May 26, 2008

Plenty of questions as summer begins

We're less than 100 days from the start of the college football season (thank goodness, though it is sort of sad to admit we're keeping track).  

As we prepare to enter the dog days of summer, here are the 10 questions – in no particular order – we think about the most.  

1. Can USC find a go-to receiver? Tight end Fred Davis was the Trojans' go-to receiver last season, but he's now in the NFL. That leaves Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton – two former uber-recruits – as the guys who figure to be Mark Sanchez's main targets.  

Turner arrived in L.A. in 2005 as perhaps the most-heralded freshman wide receiver in the nation. He has caught 89 passes and seven TDs in three seasons, hardly the production that was expected from him. Hazelton has 51 catches in two seasons, again hardly the production that was envisioned when he signed.  

David Ausberry, Ronald Johnson and Arkansas transfer Damian Williams also will see time, but it's hard to see one of those relatively inexperienced players making the leap to go-go receiver. Thus, unless Hazelton and/or Turner all of a sudden flips the switch, USC's offense won't be as explosive as it could be – and that could keep the Trojans from playing for a national championship.  

2. Can Steve Spurrier find a quarterback? The most talented quarterback for the Gamecocks likely is redshirt freshmen Stephen Garcia, whose penchant for partaking of adult beverages has garnered him more notice than anything else.  

Garcia missed spring practice because of a suspension, leaving Spurrier to hide his eyes as Tommy Beecher and Chris Smelley took the reins. OK, the "hide his eyes" part is a little harsh, but the Gamecocks aren't going to challenge for the SEC East title if one of those guys is the starter.  

Spurrier needs Garcia to grow up and get on the straight and narrow. Problem is, even if that happens, there's no guarantee Garcia can do the job on the field.  

What this all means is that it's tough to see South Carolina – which has a lot going for it this season – winning more than eight games.  

3. Will a rebuilt defense be good enough to get BYU into the BCS? BYU is a trendy pick to continue the trend of an "interloper" making it to the BCS. The Cougars should have a powerful offense. QB Max Hall will be protected by a good line, has a nice back behind him in Harvey Unga and has a good group of receivers.  

But BYU has some issues on defense. Only three starters return on that side of the ball, and coaches need to replace six starters in the back seven, including all four in the secondary.  

Can BYU win some shootouts? It may have to. The schedule is such that an unbeaten Cougars team undoubtedly would be in the BCS. But unless coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff do yeoman work on defense, the Cougars' BCS dream could end early because of games against Pac-10 teams Washington and UCLA in the first three weeks of the season.  

4. Who's the second-best team in the Big Ten? Ohio State is the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten. Indeed, a case can be made that the Buckeyes are the biggest favorite in any league – and we're including USC in the Pac-10.  

So, who's the second-best team in the league? Is it Wisconsin, which has a manageable schedule and looks to be strong except at quarterback and in the secondary? Is it Illinois, which should have a fast, aggressive defense, but also has a huge hole at tailback and questions about its passing game? Is it Penn State, whose offensive and defensive lines look strong but who has some issues elsewhere?  

It's hard to see Michigan in the equation. The Wolverines lost a ton of offensive talent plus changed coaches and offensive schemes.  

Our early bet is it will be Wisconsin. But another early bet is that there's no way the Big Ten is going to have two teams in the BCS.  

5. Will the quarterbacks in the SEC West play well enough to help their teams? As of right now, Alabama's John Parker Wilson – he of the 55 percent completion rate and 12 picks last season – is the best quarterback in the division. Nothing against Wilson, but when he's the best quarterback in the division, that doesn't say much for the division.  

Auburn and LSU figure to be the best teams in the SEC West, but both have questions at quarterback. Auburn will decide between Kodi Burns and Chris Todd, and LSU's decision will come down to Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee. It's not a stretch to say the team that gets the best quarterback play will win the division.  

At Arkansas, Casey Dick looks to be the guy to run Bobby Petrino's pass-happy offense. Dick certainly won't be mistaken for even Jeff Brohm anytime soon.  

At Ole Miss, Texas transfer Jevan Snead will be at the controls of Houston Nutt's offense. Of course, the last time the Rebels were counting on a transfer to take over at quarterback (Brent Schaeffer), the results were the start of Ed Orgeron's downfall. Snead won't be as bad as Schaeffer, but expecting him to star right away is too much to ask.  

And at Mississippi State, Wesley Carroll was barely mediocre as a true freshman last season. He needs to greatly elevate his game if the Bulldogs have even faint hopes of finishing in the top half of the division. Of course, when you average 159.9 passing yards per game – as Mississippi State did last season – you have to figure things will be better this season.  

6. Given its history, can Texas Tech be counted on to truly contend in the Big 12 South? Texas Tech has a lot going for it this season. The Red Raiders, as usual, will have one of the best offenses in the nation. In QB Graham Harrell and WR Michael Crabtree, they have the best pass-catch combination.  

The non-conference schedule is a joke. In conference, the Red Raiders don't play Missouri and they get Texas at home.  

There even are rumblings that the defense will be OK, as well. Tech finished third in the Big 12 in total defense and added some junior college transfers who are expected to make an immediate impact.  

Still, Tech doesn't exactly have a rich history of contending for titles in the Big 12 South. In the 12-year history of the league, Tech has finished as high as second in the division four times (the Red Raiders have finished alone in second once) and there has been just one second-place finish this decade.  

It's doubtful Tech can win the South – Oklahoma looks too strong – but given that Texas has to go to Lubbock and that Tech may have fewer holes than the Longhorns, this is as good a season as any to pick Tech to finish second in the division.  

7. Does Florida need a true feature back to win the SEC? It was a familiar refrain last season: If Florida just had a good tailback, it would've won the SEC East.  

