June 9, 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. 71-80
COACH: Al Groh (51-37 in seven seasons; 77-77 in 12 seasons overall)
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in ACC (second in ACC Coastal).
KEEP AN EYE ON: No linebacker in the nation averaged more sacks per game last season than senior Clint Sintim, a third-year starter who finished the campaign with nine sacks and 77 tackles. He ranks among the nation's most underrated players at his position. Virginia has two outstanding runners in senior Cedric Peerman and junior Mikell Simpson, though it remains uncertain who will start. Peerman was leading the ACC in rushing with 585 yards when he suffered a season-ending foot injury midway through last season. Simpson picked up the slack by rushing for 570 yards and collecting a team-high 43 receptions. Simpson's big season included a brilliant effort against Maryland in which he had 271 all-purpose yards.
STAR POWER: Senior Eugene Monroe gives Virginia one of the nation's top offensive tackles. Monroe is a third-year starter who didn't allow a sack during the regular season last year.
STRENGTHS: Peerman and Simpson could give Virginia a tailback tandem that rivals Clemson's dynamic duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, though the lack of experience in the offensive line could hinder their production. The linebacking corps features three returning senior starters in Sintim, Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby. John Phillips is a first-year starter, but his 6-foot-6 frame should allow him to continue Virginia's recent tradition of productive pass-catching tight ends.
WEAKNESSES: Virginia must replace its entire starting defensive line from last season, including All-America defensive end Chris Long. The academic-related departures of quarterback Jameel Sewell, cornerback Chris Cook and defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald caused major damage to Virginia's talent level. Sewell's departure from school for academic reasons leaves an uncertain situation at quarterback, though Peter Lalich did get plenty of experience in a reserve role as a true freshman last season. Although Monroe and Will Barker return at offensive tackle, the Cavaliers will have new starters at center and both guard spots. Virginia also is breaking in a new kicker and punter.
THE BUZZ: We know this is a rather low position for a major-conference team coming off a nine-win season and a New Year's Day bowl, but it's worth noting that Virginia went 5-0 last year in games decided by two points or less. We're guessing the Cavaliers aren't nearly as fortunate this season. Frankly, their luck started changing when Sewell, Cook and Fitzgerald left school. The ACC Coastal is so wide open once you get past obvious favorite Virginia Tech that perhaps the Cavaliers can sneak into second place again, but a fourth-place finish or worse seems much more likely.
COACH: Jim Harbaugh (4-8 in one season; 33-14 overall in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-10 (tied for seventh).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior Alex Fletcher is expected to move back to center after playing guard in 2007. He has started 31 games in the past three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection last season. Senior defensive end Pannel Egboh established himself as a force in 2007. He had 49 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He was huge in Stanford's upset of USC, with 10 tackles and a blocked kick.
STAR POWER: Senior linebacker Clinton Snyder is one of the best Pac-10 defenders you don't know. He led a surprisingly tough Stanford defense with eight sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles last season.
STRENGTHS: The defensive front seven looks good. Snyder and Pat Maynor (88 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss) make for a veteran tandem of linebackers. The line could be one of Stanford's best in recent seasons, with Egboh the standout. Defensive tackle Ekom Udofia is trying to reclaim his 2006 form after struggling with injuries last season. The secondary returns three starters, with free safety Bo McNally a potential all-league guy.
WEAKNESSES: Stanford needs improvement in its running game, which ranked ninth in the Pac-10 last season. The personnel in the passing game remains in flux. In addition to questions at quarterback, Stanford is looking to find replacements for receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore. The offense doesn't have a proven playmaker. Stanford is the only "Big Six" school playing just five home games, and four of the first six games are on the road.
THE BUZZ: Upsets of USC and California restored credibility and energy to a program that had fallen apart since the departure of Tyrone Willingham in 2001. Harbaugh still is working with a talent disadvantage compared to the rest of the Pac-10, but an upset here and there could lead to a bowl bid.
