Gators stake claim to No. 1

Aug 7, 2001 1:57 AM

Florida ”” The Gators come into the season as our pre-season No. 1 thanks to the return of 17 starters from last year’s team, including eight on offense and nine on defense. They should score plenty of points, with sophomore quarterback Rex Grossman and wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. Running back Earnest Graham, a junior, highlights the Gators’ backfield. The defensive unit will be strong in the secondary with Bennie Alexander and Robert Cromartie, and linebacker Travis Carroll will plug up opponents’ running games. The Gators open the season with three home games, including the season opener against Marshall, and a September 15 date with Tennessee, but the toughest stretch of the season will come in October, when they play three road games, against LSU, Georgia and Auburn, respectively.

Texas ”” If trades could be made in college football, the Longhorns would be in a great spot because of their quarterback situation. Chris Simms will be the starter, but Major Applewhite has proven himself as a good college quarterback the past two seasons. Texas should be very explosive. They have at least six wide receivers that could end up playing in the NFL someday, and Simms has one of the best arms in football, at any level. Roy Williams broke 13 freshman records last season, including yards with 809 and touchdowns with eight. BJ Johnson set a freshman record with 41 receptions. The running game will miss Hodges Mitchell, but with Ivan Williams, Victor Ike, Kenny Hayter and freshman Cedric Benson, Texas has plenty of options available.

Oregon ”” The Oregon football program had it’s best season ever last year, going 10-2 and finishing the season ranked 7th in the nation. The Ducks return 31 lettermen, including eight starters on offense. Senior Quarterback Joey Harrington led the PAC-10 in total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes, and has a 14-2 record as a starter in his career. One thousand yard rusher Maurice Morris is back, as is Keenan Howry, who is the most prolific receiver in school history. With tight end Justin Peelle and three offensive line starters back, they should be very explosive. The defense has just four starters back, but the cornerbacks, Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith should be very good. Up front, defensive end Seth McEwan is the lone returning starter, and will be asked to provide leadership for a young unit. The Ducks open the season with three home games, including the opener against Wisconsin.

Miami (Fla) ”” The architect of the program, Butch Davis, may be gone, but he certainly didn’t leave the cupboard bare at Miami. New head coach Larry Coker will have to deal with the losses of wide receivers Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, as well as linebacker Dan Morgan, but there is plenty of talent ready to step up. Eight starters are back on offense and six on defense, and, overall, there are 47 lettermen back from last year’s team that finished ranked second in the nation. Quarterback Ken Dorsey threw 25 touchdowns against just five interceptions last year, and is 14-1 as a starter. He has two All-Americans on the offensive line in Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez, and the makings of an outstanding running game with Clinton Portis and Najeh Davenport in the backfield. Senior strong safety Edward Reed leads an athletic defense. The schedule begins with a trip to Penn State and ends with a trip to primary Big East rival Virginia Tech.

Florida State ”” The Seminoles probably aren’t as good as they were last season, losing Chris Weinke and Snoop Minnis in addition to offensive coordinator Mark Richt, but, as usual, there is plenty of talent in Tallahassee, and they still have Bobby Bowden patrolling the sidelines. Freshman Chris Rix, will likely be the starter at quarterback, but Anquan Bolden, a wideout last year, may see some time behind center if Rix struggles. Wide receiver is a position of strength for the Seminoles, with Afrews Bell and Robert Morgan as the starters. William McCray and Davy Ford will split time in the backfield, and the defense will be lead by senior linebacker Bradley Jennings and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. The Seminoles play Miami at home on October 13th, and travel to Gainesville for a date with the Gators on November 17th, to end the regular season.

Nebraska ”” The Huskers lost a lot of players from last year’s team, including Bobby Newcombe and Correll Buckhalter on offense and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Carlos Polk on defense, but Nebraska returns plenty of good players, especially on defense, and they have their starting quarterback, Eric Crouch, back as well. Crouch will be joined on offense by tight end Tracey Wistrom, one of the best in the country and running back Dahrran Diedrich, as well as fullback Judd Davies. Senior Dave Volk will try to hold down an offensive line that lost three starters. Defensively the Huskers will be tough up front with ends Chris Melsey and Demoine Adams and nose tackle Jason Lohr. Randy Stella and Scott Shanle are the team’s top linebackers and cornerback Keyou Craver is a difference maker in the secondary.

