June 6, 2008

Rivals Preseason Countdown: Nos. 110-101

Rivals.com continues its 2008 countdown, releasing our preseason ranking of the Division I-A teams from No. 120 to No. 1. Today's release includes No. 110 through 101 as we countdown to the No. 1 team on July 31.

After that, you won't see any rankings from Rivals until early October. The reason: We will wait until enough games have been played so we can legitimately rank the teams.

The rankings were compiled by football writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee. They look forward to your e-mails and your comments on the message boards.

Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: Nos. 110-101
110. RICE
COACH: David Bailiff (3-9 in one season; 24-24 in four seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (fourth in C-USA West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior free safety Andrew Sendejo had 107 tackles, five interceptions, seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles last season. Senior quarterback Chase Clement set school records for TD passes (29) and passing yards (3,377) last season. He also is a solid running threat and is the key to the offense.
STAR POWER: Senior wide receiver Jarett Dillard is the active NCAA leader in receptions (205), receiving yardage (2,828) and receiving TDs (40). Dillard is 10 TD receptions shy of tying the NCAA career record. He's not a blazer, but he has good hands and runs good routes. He has caught at least two passes in each of his 36 career games.
STRENGTHS: The passing game is a good one behind Clement and Dillard, who have hooked up 32 times for TDs in the past two seasons. Sophomore James Casey, a freshman All-American at tight end last season, should be a solid No. 2 option. Senior guard David Berken is one of the best interior linemen in the league. Sendejo and senior linebacker Brian Raines lend hope that the Owls' defense will be better than it was a year ago.
WEAKNESSES: The Owls have to find a way to run the ball, because too much pressure is put on Clement and the passing game. That heavy burden is one reason Clement tossed 16 picks last season. Outside of Berken, the offensive line remains questionable. There will be two new starting defensive tackles, which could bode ill for a team that couldn't stop the run last season. The cornerbacks need to elevate their play. Rice allowed 37 TD passes last season.
THE BUZZ: The Clement-to-Dillard combo will be fun to watch, but the Owls need to get a lot better on defense a lot better before they will be able to challenge for an upper-division finish in C-USA.
COACH: Jerry Kill (First season; 104-57 in 14 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-6 in MAC (sixth in MAC West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: NIU seemingly always has a 1,000-yard rusher, and junior tailback Justin Anderson is coming off a 1,245-yard season. It was the ninth season in a row the Huskies had a 1,000-yard rusher. Anderson also is an excellent receiver. Senior offensive tackle Jon Brost played every offensive snap for the Huskies last season and is the headliner among four returning starters on the line. Brost, who's majoring in electrical engineering and is an excellent student, will be a four-year starter for NIU.
STAR POWER: Senior defensive end Larry English is expected to be the best pass-rusher in the MAC this season. He had 10.5 sacks last season, when he also had 67 tackles and 17 tackles for loss. English has 23.5 career sacks (the MAC career record is 38, by Western Michigan's Jason Babin) and five forced fumbles.
STRENGTHS: The running game should be strong, thanks to Anderson and a big, physical and experienced offensive line. The potential exists for a solid linebacking unit.
WEAKNESSES: The passing game needs to be overhauled, and NIU made too many mistakes in that area last season. The secondary was mediocre last season, and the best player Alex Kube was moved from strong safety to linebacker. It would help the secondary if someone other than English emerged as a pass-rusher. Four of the first five games are on the road.
THE BUZZ: Kill had a ton of success at Division I-AA Southern Illinois, but is taking over a program that has slipped noticeably in recent seasons. When Kill took over at SIU, he won once in his first season. But the Salukis were in the I-AA playoffs two seasons later. NIU's rushing attack is a given. Kill needs to improve the passing game and upgrade the defense. Expect growing pains this season, with noticeable improvement next season.
108. SMU
COACH: June Jones (First season; 75-41 in eight seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-8 in Conference USA (last in C-USA West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders will enjoy playing in Jones' offense. Sanders caught 74 passes last season, and that number easily could climb past 100 this season. Punter Thomas Morstead is one of the best if not the best at his position in the league. However, he's unlikely to get as many chances as he had last season (57). He doubles as the Mustangs' field-goal kicker.
STAR POWER: Junior quarterback Justin Willis has thrown 51 TD passes in his first two seasons as the starter and should thrive in Jones' pass-happy system. Willis has been a little careless with the ball in his first two seasons, but look for his interception total to go down even though his attempts will increase dramatically. Willis also is an excellent running threat and led the team in rushing last season.
