Rose Bowl or, heck, a BCS title game berth?
  5. Will the conference earn a second BCS berth for the first time since 2002? The Pac-10 placed two teams in BCS bowls in 2000 and 2002. Since then, it's been all about the Trojans. Sure, a couple of times the conference got screwed -- California in 2004 and Oregon in 2005 come to mind. But those teams didn't help the cause by subsequently losing in the Holiday Bowl. If the above four questions get answered, however, the Pac-10 should have a solid shot of getting two teams invited to the fancy dances.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Before adjourning for the weekend, it's time to take a look at five lingering questions for the Big Ten following spring practice.

1. Will the quarterback play improve? If the spring practice was any indication, it will. Returning starters Daryll Clark, Juice Williams, Terrelle Pryor and Ricky Stanzi all elevated their play, and teams like Michigan State and Minnesota can feel better about their depth at quarterback. But these players have to get it done consistently on the field. The Big Ten had only one passer (Clark) rated in the top 25 nationally last year, a number that must increase.

2. Can the Big Ten notch a signature nonconference win? It didn't really happen last year, and more opportunities arrive this fall. No game carries more meaning than Ohio State-USC, as the Trojans have done more damage to the Big Ten's national reputation than any other team. The Big Ten also would benefit from Minnesota knocking off Cal, Illinois beating Missouri and at least two teams downing Notre Dame.

3. Will Penn State repeat for the first time in the Big Ten? The schedule certainly sets up for another Nittany Lions championship run, as both Iowa and Ohio State must visit Happy Valley. Penn State lost a sizable chunk of starters and must make upgrades during the summer in the secondary and along the offensive line. But with Clark and linebacker Sean Lee leading the way, the Lions should be right in the mix again.

4. Which new scheme will work right away? Minnesota overhauled its offense, while Indiana now will operate almost exclusively from the pistol formation. Michigan welcomes new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, and Purdue must pick up nuances from new coordinators Gary Nord and Donn Landholm. Though the Gophers might have the most work to do on offense, they have the talent to do some special things if the system clicks.

5. Will Michigan be back this fall? The Wolverines likely are a year away from being back in the Big Ten title picture, but they must rebound from a disastrous 2008 campaign. Many of the pieces appear to be in place on offense, but all eyes will once again be on the quarterback position this summer. If the running game and the defense make expected progress, Michigan should be able to get back on the right side of .500.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

On Tuesday, I listed five things we learned about the Big East in the spring. There's still a lot more we don't know. Here are five questions facing the league heading into the fall:

1. Will any team emerge as a national contender? It's quite likely that only one, and possibly none, of the Big East teams will begin the season in the Top 25. That's a far cry from previous years, when West Virginia and Louisville had preseason Top 10 teams and Rutgers and South Florida both moved into that lofty zip code by midseason. Big East teams don't deserve a lot of preseason love because they all have warts. But here's betting that at least one team finds answers and starts moving up the polls. Who will it be? And how high can they get?

2. Can Rutgers and Pitt get solid quarterback play? The Scarlet Knights and Panthers aren't the only teams wondering about their quarterbacks, but in my mind these are the two most important questions at that position in the league. Both Rutgers and Pitt have enough talent on defense and in other areas to be serious threats to earn the Big East's BCS bid. But Pitt must get an improved performance from Bill Stull or one of his backups, while Rutgers needs either Dom Natale or someone else to do a decent Mike Teel impression.

3. How fast can Cincinnati's defense get up to speed? I can just copy and paste the phrase "Cincinnati lost 10 defensive starters from last year" at this point because it comes up so often. We all know that. We also know the Bearcats have a new defensive coordinator (Bob Diaco) and are switching to 3-4 base. Cincinnati should have the best offense in the league heading into the season, so there will be less pressure on the defense to carry the load. A solid effort on that side of the ball might be all the Bearcats need for another BCS appearance.

4. Is this the year for South Florida? Yes, the Bulls have questions on the offensive line, in the secondary and in overall depth. But they also have seniors Matt Grothe and George Selvie, the best two players in program history to this point. And it's a wide-open race. It's time that South Florida capitalize and finally become a serious conference contender instead of merely attracting some midseason hype.

