Balance of power shifting in conferences

August 07, 2001 1:51 AM
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This week we’ll begin our overview of the college football season with rundowns of the Big East, the Big 12 and the Pac-10. We’ll conclude next week with the remaining conferences of the Bowl Championship Series and Notre Dame.

BIG EAST

Last year Miami finished second in the polls after being denied a chance to play for the No. 1 spot because of the goofy computerized system of the BCS. No less than four players from that team became NFL first-round draft choices and coach Butch Davis left to take over the Cleveland Browns. Does all this mean the Hurricanes will turn into a gentle zephyr? Don’t bet on it. Veteran assistant Larry Coker succeeds Davis, the system remains the same and there’s an abundance of talent. Junior QB Ken Dorsey triggers an offense that has future NFL running backs and receivers and eight starters return on a defense that also includes future pros.

Elsewhere in the conference, Boston College should be good. Paced by RB William Green, the Eagles return experienced players at all of the skill positions and 10 starters return on defense”¦Virginia Tech will rely heavily on its defense. Michael Vick’s successor is sophomore Grant Noel whose total game experience consists of completing four of 10 passes for 49 yards. Only one starter returns on the offensive line, which probably was a contributing factor to Vick’s decision to turn pro early”¦Pittsburgh made good progress last season under first-year coach Walt Harris but an overall record of 7-5 shows there’s still a long way to go. WR Antonio Harris is a future NFL first-round draft choice.

Former Clemson assistant Rich Rodriguez takes over from Don Nehlen at West Virginia and he’ll have his work cut out for him as only four starters return from last year’s team”¦Syracuse appears to be in a downward cycle and with a non-conference schedule that includes Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Auburn, the Orangemen could be in for a losing season”¦Former Miami assistant Greg Schiano takes over at Rutgers in an attempt to succeed where others have previously failed ”¦ Temple has been voted out of the league after this season. The Owls are appealing but will have to show more than they have in the past to overturn the verdict.

BIG 12

Nebraska rates the top spot in the conference’s North Division. The Cornhuskers have a viable Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Eric Crouch, who can make big plays either running or passing and he’s surrounded by the usual big and strong linemen that Nebraska always seems to have. The defense, young last year, is more experienced and nine starters return. Moreover, the schedule is extremely favorable as the Huskers’ toughest opponents ”” Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Kansas State ”” will be played at home.

It wasn’t too long ago that Kansas State was the pits of Division I-A football. But no more. The Wildcats are now a force to be reckoned with. Just how good they’ll be this season is problematical. They lost 26 seniors, including QB Jonathan Beasley, and only three starters return on defense. Nevertheless, they’ll win a lot more often than they’ll lose.

Elsewhere in the division, Craig Ochs has settled in as quarterback for Colorado and the Buffaloes should improve on their 3-8 record of last season”¦The Iowa State program is in an upward cycle. Ten starters, including the conference’s leading rusher, Ennis Haywood, return on offense but there is a void at quarterback where the likely starter is junior college transfer Seneca Wallace”¦Gary Pinkel, who enjoyed substantial success at Toledo in the Mid-American Conference, takes over as new coach at Missouri where he’ll try to restore a once-good program to respectability ”¦The situation at Kansas is bleak. The Jayhawks are unlikely to win more than two games, none in the conference.

Oklahoma and Texas are the top teams in the South Division. Last year everything went right for the Sooners ”” much to almost everyone’s surprise. They won’t surprise anyone this year and in fact they’ll be a prime target for all the teams on their schedule. But they’ll again be formidable. There are veterans at every position (except quarterback), including 14 starters. Josh Heupel is gone and his replacement as signal-caller will be junior Nate Hybl, a transfer from Georgia whose sole game experience came against Baylor last year when he completed nine of 16 passes for 144 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Sooners will go as far as he takes them.

Every year it seems that the recruiting gurus proclaim that Texas has out-recruited the world but those assessments have yet to be confirmed on the playing field. Last year was typical in that the Longhorns were upset by Stanford, thoroughly thrashed by Oklahoma and lost to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. The natives are getting restless with coach Mack Brown. Seventeen starters return from a year ago and Brown has finally settled on Chris Simms as his quarterback over Major Applewhite. The key game of the season comes on October 6 in Dallas against Oklahoma.

