Nation’s elite on track for BCS finale
The countdown continues! Last week we looked at my Top 21-40, this week it’s is my Top 20. The college football season kicks off Sept. 3, and here’s a look at college football’s best – many of which have a shot at the BCS Championship game at the Rose Bowl!
20. North Carolina: It’s all about talent and recruiting and Butch Davis knows both. The Tar Heels are off an 8-5 SU, 6-5-1 ATS season. This offense was productive, despite a lot of injuries, averaging 27.5 points, 125 yards rushing and 192 passing. Junior QB T.J. Yates is back after throwing for 11 TDs, 4 picks and 1,168 yards in half a season.
His top wide-outs are gone, but Davis has a slew of potential NFL prospects in John Blake, Todd Harrelson, Dwight Jones and Rashad Mason. Converted defensive back RB Shaun Draughn (866 yards, 4.4 ypc) provided a spark and begins his sophomore season as the feature back. North Carolina was 8-4 over the total.
19. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio has turned the program around. They are off an impressive 9-4 SU, 6-7 ATS campaign and have 7 starters back on offense, 8 on defense. Sophomore QB Kirk Cousins (310 yards, 2 TDs and one pick) steps in, though QB Keith Nichol, the one-time super-recruit, is available. There is a lot of experience at wide-out and they hope for more from junior WR Mark Dell. The defense allowed 21.9 ppg and has much of its top talent back. The schedule is easier, though note that MSU is 9-18 ATS its last 27 home games.
18. Oregon: Head coach Mike Bellotti stepped down after his 14th season, taking over for Pat Kilkenny as AD. His timing was good, after back-to-back seasons of 9-4 SU/ATS and 10-3 SU, 7-6 ATS. There is a lot of talent returning for new head coach Chip Kelly, the former offensive coordinator. His spread attack averaged 42 points, 277 yards rushing and 200 passing! They are loaded at quarterback with junior Jeremiah Masoli (13 TDs, 5 picks), who ran for 718 yards, plus junior Nate Costa. The offensive line lost its top players, which may affect senior RB LeGarrette Blount (1,002 yards, 17 TDs, averaging 7.3 ypc.) They get USC at home and the only tough road game is at Arizona.
17. Georgia Tech: Is there a better football coach than Paul Johnson? He worked wonders at Navy, then took over a .500 Georgia Tech program and went a sizzling 9-4 (8-3 ATS). This is a run-oriented team that averaged 282 yards rushing and 26 points. Johnson recruits speed for his option-attack and found an ace in junior QB Josh Nesbitt. He wasn’t much of a passer (2 TDs, 5 picks), but ran for 693 yards.
Tech returns 9 on offense, 8 on defense. On offense, every skill position player returns, paced by junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards, 7 ypc, 12 TDs), the ACC Player of the Year. All five offensive linemen who started the final four games return. The defense allowed just 18.8 ppg and is loaded. Tech is on a 7-4 run under the total.
16. BYU: Coming off a nationally ranked 10-3 season, the Cougars are rolling under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The offense was electric, averaging 35 points and 309 yards passing behind QB Max Hall (35 TDs, 14 picks, 3,957 yards), who is back for his senior season. Junior RB Harvey Unga (1,132 yards) is a bull. The defense is stocked with 8 starters back. BYU is 18-9-1 OVER the total the last three years. September games against Oklahoma and Florida State are tough, but they are the favorite to roll to another MWC title.
15. Florida State: Hopes are high, with 8 starters back on offense, 5 on defense. The offense (32.7 ppg) has junior QB Christian (14 TDs, 13 picks) while the ground game is loaded behind a strong offensive line and sophomore RB Jermaine Thomas (482 yards, a whopping 7 yards per carry). The defense allowed 20.8 ppg, 13th nationally in total "D." The Seminoles led the nation in third down conversion defense. They are 3-1 SU/ATS the last 4 road games. A September trip out to Utah to play BYU is odd, plus they end the season with three of four tough road games (at Clemson, Wake and Florida).
14. Alabama: The third season for Coach Nick Saban and his first two Tide teams started strong and finished weak. Last season they started 10-0, then lost to Florida in the SEC title game (31-20). Oddsmakers were perplexed in 2007 as ‘Bama was 4-8 ATS, but went 9-4 ATS last season. Saban prefers the power running game and last year’s squad averaged 31 points and 196.5 yards rushing. They return nine starters on defense, four on offense.
Junior QB Greg McElroy was the backup and steps in, though he only threw 11 passes. The ground game is loaded behind the powerful Mark Ingram, along with veterans Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant. The terrific defense allowed 13 ppg. Alabama LB Rolando McClain and nose guard Terrence Cody were selected to the 2009 Lott Trophy Watch List, leading the nation’s second-best rush defense. Road games at Georgia, Tennessee and LSU will be challenging.
