June 8, 2008

Rivals.com is in the midst of its 2008 countdown, releasing our preseason ranking of the Division I-A teams from No. 120 to No. 1.

We're starting at the bottom, and the first week of rankings will be in groups of 10. Then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled 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. 81-90
81. HAWAII
COACH: Greg McMackin (first season).
LAST SEASON: 12-1 overall, 8-0 in the WAC (first in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 17th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior center John Estes seems destined to be the next Hawaii offensive lineman in the NFL. He was a first-team All-WAC performer last season and has started 27 consecutive games for the Warriors. He'll again be asked to snap the ball in the shotgun formation, as McMackin who was promoted from defensive coordinator when June Jones left for SMU says the run-and-shoot will continue under new offensive coordinator Ron Lee. Senior defensive end David Veikune was a valuable reserve last season and moves into a starting role. He had seven sacks off the bench and will be counted on to provide a consistent pass rush this season.
STAR POWER: You know times have changed when the star player at Hawaii is on defense. Senior linebacker Adam Leonard was a Rivals.com All-WAC performer with 105 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and four interceptions. He and senior linebacker Solomon Elimimian combined to make 246 tackles last season.
STRENGTHS: With so much turnover on the offense, McMackin will rely on his defense. Linebacker is a particular strength with Leonard and Elimimian, who combined to make 23 tackles for a loss. Kicker Dan Kelly has a strong leg and a knack for making the big kick. He made the game-winner against Nevada and sent the game against Louisiana Tech into overtime with field goal. The offensive line returns three starters well-versed in blocking for the run-and-shoot offense.
WEAKNESSES: Quarterback Colt Brennan is gone, as are the four leading receivers. Senior QB Tyler Graunke has starting experience but was suspended for spring practice. He and Inoke Funaki will continue to vie for the starting job, along with junior college transfers Greg Alexander and Brent Rausch. Lee vows to improve the running game, but is there a feature tailback on the roster? The defensive line will have three new starters, but at least Veikune played a lot last season. The first four road games are against bowl teams from last season, including contests against Florida and Oregon State.
THE BUZZ: Now in rebuilding mode, Hawaii likely will slide a few spots in the WAC. Still, there's too much talent on defense for the Warriors to fall off completely. An Oct. 4 game at WAC favorite Fresno State will tell a lot about the Warriors. The future may be bright with new athletic director Jim Donovan, a Hawaii alum, looking to improve some dreadful facilities.
DAVID FOX
82. UTEP
COACH: Mike Price (25-23 in four seasons; 154-145 in 26 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in Conference USA (fifth in C-USA West).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 97th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sophomore quarterback Trevor Vittatoe threw for 3,101 yards and 25 TDs last season. He had four 300-yard games and threw for at least 290 in six of the final seven games. He threw only seven picks in 407 attempts. Junior strong safety Braxton Amy led the Miners with 112 tackles last season. He also had three interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
STAR POWER: Junior wide receiver Jeff Moturi burst onto the scene after a nondescript freshman season, catching 65 passes for 891 yards and 13 TDs. Moturi's TD total was tied for fourth nationally. Three of his four 100-yard games came against bowl teams. He and Vittatoe form one of the best pass-catch duos in the league.
STRENGTHS: Vittatoe really came on down the stretch. If UTEP had had any type of defense, the Miners would've gone bowling. The offensive line has two potential all-league guys in tackle Mike Aguayo and center Robby Felix, who has started 36 consecutive games. The defense is moving from a 4-3-4 set to a 3-3-5 scheme, and the secondary should be by far the best unit on the defense. Kicker Jose Martinez may be the best at his position in the league and should be one of the best in the nation.
WEAKNESSES: There is no established No. 2 receiver, which means Moturi will see a lot of double-teams. Senior tailback Terrell Jackson, who began his career at Oregon, has to replace 1,000-yard rusher Marcus Thomas; can he do the job? The linebackers don't appear to be anything special. The Miners' pass rush was anemic last season.
THE BUZZ: The Miners have a new defensive coordinator (Osia Lewis, from New Mexico), and he has installed a 3-3-5 scheme. He also likely brought with him a penchant for blitzing, which New Mexico does well. UTEP's defense was horrible last season and just a little improvement likely would get the Miners to .500 that is, if the running game comes through. Four of the first six games are at home, including the first-ever visit from Texas. But the majority of the tough league games are on the road.