That refrain already has started this season. But it needs to end because the statement is wrong.  

Yes, every team wants a standout tailback it can give the ball to 20 times a game. But Florida doesn't need a great tailback; it just needs its projected tailback-by-committee approach to net 1,200 rushing yards. If that happens, the Gators win the East – and probably the league as a whole.  

Florida rushed for 200.2 yards per game last season, which was third in the league (and 23 yards per game better than Georgia, by the way), despite not even getting 900 total rushing yards from its tailbacks. Instead, the leading rushers were QB Tim Tebow and WR Percy Harvin. If Florida's tailbacks emerge this season, Tebow's and Harvin's stats will drop. At the same time, if those guys aren't asked to run as much, the potential exists for Harvin, especially, to break off some big ones because opponents no longer will be able to focus on him as a runner.  

Coming out of spring ball, the Gators look to have three tailbacks they will be able to count on: Kestahn Moore, USC transfer Emmanuel Moody and speedy redshirt freshman Chris Rainey. To get to 1,200 yards, those guys have to average just 400 yards each for the season. And if that happens, UF will be fine.  

8. Can Missouri live with its success? Missouri has finished above .500 in league play just three times since the Big 12 was formed in 1996 – last season and in 1997 and '98. The school simply does not have a recent history of playing good football.  

This season should be different. The Tigers will be the favorites to win their second consecutive Big 12 North title, thanks to an offense that features QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin and TE Chase Coffman and a defense that has stars at linebacker in Sean Weatherspoon and at safety in William Moore.  

The big difference for Mizzou this season is that it won't sneak up on anybody; the Tigers will be the hunted, not the hunters. Given all the talent that coach Gary Pinkel has on hand and the schedule (Mizzou doesn't play Oklahoma, Texas A&M or Texas Tech), you don't figure that will be a problem. Still, the Tigers' recent history of underachieving does give some pause.  

9. Are the pieces in place for Clemson to finally win the ACC again? For a school that places as much emphasis on football as Clemson, it's hard to believe the Tigers haven't won the ACC since 1991. Yes, in the 1990s, the ACC was dominated by Florida State. But the Seminoles have faltered this decade, yet the Tigers still haven't been able to capitalize.  

This may be the season where Clemson gets back on top. The Tigers are, arguably, the most talented team in the ACC. They have one of the best tailback tandems in the nation in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. QB Cullen Harper threw for 2,991 yards, 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season. WR Aaron Kelly should be the most productive receiver in the league. The secondary looks good, as does the defensive line.  

Still, there's the nagging feeling the Tigers again will come up short in at least one game they're supposed to win. It's hard to forget Clemson losing to Georgia Tech last season, to Maryland in 2006, to Tech and Wake Forest in 2005, to Wake in 2003, to Virginia in 2001.  

The ACC looks as down as it has been in a long while, so if Clemson can't win the league this season …  

10. Which team is going to take the biggest tumble from last season? The other questions are at least semi-tough, but this one is easy. It's Hawaii.  

It's hard enough to lose your star quarterback and four excellent receivers. Then consider that the Warriors also lost the coach who had made them a relevant program, their best offensive lineman, three-quarters of the starting defensive line and three-quarters of the starting secondary.  

There's also the feeling the offense was exposed in a 41-10 beatdown at the hands of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. And to make matters worse, consider that three of the first five games are on the road: trips to Florida, Oregon State and Fresno State.  

Hawaii has a chance to finish as high as third in the WAC, but the Warriors just as easily could finish sixth – a far cry from finishing up in the Sugar Bowl last season.

GRID BITS

• One of the best wishbone quarterbacks of all time died last week. Jack Mildren, who quarterbacked Oklahoma from 1969-71, died of stomach cancer at age 58. Mildren, who served as lieutenant governor of Oklahoma in the early 1990s, was at his best as a senior in '71. OU rushed for an astounding 472.4 yards per game – that's not total offense, folks; that's rushing yards per game – a single-season record that still stands. Mildren ran for 1,140 yards that season and formed a devastating one-two punch with TB Greg Pruitt (1,665 yards that season). The Sooners were 11-1, falling 35-31 to eventual national champ Nebraska in what was billed as that season's "Game of the Century." OU scored at least 30 points in every game but one that season. Mildren, who was sixth in the Heisman voting, then became a defensive back for three seasons in the NFL.

• This season will be the last that the ACC is affiliated with the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. The new Congressional Bowl in Washington, D.C., will take the Humanitarian's place in the ACC's bowl lineup. The new bowl is a much better geographic fit. The Humanitarian wasn't exactly a coveted trip for ACC teams.

• Forget winning the Heisman; Florida QB Tim Tebow truly hit the big time last week when he was the answer on Jeopardy!. A contestant correctly answered the $2,000 question in a category called "They're So Athletic" by knowing that Tebow was the first sophomore to win the Heisman.

• One of the lesser-known wide receiver prospects in Florida this year (so far, at least) is Tampa Jesuit's Erick McGriff. His dad is former major-leaguer Fred McGriff.

THIS AND THAT

• If it seems as if every underclassman and his brother are testing the NBA draft waters this season, that's because it's true: 71 underclassmen initially entered the draft. That's 39 more than last year and 22 more than the previous high mark (49 in 2005, when high schoolers were included).

•Give it up for the New Jersey Institute of Technology baseball team. The Highlanders won twice in the final week of the regular season to avoid the ignominious distinction of being the Division I school with the lowest number of wins in men's basketball and in baseball. NJIT finished 0-29 in basketball, and its baseball team wrapped up its regular season at 5-45. Coppin State and Iona each won four regular-season games, the lowest win total for a Division I baseball program. Coppin State's softball team finished winless, by the way. It marked the second season in a row the Eagles didn't win a game.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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