COACH: Paul Johnson (first season; 107-39 in 11 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in ACC (third in ACC Coastal).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior defensive end Michael Johnson has made only one career start, but his extraordinary athleticism makes him a probable first-round pick. He forced three fumbles, delivered four sacks and blocked two kicks in a reserve role last season. Don't be surprised if he blossoms into one of the ACC's top pass rushers this season. Andrew Gardner is returning for his fourth season as Tech's starting left tackle. Gardner earned first-team All-ACC honors last year and helped the Yellow Jackets lead the league in rushing.
STAR POWER: Senior defensive tackle Vance Walker recorded 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season to earn third-team All-America honors from Rivals.com. Walker, a first-team all-league pick, helped Tech lead the nation in sacks in 2007.
STRENGTHS: Any team in the nation would love to have Tech's defensive line. Walker and Darryl Richard (10.5 tackles for loss last season) give the Yellow Jackets a formidable duo at defensive tackle, while Johnson offers star potential on the edge. Gardner, offensive tackle Cord Howard and guard Dan Voss give the Jackets three returning starters on a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the ACC last season.
WEAKNESSES: Who's going to be the quarterback? Taylor Bennett's decision to transfer to Louisiana Tech left the Jackets without any experienced contenders. Josh Nesbitt looks like a great fit for Johnson's option attack, but he first must beat out Auburn transfer Calvin Booker. Tech also must replace two-time, 1,000-yard rusher Tashard Choice, though Jonathan Dwyer showed plenty of potential while rushing for 436 yards and nine touchdowns as a reserve last season. Tech faces huge question marks on its defense once you get past the front four. The Jackets have only one returning starter (Shane Bowen) at linebacker and one more (CB Jahi Word-Daniels) in the secondary.
THE BUZZ: Tech consistently delivered winning seasons under former coach Chan Gailey, but his inability to beat Georgia or produce a conference title led to his ouster. Johnson's track record suggests he eventually will have the Yellow Jackets winning even more frequently than they did under Gailey, but it's going to take time for them to adjust to his option attack. Tech could take a step back this season before taking a couple of strides forward in the near future.
COACH: Howard Schnellenberger (41-42 in seven seasons; 141-119-3 in 23 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-1 in Sun Belt (tied for first in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior linebacker Frantz Joseph, who began his career at Boston College, led the Sun Belt with 131 tackles last season - the second-highest total in league history. Not surprisingly, he was a first-team all-league pick. Junior wide receiver Cortez Gent will be one of the two or three best receivers in the Sun Belt this season. He had four 100-yard games last season and is the Owls' best deep threat.
STAR POWER: Junior quarterback Rusty Smith heads into the season as the third-best quarterback in Florida, behind Florida's Tim Tebow and USF's Matt Grothe. He's a big guy (6-5/215) with a strong arm and is a great fit for the Owls' passing attack. He threw 32 TD passes last season and 35 is a legit goal for this season.
STRENGTHS: As long as Smith is under center, FAU is going to have a strong passing attack. In Gent and Jason Harmon, Smith has two of the five best wide receivers in the league. Four starting offensive linemen return, as does starting tailback Charles Pierre. The front seven on defense should be mighty salty. Tackle Jervonte Jackson has all-league potential, and there is excellent depth on the line. Tavious Polo and Corey Small are the best cornerback duo in the conference.
WEAKNESSES: There will be two new starting safeties, and departed starters Kris Bartels and Taheem Acevedo will be missed. Though Pierre and all those linemen return, the running game was mediocre last season. Four of the first five games are on the road, including matchups with Texas and Michigan State.
THE BUZZ: The Owls look to be hands down the favorite to win the Sun Belt. They have the best quarterback in the league, and the passing game should be ultra-productive. The Owls also have the fastest defense in the league, and five defenders have a legit shot at first-team all-league honors. There are just five home games, but none of the league road games should give FAU that much trouble. How the Owls fare against "big-time" foes Michigan State, Minnesota and Texas will be interesting to see.