Oklahoma ”” The defending champs lost their leaders on both units to graduation in quarterback Josh Heupel and linebacker Rocky Calmus. But the Sooners have a relatively easy schedule this season, lots of depth in the backfield and head coach Bob Stoops eschewed other opportunities to stay in Norman. Oklahoma will play just four road games during the regular season, at Air Force, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas Tech, with the Nebraska game taking place on the 27th of October. Nate Hybl and Jason White will compete to take Heupel’s place behind center, and whichever wins the job will have the benefit of a solid running game headed by Quentin Griffin and Renaldo Works. Tight end Trent Smith, who played so well in the Big 12 Championship Game, will be the team’s top target.

Tennessee ”” Tennessee experienced a down season, by their standards last season. But that team was young and learning how to win in the SEC. This year’s team has talent and depth just about everywhere on the roster. Quarterback Casey Clausen completed 62 percent of his passes and set freshmen records with 1473 yards and 15 touchdowns passing last season. Running back Travis Stephens will finally get the chance to be the main back for the Vols, while senior fullback Will Bartholomew provides holes for him to run through. Donte Stallworth, Eric Parker and Leonard Scott head a talented receiving corps. The defense is also very good, especially along the line, where John Henderson, a first team All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Will Overstreet lead the way.

Washington ”” The Huskies went 11-1 last season, and should be just as formidable this season. They lost quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo, but coach Rick Neuhiesel feels good about his quarterback spot with sophomore Cody Pickett and JuCo transfers Taylor Barton and Ryan Porter competing for the position. The rest of the offense should be very good, if they can find replacements for four departed starters on the offensive line. All-American tight end Jerramy Stevens headlines a unit that also features depth in the backfield, led by Rich Alexis and Willie Hurst. Whoever is quarterbacking will have plenty of wide receiver options, as well, with Todd Elstrom, Justin Robbins and Wilbur Hooks back from last year’s squad, in addition to the return of Chris Juergens, who missed the 2000 season with a knee injury. The defense has six starters back, including All-American nose tackle Larry Tripplett, who will be joined by Marcus Roberson to form a tough interior to run against.

Virginia Tech ”” Michael Vick may have left for the NFL, but head coach Frank Beamer decided to return to Virginia Tech rather than take the job which was available to him at North Carolina and that should mean good things once again for Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ offense will be lead by running back Lee Suggs this season. Suggs was a unanimous first team All-Big East Selection last season, and one of three Co-Offensive Players of the Year in the league. Grant Noel and Jason Davis will attempt to replace Vick. The defense should be very good, with defensive linemen David Pugh and Chad Beasley back, as well as linebacker Ben Taylor and cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. The Hokies also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, so don’t expect them to fall off too much.

Georgia Tech ”” Georgia Tech went 6-2 in the ACC last year, and 9-3 overall, after losing to LSU in the Peach Bowl. They bring back 16 starters from that team, including quarterback George Godsey, running back Joe Burns and wide receiver Kelly Campbell, who led the team in their respective categories last season. Georgia Tech did have one big loss, though.

Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen decided to move on to the head coaching position at Maryland.  Defensively, Georgia Tech has nine starters back, including freshman All-American linebacker Daryl Smith. The line will be strong with ends Greg Gathers and Nick Rogers, who combined for 22 sacks in 2000, back, and all ACC free safety Jeremy Muyres is back as well. Tech has a chance to be very good this season, and possibly replace Florida State atop the conference.

LSU ”” The Bayou Bengals finally returned to some semblance of their past glory last season, as they went 8-4 in head coach Nick Saban’s first season at the helm. With one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, as well as a number of talented returnees, LSU should be one of the best teams in the conference again this season. Quarterback Rohan Davey is the starter at quarterback, and with wide receiver Josh Reed and running back LaBrandon Toefield, LSU has some terrific offensive players. The strongest group on defense is the linebackers. Middle linebacker Trey Faulk and weakside backer Bradie James each made more than 110 tackles last season, and both are back. LSU looks like the best team in the SEC West, and should meet the Eastern champ in the league’s Championship Game.