STRENGTHS: The passing game has been solid the past few seasons, and Willis should be a great fit in the new offense. The same goes for Sanders. Junior center Mitch Enright has all-league potential. Three starters return on the defensive line. While four of the first six games are on the road, a 2-0 start is possible.
WEAKNESSES: Willis missed spring practice because of a suspension, so his grasp of the offense isn't what it should be. While Jones eschews the running game, there are some gifted runners on the roster who need to be utilized. The secondary was awful last season and will have three new starters this season. The defense as a whole is undersized.
THE BUZZ: Jones has shown he can take a moribund program and turn it around. Conference USA isn't exactly brimming with top defensive teams, so Jones' offense could have a lot of success early. Still, given the sad state of the defense, expecting anything more than four wins might be too much.
COACH: Bob Toledo (4-8 in one season; 82-76 in 14 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (third in C-USA West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior wide receiver Jeremy Williams had 46 receptions for a run-oriented offense last season. The Green Wave are going to have to throw more this season, and Williams should be the beneficiary. Senior defensive end Reggie Scott is one of five starters returning in the defensive front seven. The Green Wave did an adequate job against the run last season, but Scott and his mates need to improve their pass rush.
STAR POWER: Senior guard Michael Parenton was part of a good line that helped tailback Matt Forte put up huge numbers last season. Forte is gone, but Parenton who also has played center and three other starters return on the line.
STRENGTHS: The offensive line is a good one, and junior Andre Anderson gets first dibs at replacing Forte. Williams has the potential to be an all-league wide receiver. The run defense again should be solid. While the first two games look like sure losses, the next three are winnable.
WEAKNESSES: Forte accounted for 50.7 percent of the offense last season, and he is going to be impossible to replace. While the receivers are adequate, Tulane doesn't have a quarterback who has shown proficiency in the passing game. The secondary will be a problem again, and it would help the cause if the Green Wave can find a consistent pass rush.
THE BUZZ: This team struggled with Forte; what will it do without him? The defense was taxed last season, and unless the Green Wave magically come up with either an adequate replacement for Forte or a legit passing attack, the defense is going to be under siege this season.
COACH: Steve Roberts (31-41 in six seasons; 80-74-1 in 13 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-4 in Sun Belt (tied for fifth in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior offensive tackle Matt Mandich has started every game of his career and is the only returning starter on the offensive line for the Red Wolves. He was a first-team all-league performer last season. Senior linebacker Ben Owens is the leading returning tackler for the Red Wolves, with 96. He is one of two returning starters at linebacker and is a strong all-league candidate.
STAR POWER: Junior tailback Reggie Arnold has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Arnold, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season, should battle Louisiana-Lafayette's Tyrell Fenroy for the Sun Belt rushing title.
STRENGTHS: Arnold and junior quarterback Corey Leonard are part of one of the best offensive backfields in the league. Leonard is a good runner who needs to cut down on his interceptions (he threw 15 last season, compared with 16 TD passes). Junior wide receiver Brandon Thompkins is a good kick returner and has the potential to be a go-to receiver. Mandich is a good building block for a rebuilt offensive line; at least all the projected starters on the line are upperclassmen. Defensive ends Alex Carrington and Brian Flagg are a nice duo.
WEAKNESSES: The entire starting secondary must be replaced, including a superb duo at safety. There is no established go-to receiver or a proven No. 2 receiver. While the offensive line should be OK, that may not be the case when all is said and done. There is just one home game after Oct. 11.
THE BUZZ: Arnold and Leonard provide hope that the offense can be productive. The defense was adequate last season, but the two best players are gone and a rebuilt secondary gives pause. The run defense was spotty last season and must improve. An upper-division finish in the Sun Belt should be the goal, but that may be too much to expect.
105. UNLV
COACH: Mike Sanford (6-29 in three seasons)
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Mountain West (last in league)
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior running back Frank Summers, who originally signed with California, returns after rushing for 928 yards last season. Summers, nicknamed "The Tank," rushed for six scores and also had four touchdown catches a year ago. Offensive tackle Matt Murphy made an instant impact as a freshman last season. Murphy made 12 starts and spent the final nine games of the season as the Rebels' No. 1 left tackle.
STAR POWER: The Rebels boast one of the Mountain West's most talented receiving tandems in Ryan Wolfe and Casey Flair. Wolfe, a junior, caught 66 passes for 784 yards and two touchdowns last season. Flair, a senior who is a former walk-on, had 54 receptions for 622 yards and three touchdowns.
