Top 40: The rest of the best

Aug 14, 2001 2:44 AM

Last week, we revealed our Top 20 college teams. This week, we round out the rest of the Top 40. Many will be surprised who fell this far (the Big 10!), while there are a few here that could advance as the season progresses.

Arkansas ”” The Razorbacks had to deal with a number of injuries and, after starting the season 3-0, finished at 6-6, losing in the Las Vegas Bowl to UNLV. They will begin the new season with another date against UNLV, at home, and should be more formidable this season, due to health alone. Running back Cedric Cobbs missed most of last season with a separated shoulder, but is expected to be ready to go when the season starts. At quarterback, Zak Clark and Robby Hampton will split the snaps, with Clark slightly ahead on the depth chart before the season begins. Defensively, Arkansas has seven starters back. The secondary should be a strength, with free safety Ken Hamlin, the first frosh ever to lead Arkansas in tackles, with 104, and fellow sophomore, cornerback Laurence Richardson, who could be one of the top cover corners in the SEC. The Razorbacks are helped by a relatively easy schedule, that includes just four road games.

Purdue ”” Purdue had some serious losses to the NFL: Drew Brees, wideout Vinny Sutherland and linemen Matt Light and Chukky Okobi all drafted, but there is still more than enough talent in West Lafayette to compete for the Big 10 title. Redshirt freshman Brandon Hance will take over at quarterback, and is expected to be very accurate in Coach Tiller’s offense. He’ll have some quality receivers in John Standeford, Seth Morales and senior tight end Tim Stratton. The team’s top two rushers are back as well, in Montrell Lowe and Sedrick Brown. The defense looks very strong again, with 10 starters back from last year’s unit that allowed 22 points per game. The Boilermakers should also have a strong kicking game. Kicker/punter Travis Dorsch is the school’s all-time leader in field goals and points, and has been nominated for the Lou Groza Award, as the nation’s top kicker. Overall, if Hance can stay away from mistakes, the Boilermakers could be better than they were last season.

 Northwestern ””The Wildcats return the main cogs of last year’s explosive offense, but the defense, which was obliterated by Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl and allowed more than 30 points per game during the season, will have to step up if the Wildcats are to challenge for the Big 10 title. The death of safety Rashidi Wheeler won’t help the team at all. Wheeler was the most experienced player in the secondary, and a team leader. The strength of the defense should be the linebacking unit, led by Billy Silva, Napoleon Harris and Kevin Bentley. Northwestern will score plenty of points again this season, thanks to the return of Heisman candidate Damien Anderson and senior quarterback Zak Kustok, as well as last year’s leading receiver, Sam Simmons.

 Louisville ”” Louisville continued their rise to the top last year, going 9-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference, winning Conference USA for the first time under head coach John Smith. The Cardinals have more than enough talent back to defend their championship, especially on offense. Quarterback Dave Ragone,  the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year last season as a sophomore, is back and has worked hard over the off-season to improve. He has some explosive targets in wide receivers Deion Branch, Zek Parker and redshirt freshman JR Russell. Tony Stallings is also back, after rushing for 819 yards and six scores last season. The defense probably won’t be as strong as the unit that allowed under 80 yards rushing per game last year. However, defensive end Michael Josiah was a 2nd team All Conference USA selection last year as a sophomore and is paired with Dewayne White on the other side to form what should be a solid pass rushing duo.

Michigan ”” Few teams lost as much talent on one side of the ball as Michigan did. In addition to the losses of NFL picks, David Terrell, Anthony Thomas, Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus, the Wolverines also lost starting quarterback Drew Henson from last year’s terrific offensive unit. This season, the Wolverines will rely on their defense, and that unit should be improved. Larry Foote may be the unit’s best player and he’s joined by Eric Brackins to form a solid one-two linebacking duo. The offense won’t be as strong as last season, but John Navarre played well in limited action, with wideout Marquise Walker expected to be his top target. The Wolverines won’t play Northwestern this season, depriving fans of a terrific Big 10 battle, but a home date against Purdue and an early November visit to Michigan State will likely decide Michigan’s fate in the competitive Big 10 race.