13. Kansas: The Jayhawks have senior QB Todd Reesing (32 TDs, 13 picks, 3,888 yards), after a 2008 campaign where they averaged 32.7 points, 129 yards rushing and 302 passing. Eight starters are back on offense, 7 on defense. Senior WR Kerry Meier (1,045 yards) and junior WR Dezmon Briscoe anchor a dynamite air game. Second-year defensive coordinator Clint Bowen has some holes to fill on a suspect defense that allowed 29.5 ppg. Does that make the Jayhawks a team to look at over the total?
12. Virginia Tech: The Hokies (10-3) had another powerful defense that allowed 17.5 ppg, winning a second straight ACC title. They were rebuilding in 2008, so expectations are high. The offense is a ball control unit that averaged just 167 yards rushing (3.8 ypc), just 128 passing. The QB situation is strong with mobile junior Tyrod Taylor (1,036 yards, 2 TDs, 7 picks, 738 rushing yards). Soph RB Darren Evans (1,265 yards) was lost for the season with an August injury, but there is a lot of backfield depth. The defense is loaded once again with sophomore DT Antoine Hopkins, DE Isaiah Hamlette and LB Derrick McCoy. They are on a 5-1 run under the total.
11. California: Jeff Tedford is off a 9-4 SU/ATS campaign and the offense has 7 starters returning, the defense 8, including QB Kevin Riley (14 TDs, 6 INTs) and stud RB Jahvid Best. Cal’s offense averaged 33 points, 187 yards rushing and 195 yards passing. The offensive line returns three starters, blocking for star junior tailback Jahvid Best (1,580 yards, 8.1 ypc), a Heisman contender. He and sophomore RB Shane Vereen (715 yards, 5.0 ypc) give Cal the best backfield duo in the country. The defense returns 8 starters. The schedule isn’t bad and they get USC at home Oct. 3rd.
10. Mississippi: Think Houston Nutt can coach? Only one team didn’t win an SEC game in 2007 (0-8), and that was the Rebels. Nutt took over last season and the Rebels made huge strides, going 9-4 SU, 9-3 ATS. The offense averaged 30.8 points, 182 yards rushing and 215 passing and the defense made even bigger strides, allowing just 17.8 ppg. They were the only team to beat Florida, 31-30 – in the Swamp. Nutt was honored as SEC Coach of the Year for the third time.
Six starters return on offense, led by junior QB Jevan Snead (26 TDs, 13 picks). Senior WR Shay Hodge (725 yards) returns, along with 5-foot-8 senior RB/WR Dexter McCluster (625 yards). Eight starters return on defense, led by senior Marshay Green, Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss was 3-2 SU, 4-1 ATS on the road. Auburn and South Carolina are the only two tough road games, so expectations are high.
9. LSU 5th-year head coach Les Miles has a loaded unit for 2009. Last year the Tigers averaged 30.3 points, 167 yards rushing and 204 passing. Sophomore QB Jarrett Lee returns (13 TDs and 16 picks). The Tigers got great news with the decisions by OT Ciron Black and WR Brandon LaFell to come back for their final seasons. LaFell was the leading receiver, with 63 receptions for 929 yards and 8 TDs. This offensive line is terrific, opening holes for senior RB Charles Scott (1,174 yards, 18 TDs, 5.4 yards per carry) and senior RB Keiland Williams. Senior DE Rahim Alem (8 sacks) mans the line for new defensive coordinator John Chavis. LSU is 13-5 SU, 8-7 ATS on the road.
8. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys (9-4 SU, 8-4 ATS in 2008) begin their fifth season under head coach Mike Gundy and his electric offense. They go with a no-huddle at times and dazzled with 41 points, 256 yards rushing and 233 passing per game! Oklahoma State finished sixth in the nation in total offense. Best off all, they get almost everyone back with eight starters returning.
Senior QB Zac Robinson is off a strong junior season with 3,064 yards, 25 TDs and 10 picks. He’s an electric runner, rushing for 847 and 562 yards the last two seasons. He teams with 5-foot-8 senior RB Kendall Hunter (1,555 yards, 6.5 ypc) and senior RB Keith Toston (686 yards, 6.7 ypc). Speedy senior WR Dez Bryant (1,480 yards, 19 TDs) is a keeper. The Cowboy defensive front was last in the Big 12 in sacks and struggled against top offenses. They are 17-14 over the total the and look like an offensive machine in 2009.
7. Ohio State: Last season the Buckeyes went 10-3 SU, 6-6 ATS, but flopped against top competition. The dynamite defense lost its top players, but the offense should be better behind sophomore QB Terrelle Pryor (1,311 yards, 12 TDs, 4 picks), who used his quick feet to rush for 631 yards. When opponents stuffed the run, the Buckeyes’ offense wilted, so they went to opening up the passing game. The defense returns hard-hitting junior LB Ross Homan, while senior SS Kurt Coleman is terrific in the secondary. Note that Ohio State is 47-4 SU, 28-19-1 ATS their last 51 home games. The big game comes early: September 12 hosting USC.
