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Countdown to kickoff!

Aug 12, 2003 3:41 AM

The sizzling days of summer may be everywhere, but just around the corner is the best time of year: football season!

There is such a high turnover rate with college athletes graduating or leaving early for the NFL that it’s important to take a careful look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

The college football season kicks off August 23, so over the next two weeks I’ll give you my top 40 teams, starting with Nos. 21-40.

Maryland: The Terrapins have an imaginative and innovative coach in Ralph Friedgen, and King Ralph has a ton of returning talent (16 starters overall) on a club that averaged 202 yards rushing and 32 points per game. Friedgen is 21-5 in two years at Maryland! Lefty QB Scott McBrien (15 TDs, 10 INTs, 2,377 yards) has six wide receivers back and this team averaged 196 yards passing per game.

The running game looks even better, with Josh Allen (8 TDs, 6.9 yards per carry) and RB Bruce Perry, who missed most of last season with injuries, and three offensive linemen. The defense will miss LB E.J. Henderson, but has 9 starters back, including DT Randy Starks (6½ sacks). The ”˜D’ allowed just 17.3 points pg in 2002 and they hope to catch Florida State napping September 6 (at FSU).

Colorado St: The Rams and head coach Sonny Lubick have won or shared the Mountain West Conference title in six of the last ten years, including 2002. They will be tough again with 15 starters back. Four returning starters on the offensive line provide brilliant balance with 206 yards rushing/183 yards passing per game. Senior QB Bradlee Van Pelt (10 TDs, 6 INTs) passed for over 2,000 yards and ran for 825 yards (5.9 yds per rush, 11 TDs).

RB Rahsaan Sanders teams with Van Pelt to form a strong ground attack, while WRs Chris Pittman and Eric Hill anchor an offense that averaged 29.9 ppg. Defensively, the Rams are again deep with seven starters back. They play an aggressive defense and are well coached with plenty of winning experience.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys will go to their strength again, which is a devastating passing combination of QB Josh Fields and All-American WR Rashaun Woods. Woods is an NFL-talent and caught 98 passes for 1,531 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Fields threw 29 TDs with only 9 INTs and 2,835 yards passing. This dynamic duo will keep Ok-State in every game.

RB Tatum Bell balances things out after running for 958 yards, 10 TDs and 5.8 yards per rush on an offense that erupted for 34.4 points pg. The offense will have to score a bunch again, because the ”˜D’ gave up 27.8 points each contest and was second-worst in the Big 12 against the pass (258 yards passing pg). An August 30 clash at Nebraska is a good test in a challenging schedule.

Boston College: RB Derrick Knight did a more than adequate job replacing All-America William Green last year by rushing for over 1,400 yards. He led the Eagles to a 9-4 record with an upset win at Notre Dame and a 51-25 rout of Toledo in the Motor City Bowl. Five offensive and six defensive starters are back on a club that outscored foes by a 28-19 average. Quarterback Quinton Porter threw just seven passes in 2002 (though he completed six) and looks to bounce back from a broken collarbone.

BC had great balance with 159 yards rushing and 222 yards passing per game, so the young QB won’t have to carry the load. Leading tackler LB Josh Ott returns along with Brian Flores to anchor a unit that was soft against the run (172 rushing allowed pg) but ranked second in the Big East behind Miami against the pass. The Eagles get Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt at home and look to go bowling for a fifth straight year.

BC had great balance with 159 yards rushing and 222 yards passing per game, so the young QB won’t have to carry the load. Leading tackler LB Josh Ott returns along with Brian Flores to anchor a unit that was soft against the run (172 rushing allowed pg) but ranked second in the Big East behind Miami against the pass. The Eagles get Miami, Notre Dame and Pitt at home and look to go bowling for a fifth straight year.