MIKE HUGUENIN
83. WYOMING
COACH: Joe Glenn (26-33 in five seasons; 184-92-1 in 23 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in Mountain West (tied for seventh)
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 82nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: LB Weston Johnson showed signs of breaking out last season as a sophomore, when he had 26 tackles. The staff feels his time is now. Johnson is a talented athlete with speed, which should translate into playmaking ability from his spot on the strongside. He's also a bright kid who rarely is out of position. Senior offensive tackle Kyle Howard has great size (6-7/312) and has started 28 games in a row. Howard is the best player on a line that returns all five starters.
STAR POWER: Junior defensive tackle John Fletcher already is being mentioned as an Outland Trophy contender - and with good reason. Fletcher, a 6-6, 280-pounder, is a wrecking ball vs. the run. He also can bring the heat in the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme. Witness his 10.5 sacks in 2007, which ranked 11th in the nation.
STRENGTHS: Tailbacks Wynel Seldon and Devin Moore rushed for a combined 1,519 yards last season. Even better: Every line starter is back for what could be a punishing ground game. Junior quarterback Karsten Sween is a veteran hand, but he has had to fight off competition and could lose his job to junior college transfer Dax Crum or senior Ian Hetrick. The front seven on defense looks stout, led by Fletcher up front. The linebackers look stellar. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman linebacker Gabe Knapton, who looks headed for a good career. Linebacker Ward Dobbs is a veteran who must steady the ship.
WEAKNESSES: The offense is in transition after ranking last in the conference in 2007 and flopping numerous times late in games. Glenn canned coordinator Bill Cockhill and hired Bob Cole, who had spent the past three seasons at Division I-AA Florida A&M. The plan is to simplify the scheme, emphasizing the ground game and a precise, short-passing attack. But if foes crowd the line to snuff the run, does Wyoming have a deep threat to stretch the field? Will the quarterback spot become a jumbled mess, killing any chance at continuity? The secondary is being retooled, so it's vital a strong front seven excels. There also is hand-wringing over the kicking and punting with standout Billy Vinnedge gone.
THE BUZZ: The consensus in Laramie is that this is a make-or-break season for Glenn. His move to fire his offensive coordinator was criticized by some and smacks of a coach on the edge. But even an improved offense that looks capable of wearing down foes with the ground game won't matter if Wyoming can't pass consistently. The Cowboys also need to eliminate many of the MWC-high 31 turnovers they committed in 2007. The postseason looks like a long shot as the winds of change whip up on the Wyoming plains.
TOM DIENHART
84. WESTERN MICHIGAN
COACH: Bill Cubit (20-16 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-4 in Mid-American Conference (tied for third in MAC West).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 91st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior linebacker Boston McCornell led the Broncos with 99 tackles and added eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Senior cornerback Londen Fryar leads an experienced secondary. He was a first-team all-league guy last season, when he had 63 tackles, a pick and 16 pass breakups. They are the leaders on a defense that returns all 11 starters.
STAR POWER: Senior wide receiver Jamarko Simmons had a breakthrough campaign last season, with 84 receptions for 980 yards and six TDs. He had six 100-yard games en route to being named a first-team All-MAC selection. He had 14 catches for 144 yards and two TDs against West Virginia.
STRENGTHS: Western struggled at times on defense last season, but all 11 starters are back. And get this: It's possible the Broncos could have 11 senior starters on that side of the ball. The secondary should be the best in the MAC, and the line headed by end Zach Davidson should be better against the run that it was last season. Simmons, tailback Brandon West and tight end Branden Ledbetter have all-league potential on offense.
WEAKNESSES: Junior quarterback Tim Hiller threw for 3,021 yards and 20 TDs last season, but he also threw 15 picks and Cubit remains concerned about his consistency. The offensive line will have three new starters. While the defense has a ton of experience, it also has its third coordinator in four seasons. The new guy is Steve Morrison, who was promoted from linebacker coach. He has to make sure the Broncos are better against the run. Special teams could be an issue because Western is looking for a new kicker and a new punter.
THE BUZZ: A strong case can be made that Western is the third-best team in the MAC. Unfortunately for the Broncos, the best teams look to be Ball State and Central Michigan and Western is in the same division. Still, if the Broncos get consistent play from their quarterback and the defense improves against the run, Western could surprise and win the West.