STRENGTHS: UNLV lost just one starter off the offensive line and returns players who accounted for 99 percent of the Rebels' rushing yards and 78 percent of the receiving yards last season. Summers is a bruising runner who can make something out of nothing. Senior defensive tackle Jacob Hales, who will turn 26 this year after serving a Mormon mission earlier in his career, provides the defense with plenty of veteran leadership.
WEAKNESSES: The Rebels ranked last in the Mountain West and 112th in the nation last season in scoring offense (18.2 ppg). They also allowed 4.6 yards per carry. UNLV still hasn't decided whether Travis Dixon or Omar Clayton will open the season as the starting quarterback after they split time as freshmen last season. The Rebels are counting on new defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell (he was promoted from linebacker coach) to improve the Rebels' run defense, but the departure of 2007 Mountain West defensive player of the year Beau Bell could make that difficult.
THE BUZZ: All those returning starters assure that UNLV's offense can't be any worse than it was last season, but the unsettled quarterback situation makes us wonder just how much the Rebels will improve. UNLV better win its season opener against Utah State because there aren't many other likely victories on the schedule.
COACH: Dick Tomey (17-19 in three seasons; 175-129-7 in 27 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in the Western Athletic Conference (tied for fourth in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior wide receiver Kevin Jurovich caught 85 passes for 1,183 yards and nine touchdowns last season to rank ninth in the nation in receiving yards per game. The converted safety caught at least seven passes in eight of the Spartans' final nine games last season. He caught two touchdown passes in three separate games. Senior defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert recorded four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss last season. Gilbert recorded seven tackles three for loss in the Spartans' overtime loss to Hawaii last season.
STAR POWER: Dwight Lowery picked off 13 passes the last two years as the best-known player on San Jose State's roster, but his departure won't leave the Spartans without a ball-hawking cornerback. Senior Christopher Owens ranks second in the nation among returning players with 12 career interceptions and should earn more of a national reputation now that Lowery has moved on to the NFL.
STRENGTHS: San Jose State's defense clearly outperformed the offense in spring practice, which provides hope the Spartans can overcome Lowery's absence. The Spartans need a big season from their defense if they're going to have any chance of recapturing their 2006 New Mexico Bowl champion form. Jurovich, David Richmond and Jalal Beauchman return after combining to catch 176 passes for 2,367 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
WEAKNESSES: The Spartans averaged just 2.6 yards per carry last season, ranked 113th in the nation in rushing offense. San Jose State didn't have anyone run for more than 331 yards. The Spartans couldn't recover from an injury to Yonus Davis, who carried the ball just three times all season after rushing for 1,007 yards in 2006. Davis is applying for a sixth year of eligibility. If he doesn't get it, the Spartans need someone else to carry the load. The quarterback situation remains unsettled, though Myles Eden ended spring practice as the front-runner to replace Adam Tafralis. San Jose State also needs to create more big plays on defense. The Spartans ranked 97th in the nation in sacks and 109th in tackles for loss last year. Special teams also could use some work. San Jose State ranked last a year ago in net punting.
THE BUZZ: San Jose State showed signs of establishing itself as a WAC contender two years ago by going 9-4 and winning the New Mexico Bowl, but the Spartans took a major step backward last season. Tomey's presence will assure that the Spartans don't fall too far down the WAC standings, but they can't expect to challenge for a bowl bid unless they shore up their rushing attack.
COACH: Hal Mumme (8-29 in three seasons; 105-93-1 in 17 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-9 overall, 1-7 in WAC (eighth in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior wide receiver Chris Williams is a little guy with big-play potential. If he comes back strong from a shoulder injury that ended his 2007 season prematurely he'll provide a big boost to the offense. Also, senior linebacker La'Auli Fonoti and senior free safety Derrick Richardson will be key figures in the Aggies' quest to upgrade defensively.
STAR POWER: Senior quarterback Chase Holbrook continues to flourish in Mumme's offense, having posted back-to-back seasons in which he's passed for more than 3,800 yards, 25 touchdowns and completed more than 70 percent of his attempts. Last season, he threw 26 TD passes and 18 interceptions. He'll be expected to have another big season.
STRENGTHS: Mumme's teams are known to have a wide-open passing offense, and New Mexico State is no different. In the past two seasons, the Aggies have ranked among the nation's top five in passing offense. With Holbrook back for his final season and a deep receiving corps, that doesn't figure to change. Three starters on the offensive line are back.
