June 24, 2011

Preseason Top 120 Countdown: Nos. 80-76

This is the ninth part of our annual preseason countdown, which will wrap up Aug. 18, two weeks before the start of the 2011 season.

We're working backward from our 120th-ranked team, with the teams packaged in groups of five until we get to our top 50; then, each team gets a day to itself.

We'll release the rankings each day at 1:20 p.m. Eastern, as we do with our weekly in-season rankings.

The team rankings were compiled by writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.

Top 120 countdown
No. 80 Virginia
QB Ross Metheny (6-2/200, So.)
TB Perry Jones (5-8/185, Jr.)
FB Max Milien (6-0/215, Sr.)
WR Kris Burd (5-11/195, Sr.)
WR Tim Smith (6-0/185, So.)
TE Colter Phillips (6-6/250, Jr.)
T Oday Aboushi (6-6/295, Jr.)
T Morgan Moses (6-6/350, So.)
G Luke Bowanko (6-6/285, So.)
G Austin Pasztor (6-7/320, Sr.)
C Anthony Mihota (6-4/280, Sr.)
E Cam Johnson (6-4/265, Sr.)
T Matt Conrath (6-7/270, Sr.)
T Nick Jenkins (6-3/275, Sr.)
E Jake Snyder (6-4/255, So.)
LB Steve Greer (6-2/230, Jr.)
LB LaRoy Reynolds (6-2/220, Jr.)
LB Aaron Taliaferro (6-2/225, Sr.)
CB Chase Minnifield (6-0/185, Sr.)
CB Rijo Walker (5-10/185, So.)
FS Corey Mosley (5-10/205, Sr.)
SS Rodney McLeod (5-10/180, Sr.)
K Robert Randolph (5-10/165, Sr.)
P Jimmy Howell (6-6/240, Sr.)
KR Kevin Parks (5-8/195, R-Fr.)
PR Chase Minnifield (6-0/185, Sr.)

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COACH: Mike London (4-8 in one season at Virginia: 28-13 in three seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 1-7 (T-5th in ACC Coastal)
OFFENSE: One of these years, Virginia finally will head into a season with a stable quarterback situation. This isn't that year. The depth chart lists sophomores Ross Metheny and Michael Rocco as co-starters, though redshirt freshman Michael Strauss and even true freshman David Watford also could compete for the job. Whichever quarterback wins the job should enjoy throwing to WR Kris Burd (58 catches, 799 yards, five TDs) and TE Colter Phillips (18-155-3). Perry Jones rushed for 646 yards on 137 carries last season while splitting time with the since-departed Keith Payne. Now that Payne has completed his eligibility, Jones figures to split carries with either Kevin Parks or Khalek Shepherd. They will run behind a line that returns four starters. NFL scouts like C Anthony Mihota, senior G Austin Pasztor is a fourth-year starter and sophomore T Morgan Moses has plenty of promise. Virginia scored 48 points in three separate games last season but also was held to 14 or fewer points five times.
DEFENSE: Virginia needs to get better here after giving up at least 33 points in six of its final nine games last season. The Cavaliers have reason to believe they should improve, as they return nine defensive starters. Virginia is in good shape in the secondary. CB Chase Minnifield is an All-America candidate who picked off six passes last season. Senior Ss Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley each have multiple seasons of starting experience. This group helped Virginia rank 25th nationally in pass defense last season. Of course, part of the reason teams didn't throw the ball much is because the Cavaliers couldn't stop the run. Virginia ranked 106th nationally in run defense and allowed 5.1 yards per carry a year ago. E Cam Johnson had 53 tackles and led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Senior Ts Matt Conrath and Nick Jenkins need to make more plays.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Robert Randolph is back as Virginia's kicker after going 10-of-14 on field-goal attempts last season. Jimmy Howell averaged 42.2 yards per punt last season and helped Virginia rank 38th nationally in net punting. Virginia must improve its return game. The Cavaliers ranked 81st in punt returns and 65th in kickoff returns last season.
THE BUZZ: If Virginia sorts out its quarterback situation, a bowl bid is possible. A soft early-season schedule could help the Cavs win four of their first five games. But the QB position could be a concern all season and the schedule gets much tougher down the stretch, so a losing record seems more likely.


