Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Georgia takes top spot in early look at 2008's Top 25
By Mark Schlabach
The end of the 2007 college football season isn't even 24 hours behind us, after LSU blasted Ohio State 38-24 in the Allstate BCS Championship Game on Monday night.
Yet it's already time to look ahead to the 2008 season. Georgia's players believed they should have played Ohio State for the national championship after finishing the regular season 10-2. After winning their last seven games, the Bulldogs had a good argument. So did USC, which bombed Illinois in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi.
Georgia loses less talent than USC, LSU and Ohio State, so the Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 in the way-too-early 2008 preseason college football poll.
The Bulldogs return all but five starters from a team that won its last seven games to finish 11-2 in 2007. Tailback Knowshon Moreno, who will be a sophomore during the 2008 season, should be a Heisman Trophy candidate (redshirt freshman Caleb King might be just as good), and quarterback Matthew Stafford was much improved in his second season as a starter. The Bulldogs must find a pass-rusher to replace Marcus Howard, and the loss of strong-legged kicker Brandon Coutu can't be underestimated. Georgia plays a difficult schedule -- an early road test at Arizona State on Sept. 20 and consecutive games against LSU and Florida in midseason are potential stumbling blocks -- but no team in the SEC has as much returning talent and depth.
With nine starters eligible to come back on offense and seven on defense, the Sooners should be favorites in the Big 12. Now, if Oklahoma just didn't have to play in a bowl game. The Sooners should be explosive on offense, even after losing 1,000-yard rusher Allen Patrick. Tailback DeMarco Murray ran for 764 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman, and quarterback Sam Bradford threw 36 touchdowns with only eight interceptions in his first season as a starter. Oklahoma is expecting leading receiver Juaquin Iglesias back, but deep threat Malcolm Kelly might turn pro. Guard Duke Robinson also is a candidate to leave early. The defense will have to replace two starters in the secondary and must find a bona fide pass-rusher. The nonconference schedule is somewhat demanding with home games against Cincinnati and TCU and a road game at Washington. Oklahoma doesn't play Missouri in Big 12 play and gets Kansas and Texas Tech at home.
The 2006 national champions took a big step back in 2007, primarily because of their youth on defense and lack of a running game. The Gators had to replace nine starters on defense and the young replacements didn't play well in losses to Georgia and Michigan. The secondary will remain a concern going into next season, but the defensive front should be improved. Coach Urban Meyer has to find a running back to complement Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and USC transfer Emmanuel Moody might be that guy. Losing receiver Andre Caldwell and possibly tight end Cornelius Ingram will hurt, but rising junior Percy Harvin is one of the best players in the country. The Gators will play nine of their 12 games in the state of Florida, including a key Nov. 1 date against Georgia in Jacksonville and a Nov. 29 finale at Florida State. The nonconference schedule includes home games against Hawaii and Miami to start the season.
The Tigers should have played in a BCS bowl game this season, but they'll get to one in 2008. Quarterback Chase Daniel is coming back for his senior season, along with 10 starters on defense. The Tigers will be hit hard on offense, with tailback Tony Temple, left tackle Tyler Luellen, All-American center Adam Spieker and tight end Martin Rucker leaving. Tailback Derrick Washington will have to be as good as advertised, and the Tigers will have to find more ways to get Jeremy Maclin the football. Missouri will play Kansas' schedule from 2007 (or lack thereof), as the Tigers won't play Oklahoma, Texas A&M or Texas Tech. The season starts with a suddenly daunting game against Illinois in St. Louis on Aug. 30 and also includes home games against Division I-AA Southeast Missouri, Nevada and Buffalo.