Texas A&M lost leading rusher Ja’Mar Toombs and leading receiver Robert Ferguson to the NFL and the Aggies are installing a new offensive built around multiple formations. The main man is QB Mark Farris who passed for 2,551 yards last year. The Aggies get Notre Dame at home but their toughest conference games are on the road”¦The Texas Tech program is moving up and the Red Raiders will continue their aerial circus with QB Kliff Kingsbury launching passes at a prolific rate. Last year he completed 362 of 585 for 3,418 yards. The Red Raiders will win enough games to merit a bowl bid.

A new regime begins at Oklahoma State as Dallas Cowboys assistant Les Miles takes over as head coach. Sophomore QB Aso Pogi could be exciting”¦Baylor finished 2-9 last season and has brought in eight junior college players. Greg Cicero, a transfer from Texas, will be the quarterback. The Bears are undergoing massive rebuilding and may not win any more games this year than they did last year.

PAC 10

The big story of this conference is the shift in power from California to the Northwest. UCLA and Southern California, once perennial contenders for the league championship, have given way to Oregon State, Oregon and Washington. Those three schools tied for the conference crown last year and then went on to win bowl games against major ­­opponents.

Oregon State finished at 11-1 and climaxed its campaign with a 41-9 thumping of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite losses at the wide receiver and tight end positions, the Beavers return a solid nucleus on both sides of the ball. Veteran QB Jonathan Smith will trigger an offense that’s headed by RB Ken Simonton, who amassed 1,559 yards last year. School publicists are beating the drums for him as a Heisman candidate.

Oregon finished at 10-2 and ended its season with a 35-30 victory over Texas in the Holiday Bowl. The Ducks’ offense should be terrific. Ten starters return with exceptional athletes at all of the skill positions. The team’s problem is with the defense. Seven starters were lost and things will have to be fixed in a hurry as the Ducks open the season against Wisconsin. Fortunately, that game will be played in Eugene.

Washington finished at 11-1 after concluding its campaign with a 34-24 triumph over Purdue in the Rose Bowl. Coach Rick Neuheisel has plenty of talent at his disposal but the key to the season may be in replacing QB Marques Tuiasosopo, who was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. The heir apparent is sophomore Cody Pickett. The Huskies will be severely tested early as their first two games are against Michigan at home and Miami (Fla.) on the road.

Elsewhere, UCLA could be the dark horse surprise. The Bruins return seven starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that lost a whole bunch of close games last year. There’s really never a shortage of talent on the Bruins’ campus and if it should all come together, look out ”¦ Stanford’s strength will be its defense. Even with all five starters returning to the offensive line, the Cardinal offense figures to be more solid than spectacular. This team will be competitive with anybody on its schedule, including Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame.

The once-mighty Trojans of Southern California have fallen upon lean times. To correct things, Pete Carroll has been brought in to replace the hapless Paul Hackett. Carroll’s coming was not exactly treated with enthusiasm by USC fans as he was a failure in two NFL head coaching jobs and has never previously been a college head coach. But he inherits some good offensive talent; QB Carson Palmer, RB Sultan McCullough and WR Kareem Kelly. The USC defense needs some retooling.

The California Golden Bears were somewhat less than golden last season, finishing at 3-8, and coach Tom Holmoe’s job could be on the line. The defense, with good linebackers and a good secondary, is more than adequate but the offense was the worst in the conference last year. Looking for improved play form QB Kyle Boiler to pace the Bears to a better record”¦Offense-minded Dirk Koetter comes from Boise State to take over the head coaching job at Arizona State. He is installing a run-and-shoot offense but probably doesn’t have the talent on hand to immediately work its full effect. Eight starters return on defense. ASU fans are advised to be patient.

Arizona pulled a surprise when it hired John Mackovic to succeed Dick Tomey as head coach. Mackovic’s resume includes stints at Wake Forest, Illinois, Texas, the NFL Kansas City Chiefs and the ESPN broadcast booth. He comes to a situation where the cupboard is less than overflowing. The offense has a couple of decent running backs but there is no experienced quarterback and the receivers have been inconsistent. The defense returns seven starters but that’s not exactly a blessing. The Wildcats allowed an average of more than 30 points a game in the last five contests. A moderate non-conference schedule is helpful ”¦ The Washington State Cougars could jump up and bite some people, especially if the defense shows some improvement with experience. The offense, sparked by QB Jason Gesser, has good receivers and running backs. The Cougars finished 4-7 last year, but three of their losses were in overtime.

Next week: A rundown on the Big 10, the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and Notre Dame.

Preseason Top Ten

1 — Miami (Fla.)
2 — Nebraska
3 — Oregon State
4 — Michigan
5 — Oregon
6 — Florida
7 — Tennessee
8 — Oklahoma
9 — Texas
10 — Notre Dame