WEAKNESSES: Although seven starters return on defense, skeptics would say that's not necessarily a good thing. The Aggies have allowed an average of more than 30 points per game in each of the past four seasons and ranked no higher than 97th nationally scoring defense in that span. Mumme brought in Joe Lee Dunn, a proven defensive coordinator, in hopes of plugging those leaks. The rushing attack generally is one of the worst in the nation.
THE BUZZ: An experienced team that obviously can put points on the scoreboard returns in Las Cruces. However, can the Aggies prevent opponents from scoring at will? Throughout his career, Dunn has transformed hideous defensive units into respectable ones. The Aggies are counting on Dunn continuing that trend.
COACH: Chuck Long (7-17 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-5 in Mountain West (fifth in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Wide receiver Vincent Brown caught 31 passes for 349 yards as a true freshman last season on a team that had two other wide receivers drafted. Brown should put up better numbers this season, assuming the Aztecs find a quarterback. Long has high hopes for sophomore defensive tackle Ernie Lawson, who is a projected starter after missing all of 2006 with a knee injury and playing part-time in 2007.
STAR POWER: Senior linebacker Russell Allen returns for his fourth season as a starter. Allen led the Aztecs with 119 tackles last season, including 10.6 per game against Mountain West teams. He set a school record with 22 tackles in a loss to Utah.
STRENGTHS: Nine starters return on defense. All three linebackers are back, and the secondary is strong as well with three starters returning. Other than a trip to Notre Dame, the early season schedule isn't daunting.
WEAKNESSES: Quarterback Kevin O'Connell, a third-round pick of the New England Patriots, will be difficult to replace. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley ended the season as the No. 1 quarterback, but neither he nor any other QB on the roster has much experience. Junior college transfer Drew Westling hasn't played on the Division I-A level and Kelsey Sokoloski - O'Connell's backup last season - spent most of his time as a holder on special teams. The offensive line will have three new starters each a redshirt freshman. The Aztecs need to find a pass rusher. They had just 15 sacks last season, and team leader Nick Osborn is gone. While nine starters return on defense, the Aztecs were 119th in rush defense last season.
THE BUZZ: The Aztecs had four players drafted off last season's team, including the quarterback, but still couldn't manage a win over a bowl team. The road trip to Notre Dame is the only game against a BCS opponent, and a fast start is crucial if San Diego State has any hopes of bowl eligibility.
101. DUKE
COACH: David Cutcliffe (First season; 44-29 in six seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-8 in the ACC (last in ACC Coastal).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior wide receiver Eron Riley ranked fourth in the ACC in receiving last season and finished with 40 catches for 830 yards and nine touchdowns. Riley scored seven touchdowns in a three-game midseason stretch against Navy, Miami and Wake Forest. Junior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis enters his third season as a starter having thrown for 4,564 yards and 32 touchdowns. Junior linebacker Vincent Rey had 111 tackles last season. Now that he has lost some weight and added some quickness, Rey could make more of an impact.
STAR POWER: Senior linebacker Michael Tauiliili recorded 108 tackles last season, including 13 for loss. No returning player in the ACC averaged more tackles per game last season.
STRENGTHS: Any ACC program would love to have linebackers as productive as Tauiliili and Rey. Clemson's Cullen Harper and Aaron Kelly may be the league's only pass-and-catch tandem more prolific than Lewis and Riley. Cutcliffe's track record should help him create more of a winning culture around campus.
WEAKNESSES: Special teams have been an absolute mess at Duke for quite a few years. The Blue Devils are 6-for-16 on field-goal attempts and haven't made a kick from beyond 40 yards in the past two seasons. Duke's offensive line struggled quite a bit last season, and the Blue Devils enter this fall with a sophomore center (Bryan Morgan) who hasn't played the position before, though they have plenty of experience elsewhere on the line. Duke ranked 115th in the nation in scoring last season in part because of a rushing attack that averaged just 2.0 yards per carry and finished 118th among Division I-A teams. The Blue Devils are confident the emergence of senior tailback Re'quan Boyette can bolster their running game, but he has just five touchdowns in 251 career carries. Depth is a severe problem on both sides of the ball.
THE BUZZ: Cutcliffe proved at Ole Miss that he can have success at a program that isn't accustomed to competing for conference titles, but he doesn't have Eli Manning this time. Cutcliffe also is inheriting a program in much worse shape than Ole Miss was when he arrived there. Duke has won just two games the past three seasons. Cutcliffe gradually should make the Blue Devils respectable, but it could take quite a few years before they're competitive in the ACC.

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 100-91



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