USC ”” USC went a very disappointing 5-7 last year, and Paul Hackett lost his head coaching job. The Trojans brought in former Patriots head coach Pete Carroll to lead the team, and former NC State offensive coordinator Norm Chow to run that unit. They have plenty of offensive talent to work with, the best of whom figures to be junior quarterback Carson Palmer. In addition to Palmer, the offense will feature wide receiver Kareem Kelly and running back Sultan McCullough. Defense is Carroll’s forte, and he’ll need to work hard to improve a unit that allowed 28 points per game last year. The line should be improved with touted freshman Shaun Cody and veteran tackle Ryan Nielson leading the way. USC could find their schedule the toughest part of getting into the Top 20. They play road games at Washington, Oregon, Notre Dame, Arizona and Cal.

NC State ”” The Wolfpack went 8-4 last season, and have plenty of starters back on both sides of the ball. Philip Rivers, last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, returns at quarterback. Rivers led NC State to a bunch of comeback wins, and threw for 25 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions last year, while also topping 3000 yards passing. Last year’s leading rusher, Ray Robinson, is also back. Defensively, linebacker Levar Fisher led the entire nation in tackles last year, and he’ll team with Brian Jamison to form a solid one-two punch up front. Free safety Terrence Holt is the leader in the secondary, but talented freshman strong safety JJ Jones could be the difference maker for the unit. NC State has the offensive firepower to be very good this season. If their defense can find some consistency, the Wolfpack could push Florida State and Georgia Tech for the top of the conference.

Georgia ”” The Bulldogs were among the most talented teams in the nation last year, but, unfortunately, they were also among the most disappointing teams. Their poor season led to the firing of Jim Donnan, who was replaced by former Florida State assistant Mark Richt.  Quarterback Cory Phillips, who split time with Quincy Carter last season, will start behind center. Phillips will be throwing to Terrence Edwards, who should become Georgia’s all-time leading receiver this season. Georgia has all five of its starters on the offensive line back, which should help the running game, headed by backs Jasper Sanks and Musa Smith. The Bulldogs have a decent secondary, with three starters back, but the key to the defense will be how well Johnathon Sullivan can make up for the losses of Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud up front.

Colorado State ”” The Rams were the best team in the Mountain West Conference last year, and have been the premiere program in the league since it’s inception. They will have to replace quarterback Matt Newton, but sophomore DJ Busch should be able to carry the load, especially considering the talent around him. Cecil Sapp is back after leading the team in rushing and making 1st Team All-MWC. Wide out Pete Rebstock and tight end Jose Ochoa, both seniors, were also first team selections last year. The line will be solid, as well, led by Broc Finlayson. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Peter Hogan is the team’s top pass rusher and senior cornerback Justin Gallimore is one of the best covermen in the conference. Colorado State has a pretty tough schedule with road trips to UNLV, Louisville and BYU, as well as a date with Colorado in Denver. They may not be able to match last year’s 9-2 record with that schedule, but they’ll fight UNLV for the MWC Championship.

UNLV ”” The Rebels have made incredible strides over the last few seasons under Head Coach John Robinson. UNLV was 0-11 in 1998, but last year, they went 8-5, including a win over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl. Expectations are high for this year’s team. The Rebels may have the best quarterback in their conference, and possibly the entire country, in Jason Thomas. Thomas had a decent season last year, but was hindered by injuries throughout the campaign. He still rushed for almost 600 yards and threw 14 touchdowns last season. Expect him to explode this year, as he has a year of major college ball under his belt. He has a dangerous receiver to throw to in Troy Mason, who is also a fine kick returner. The offensive line will be strong, as well, with four starters back from last year. UNLV is taking on a much more ambitious schedule this year than in the past few seasons, but they have the talent to compete.

Pittsburgh ”” The Panthers got great news when All-American wide receiver Antonio Bryant was cleared to play this season. Bryant is one of the best players in the country, but has had numerous off-the-field troubles. If he can stay on the field throughout the season, Pittsburgh should have a formidable offense. Senior quarterback David Priestley moves into the starting role, and has shown the ability to move the ball in the past. The defense looks like it will be a very strong unit, with 10 starters back from last year’s group that allowed 19 points and less than 100 yards rushing per game. The top player on the unit may be free safety Ramon Walker, who had an injury-prone season last year, but was a 1st team All- Big East selection as a freshman two seasons ago.  