Top 120 countdown
No. 79 Florida International
QB Wesley Carroll (6-1/202, Sr.)
RB Darriet Perry (5-9/202, Sr.)
WR T.Y. Hilton (5-10/183, Sr.)
WR Wayne Times (5-11/178, Jr.)
WR Jacob Younger (6-2/195, Jr.)
TE Jonathan Faucher (6-3/233, Sr.)
T Rupert Bryan (6-2/276, Jr.)
T Caylin Hauptmann (6-4/311, Jr.)
G Curtis Bryant (6-2/283, Sr.)
G Keith Van Kirk (6-3/274, Jr.)
C Ceedrick Davis (6-4/305, So.)
E Gregory Hickman (6-1/274, So.)
T Joshua Forney (6-2/270, Jr.)
T Isame Faciane (6-5/260, So.)
E Tourek Williams (6-4/247, Jr.)
LB Winston Fraser (6-2/227, Jr.)
LB Jordan Hunt (6-1/228, Jr.)
CB Tevin Blanchard (6-0/180, Jr.)
CB Jose Cheeseborough (5-9/160, So.)
FS Jonathan Cyprien (6-0/205, Jr.)
SS Chuck Grace (5-10/185, Sr.)
STAR Emmanuel Souarin (5-11/176, Jr.)
K Jack Griffin (5-10/195, Jr.)
P Josh Brisk (5-10/190, Jr.)
KR T.Y. Hilton (5-10/183, Sr.)
PR T.Y. Hilton (5-10/183, Sr.)

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COACH: Mario Cristobal (16-33 in four seasons)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 6-2 (T-1st in Sun Belt; beat Toledo in New Orleans Bowl)
OFFENSE: Want to know why FIU went from Sun Belt bottom-feeder to league champ? It's the rushing attack. FIU averaged 187.5 yards per game last season - a jump of 83.2 yards per game from 2009. The top four tailbacks return, and while Darriet Perry ran for 839 yards and 16 TDs last season, he again will share time with Darian Mallary and Jeremiah Harden, who began his career at Syracuse. As a trio, they combined for 1,845 yards and 19 TDs last season. Senior WR T.Y. Hilton is FIU's best player; he's also the best player in the Sun Belt. The guy is electric with the ball in his hands, and it's too bad he plays in an offense that is run-oriented. Hilton had 59 receptions for 848 yards and five TDs last season, and he ran for another 282 yards and four scores. He has 5,602 all-purpose yards, third-most among active players. No other receiver stands out, though. QB Wesley Carroll played high school ball with Harden at powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, and like Harden, Carroll also began his college career elsewhere (Mississippi State). Carroll isn't anything special as a passer, but he became more efficient as last season progressed and he threw for 2,623 yards and 16 TDs (but also 14 picks). Three starters return along the line, and there's a nice tackle duo with Rupert Bryan and Caylin Hauptmann.
DEFENSE: The Golden Panthers need to get better against the run, but overall this is a solid Sun Belt defense. E Tourek Williams had six sacks and 46 tackles last season, and should contend for all-league honors this fall. FIU coaches plan to run a 4-2-5 set a lot again this season, and LB Winston Fraser is a returning starter. Coaches expect JC transfer Jordan Hunt to nail down the other starting spot at linebacker in fall camp. FIU will have excellent depth at the position, as long as Hunt lives up to expectations. JC transfer Tevin Blanchard is expected to win a starting job at cornerback, giving FIU a solid rotation at that position, too. The secondary star is FS Jonathan Cyprien, who had a team-high 113 tackles last season. The Golden Panthers lost two starting defensive backs, including NFL draftee Anthony Gaitor, but if Blanchard comes through, this season's unit will be better than last season's.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jack Griffin is a good one; he was 17-of-20 last season, including a 50-yarder. P Josh Brisk is adequate. While the coverage teams are a bit shaky, Hilton is a phenomenal kick returner. He averaged 28.7 yards per attempt last season and took two back for scores; in his career, he has four kick-return scores - including one against the Alabama team that won the 2009 national title - and one punt-return TD.
THE BUZZ: FIU went to its first bowl last season, and Cristobal deserves credit for staying the course. His team, not surprisingly, is stocked with south Florida talent, and it again should be in the thick of the Sun Belt race this season. The run defense has to get better and the holes in the offensive line have to be patched, but the presence of Hilton, a deep group of tailbacks and a potentially superb secondary should outweigh the potential problems. If Carroll continues to progress, FIU will win the league crown. The schedule, which opens with a league game at home against a beatable opponent, is navigable, and it includes a visit from UCF that would be the most anticipated home game of the season if not for a Nov. 12 visit from archrival FAU. The question that FIU fans need to start worrying about is how much longer Cristobal will hang around if, as expected, the Golden Panthers go bowling again.