MIKE HUGUENIN
85. MARSHALL
COACH: Mark Snyder (12-23 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 3-5 in Conference USA (fifth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 107th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior free safety C.J. Spillman finished with 131 tackles and was the Thundering Herd's leader in that department for the second season in a row. He had six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Junior defensive end Albert McClellan missed last season with a knee injury. He was a first-team all-league performer in 2006, when he had 77 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. He's squatty (6-2/259) but has a great first step off the edge.
STAR POWER: Junior tight end Cody Slate had 66 catches for 818 yards and five TDs last season. That receptions total ranked fourth among tight ends nationally. It was the second season in a row that Slate was Marshall's leading receiver. His blocking could stand to get better, though.
STRENGTHS: The Thundering Herd has a nice group of receivers. Slate is the headliner, but WRs Darius Passmore, Emmanuel Spann and E.J. Wynn also can be dangerous. McClellan's return gives the Herd a big-time pass rusher and should elevate the play of the other defensive linemen. Linebacker Maurice Kitchens has some talent.
WEAKNESSES: The defensive front seven has been retooled, which may be a good thing considering the Herd was awful against the run last season. Kitchens is the only returning starter at linebacker. Even with Spillman, the secondary was shoddy last season. Marshall gave up 259.8 passing yards per game and had only four interceptions. Offensively, the Herd need a new quarterback as many as five guys could be vying for the job and a new tailback. Both starting offensive tackles will be new.
THE BUZZ: Snyder is on the hot seat and has brought in two new coordinators. Defensive head man Rick Minter has the toughest job, though McClellan's return at end should provide a huge boost. Marshall's offense was fine last season; the defense was the culprit in an 0-7 start. The new offensive coordinator is John Shannon, who oversaw a potent unit at Toledo. Marshall plays at Wisconsin and West Virginia in the first month of the season, but back-to-back games in September against conference foes Memphis and Southern Miss will be a better gauge as to how the season will go for the Herd and whether Snyder will get off the hot seat.
MIKE HUGUENIN
86. TOLEDO
COACH: Tom Amstutz (55-32 in seven seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the MAC (tied for fourth in MAC West).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 99th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior quarterback Aaron Opelt is entering his third year as the starter, and he wasn't bad in the first two. Last season, he passed for 1,756 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing three games and parts of two others with injuries. With 15 games as a starter under his belt, Opelt may be primed for a breakout season in '08. Senior strong safety Barry Church was one of the few bright spots on a porous defense last season. Church earned first-team All-MAC honors after finishing with 92 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups.
STAR POWER: Stephen Williams and Nick Moore are big receivers who last season became the first tandem in Toledo history to earn all-conference honors in the same year. The 6-foot-5 Williams caught 73 passes and ranked third in the MAC in receiving yardage with 1,169 despite missing one game. He had at least four catches in every game in which he played and was a second-team all-league pick. The 6-4 Moore, who missed two games, hauled in 60 catches for 731 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns en route to landing third-team honors.
STRENGTHS: Williams and Moore combined for 133 receptions last season, and are among the nation's top-five most productive returning receiving tandems. With Opelt entering his third season as a starter, the Rockets' passing offense should be considerably better than it was a year ago, when it averaged 239.3 yards to rank 48th nationally. Junior kicker Alex Steigerwald has converted 20 of 21 field-goal attempts in his first two seasons for a 95.2 percent career success rate. The offensive line returns three starters. Though 1,000-yard rusher Jalen Parmele is gone, junior DaJuane Collins ran for 636 yards last season and should be an able replacement.
WEAKNESSES: Eight starters return on defense, but that unit was horrendous in '07. The Rockets were 103rd in total defense and 117th in scoring defense. A big culprit was the lack of a pass rush. With just nine sacks, the Rockets shared with Syracuse the dubious distinction of the most anemic pass rush in the country. Consequently, the Rockets allowed 31 touchdown passes while grabbing only 10 interceptions. There will be two new starting linebackers, so the Rockets' success in stopping the run bears watching.
THE BUZZ: Having two all-conference receivers and a third-year starting quarterback is encouraging, but a lot of the optimism at Toledo is based on three players returning from injuries. Free safety Tyrell Herbert, who led the Rockets in tackles and had three interceptions in 2006, was sorely missed last season. Toledo also missed end Sean Williamson, who in 2006 led the linemen in tackles. Defensive end Doug Westbrook also missed last season, and he's another who's being counted on to help upgrade a defense that allowed a MAC-worst 39.2 points per game. Toledo posted at least eight victories in its first five seasons under Amstutz, but has suffered consecutive 5-7 finishes. A bolstered defense would help the Rockets get back on track.