Alabama ”” A new era begins in Tuscaloosa as Dennis Franchione becomes the team’s new head coach, after leading TCU to a very successful season in 2000. Expectations were high for the Tide last season, but everything went wrong for ’Bama as they stumbled to a 3-8 record. Normally, expectations wouldn’t be too high for a team coming off such a poor record with a new coach, but this is Alabama. They have seven offensive starters back, including quarterback Eric Zow, as well as his backup, Tyler Watts. The running game will feature Ahmaad Galloway and Brandon Miree, the top two rushers from last year’s team. Wide receiver Freddie Milons had a very disappointing 2000 season, but still has incredible talent, and could rebound in a big way this season.

Clemson ”” Offensively, Clemson is another ACC team with a ton of talent back from last year, but the Tigers aren’t nearly as formidable on the defensive side of the ball. The Tigers have two very talented quarterbacks in Woody Dantzler and Willie Simmons. Dantzler completed nearly 58% of his passes last season and also rushed for almost 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s healthy and could be a Heisman candidate this season. Simmons isn’t the athlete Dantzler is, but he is a fine passer who gained valuable experience last season. If something should happen to Dantzler again, the Tigers should be able to weather the storm. Wide receiver Rod Gardner was lost to the NFL, but Clemson brought in one of the top recruits in the nation, Roscoe Crosby, to replace him. Last year’s leading rusher, Travis Zachery, who averaged five yards per carry in gaining 1,012 yards last season, is back to carry the load on the ground.

Southern Miss ”” With nine offensive starters back, including quarterback Jeff Kelly, Southern Miss will try to outscore teams this season. Kelly completed 58% of his passes last season and threw 15 touchdowns along the way against 10 interceptions.  Running back Derrick Nix, who missed most of last season with a kidney problem, but looked good in the spring, will be the team’s featured runner. Defensively, Southern Miss brings back just four starters from a unit that limited opponents to under 17 points per game. Middle linebacker Rod Davis was second on the team with 108 tackles last year as a freshman, and should make even more of an impact this year. Senior Roy Magee joins Davis at linebacker and is a team leader. There is a lot of ability on this team, but the schedule, with trips to Alabama, Louisville, Penn State and East Carolina, may keep the Golden Eagles from winning Conference USA.

Illinois ”” The Illini went a very disappointing 5-6 overall and 2-6 in the Big 10 last season, but with the bulk of their offensive talent back, don’t be surprised if Illinois is the surprise team in the Big 10 this season. Senior quarterback Kurt Kittner is back, and has been outstanding in early practices. His favorite receiver, Brandon Lloyd is back after missing all of last year with a broken leg, as is last year’s top receiver, Greg Lewis. The running game will be strong, as well, as Rocky Harvey and Antoineo Harris both are back. The defense isn’t nearly as loaded as the offense, but there is some talent up front, with end Terrell Washington, and in the secondary, with Bobby Jackson and Muhammad Abdullah.

East Carolina ”” Over the last couple of seasons, East Carolina has been one of the most successful programs in the nation, with a 17-7 record over that span. The Pirates have the talent to continue winning this year, although they play a pretty tough schedule, with trips to Syracuse, North Carolina and TCU.  The Pirates have nine starters back on defense and six on offense, so both units should be solid. David Garrard returns at quarterback after throwing 19 touchdowns and completing 53% of his passes last year. He was also the team’s second leading rusher, and is big and athletic enough to make things happen at any time. Running back Leonard Henry, 2nd team All-Conference USA last season and the squad’s leading rusher, is back for his senior year.  Senior Pernell Griffin is one of the best inside linebackers in the country, and the leader of the unit. The secondary will be a strength, as well, with all four starters back, along with some quality backups.

Mississippi ”” Mississippi lost 25 lettermen from last year’s bowl team. They have just six starters back on offense and five on defense, but they will hand the ball to sophomore quarterback Eli Manning, Peyton’s younger brother, who could be dangerous because of his presence. Manning got his career off to a great start, going 12 for 20, 167 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception against West Virginia in the Music City Bowl, leading the Rebels to 22 points in the fourth quarter of that game.  The Rebels will need to score some points, because the defense is a bit shaky. Linebacker Eddie Strong missed all of last year with a foot injury, but his return could certainly help the unit, that looks young in the secondary and small on the line.