Top 120 countdown
No. 78 Louisiana Tech
QB Colby Cameron (6-2/205, Jr.)
RB Lennon Creer (6-1/215, Sr.)
WR Richie Casey (5-11/185, Jr.)
WR Andrew Guillot (5-10/180, So.)
WR Taulib Ikharo (5-11/185, Sr.)
WR Quinton Patton (6-1/195, Jr.)
T Kris Cavitt (6-2/300, Sr.)
T Jordan Mills (6-6/315, Jr.)
G Vince Cano (6-2/305, So.)
G Kevin Saia (6-2/305, Jr.)
C Stephen Warner (6-0/315, Jr.)
E Matt Broha (6-4/235, Sr.)
T Justin Ellis (6-2/340, So.)
T Adam Hymel (6-0/265, Sr.)
E I.K. Enemkpali (6-1/230, So.)
LB Adrien Cole (5-11/240, Sr.)
LB Jay Dudley (6-3/225, So.)
LB Dusty Rust (6-3/225, Jr.)
CB DeMarcion Evans (5-8/175, Sr.)
CB Ryan Williams (5-11/185, Sr.)
FS Jamel Johnson (6-1/200, Jr.)
SS Chad Boyd (5-10/200, Jr.)
K Matt Nelson (5-10/160, Jr.)
P Ryan Allen (6-2/215, Jr.)
KR Richie Casey (5-11/185, Jr.)
PR Ryan Williams (5-11/185, Sr.)

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COACH: Sonny Dykes (5-7 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-4 (5th in WAC)
OFFENSE: Dykes arrived at Louisiana Tech last season with his version of Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense. But Dykes had to adjust the offense to his personnel after his quarterbacks struggled early in the season. TB Lennon Creer, a Tennessee transfer, became the focal point of the offense. Creer flourished with 1,181 yards and 10 touchdowns, with most of it coming in the second half of the season. Creer is back, but Dykes and his staff have to find a way to make Louisiana Tech more effective in the passing game. Colby Cameron finished spring as the top quarterback, but he struggled in his short stint as the starter early last season, finishing 54-of-91 with one touchdown and five interceptions. The solution at some point may be true freshman Nick Isham, a three-star dual-threat quarterback from southern California. JC transfer Zack Griffith is another guy to watch in fall camp. The receiving corps took a few hits during the offseason. Philip "Saturday Night" Livas exhausted his eligibility, while Ahmad Paige (another Tennessee transfer) and Tim Molton (LSU) were dismissed. The top two receivers from last season do return in Taulib Ikharo and Richie Casey. The Bulldogs return two line starters in G Kevin Saia and C Stephen Warner. Jordan Mills was the starting right tackle for the final four games last season, and he's back, too.
DEFENSE: Even for a WAC team, Louisiana Tech fielded a lackluster defense. The book on the Bulldogs was to pass early and often. Opponents averaged 290.0 passing yards per game, which was 117th nationally and almost 30 yards more per game than the next-worst pass defense in the WAC. The Bulldogs have a few intriguing building blocks in E Matt Broha (nine sacks last season) and LB Adrien Cole (173 tackles in the past two seasons). Both were second-team All-WAC last season. LB Jay Dudley was the Bulldogs' leading tackler last season. The biggest question mark is at cornerback. Ryan Williams recorded two interceptions in four starts last season, and DeMarcion Evans, a senior, has spent most of his time on campus on the scout team.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Louisiana Tech will take a major hit on special teams without Livas, who returned both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown last season. His 15.5-yard average on punt returns ranked sixth nationally. While Louisiana Tech has shoes to fill in the return game, the Bulldogs have a solid duo in the kicking game. Matt Nelson converted 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, and Ryan Allen averaged 40.8 yards per punt. The coverage units did an OK job last season.
THE BUZZ: With three coaches and just one bowl appearance in the past decade, Louisiana Tech has struggled with consistency. This season, if Dykes can make the pieces fit around Creer - if the Bulldogs find consistent quarterback play and a functional defense - Louisiana Tech could be a surprise team in the WAC. With Boise State out of the picture and uncertainty at other programs, a little improvement this season could go a long way. The Bulldogs signed 12 JC transfers, and the coaching staff needs a handful of those guys to produce right away. Other than a game against FCS member Central Arkansas, the early schedule is challenging, meaning it could take a while for the passing game to find its stride. There are seven road games overall and just two home games after Oct. 1.


