June 24, 2009

Preseason Top 120 Countdown: Nos. 55-51

Here is part 14 of our 1-120 countdown, with teams ranked from 55th to 51st. Starting Thursday, our countdown moves to one team per day as we go from No. 50 to No. 1; our No. 1 team will be unveiled Aug. 13, which will be three weeks from the start of the season.

The team rankings were compiled by football writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee. They look forward to your emails.

Top 120 countdown
55. Connecticut
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Zach Frazer (6-4, 231, Jr.)
RB Jordan Todman (5-9, 190, Soph.)
FB Anthony Sherman (5-10, 231, Jr.)
WR Marcus Easley (6-2, 210, Sr.)
WR Kashif Moore (5-9, 174, Soph.)
TE Derek Chard (6-3, 234, Jr.)
T Jimmy Bennett (6-7, 300, R-Fr.)
T Mike Hicks (6-6, 321, Sr.)
G Zach Hurd (6-6, 321, Sr.)
G Alex LaMagdelaine (6-2, 303, Sr.)
C Moe Petrus (6-2, 276, Soph.)
DEFENSE
E Marcus Campbell (6-2, 232, Jr.)
T Twyon Martin (6-1, 265, Soph.)
T Kendall Reyes (6-2, 262, Soph)
E Lindsey Witten (6-4, 251, Sr.)
LB Greg Lloyd (6-1, 234, Jr.)
LB Scott Lutrus (6-2, 225, Jr.)
LB Lawrence Wilson (6-1, 221, Jr.)
CB Jasper Howard (5-9, 174, Jr.)
CB Robert McClain (5-9, 201, Sr.)
FS Robert Vaughn (6-0, 197, Sr.)
SS Aaron Bagsby (6-1, 185, Soph.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Dave Teggart (6-0, 214, Soph.)
P Desi Cullen (6-0, 201, Sr.)
KR Jordan Todman (5-9, 190, Soph.)
PR Jasper Howard (5-9, 174, Jr.)
COACH: Randy Edsall (58-60 in 10 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 3-4 in Big East (fifth in league). Beat Buffalo in the International Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 42nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Connecticut's offense needs to find a way to move the ball now that national rushing leader Donald Brown is gone. Beyond Brown last season, Connecticut's offense struggled, especially the quarterbacks. New coordinator Joe Moorhead, who had success at Akron, hopes a no-huddle, hurry-up offense will inject some life into the Huskies. He will need to get better production out of QBs Zach Frazer and Cody Endres, who barely completed half of their passes and threw nine interceptions in limited work last season.
STAR POWER: Scott Lutrus moved from outside to middle linebacker last season but continued to be an All-Big East playmaker. He topped 100 tackles for the second consecutive season while recording nine tackles for loss. He leads the best linebacker corps in the conference.
STRENGTHS: Alongside Lutrus is another junior standout who has started since his freshman season in Lawrence Wilson. Wilson is excellent against the pass, with three interceptions and four pass breakups last season. Greg Lloyd, whose dad of the same name played linebacker in the NFL, also returns as a starter. Despite Brown's departure, running back likely will be a strength. Jordan Todman rushed for 296 yards in limited work as a freshman. Andre Dixon ran for 828 yards in 2007 but can't seem to find his way back to the field. Moe Petrus was one of the best guards in the Big East as a redshirt freshman last season, but he will be the starting center this season.
WEAKNESSES: The passing game was a non-factor last season and got even worse when starter Tyler Lorenzen was hurt. Lorenzen now is gone. Frazer won the job in spring ball but must be better than he was during his five-game stretch as the starter. The Huskies have plenty of experience at wide receiver, if not big-play ability. There's experience and playmaking ability in the secondary but UConn must adjust to the absence of shutdown CB Darius Butler, a second-round NFL draft pick. Sophomore T Twyon Martin is the only returning starter on the defensive line. Oft-used backups Lindsey Witten and Marcus Campbell must replace the productive end duo of Cody Brown and Julius Williams.
THE BUZZ: After making consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history, Connecticut is hungry for more. The Huskies, though, face a daunting schedule with road trips to West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Notre Dame. The defense will be well-coached, but the offense needs to perform for Connecticut to have chance at a third consecutive bowl.