The Trojans played like the best team in the country in their final four games of 2007, but will go into 2008 with plenty of questions. USC will lose quarterback John David Booty and tight end Fred Davis on offense, along with three very good players on the offensive line. The heart of the defense also will be gone, with tackle Sedrick Ellis, end Lawrence Jackson and linebacker Keith Rivers leaving. But coach Pete Carroll still has plenty of talent on hand. Freshman Joe McKnight looked spectacular against Illinois in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi. Mark Sanchez, a redshirt junior next season, is Booty's heir apparent, but Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain will battle for the starting job in the spring. Another Arkansas transfer, Damian Williams, should boost the receiving corps. The Trojans' schedule includes two difficult nonconference games (at Virginia on Aug. 30 and home against Ohio State), but the Pac-10 schedule flips with Oregon, Arizona State and California coming to the Coliseum.
6. Ohio State
The Buckeyes will have all the pieces in place for yet another run at the BCS title game, especially if All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis returns for his senior season. Tailback Beanie Wells is the Buckeyes' next superstar, and receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie are both coming back. Quarterback Todd Boeckman has to continue to improve throwing the football, and right tackle Kirk Barton will be a big loss. The defense could be even better in 2008, with end Lawrence Wilson coming back from a broken leg and promising rising sophomore Cameron Heyward adding weight and getting stronger. After playing a light nonconference schedule in 2007, the Buckeyes travel to USC on Sept. 13 and play Big Ten road games at Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois.
Longhorns fans are getting a little bit restless, after Texas finished its second straight season without a berth in a BCS bowl game. But the Longhorns' 52-34 win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl should give fans some confidence heading into the 2008 season. If Texas can find a replacement for running back Jamaal Charles, who turned pro after running for 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, the offense should have pretty good firepower. Quarterback Colt McCoy needs to cut down on his 18 interceptions, but showed better mobility as a sophomore. Texas will have heavy personnel losses on defense, including tackles Derek Lokey and Frank Okam and linebackers Robert Killebrew and Scott Derry. Three starters will be gone from the secondary. Coach Mack Brown hired Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to improve a defense that struggled in 2007.
Tigers fans might want to really enjoy their national championship because coach Les Miles will have to overhaul his team's roster. All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is leaving, along with free safety Craig Steltz, quarterback Matt Flynn, tailback Jacob Hester and receiver Early Doucet. Miles will have to replace defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who is leaving to become Nebraska's head coach. Ryan Perrilloux should take over at quarterback, and either Keiland Williams or Charles Scott will succeed Hester. LSU's nonconference schedule in 2008 isn't very demanding (North Texas, Troy, Tulane and a yet-to-be-determined opponent), but Georgia rotates onto the SEC slate.
Tigers fans are waiting for coach Tommy Bowden to win his first ACC championship and get his team to a BCS bowl game, and he'll have the team to do it in 2008. Tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller should be back, along with quarterback Cullen Harper and receiver Aaron Kelly. Four starters will have to be replaced on the offensive line, but nine starters could be back on defense. Clemson has to improve its kicking game, which has been a trouble spot the past few seasons.
10. Arizona State
The Sun Devils made tremendous strides in coach Dennis Erickson's first season, but they have a long way to go to challenge USC in the Pac-10. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter returns after throwing for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior. Four of his top five pass catchers also should be back. Tailback Ryan Torain leaves, along with a couple of starters from an offensive line that didn't protect Carpenter very well. The losses on defense could be heavy, too, with safety Josh Barrett and linebacker Robert James slated to leave. Georgia goes to Arizona State on Sept. 20, and the Sun Devils play Pac-10 road games at California, USC and Oregon State.
11. Virginia Tech
The Hokies will retain much of their firepower on offense, with quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor and tailback Branden Ore expected to return to Blacksburg, Va. But much of the Hokies' vaunted defense is leaving, including linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall and cornerback Brandon Flowers, a junior who is entering the NFL draft. Three starters will leave the defensive line and three veteran receivers will have to be replaced. A Sept. 27 trip to Nebraska highlights the nonconference schedule and the ACC slate includes trips to Boston College, Miami and Florida State.
