The college football season kicks off this Saturday, so it’s time to sneak in my Top 20.
Washington: The Huskies have 16 starters back on a team that averaged 31 points and 352 yards passing per game in 2002! The most significant loss isn’t even on the field, but the ignominious departure of head coach Rick Neuheisel. This makes Washington a bit of a question mark, but the rest of the coaching staff is intact and the offense could put up big numbers again. No matter how you spell "Pacific Ten" there’s no ”˜D’.
Senior QB Cody Pickett leads the way and had a big junior season with 4,186 yards, 26 TDs, 13 INTs. The WR corps is deep, with super junior Reggie Williams (1,390 yards, 11 TDs) and Charles Fredrick. Senior Rich Alexis leads a ground game that was below average (77 yds rushing pg). The defense has eight starters back and needs to find a way to stop the pass (257.5 ypg allowed). The run ”˜D’ is terrific, anchored by junior DE Manase Hopoi (7 sacks).
Arkansas: The Razorbacks won the SEC West last season with a ground game that was No. 1 in the SEC (219 ypg). With 17 starters back, this team will run over opponents again, led by RB Cedric Cobbs (5.5 ypc), sophomore De’Arrius Howard (4.6) and running QB Matt Jones (600 yds, 4.9 ypc).
The offensive line is outstanding, led by junior Shane Andrews and four seniors. This offense outscored opponents by an impressive 26-19 average. Eight starters return to a good defense, though S Ken Hamlin went to the NFL. The Hogs did surrender 232 yards passing per game. Arkansas has seven home contests, but must visit Texas and Alabama in September.
LSU: Coach Nick Saban’s Tigers outscored opponents by a 25-17 average with 197 yards rushing per game. The running game should be strong again with four of five offensive linemen back along with RB Joseph Addai (5.5 yards per carry) and Shyrone Carey (5.7 yards per carry). They have two capable QBs in junior Matt Mauck (6 TDs, 4 INTs) and Marcus Randall (9 TDs, 2 INTs). Mauck had foot injuries last year and is a question mark.
The defense looks strong with six starters back, led by senior DT Chad Lavalais and DE Melvin Oliver. LSU also has a favorable schedule with seven home games, four of which are against rivals Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Arkansas.
Pitt: Don’t forget these names when preparing your weekend betting activities this fall. QB Rod Rutherford (21 TDs, 12 INTs) and WR Larry Fitzgerald are the dynamic duo at Pitt and Fitzgerald might prove to be the equal of Antonio Bryant, who won the Biletnikoff Award in 2000 and led the Panthers to a Big East Title. Fitzgerald had a sensational sophomore season with 69 receptions for 1,005 yards and 12 TDs. Brandon Miree is a veteran running back who ran for 943 yds and adds balance to what should be a potent air attack.
Coming off a 9-4 season and a 38-13 rout of Oregon State in the Insight Bowl, the Panthers have 15 returning starters. This is a team to watch, particularly if they can answer some defensive line questions. A big test will be early back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Notre Dame, two clubs that nipped Pitt by a total of 10 points last year.
Purdue: The Boilermakers should have been better than the 6-6 from 2002. Purdue averaged over 200 yards rushing and passing per game, with a defense that was No. 2 in the Big 10 in yards allowed. With 17 starters back (9 on defense), Joe Tiller’s Boilermakers get a chance at redemption. Nearly the entire offense returns, including junior QB Kyle Orton (11 TDs, 9 INTs, 1,974 yards) and WRs John Standeford (65 rec, 1,202 yds) and Taylor Stubblefield. Losing senior RB Joey Harris (1,022 yards) to academics hurts, but there’s hope sophomore Brandon Jones (640 yards, 5.4 yds pc) can step in.
Tiller likes a wide-open offense and has plenty of weapons on a team that averaged 29.3 ppg with the No. 1 total offense in the Big 10. The defense allowed 22 ppg and will be tough again with nine starters back, led by All-Big Ten FS Stuart Schweigert. Seven home games is a plus, though Purdue has Michigan and Ohio State on the road.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils snuck up on a lot of folks last season, finishing 5-3 in the Pac 10, just behind USC and Washington State. Head coach Dirk Koetter begins his third season at ASU with an imaginative, wide-open offense. Arizona State averaged 32 points and 399 yards per game. This aggressive air-attack averaged 304 ypg and returns nine offensive starters.