COACH: Bobby Johnson (20-50 in six seasons; 80-86 overall in 14 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in the SEC (sixth in SEC East).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior strong safety Reshard Langford is a big hitter for the Commodores. He had 65 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups in 2007. Junior Greg Billinger takes over at defensive tackle after a long wait. He is a former Georgia commitment who is only now getting over injuries sustained during a car accident when he was a high school senior.
STAR POWER: Junior cornerback D.J. Moore returns after being a first-team All-SEC selection. Moore led a standout secondary with an SEC-best six interception and 10 pass breakups. He also returns kickoffs.
STRENGTHS: By a wide margin, the secondary is Vanderbilt's strength. Moore is an all-conference cornerback. He and Myron Lewis (12 pass break-ups, one interception) form an imposing tandem. The Commodores also have two hard-hitting safeties in Langford and Ryan Hamilton.
WEAKNESSES: Vanderbilt has question marks all over on offense, especially at quarterback. There was reason for optimism with Chris Nickson after his 2006 season. However, Nickson regressed in 2007 - partly because of a shoulder injury. Backup Mackenzi Adams became the starter, but the position will be up for grabs in the fall. Replacing a first-round offensive tackle (Chris Williams) and third-round receiver (Earl Bennett) is no easy task at Vanderbilt. The running game is a huge concern. The front seven on defense will have five new starters.
THE BUZZ: All signs pointed to Vandy ending its bowl drought in 2007, but the Commodores couldn't pull it off. Vanderbilt has improved under Johnson the Commodores beat South Carolina in Columbia last season and lost close games to Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee but still can't get over the hump. Vandy needs to find consistency at quarterback to have a shot at reaching its first bowl since 1982.
COACH: Paul Wulff (first season; 53-40 overall in eight seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-10 (seventh in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior quarterback Gary Rogers is the favorite to take over for Alex Brink, the leading passer in school history. All eyes will be on the 6-6 Rogers in Wulff's no-huddle spread offense, which was among the best in Division I-AA when Wulff coached at Eastern Washington. Senior linebacker Greg Trent is a bit undersized (5-11/224), but he's an active performer for the Cougars' defense. He had 89 tackles last season, with 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles.
STAR POWER: Senior WR Brandon Gibson returns as the Pac-10's only 1,000-yard receiver after catching 67 passes for 1,180 yards and nine touchdowns last year. As long as the Cougars get production out of a new quarterback, Gibson again should flourish - especially in Wulff's high-powered offense.
STRENGTHS: Defensive end Andy Mattingly, who was moved from linebacker during spring ball, had eight sacks last season and is a feared pass rusher. The Cougars return three starting linebackers with plenty of mileage: Trent, Cory Evans and Kendrick Dunn; each had more than 80 tackles last season. Four offensive line starters return on a team that allowed the third-fewest sacks in the Pac-10 despite a pass-happy offense. Junior center Kenny Alfred is a Rimington Trophy candidate.
WEAKNESSES: Even with Mattingly and its linebackers, Washington State was one of the worst defensive teams in the Pac-10 last season. The front seven has depth issues, and the secondary is still jumbled after allowing 255.7 passing yards per game. Wulff will have to wait to see what he has in the running game, which ranked eighth in the league last season. Dwight Tardy and Chris Ivory, the top two projected tailbacks, missed spring practice.
THE BUZZ: Wulff, a Washington State alum, has a tall order ahead of him in his first season with the Cougars. Before his first season has begun, Wulff is facing a loss of scholarships because of poor academic performance, as measured by the NCAA, and a few of his players face legal issues. A bowl would be a major splash for the new coach.
COACH: Shane Montgomery (15-21 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 5-3 in the MAC (tied for first in MAC East).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior linebacker Joe Hudson is a vital part of what might be the MAC's best group of linebackers. He had 99 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions in 2007. Senior guard Dave DiFranco will be one of the best linemen in the MAC. DiFranco is heading into his fourth season as the starter.