Top 120 countdown
No. 77 Temple
QB Mike Gerardi (6-2/206, Jr.)
RB Bernard Pierce (6-0/218, Jr.)
WR Ryan Alderman (5-9/170, So.)
WR Joe Jones (5-11/195, Sr.)
WR Rod Streater (6-4/196, Sr.)
TE Evan Rodriguez (6-3/250, Sr.)
T Steve Caputo (6-5/320, Sr.)
T Darryl Pringle (6-6/327, So.)
G Pat Boyle (6-5/320, Sr.)
G Martin Wallace (6-6/310, Jr.)
C John Palumbo (6-5/312, Sr.)
E Shahid Paulhill (6-3/300, So.)
T Morris Blueford Jr. (6-4/245, Sr.)
NT Kadeem Custis (6-4/295, Jr.)
E Adrian Robinson (6-2/250, Sr.)
LB Stephen Johnson (6-1/230, Sr.)
LB Quinten White Jr. (6-3/218, Sr.)
LB Tahir Whitehead (6-2/228, Sr.)
CB Kee-ayre Griffin (5-11/188, Sr.)
CB Maurice Jones (5-10/195, Jr.)
FS Kevin Kroboth (6-0/198, Sr.)
SS Justin Gildea (5-11/190, Jr.)
K Brandon McManus (6-3/190, Jr.)
P Brandon McManus (6-3/190, Jr.)
KR James Nixon (6-1/190, Sr.)
PR Ryan Alderman (5-9/170, So.)

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COACH: Steve Addazio (first season).
LAST SEASON: 8-4, 5-3 (3rd in MAC East)
OFFENSE: Addazio arrives from Florida, and as such, he is installing a version of the spread offense. With a terrific 1-2 punch at running back in Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown, Temple wants to pound the rock. Pierce is a physical runner who, if he can stay healthy, will be the top back in the MAC. He scored 10 TDs last season. Brown is a small guy (5-5/170) who provides a speedier option; he led the Owls with 830 rushing yards in 2010. He could be quite effective running misdirection sweeps in the new scheme. The line bears watching. C John Palumbo is the lone full-time starter returning, though six other returning linemen started at least two games each last season. It's a beefy group: The five projected starters average 317.8 pounds. The Owls need better balance after ranking 90th in the nation in passing. The new staff has two veterans back at quarterback in Chester Stewart and former walk-on Mike Gerardi, but sophomores Chris Coyer and Clinton Granger also will be in the mix. Granger, a JC transfer who has three seasons of eligibility remaining, probably has the most upside, and he's athletic enough to be dangerous as a runner and as a passer. The question is how quickly he can grasp the offense. The quarterbacks will have two good pass catchers in WR Rod Streater and TE Evan Rodriguez, but more big plays are needed from a group that, overall, is unproven.
DEFENSE: The Owls will miss T Muhammad Wilkerson, a first-round pick, and FS Jaiquawn Jarrett, a second-round selection, but talent remains. The Owls seem set at end: Adrian Robinson is a disruptive force off the edge, Shahid Paulhill is a rising star and there is good depth. But tackle could be a problem. Tahir Whitehead and Quinten White Jr. provide a solid foundation at linebacker. The secondary will be the best part of the defense. The cornerback duo of Maurice Jones and Kee-ayre Griffin will be among the league's best.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brandon McManus can do it all for the Owls. He hit 13-of-20 field-goal attempts last season and showed range by nailing 5-of-9 from at least 40 yards. McManus also may do the punting unless another option emerges. James Nixon is one of the MAC's better kickoff return men, but more is needed in punt returns. The kickoff coverage was excellent last season, but the punt coverage needs to get better.
THE BUZZ: Al Golden is gone, off to coach Miami after five seasons. But Addazio has a decent roster to work with for a program that is coming off consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1978 and should have gone to a bowl last season after winning eight games. The Owls have a solid shot at the MAC East title if the passing game takes flight and the front seven develops. But a schedule that includes non-conference games with Penn State, Maryland and Army poses problems. Still, there are seven home games, and the toughest league contests (against Miami and Toledo) are at home.