DAVID FOX

ROSTER | STATS | SCHEDULE

Top 120 countdown
54. Stanford
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Andrew Luck (6-4, 241, R-Fr.)
RB Toby Gerhart (6-1, 237, Sr.)
FB Owen Marecic (6-1, 241, Jr.)
WR Ryan Whalen (6-2, 203, Jr.)
WR Doug Baldwin (5-11, 189, Jr.)
TE Jim Dray (6-5, 253, Sr.)
T Matt Kopa (6-6, 297, Sr.)
T Chris Marinelli (6-7, 298, Sr.)
G David DeCastro (6-5, 307, R-Fr.)
G Andrew Phillips (6-5, 294, Jr.)
C Chase Beeler (6-3, 276, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Tom Keiser (6-5, 253, Soph.)
E Erik Lorig (6-4, 265, Sr.)
T Matthew Masifilo (6-3, 264, Soph.)
T Ekom Udofia (6-2, 322, Sr.)
LB Will Powers (6-4, 244, Sr.)
LB Clinton Snyder (6-4, 231, Sr.)
LB Chike Amajoyi (6-0, 233, Jr.)
CB Kris Evans (6-0, 191, Sr.)
CB Corey Gatewood (5-11, 191, Jr.)
SS Delano Howell (5-11, 195, Jr.)
FS Bo McNally (6-0, 210, Sr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Travis Golia (6-0, 192, Soph.)
P David Green (6-1, 191, Soph.)
KR Chris Owusu (6-2, 192, R-Fr.)
PR Doug Baldwin (5-11, 189, Jr.)
COACH: Jim Harbaugh (9-15 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in Pac-10 (tied for sixth in league).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 63rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: QB Tavita Pritchard led the Cardinal to a huge upset of USC in one of his early starts two years ago, but he couldn't beat out Andrew Luck during the spring. There's no shame in that. Luck, a redshirt freshman, was a Rivals100 prospect out of high school and his dad, Oliver, played the position in the NFL. Sooner or later, Luck will stabilize the quarterback position.
STAR POWER: It's safe to say RB Toby Gerhart will return to the football team. Despite rushing for a school-record 1,136 yards last season, Gerhart said he'd consider a baseball career but he went undrafted after playing baseball for Stanford. That's huge for the Cardinal, who lost senior backup Anthony Kimble. With a freshman quarterback and unproven receivers, Gerhart needs to have a repeat of his 2008 season.
STRENGTHS: A power-running game will be the foundation of the offense, but it might take time for the components to mesh. Stanford lost two starting linemen and shuffled three others to new positions. The defensive line returns plenty of talent and depth. E Tom Keiser had six sacks as a freshman, and he and Erik Lorig should be freed up to make more big plays thanks to the tackle rotation of Ekom Udofia, Sione Fua and Matthew Masifilo.
WEAKNESSES: Don't expect Luck to be an immediate cure-all for Stanford's passing woes. The Cardinal also need some capable receivers. Junior Ryan Whalen was the only receiver last season to top 23 catches and 332 yards. Even though FS Bo McNally led Stanford in tackles for the second season in a row, the secondary is in a desperate situation. Coaches experimented with some position switches during the spring after the Cardinal had only seven interceptions last season.
THE BUZZ: Despite just nine wins in two seasons, Jim Harbaugh has turned around the culture at Stanford. The Cardinal went 1-11 a year before he arrived. The next step is to take Stanford to its first bowl game since 2001. The Cardinal inched closer to that goal last season, with five wins; plus, there were two losses in the final 10 seconds. In Harbaugh's third season, Stanford is primed to return to the postseason. A fast start is possible, as just one opponent among the first five went to a bowl last season. In addition, four of the final five games are at home.