STAR POWER: Miami returns the MAC's defensive player of the year in senior linebacker Clayton Mullins. He had 143 tackles and 13.5 tackles for a loss, and sets the tone on a defense that allowed a MAC-low 25.2 points per game.
STRENGTHS: The foundation of Miami's defense is the linebacker corps, where the top three tacklers return. Junior Caleb Bostic, who had 11 tackles for loss last season, joins Hudson and Mullins. Defensive end Joe Coniglio is the leader of a line that returns three starters. Three starters return in the secondary, headed by strong safety Robbie Wilson. Miami should be strong on its punt-return and punt teams. Eugene Harris was a Rivals.com All-MAC selection after averaging 9.3 yards per punt return. Punter Jacob Richardson averaged 45 yards per boot last season.
WEAKNESSES: Despite similarly lengthy last names, quarterback Daniel Raudabaugh is no Ben Roethlisberger. The junior threw 12 interceptions in 10 games last season, including seven in the final three games. He will be looking over his shoulder at redshirt freshman Clay Belton. Miami lost its top three rushers from last season, and freshman Dan Green - an early enrollee - didn't have the impact the coaches had hoped during the spring. No receiver really scares opponents in the passing game.
THE BUZZ: Miami improved from 2-10 in 2006 to the MAC title game last season. The RedHawks' defense should keep them competitive, but Miami needs vast improvement from its offensive backfield for another run at a division title.
78. NAVY
COACH: Ken Niumatalolo (first season).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior fullback Eric Kettani rushed for 880 yards and 10 touchdowns last season despite starting just five games. His combination of speed (a 4.53 time in the 40-yard dash) and strength (he bench-presses 400 pounds) should make him a threat in the Middies' rushing game. Kattani should build on the momentum he established by rushing for 125 yards in the Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah. Senior defensive end Michael Walsh recorded 10.5 tackles for loss last season and has shown a knack for coming up big against Navy's biggest rivals. He delivered the first two sacks of his career in a victory over Notre Dame and two tackles for loss against Army last season.
STAR POWER: Stopping senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has proved nearly as difficult as pronouncing his name. He averaged 6.4 yards per play last season, which represented the fifth-best mark in school history. He rushed for 834 yards and also completed 61 percent of his passes, with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions.
STRENGTHS: Navy is the first team in NCAA history to lead the nation in rushing three consecutive seasons. Don't be surprised if the Middies make it four in a row. Although the Middies lost the architect of their option attack when former coach Paul Johnson headed to Georgia Tech, Niumatalolo is the former Navy offensive line coach who doesn't plan to change the run-oriented strategy that has worked so well the past few seasons. Navy also plays with the discipline you'd expect from a service academy: The Middies had the fewest penalty yards per game in the nation last season.
WEAKNESSES: Navy replaced the greatest coach in the program's recent history with a guy who hadn't served as a head coach before. The promotion of Niumatalolo gave Navy the benefit of continuity, but his lack of head-coaching experience could cause problems. Navy returns eight starters on defense, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The Middies ranked last in Division I-A in pass-efficiency defense and were 109th in scoring defense. Navy's defense has to create more big plays, as the Middies were 113th in tackles for loss and 117th in sacks last season.
THE BUZZ: Even without Johnson on the sideline, this will be the same Navy team we're used to seeing. Niumatalolo isn't going to change the run-oriented approach. The Middies also should get a boost from the return of Kaheaku-Enhada, assuming he's completely healthy after missing much of spring practice while recovering from knee surgery. Navy's porous defense and lack of a passing game keep us from ranking the Middies higher, but we wouldn't be surprised to see them back in a bowl this season.
COACH: Bill Lynch (7-6 in one season; 88-73-3 overall in 15 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (tied for seventh in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior defensive end Greg Middleton emerged from nowhere and led the nation in sacks last season with 16, a school single-season record, and added 50 tackles and 17 tackles for loss. He made six tackles in 2006. Coaches have been high on center Alex Perry, a 6-7, 292-pound sophomore. He will play a key role on a line that needs to provide a better, more consistent push in the ground game.