Junior QB Andrew Walter (3,584 yds, 26 TDs, 14 INTs) leads the way along with junior WR Daryl Lightfoot (38 rec, 539 yds) and senior RB Mike Williams (7 TDs). The defense is not physical and will feel the loss of sack-master Terrell Suggs to the NFL. The Sun Devils rely on speed in a 4-2-5 ”˜D’ that allowed 246 ypg passing and 28.7 ppg, but the offense will still score more.
Texas A&M: The Aggies improved themselves by inking coach Dennis Franchione, who had great success at TCU and Alabama. He is one of the best and his teams are disciplined and play hard. Franchione will have 12 starters from a squad that averaging nearly 29 points and 268 yards per game. Leading players include QB Dustin Long (19 TDs, 16 INTs) and RB Derek Farmer (739 yards, 7 TDs), both juniors.
Franchione loves a strong running attack, so look for more offensive balance and a better ground game than that last year’s 118 average. Pass rushing DE Linnis Smith and run-stuffing LB Jared Morris anchor a solid ”˜D.’ Special teams play is terrific, led by punter Cody Scates (43.7 ypk). The schedule is a challenge, with road games at Virginia Tech, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Wisconsin: The Badgers could bust out and have a big year, particularly with seven starters returning to an offense that averaged 26 ppg. The running game is terrific (190 ypg) led by junior RB Anthony Davis (1,456 yards rushing, 12 TDs, 5.3 ypc). The defense should also be good, with nine starters back.
The passing game should be a great strength with senior QB Jim Sorgi, speedy sophomore WR Brandon Williams and the return of WR Lee Evans. Evans missed all last season with a knee injury after a banner 2001 (1,540 yds, 9 TDs). The defense needs to stop the run better (157.5 ypg), but Wisconsin had a strong +19 turnover ratio.
Tennessee: Injuries and just plain bad luck dogged the Volunteers last season in a disappointing campaign. Eight starters return on offense, led by gifted/injury-prone senior QB Casey Clausen (11 TDs, 6 INTs, 63 percent completions). Coach Phil Fulmer is fortunate to have the entire backfield and four offensive linemen back on a team that averaged 24.4 points and 150 rushing ypg.
Sophomore WRs Tony Brown and Mark Jones have great speed and RB Cedric Houston led the team in rushing with 745 yards, 5.2 yds per carry. The defense will feature several new faces (4 returning starters), but finished third in total ”˜D’ in the SEC and allowed just 16.4 points per game. The secondary is very strong, which is essential in the pass-happy SEC. The Vols play seven home games, one of which is Georgia.
Michigan: Lloyd Carr’s Wolverines are in good shape to challenge Ohio State for the Big 10 title after a 10-3 season. Seven starters return to an offense that had great balance ”” 152 yards rushing, 225 ypg passing. Senior QB John Navarre (20 TD, 7 INTs leads a Michigan offense that outscored opponents by a strong 27-19 average.
Speedy junior WR Braylon Edwards (63 catches, 10 TDs) and junior RB Chris Perry (1,025 yards, 10 TDs) provide punch, experience and variety on offense. Michigan’s senior-laden defense has six returning starters, anchored by DT Grant Bowman (4 sacks). Michigan plays seven home games and gets Ohio State at home Nov. 22.
Georgia: Despite finishing last season as one of the top teams in the country, it will be difficult for the Bulldogs to repeat as the nation’s No. 3-ranked team. The defense returns seven players from a squad that finished 2002 ranked No. 15 nationally. The offense returns only three starters, but QB David Greene is back. Greene threw for almost 3,000 yards and 22 TDs against just 8 INTs.
Unfortunately, the Dawgs lost RB Musa Smith (NFL) and the backfield depth is young and untested. WR Terrence Edwards is gone, but Fred Gibson may be ready to step in. Top notch head coach Mark Richt faces the challenge of getting a young team to perform well on the road against quality opponents such as Clemson, LSU and Tennessee. Still, expect Georgia to compete for the top spot in the SEC East.