Notre Dame: The Irish will win with defense again. One of three finalists for the Butkus Award a year ago, LB Courtney Watson is a 2003 first-team preseason All-American and he anchors a unit that allowed 15.8 points and 98 yards rushing pg. He’ll be joined by a sparkling group of seniors in DL Cedric Hilliard, MLB Courtney Watson, Vontez Duff, a cornerback and kick returner, and S Glenn Earl.

Offensively, quarterback Carlyle Holiday has a year of experience under Tyrone Willingham’s pro-style offense. Notre Dame hopes to open up the passing game more after rushing for 143.8 yds per game. The schedule is tough, as usual, opening the season with games against Washington State and Michigan, and October revenge-games against USC and BC (back to back).

Nebraska: The Huskers were (gasp) 7-7 in 2002, so the pressure is on coach Frank Solich and senior QB Jamaal Lord. This was a one-dimensional offense that averaged 27 points and 269 yards rushing per game, ranking 10th in total offense in the Big 12. The Huskers ranked last in the conference in passing, which was a liability as they found themselves trailing many times without the ability to come back. Lord threw for 11 TDs and 10 interceptions, while completing just 46.8% of his passes, which is why they brought in a new offensive coordinator in Barney Cotton.

Three returning starters on the offensive line will keep the ground attack strong, and Lord was their leading rusher with 1,329 yards, 8 TDs averaging 5.7 yds per carry. The defense has a new coordinator in Bo Pelini, who has said his "D" will be aggressive. They had better be, after giving up 23.7 points and 154 yards rushing pg. In Nebraska’s favor is an easy schedule that doesn’t get difficult until November games at Texas and at Colorado.

Florida State: Even with all the on-field and off-field controversies at Florida State over the last ten months, this team still should be very good. There are question marks in the passing game with experienced (though erratic) junior QB Chris Rix (52%, 13 TDs, 7 INTs) and a new crop of wideouts. The running game is a great strength, as Rix can run and RB Greg Jones (5.8 yards per carry, 8 TDs) led an FSU attack that averaged 192 yards rushing per game.

The defense allowed 21.2 points pg and has ten starters back. LBs Kendyll Pope and Michael Boulware, the brother

of Baltimore Ravens’ star Peter, lead the defense. CB Stanford Samuels heads a secondary that gained experience after allowing 243.7 yds passing pg. They get Miami at home October 12 before November games at Notre Dame and Florida.

Virginia: Watch out for this offense. The Cavaliers were terrific last season averaging 27 points per game with great balance (232 yds passing, 121 yds rushing). Nine starters return on offense led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country in senior Matt Schaub (68.7%, 27 TDs, 7 INTs, 2,794 yards). RB Wali Lundy is a strong all-around talent and led the team in rushing (699 yards) and was second in receiving (53 catches, 359 yards).

There are eight starters back on defense, led by big DE Chris Canty. The "D" needs to improve after allowing 200 yards rushing and passing per game (25 points pg). Virginia is primed to make some noise in the ACC and beyond with home games against Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Colorado: The Buffaloes will have some new looks on offense, but there is little doubt that coach Gary Barnett will establish the run first after averaging 28.5 points and 241 yards rushing per game. Only three starters are back on "O" where RB Bobby Purify (739 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) replaces Chris Brown. WRs Derek McCoy and John Donahoe provide depth and experience for the new QB, which will be either James Cox or sophomore Joel Klatt.

The defensive line looks strong, with DE Marques Harris and DT Sam Wilder. The good news is Colorado gets Oklahoma and Nebraska at home. The bad news is they have a brutal September schedule with three straight games against UCLA, Washington State and at Florida State.

Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles know that defense brings success, and that has long been a Southern Miss trademark. The "D" looks terrific again and this team has gone to five bowl games in the last six years. Eight starters return to a defense that allowed 17 points per game, led by All-American candidate MLB Rod Davis and a tough corps of linebackers.