STAR POWER: Everything begins and ends with quarterback Kellen Lewis, a wondrous playmaker with his feet and arm. Lewis missed spring drills after running afoul of team rules, but he's expected back. Good thing: Without Lewis, this team becomes ordinary quickly.
STRENGTHS: This could be a good offense. Lewis is the straw that turns stirs the drink. Sure, it's not a big drink sort of like a kiddy cocktail but he might be the closest thing to a one-man gang in college football. Despite the loss of WR James Hardy a year early to the NFL, Lewis still will have a bevy of options to worth with in Ray Fisher, Andrew Means, Terrance Turner and Brandon Walker-Roby. The line should be solid. The left side of tackle Rodger Saffold and guard Pete Saxon is being scrutinized by NFL scouts. Coaches are jacked about the defensive front seven. One last goodie: Austin Starr is back at kicker. He kicked the game-winner with time expiring to beat Purdue and send the Hoosiers to a bowl for the first time since 1993.
WEAKNESSES: For all the roses being tossed at the feet of the offense, this still is a unit that lacks oomph in the running game. It's vital the quarterback doesn't again lead the team in rushing. The staff has installed a hurry-up, no-huddle attack. Will there be any hiccups? And what if Lewis doesn't return from suspension? That means Ben Chappell will be under center. He's more passer than runner, leaving the offense void of a big dimension. All eyes will be on the new cornerbacks with stalwarts Tracy Porter and Leslie Majors gone. At least IU is set at safety.
THE BUZZ: Are they really talking football in Bloomington? You have to hand it to Lynch, who delivered on deceased coach Terry Hoeppner's goal of getting to a bowl. Now, the hard part: getting back. It would be the first back-to-back bowl trips since 1990-91. A bonus: There are eight home games on the schedule and no Ohio State and Michigan for a second year in a row. Of course, if Lewis isn't back, all bets are off.
COACH: Gene Chizik (3-9 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in the Big 12 (sixth in Big 12 North).
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Cyclones are hoping to find a successful successor to record-setting quarterback Bret Meyer, who started for four seasons. Austen Arnaud and Phillip Bates are locked in a competition that probably won't be decided until late August. A two-quarterback system isn't out of the question. Defensive end Kurtis Taylor returned last season from a knee injury that forced him to miss 2006. He posted a team-high 6.5 sacks a year ago.
STAR POWER: Although sophomore tailback Alexander Robinson rushed for just 465 yards last season, 391 of them came in the last four games of the season. Before that, he'd never had more than eight carries. But he had 149 yards against Missouri and 127 against Colorado two bowl teams.
STRENGTHS: The Cyclones have a nice group of wide receivers, R.J. Sumrall is coming off a 54-catch season, and Marquis Hamilton had 45 catches. Iowa State also is expecting a boost from incoming freshman WR Sedrick Johnson, a four-star prospect. Four starters return from an offensive line that got better as last season progressed. The secondary returns all four starters.
WEAKNESSES: There are questions about the defensive front seven, but most of the concerns are on offense. The Cyclones ranked last in the Big 12 in total offense and scoring offense last season. And that was with a record-setting quarterback in Meyer and career receptions leader Todd Blythe, who are gone. There are reasons to be encouraged Alexander's strong finish and the experienced line but the Cyclones have to be more productive offensively.
THE BUZZ: A season-ending blowout loss to Kansas notwithstanding, the Cyclones clearly improved as their first season under Chizik progressed. They posted victories (over Kansas State and Colorado) in two of their last three games and were competitive in losses to Oklahoma and Missouri. That sparked optimism that the Cyclones could reach bowl eligibility this season. They're going to have new uniforms in '08, and we'll see if the results are different as well.

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 61-70

THE RANKINGS: 81-90 | 91-100 | 101-110 | 111-120

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