OLIN BUCHANAN
87. SYRACUSE
COACH: Greg Robinson (7-28 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Big East (eighth in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 103rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior wide receiver Lavar Lobdell came to campus with a fat high school scrapbook. But he hasn't added to it. Lobdell, a 6-3, 200-pounder, turned heads in the spring and could be a key threat downfield for an offense that's screaming for playmakers at wide receiver. Punter Rob Long was one of the best freshman at his position last season (an average of 41.9 yards on 75 attempts). Given the state of the offense, Long likely will be called on often this season.
STAR POWER: To call anyone a "star" on this squad may not be apropos. Still, we'll affix the label to junior nose tackle Arthur Jones. He's a boulder in the middle, adept at mucking up the works and making plays amid a sea of bodies. Jones, a 6-4, 289-pounder, had 17.5 tackles for loss last year, proving he must be reckoned with at all times.
STRENGTHS: The Orange could could have a good running game. Running backs Delone Carter (hip) and Curtis Brinkley (leg) are back from injuries, and true freshman Averin Collier also will get a chance to make an impact on a rushing offense that ranked next-to-last in the nation last season. Doug Hogue is another possibility. Quarterback Andrew Robinson also can run. Don't expect him to pass as much as he did in 2007, when the Orange set school standards for attempts and completions. There may be hope for the defense, thanks to what looks like a strong line that will feature Jones and ends Brandon Gilbeaux and Vincenzo Giruzzi. Backup free safety Max Suter is a bonus in the return game. He can go the distance and set an NCAA single-season record (1,299) for kickoff-return yards last year. Wait, is that a good thing?
WEAKNESSES: How much time do you have? The biggest shortcoming is the offense. Robinson hired Mitch Browning as coordinator to try to make something out of what has been a nothing attack during Robinson's dreary tenure. Browning engineered some powerful Minnesota offenses under Glen Mason that pounded opponents with the run. The top priority is trying to assemble a halfway decent line. Three starters are back, but the Orange allowed 54 sacks and didn't open many rushing lanes in 2007. If this crew doesn't jell, all of that talent at running back won't matter. One more thing: WR Mike Williams, a legit star, has been lost for the season for academic reasons. Linebacker Jake Flaherty is a keeper, but the rest of the defensive back seven is a mess. Robinson will co-coordinate the defense, which should help.
THE BUZZ: What buzz? This once-proud program has become a shell of itself. How bad has it been? Robinson is 2-19 in Big East play. That's Temple-esque. Last year's 10-loss stinker set a dubious school single-season standard. No wonder Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross told Robinson he'll be gone unless significant improvement is shown. It looks like another bottom-feeder season in the Big East.
TOM DIENHART
88. AIR FORCE
COACH: Troy Calhoun (9-4 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in Mountain West (second in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 43rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior strong safety Chris Thomas was second on the Falcons with 110 tackles. He added nine tackles for loss, an interception and 10 pass breakups. Thomas is the only returning starter in the secondary. Senior defensive end Ryan Kemp is the best player on a line that returns all three starters (the Falcons use a 3-4 scheme). Kemp had 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked kick last season.
STAR POWER: Junior guard Nick Charles not only is one of the best interior linemen in the MWC, he also is a dean's list student. He started at three line spots for the Falcons last season and was a big reason they averaged 299.5 rushing yards per game.
STRENGTHS: The defensive line is a good one. Thing is, it had better be because the back eight on the defense will have six new starters. Charles is a good building block for an offensive line that will have three new starters. Senior tight end Travis Dekker is a threat.
WEAKNESSES: The offense is a huge concern. Air Force lost its top six rushers. The Falcons have led their league in rushing for 10 consecutive seasons, but that could change. New quarterback Shea Smith, a senior, has eight rushing attempts and 12 passing attempts in his career. Only one receiver who caught more than eight passes is back. The linebackers were the key to a surprisingly good defense last season, and three starters there are gone. The secondary struggled at times last season, and there will be three new starters in that unit, too.
THE BUZZ: Air Force was one of the nation's biggest surprises last season under Calhoun, a first-year coach who guided the Falcons to a five-victory improvement over 2006. But the Falcons lost 15 starters, and there will be an all-new offensive backfield this season - as well as three new starters on the offensive line. Given Air Force's reliance on the run the Falcons have averaged at least 200 rushing yards per game every season since 1981 that has to be at least a bit worrisome. Calhoun was the league's coach of the year last season. If he can coax the Falcons into another upper-division finish, he would deserve to be coach of the year again.