The offense averaged 21.6 ppg and has two capable QBs in junior QB Mickey D’Angelo (7 TDs, 7 INTs, 1,647 yards, 53%) and sophomore Dustin Almond (3 TDs, 3 INTs). The offense had great balance with 143 yards rushing, and 190 yards passing per game and with productive WRs Chris Johnson and Marvin Young back, the passing game could improve. They end the season with 4 of 6 games at home, all in Conf-USA.

Alabama: The Tide lost two proven winning coaches in Dennis Franchione and Mike Price. Mike Shula comes aboard to try and provide some stability after a rocky off-season. On the plus side, Shula inherits a 10-3 team that has 13 starters back. They had great balance on offense with 213 yards rushing, 190 yards passing and 28 points per game. QB Brodie Croyle got his feet wet with 5 TDs, 5 INTs, good for 1,046 yards, but needs more consistency (48% completions).

Lightening-quick RB Shaud Williams returns (7.1 yds rushing per carry) and with three offensive linemen back, the Tide has a potentially strong ground game. The defense was sensational, allowing 15.4 ppg and seven defensive starters return, anchored by the linebackers. They have eight home games, including five to open the season, so the new coach will hear it from the fans early (good or bad).

Missouri: Despite coming off a retooling 5-7 record, the Tigers are anxiously looking forward to the 2003 season, and who can blame them? Sophomore quarterback Brad Smith cut his Big 12 teeth while passing for 15 touchdowns and over 2,300 yards while being intercepted only six times. He also led the Tigers in rushing with 1,027 yards and 7 scores and that was his freshmen year. This team averaged 30 points, 183 yards rushing and 203 yards passing per game.

Smith does take a beating in the multiple offense, and while the young Missouri offensive line is big and improving, they the Tigers gave up almost as many points as they scored (29.3 ppg). The Tigers lost five games last year in which they scored 24 points or more. An easy early-season schedule could find them 5-0 heading into the October 11 home game against Nebraska.

Mississippi: Senior QB Eli Manning is a Heisman candidate and leads a pass-happy offense that averaged 260 yards passing and 27 points per game. Manning (20 TDs, 15 INTs, 3,088 yds) has most of his offensive arsenal back, led by WR Chris Collins (10 TDs). They are an exciting team that is never out of any game because of that air attack.

The defense lacks beef and allowed 25 points and 151 yards rushing per game. After a 5-1 start in 2002, they fell apart with five straight losses. Second-year defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach likes a 4-2-5 scheme and has 8 starters back on ”˜D’, which helps. Ole Miss plays 7 home games, including four in a row in October and November.

Florida: Despite an 8-5 season, the Gators were largely a flop under first-year coach Ron Zook. Still, there is plenty of talent and Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher helped the offense average 25.5 points pg. For the first time in years, Florida might be a running team: four of five offensive linemen return and this team averaged 132 yds rushing per game.

Ingle Martin and freshman Gavin Dickey will battle for the QB spot. It helps to have WRs Carlos Perez, Kelvin Kight and O.J. Small, who combined for 113 catches last year. The defense has just three starters back and was poor against the run, giving up 168 yards rushing per game. This team could be better, but if not it won’t be long before Gator fans will be chanting, "Give Zook the Hook."

Fresno State: Sixth-year coach Pat Hill has developed a solid program and the Bulldogs are off another strong season. They run a wide-open offense and averaged 26 points, 128 yards rushing and 245.7 yards passing per game. The big story was at QB, where sophomore Paul Pinegar won WAC Freshman of the Year honors after passing for 20 TDs, 10 INTs with 2,741 yards passing.

He has plenty of help from top targets like All-American WR Bernard Berrian, who redshirted last season (injury) after a monster-2001 (1,270 yards, 13 TDs). Senior WR Marque Davis (7 TDs) and RB Rodney Davis (1,433 yards, 7 TDs) head an offense deep in talent. The defense allowed 27 points per game and needs to improve under S Bryce McGill and DE