5. Can the Big East score some big nonconference wins? Given last year's success by the Mountain West and the lack of buzz for Big East teams this fall, you can bet that Big East critics will be out in force early on if the league stumbles out of the gate. It's important that the league performs well out of conference, both to fend off criticism and to get teams ranked high enough to bolster the Big East's BCS future qualifying criteria. There are plenty of opportunities, including Cincinnati's games against Oregon State and Illinois; Connecticut's dates versus North Carolina and Notre Dame; Pitt's showdowns with the Irish and NC State; South Florida's in-state feuds with Florida State and Miami; and West Virginia's games against Auburn and Colorado. The Big East doesn't have to win them all, but it needs to claim its fair share.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here's a look at the Big 12's most pressing early concerns as teams break for the summer for a couple of weeks before returning in June to begin conditioning drills to prepare for the upcoming season:

1. Can Texas find a running game? The Longhorns are still looking for a featured back after no player really emerged during the spring. Cody Johnson had the best early production before he was slowed late in training camp with a hamstring injury. Neither Vondrell McGee or Fozzy Whittaker jumped forward during the spring. Heralded freshman Chris Whaley will get his chance once fall practice begins, but likely won't be counted on early. But filling the hole is important. The Longhorns desperately need somebody as they likely can't challenge for a national championship if Colt McCoy again is their leading rusher.

2. Is Oklahoma's offensive line capable of playing at a level to win conference championships and beyond? After being called out before spring practice for its lack of diligence in conditioning, Oklahoma's offensive line had an uneven spring practice. Four new starters need to emerge along with Trent Williams, who returns and moves to left tackle to protect Sam Bradford's blind side. The unit's growth will determine much of the Sooners' offensive success -- even with the return of talented skill-position players like Bradford, Chris Brown, DeMarco Murray, Jermaine Gresham and Ryan Broyles already in place.

3. Is Oklahoma State's defense really good enough to compete for the Big 12 title? Veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young was counted on to boost production in a unit that didn't seem ready late last year after being blistered for averages of 58.5 points and 593 yards per game in late-season losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma. The Cowboys have another season of experience and some strong individual players like Perrish Cox and Andre Sexton. But unless they find a pass rush, their hopes of challenging for their first Big 12 South title will be dubious.

4. Can Kansas find linebackers who will enable them to contain Big 12 defenses? The Jayhawks lost three capable playmaking linebackers in James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen from last season. Coach Mark Mangino has hinted that he's considering a 4-2-5 alignment to better combat the Big 12's spread offenses. But he still has to hope that Jake Schermer and Arist Wright prove to be capable replacements -- or it could be a long season for the Jayhawks against their tough schedule of Big 12 South power teams like Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech.

5. How much will Texas Tech miss Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree? Most are thinking that the loss of Harrell and Crabtree will be too much for the Red Raiders to overcome. But Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has quietly -- at least for him -- maintained that he likes his current group of replacements. Taylor Potts will have more experience coming into the program than any of the one-year players who preceded Harrell. All that group (Sonny Cumbie, B.J. Symons and Cody Hodges) did was average nearly 4,943 yards and 38.3 touchdown passes per season in their only season starting, so maybe Leach's comments should be considered. And at wide receiver, the Red Raiders won't have the overall star power of Crabtree, but will still have capable replacements in players like Detron Lewis, Lyle Leong, Edward Britton, Alex Torres, Adrian Reese and Tramain Swindall who should be ready.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

We learned a few things about the ACC this spring, but another crazy, unpredictable season is expected, and there are so many questions only the fall will answer. Here are five important questions facing the ACC heading into 2009:

1. Can the starting quarterbacks stay healthy? Sure, a few teams like Virginia Tech and Duke solidified who their backups will be, but that doesn't mean they have any experience. If Tyrod Taylor hurts his ankle again, the Hokies could be in trouble. Same scenario at Maryland, Wake Forest, Florida State, NC State and Miami.

2. Can the conference start strong? It can't afford another embarrassing opener like the memory Clemson left us with in 2008. While the ACC made a comeback in the second half of the season, there will be plenty of opportunities early in 2009 to make a national statement, starting with the Virginia Tech-Alabama game.

3. Will this be the year Florida State and Miami make a comeback? The rest of the college football world is still waiting and watching for these once-traditional powers to regain their supremacy. What many outside the ACC don't realize, though, is that the rest of the conference is getting better, too.

4. Who will make the quickest adjustment to scheme changes? Boston College, Virginia, Miami, Maryland and Clemson all welcomed new coordinators onto their staffs. Virginia might have made the most drastic changes -- certainly enough that the spring wasn't long enough to master.

5. Is Virginia Tech really good enough to contend for a national title? The Alabama game will go a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the season, but if the Hokies were able to win a third ACC title with everything they didn't have last year, then expectations should be higher this season considering everything they have coming back.

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