12. Texas Tech
Mike Leach has led the Red Raiders to a bowl game in each of his eight seasons as coach, and Texas Tech might be poised to reach a BCS bowl game in 2008. Quarterback Graham Harrell returns to the record-setting offense, along with receiver Michael Crabtree, who had 134 catches for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns as a freshman. Just as important, each of the five offensive linemen protecting Harrell will return. The Red Raiders hope to have eight starters back on defense, but kicker Alex Trlica will have to be replaced. Texas Tech's schedule opens against Tulsa and includes road games at Texas A&M, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Badgers didn't meet lofty expectations in 2007, but they'll have a chance to be better in 2008. Replacing quarterback Tyler Donovan will be the most pressing concern, but Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge battled Donovan for the job in 2007. Tailback P.J. Hill, who will be a redshirt junior, battled injuries last season, allowing Zach Brown and Lance Smith to become quality backups. The offense will be pretty good if tight end Travis Beckum returns for one more season. Cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu already has decided to leave for the NFL draft. The Badgers' schedule includes a road trip to Fresno State and consecutive games against Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Illinois in midseason.
14. West Virginia
The Mountaineers should have plenty of weapons coming back on offense, including quarterback Pat White and possibly tailback Steve Slaton. Noel Devine, who will be a sophomore in 2008, returns as well. But how will new coach Bill Stewart fare now that he's not on an interim basis? He had the Mountaineers ready to play in the Fiesta Bowl, but now Stewart has to prove he can recruit and motivate on a weekly basis. Coaching transitions are never easy, even with a boatload of talent coming back (ask Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe). At least seven starters will have to be replaced on defense, and fullback Owen Schmitt and receiver Darius Reynaud also are leaving.
The Jayhawks will learn maintaining success might be more difficult than obtaining it. Coming off the best season in school history, Kansas will have to replace a few of its stars, including cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive tackle Anthony Collins, each of whom is passing up his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Four other starters on offense will be gone, including 1,000-yard runner Brandon McAnderson. But quarterback Todd Reesing and nine starters on defense are expected to come back. The schedule gets much tougher than it was in 2007, with a road game at South Florida on Sept. 13 and Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech rotating back onto the Big 12 schedule.
The Tigers expect to return eight starters on both offense and defense, but there figures to be a transition because of coaching changes. Offensive coordinator Al Borges resigned before the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and coach Tommy Tuberville hired Tony Franklin from Troy to install the spread offense. Then defensive coordinator Will Muschamp left for the same position at Texas. Replacing quarterback Brandon Cox will be the top priority in the spring, with Kodi Burns, who will be a sophomore in 2008, expected to take over. Defensive end Quentin Groves and tackle Josh Thompson are the biggest losses on defense. The Tigers play at West Virginia, but play LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia at home.
17. Penn State
The Nittany Lions could return 18 starters if cornerback Justin King returns for his senior season. Penn State will have to replace quarterback Anthony Morelli and tailback Rodney Kinlaw. With Daryll Clark, who'll be a senior next season, slated to replace Morelli, offensive coordinator Galen Hall might opt for a spread attack in 2008. Penn State returns top receivers Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams. Replacing inside linebacker Dan Connor will be a priority on defense, and Sean Lee might move inside to succeed Connor. The nonconference schedule includes home games against Division I-AA Coastal Carolina, Oregon State and Temple and a road game at Syracuse. The Nittany Lions play Illinois and Michigan at home, but play at Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The Ducks have hope after blasting South Florida 56-21 in the Sun Bowl. Justin Roper played well at quarterback as a redshirt freshman and goes into spring practice as the No. 1 candidate to replace Dennis Dixon. Tailback Jonathan Stewart will probably turn pro, so the Ducks have to hope Jeremiah Johnson, a senior next season, recovers quickly from a torn ACL in his right knee. Two starters will be lost on the offensive line, including right tackle Geoff Schwartz. The defensive front loses its two tackles and two linebackers. The Ducks' nonconference schedule includes games at Purdue and home against Boise State, along with road games at Arizona State, Cal, USC and Oregon State during Pac-10 play.