6. Georgia: Head coach Mark Richt is one of the best in the business: Georgia is 34-8 SU/25-17 ATS on the road under Richt. The big story in 2009 is senior QB Joe Cox, who threw 2 TDs and no picks and 151 yards last season, though he has seen action in each of the last three years. He is aided by 6-foot-4 sophomore WR A.J. Green, who exploded as a freshman with 963 yards and 8 TDs, leading the team.
The defense is experienced and should be fine against the run with senior DT Kade Weston. Georgia junior LB Rennie Curran and senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens have been named to the 2009 Lott Trophy Watch List. They open at Oklahoma State, and have SEC road games at Arkansas and Tennessee. They might not beat Florida, but will be very good again.
5. Texas: Everyone remembers Oklahoma winning the Big 12 title game then losing to Florida in the national championship game. What they may forget is that Texas upset Oklahoma during the regular season, tied for first (7-1) in the Big 12 with the Sooners, then got jobbed as a committee chose Oklahoma over Texas to go to the Big 12 title game. That should add some motivation to a talented team, especially one with four-year starter QB Colt McCoy back.
The Longhorns are loaded on offense on a unit that averaged 44 points, 177 yards rushing and 299 passing, led by McCoy (34 TDs, 8 picks.) Four starters are back on the offensive front, along with junior RB Vondrell McGee. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp installed a more physical unit that allowed 18.6 ppg. Texas is 45-7 SU, 35-16 ATS the last four seasons, 7-1 SU/8-0 ATS as a dog and on a 30-14-2 OVER the total run.
4. Penn State: Joe Paterno is off an 11-2 SU, 7-4-1 ATS season with a Big 10 title (7-1) and another Rose Bowl. This offense is about balance, averaging 40 points, 211 yards rushing and 240 passing. Fifth-year senior QB Daryll Clark is a strong runner who impressed with his passing skills, throwing for 2,592 yards, 19 TDs, 6 picks.
The main concern is on the offensive line, which lost its top players, though guard Stefen Wisniewski might be the best in the country. The backfield is loaded with QB Clark and RBs junior Evan Royster (1,236 yards, 6.5 ypc) and sophomore Stephfon Green (578 yards, 5.5 ypc). The physical defense returns a terrific linebacking corps led by senior Sean Lee. Penn State is 0-6 SU/ATS its last 6 as a dog, but 28-2 SU, 19-9 ATS the last 30 at home.
3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma is off a 12-2 SU, 10-3 ATS season with a powerhouse team, one that outscored opponents by a 54-24 average. Junior QB Sam Bradford decided to stay rather than be the first pick in the NFL draft on an offense that averaged 205 yards rushing and 356 passing. Bradford had 50 TDs, 8 picks and 4,720 yards! Great news is that senior Jermaine Gresham (950 yards, 14 TDs) is one of the nation’s best tight ends.
The offensive line is a concern, though the ground game is loaded with junior RB DeMarco Murray (1,002 yards, 5.6 ypc) and senior RB Chris Brown (1,220 yards, 5.6 ypc). On defense, senior DT DeMarcus Granger anchors a solid line. Oklahoma is 20-3 SU, 14-6 ATS at home the last three seasons. The schedule is easy, outside of a revenge game with Texas on October 17. The Sooners are on an 8-1 run over the total.
2. USC: 9th-year head coach Pete Carroll’s team is stocked despite losing a ton of talent to the NFL. The Trojans are off a 12-1 season, which makes Carroll 71-7 SU, 46-31-1 against the spread the last six years. USC outscored opponents by an astounding 37.5-7.8 last season.
The offense has to find a new QB, but there are plenty of options with junior QB Mitch Mustain, 6-4 soph QB Aaron Corp (check status) and freshman QB Matt Barkley. They will inherit an offense that averaged 206 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. The offensive line is loaded, as this backfield with tailbacks senior C.J. Gable (617 yards), senior Stafon Johnson (705 yards, 5.1 ypc) and speedy junior Joe McKnight (659 yards, 7.4 ypc). USC is 16-4 under the total the last two years and 38-1 SU, 25-13-1 ATS at home the last six seasons.
1. Florida: The Gators won the 2006 title, then last season the Gators rolled to another title (13-1 SU, 11-2 ATS). The triple-option attack was deadly, averaging 45 points, 229 yards rushing and 212 passing per game. They are loaded for 2009 with 7 starters back! Senior QB Tim Tebow passed for 2,746 yards, 30 TDs, 4 picks and led the team with 673 yards and 12 TDs.
As great as the offense is, the defense allowed just 12.8 ppg and returns all 11 starters. The entire two-deep depth chart returns from a defense that led the nation in interceptions, ranked fourth in scoring defense and finished ninth in the nation in total defense. Florida’s first-team defense did not allow a touchdown in five of the last eight. Urban Meyer is 27-3 SU, 18-10 ATS at home. The schedule is easy, with the only difficult road games at LSU and South Carolina – teams they whipped last season. The Gators will be playing in January and could run the table.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Jim Fiest