MIKE HUGUENIN
89. TROY
COACH: Larry Blakeney (136-68-1 in 17 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-4 overall, 6-1 in Sun Belt (tied for first in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 57th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior offensive tackle Dion Small was a first-team all-conference selection last season. He headlines what should be a solid offensive line. Senior free safety Sherrod Martin played sparingly because of injury early last season, but was a vital player down the stretch. He finished with 52 tackles, nine tackles for loss, three sacks and an incredible six forced fumbles.
STAR POWER: Junior linebacker Boris Lee doesn't have great size (6-0/212), but he's quick and also stronger than you'd think. Lee had 82 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups last season en route to first-team all-league honors.
STRENGTHS: As usual, Troy may be the most talented team in the Sun Belt. They have a number of former top-ranked recruits and are deep on the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. The defensive line should be the best in the Sun Belt. The overall team speed might be the best in the league.
WEAKNESSES: The Trojans lack experienced skill-position talent. Quarterback is a huge concern. Star Omar Haugabook is gone, and there isn't anyone on the roster who can remotely come close to matching his talent. The Trojans also need to find a feature back and a go-to receiver. Outside of Lee, linebacker is a big-time concern. Five of the first six games are on the road, including four contests with bowl teams and a matchup with league favorite Florida Atlantic.
THE BUZZ: The Trojans will be strong in the trenches, and that should be enough for a top-three finish in the league. But their run of three consecutive conference titles either outright or shared should come to an end. While there is no established tailback, at least the starter will have the luxury of running behind a big, physical line. The passing attack is a mystery, as well. Will the new quarterback be able to consistently get the ball to his receivers? You have to give the Trojans credit for playing tough foes: They are the only team that plays both LSU and Ohio State this season.
MIKE HUGUENIN
90. LOUISIANA TECH
COACH: Derek Dooley (5-7 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-4 in the WAC (tied for fourth in the league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 87th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: To succeed, the offense must take flight. That's sophomore wide receiver Phillip Livas' cue to emerge and build on a strong 2007 debut, when he caught 28 passes for 504 yards and three scores. He should be a big-play threat, giving the offense needed bite and preventing defenses from selling out to stop a strong rushing attack. Junior free safety Antonio Baker was a first-team all-league performer. He had 118 tackles and was in double-digits in eight games. He added three interceptions and seven pass breakups.
STAR POWER: Linebacker Quin Harris is good, Baker is one of the WAC's best and defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith is solid. But the star is punter Chris Keagle. Really. It's true. A punter. He earned All-WAC honors last season, when he averaged 41.3 yards on 76 punts. He put 26 punts inside the 20-yard line and forced 21 fair catches. For a team that will rely on field position to win games and needs to keep a still-developing defense out of compromising spots, Keagle will be a valuable commodity.
STRENGTHS: Losing quarterback Zac Champion hurts, but there are options. Ross Jenkins saw some time last season, and Steven Ensminger is eligible after transferring from Auburn. But the guy who has everyone juiced is Taylor Bennett, who is eligible immediately after transferring from Georgia Tech. Bennett started 12 games and threw for 2,136 yards and seven touchdowns for Tech in 2007. More good news: a veteran line will afford ample protection. The top three rushers from last season are back, headed by Patrick Jackson. Baker is the standout in a secondary that returns three starters.
WEAKNESSES: What if Bennett spoils the chemistry of what looks like a strong offense? Another worry is a rebuilding the defense. The unit made strides during Dooley's first season, but many holes must be filled. The front seven is of particular concern. Is there a pass rush in the house? Unless heat is provided, that promising secondary will be undone. Four of the first five games are against teams that went to bowls last season.
THE BUZZ: Dooley, the son of former Georgia coach Vince, was named Tech's A.D. in the spring. He's the only coach in Division I-A with those dual roles. If he and his staff settle on a quarterback, Tech could be a surprise in the WAC race. Winning at Hawaii on Oct. 11 is a must if the Bulldogs want to contend. The season-opener is against Mississippi State, the first time Tech will play host to an SEC opponent in its history.
TOM DIENHART

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 71-80

THE RANKINGS: 91-100 | 101-110 | 111-120




 

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