The Cougars have won 11 games in each of the past two seasons, as well as consecutive Mountain West titles under coach Bronco Mendenhall. With quarterback Max Hall and tailback Harvey Unga coming back, expect similar results in 2008. BYU will have to rebuild its defense, with heavy losses at linebacker and in the secondary. The nonconference schedule includes games against Washington and UCLA.
Cavaliers coach Al Groh went from the hot seat to ACC Coach of the Year after leading the Cavaliers to a 9-4 finish. Virginia returns most of its firepower on offense, with quarterback Jameel Sewell and tailback Mikell Simpson returning. Tailback Cedric Peerman (foot) and receiver Kevin Ogletree (knee) also are coming back from injuries, but three starters on the offensive line and tight end Tom Santi will have to be replaced. All-American defensive end Chris Long is a huge loss, but Jeffrey Fitzgerald was a great pass-rusher on the other side. The Cavaliers open the season against USC in Charlottesville, Va.
There will be a lot of uncertainty at Michigan, as new coach Rich Rodriguez tries to install his spread offense. The Wolverines lose quarterback Chad Henne, left tackle Jake Long and tailback Mike Hart. Top receivers Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington might forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft. Will Rodriguez persuade quarterback Ryan Mallett to stay, and can the new coach recruit highly regarded prospect Terrelle Pryor to run his offense in Ann Arbor? The Wolverines will suffer heavy personnel losses on defense, too, with linebacker Shawn Crable and both safeties leaving. Tackle Terrance Taylor is still undecided on whether he'll return for his senior season.
The Panthers have reason for optimism after upsetting West Virginia 13-9 in the regular-season finale, a loss that cost the Mountaineers a chance to play for the BCS championship. Dave Wannstedt failed to produce a winning record in his first three seasons as coach of his alma mater, but the Panthers seem ready to turn the corner in 2008. Pitt lost four games by seven points or fewer in 2007. Seven starters are expected back on both offense and defense. Tailback LeSean McCoy ran for 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman, and freshman quarterback Pat Bostick was much improved by season's end. Receiver Derek Kinder and defensive tackle Gus Mustakas will return from season-ending knee injuries. Linebacker Scott McKillop led the country with 151 tackles and led a defense that showed bite in 2007.
A 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi showed the Illini still have a lot of work to do in coach Ron Zook's rebuilding job. Quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn will be back, but the loss of tailback Rashard Mendenhall is potentially devastating. Mendenhall was one of the best running backs in the country and a major part of Illinois' offense. All-American linebacker J Leman and four other defensive starters, including both safeties, will have to be replaced. But Zook continues to recruit very well and there is a boatload of talented young players coming back.
24. South Carolina
The Gamecocks collapsed after a 6-1 start to finish 6-6 in 2007. South Carolina couldn't stop the run and couldn't run the football, a recipe for disaster in the SEC. But Steve Spurrier doesn't like to lose, so figure the Gamecocks to be much improved in 2008. If linebacker Jasper Brinkley receives a medical redshirt from the NCAA, after missing much of the 2007 season with a knee injury, South Carolina could be pretty good on defense. The hiring of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was a good start. Quarterback Chris Smelley will get the first chance to replace departed starter Blake Mitchell, but Spurrier is excited about the potential of Stephen Garcia, a redshirt freshman next season.
25. Fresno State
The Bulldogs rebounded from a 4-8 disaster in 2006 to finish 9-4 this season, including a 40-28 win over Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl. Fresno State's offense showed a lot of firepower, scoring 30 points or more in eight of its last nine games. Tom Brandstater was one of the country's most improved passers, throwing 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions. The Bulldogs will lose speedy Clifton Smith, who ran for 625 yards and five touchdowns and caught 33 passes. But Ryan Mathews ran for 866 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. Eight starters are expected back on offense and seven on defense. Replacing linebacker Marcus Riley will be a priority on defense.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.