Top 120 countdown
No. 76 Troy
QB Corey Robinson (6-1/216, So.)
RB Shawn Southward (5-8/189, Jr.)
WR Corey Johnson (6-0/186, Jr.)
WR Brett Moncrief (6-3/209, Sr.)
WR Eric Thomas (6-1/216, So.)
TE Gavin Ellis (6-6/238, So.)
T James Brown (6-4/312, Sr.)
T Terrence Jones (6-3/307, R-Fr.)
G Jacob Creech (6-3/292, Jr.)
G Kyle Wilborn (6-4/311, Jr.)
C Zach Swindall (6-1/283, Sr.)
E Jonathan Massaquoi (6-2/250, Jr.)
T Tony Davis (6-0/255, Jr.)
T Emanuel Dudley (6-1/305, Sr.)
E John Robles (6-3/221, Sr.)
LB Brannon Bryan (6-0/231, Jr.)
LB Kanorris Davis (5-10/208, Jr.)
LB Xavier Lamb (5-9/222, Sr.)
CB Jimmie Anderson (5-8/160, Sr.)
CB Chris Pickett (5-11/187, So.)
FS Barry Valcin (5-11/207, Sr.)
SS Brynden Trawick (6-2/223, Jr.)
K Michael Taylor (5-10/207, Sr.)
P Will Goggans (6-0/230, Sr.)
KR Chris Anderson (5-8/184, Jr.)
PR Chris Pickett (5-11/187, So.)

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COACH: Larry Blakeney (161-82-1 in 20 seasons)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 6-2 (T-1st in Sun Belt; beat Ohio in New Orleans Bowl)
OFFENSE: The Trojans have the best quarterback in the Sun Belt in Corey Robinson, and that is why they easily could win at least a portion of their sixth consecutive league title. Robinson - who set a national high school record with 91 TD passes as a senior at Paducah (Ky.) Lone Oak - had a big season in 2010 as a redshirt freshman, throwing for 3,726 yards and 28 TDs. He completed 63.6 percent of his passes but must cut down on his interceptions (15). Shawn Southward and Chris Anderson look likely to share time at tailback. Both are small but shifty. The line has to be rebuilt, as just two starters are back. But both of those - G Kyle Wilborn and T James Brown - should contend for all-league honors. Redshirt freshman Terence Jones had a strong spring and won a starting job at tackle. The receiving corps bears watching. The top five receivers are gone, including two returnees who are academically ineligible (Jamel Johnson and Chip Reeves). Southward is the leading returning receiver with 19 catches, and the leading returning wide receiver, Brett Moncrief, is recovering from foot surgery that caused him to miss spring practice. Coaches need JC transfer Corey Johnson (his brother, Ronald, played at USC) and sophomores Eric Thomas and Sam Haskins to become productive quickly. There are six freshmen wide receivers - redshirt and true - who will get ample opportunity in fall camp to show they can make an impact, too.
DEFENSE: Troy was surprisingly soft against the run last season (165.2 ypg, 26 TDs), and that needs to change. Ts Tony Davis and Emanuel Dudley are returning starters up front and need to become more physical. JC transfer Jeremy Elder, who began his career at Alabama, could help at tackle. E Jonathan Massaquoi is the defensive star; he led the Sun Belt and was fourth nationally with 13.5 sacks. He also had 76 tackles and four quarterback hurries. Middle man Xavier Lamb - all 5 feet 9 of him - is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but Kanorris Davis and Brannon Bryan should be solid complements to Lamb. The secondary has to play better this season after the Trojans were strafed for 244.6 passing yards per game last season. FS Barry Valcin missed last season with an injury, and the hope is that he can be a steadying influence. JC transfer D.J. Jones could work his way into the picture at corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Michael Taylor and P Will Goggans might be the best duo in the Sun Belt. Taylor was 17-of-22 last season, including a 50-yarder. Goggans averaged 42.2 yards. The Trojans are breaking in new return men, and while the kickoff coverage was OK last season, the punt coverage was atrocious; opponents averaged 11.1 yards per return and took two back for scores.
THE BUZZ: Troy is used to winning, and another winning record beckons. Troy figures to battle FIU for Sun Belt supremacy. Troy has the better defensive line and the better quarterback, while the offensive lines and linebacker units are a wash. Is that enough to win the league again? The talent drain at wide receiver is going to be a problem, though. Troy opens with road games against Clemson and Arkansas and also has tough non-conference contests against UAB and Navy. In addition, the Trojans play at FIU. A three-week stretch in October against Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and FIU will determine the Trojans' Sun Belt fate.




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