Kansas State ”” The Wildcats have won at least nine games in each of the last eight seasons, and have won at least 11 games in each of the last four seasons. They’ve lost a number of important players from last year’s squad, but the overall level of talent on the roster is still high, and, despite all the losses, the Wildcats should be very competitive again this season. The offense features some quality weapons, including senior running back Josh Scobey and fullback Rock Cartwright, as well as receivers Aaron Lockett, Brandon Clark and young and talented Taco Wallace. The schedule could hurt the Wildcats, though. They will play USC, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Nebraska on the road this season.

UCLA ”” UCLA lost their last three games last year to finish a disappointing 6-6, and head coach Bob Toledo may be under the gun this season. Luckily for Toledo, the Bruins have quarterback Cory Paus, wide receiver Brian Poli-Dixon and running back DeShaun Foster back, which means their offense will be as explosive, if not more so, than they were last year, when they averaged almost 30 points per game. The defense was awful last season, but middle linebacker Robert Thomas and defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who was hurt against Michigan and missed most of last season, should lead the unit to a better season.

Colorado ”” Last year, the Buffaloes lost their first four games, the first three by a combined 10 points. Things look better for Colorado this season, as they return a stable of starters from last year’s team, including eight on offense led by quarterback Craig Ochs. The running game is strong and deep. Cortlen Johnson led the team in rushing last season, but Marcus Houston is probably the squad’s best runner. Bobby Purify is also back to provide depth in the backfield. Linebacker Jashon Sykes is the defenses’ leader, and most talented player, although he’s been inconsistent throughout his career, and will need to play well every week since the Buffaloes play in the same division as Nebraska and Kansas State.

Oregon State ”” Oregon State had the best season in the history of their program, finishing 11-1 and winning a share of the Pac 10 title and destroying Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The Beavers lost plenty of players from that team, but quarterback Jonathon Smith and running backs Ken Simonton and Patrick McCall all return, ensuring plenty of offensive fire power. The defense should be among the best in the PAC 10, thanks to tackle Eric Manning and middle linebacker Richard Siegler. Junior cornerback Dennis Weathersby has the potential to be among the top covermen in the conference, as well. Oregon State will play UCLA, Arizona and Washington at home, which could help their chances to win the conference.

South Carolina ”” Lou Holtz performed yet another miracle last season, as he led the Gamecocks to an 8-4 record and an Outback Bowl victory over Ohio State, after the team went 0-11 in 1999. South Carolina’s success was primarily because of their defense, a unit which allowed 19 points or less in 10 of their 12 games. This year’s defensive unit should be just as strong, with eight seniors and three juniors back, seven of whom are starters. Senior linebacker Kalimba Edwards leads the unit, which also features talented senior cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Andre Goodman.  Offensively, South Carolina scored 21 points or less in six of their games last season, but they have nine starters back, including running back Derek Watson and  quarterback Phil Petty.

Notre Dame ”” The Irish had a fine regular season, winning their final seven games to finish 9-2 and earn a berth to the Fiesta Bowl and a couple million dollars for the school. They were demolished by Oregon State, 41-9, leaving many to wonder just how strong the Irish really were last season. The offense was tilted so heavily toward the run that they averaged almost 49 rushes per game and just over 18 pass attempts per contest, and will probably feature more of the same this season, with a running game led by Julius Jones, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard, as well as quarterback Matt LoVecchio. Defensively, Notre Dame is counting on the return of defensive end Grant Irons, who missed much of last season with a shoulder problem.  Notre Dame has a solid team, but they play, what could be, the toughest schedule in the nation, with trips to Nebraska and Purdue, among others.

Mississippi State ”” The Bulldogs have been the best team in the SEC West over the last four seasons, with a 31-13 record over that time, and they are the only team in their division coming off two consecutive bowl victories. Mississippi State has seven home games on their schedule this season, and have eight offensive starters back from last year’s explosive 8-4 squad, led by senior quarterback Wayne Madkin. The running game should be strong, as well with senior Dicenzo Miller back. Defensively, Mario Haggan, who can play either defensive end or outside linebacker, is the headliner, and could be an All-American this season.

Michigan State ”” The Big 10 is wide open this season, with Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State looking the best of the group. The Spartans went just 5-6 last season, but they have the talent to win the div