USC: The Trojans return just six starters on offense and six on defense. Gone is Heisman Trophy winning QB Carson Palmer, virtually all their running backs and standout WR Kareem Kelly. Sure, they had a great recruiting class, but USC needs to integrate the new faces in time for the marquee season opener against Auburn. The Trojans also have road games in October at Notre Dame and Washington in consecutive weeks.
The good news? Head coach Pete Carroll continues to produce teams with fantastic defenses. USC has led the nation in turnover margin the past two years. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow, among the best in the college football, figures to put the new pieces together quickly and take the pass-happy Pac-10.
Texas: Can the Longhorns get past Oklahoma? Well, the guess is no, but they can be very good if able to survive a schedule that includes the Sooners, K-State, Arkansas, Oklahoma St. and Texas A&M. With a questionable offensive line, but fantastic receivers, Texas has enough firepower to compete for the National Championship.
QB Chance Mock steps in with the luxury of skill position talents like wide receiver Roy Williams (64 rec, 1,840 yds, 12 TDs) and RB Cedric Benson. With nine returning defensive starters, look for the Longhorns to be fine on D.
NC State: Led by one of this year’s Heisman favorites, QB Philip Rivers (3,353 passing yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs) and returning seven offensive starters, the Wolfpack look to improve upon the country’s 18th ranked scoring offense (32.8 ppg). Defensively, State loses six starters the top-rated defensive team in the ACC. The Pack finished last season by not allowing an offensive TD in nine straight quarters, including games against Florida State and Notre Dame.
The entire defensive line is new, but the offense should keep the Pack rolling. Rivers is aided by sophomore tailback T.A. McLendon (18 TDs, 1,101 rushing yds) and WR Jerricho Cotchery. The schedule is tough, with road games at Wake Forest, Ohio State, Georgia Tech and Florida State, plus a season-ending home game against Maryland. However, chances of winning the ACC look bright.
Miami: After an upset loss to Ohio State in the national championship game, the Hurricanes have some question marks despite returning 15 starters. Miami loses virtually their entire defensive line. Offensively, QB Ken Dorsey is gone as are two starting linemen. Add the fact that Miami must travel to Boston College, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh and the road to the Sugar Bowl doesn’t look quite as easy as last year.
Still, Miami has an outstanding defensive secondary and RB Frank Gore on offense, so the cupboard is by no means completely bare. Also remember that coach Larry Coker has not lost a regular season game in his two years at Miami (23-0).
Auburn: The Tigers return eight starters each on both sides of the ball and have high expectations. Auburn has been somewhat overlooked the past three years, but has won at least a share of the SEC West each season. In 2003, Auburn has a full plate with road games at Georgia Tech, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, along with hosting Tennessee, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama.
QB Jason Campbell, who split time with Daniel Cobb last season, threw for 1,215 yards and hit 63 percent of his passes. Cobb had a nice ratio of 11 TDs to just 5 INTs and has a strong weapon in TE/WR Anthony Mix. Redshirt freshman Courtney Taylor impressed in spring practice, while RB Carnell Williams works to recover from last season’s ankle injury that prevented a possible Heisman bid.
Kansas St.: The Wildcats return seven starters on offense and five on defense. K-State again pads the start of its season with a pair of cupcakes in McNeese State and Massachusetts. The loss of CB Newman, LB Pierce and DT Reese makes it harder for the top-ranked scoring defense (11.8 ppg), but the offense returns in great shape.
Versatile QB Ell Roberson (1,580 passing yards, 7 TDs, 1,032 rushing yards, 16 TDs) is back along with RB Darren Sproles (6.2 ypc, 17 TDs). If Roberson finds a way to spread the defenses out a little better with some long passes, the team has a good chance to win the Big 12 North, although road games at Texas and Oklahoma State could provide upsets.
Virginia Tech: In keeping with what can be considered a trend in this year’s Top 10, the Hokies are a solid team with question marks at quarterback. Bryan Randall has the inside edge on the job. Once again, the strength of Tech is defense, which loses only two starters off a team that allowed just 18.8 ppg.
Replacing TB Lee Suggs, one of four offensive starters lost, will be Kevin J