DAVID FOX

ROSTER | STATS | SCHEDULE

Top 120 countdown
No. 53 Central Michigan
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Dan LeFevour (6-3, 223, Sr.)
RB Bryan Schroeder (5-9, 211, Soph.)
WR Bryan Anderson (6-5, 201, Sr.)
WR Antonio Brown (5-10, 180, Jr.)
WR Kito Poblah (6-2, 203, Jr.)
TE David Blackburn (6-3, 232, Soph.)
T Jake Olson (6-8, 268, R-Fr.)
T Rocky Weaver (6-6, 253, Jr.)
G Jeff Maddux (6-5, 314, Jr.)
G Allen Ollenburger (6-4, 274, Sr.)
C Colin Miller (6-3, 291, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Sam Williams (6-3, 241, Sr.)
T Sean Murnane (6-1, 266, Jr.)
NT John Williams (5-10, 275, Soph.)
E Frank Zombo (6-4, 269, Sr.)
LB Nick Bellore (6-1, 245, Jr.)
LB Matt Berning (6-0, 238, Jr.)
LB Tim Brazzel (6-0, 191, Sr.)
CB Taylor Bradley (6-0, 187, Jr.)
CB Josh Gordy (5-11, 192, Sr.)
FS Bobby Seay (5-11, 186, Sr.)
SS Eric Fraser (6-1, 215, Sr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Andrew Aguila (5-11, 183, Sr.)
P Brett Hartmann (6-3, 229, Sr.)
KR Antonio Brown (5-10, 180, Jr.)
PR Antonio Brown (5-10, 180, Jr.)
COACH: Butch Jones (16-11 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 in MAC (tied for second in MAC West). Lost to Florida Atlantic in the Motor City Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 47th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Three starters return in the secondary, but the unit still could be an area of concern. The defensive backs showed improvement in the spring, and the coaches feel the athletes are in place for the group to make strides. The Chippewas have some good pass rushers, so perhaps the line will take some heat off the still-developing secondary.
STAR POWER: It all begins and ends with QB Dan LeFevour, who may be the top non-"Big Six" quarterback in the nation. He's a sharp passer and also a deadly runner. LeFevour, who missed two games last season with injuries, has thrown for 9,467 yards and 74 touchdowns (to 29 interceptions) and also has run for 2,235 yards and 32 touchdowns. If he averages 300.1 yards of total offense this fall, he will finish third in NCAA history in that category.
STRENGTHS: LeFevour has two big-time targets in rangy Bryan Anderson and speedster Antonio Brown. Anderson has caught a pass in 40 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. The defense returns 10 starters and should have one of the top lines in the MAC. The unquestioned star of the group is E Frank Zombo, a pass-rushing demon who can change a game. Fellow E Sam Williams also is a force, while T Sean Murnane is a fixture inside. LB Nick Bellore has all-league talent. Special teams are solid. Brown was named the MAC's Special Teams Player of the Year as a return man, and there are few worries at kicker (Andrew Aguila) and punter (Brett Hartmann).
WEAKNESSES: An abundance of offensive skill-position talent could be short-circuited if the line falters trying to replace three starters. Veterans Colin Miller and Jeff Maddux must provide leadership. Rocky Weaver is the expected starter at right tackle after playing tight end last season, and redshirt freshman Jake Olson is penciled in at left tackle. These two must deliver. While the defense returns lots of starters, the unit yielded 30.2 points per game last season. The pass defense was awful, as the Chippewas gave up 287.2 yards per game and 25 TD passes.
THE BUZZ: Coach Butch Jones has built on the momentum that predecessor Brian Kelly started, making this the top program in the MAC as it shoots to be the first conference team to appear in four bowls in a row. Jones has led Central Michigan to one MAC championship and two bowls. He received a contract extension after last season and also added a solid assistant in Steve Stripling, who will work with the defense. Good thing, because that's the unit that will hold the key to success for CMU. The first two games are on the road against "Big Six" opponents Arizona and Michigan State. In addition, most of the tough conference games are away from home, too.

TOM DIENHART

ROSTER | STATS | SCHEDULE

Top 120 countdown
No. 52 Auburn
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Kodi Burns (6-1, 209, Jr.)
RB Ben Tate (5-11, 217, Sr.)
WR Darvin Adams (6-3, 184, Soph.)
WR Tim Hawthorne (6-3, 214, Jr.)
WR Terrell Zachery (6-1, 209, Jr.)
TE Tommy Trott (6-5, 237, Sr.)
T Andrew McCain (6-6, 295, Sr.)
T Lee Ziemba (6-8, 304, Jr.)
G Mike Berry (6-3, 313, Jr.)
G Byron Isom (6-3, 293, Jr.)
C Ryan Pugh (6-4, 287, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Antonio Coleman (6-3, 257, Sr.)
T Mike Blanc (6-4, 288, Jr.)
T Jake Ricks (6-4, 296, Sr.)
E Michael Goggans (6-3, 257, Jr,)
LB Josh Bynes (6-2, 233, Jr.)
LB Eltoro Freeman (5-11, 222, Soph.)
LB Craig Stevens (6-3, 227, Jr.)
CB Walt McFadden (6-0, 176, Sr.)
CB Aairon Savage (5-11, 173, Sr.)
FS Zac Etheridge (6-0, 204, Jr.)
SS Mike McNeil (6-2, 205, Jr.) SPECIAL TEAMS
K Wes Byrum (6-2, 214, Jr.)
P Clinton Durst (6-1, 192, Sr.)
KR Mario Fannin (5-11, 226, Jr.)
PR Mario Fannin (5-11, 226, Jr.)
COACH: Gene Chizik (first season; 5-19 in two seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC (tied for fourth in SEC West).
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 67th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The quarterback competition figures to be compelling, especially with offensive guru Gus Malzahn taking over as coordinator. The performance there must be upgraded dramatically, but who can raise their game? Incumbent starter Kodi Burns threw for just 1,050 yards last season and threw seven interceptions and two touchdowns. Burns is athletic, but he tends to make poor decisions. If he continues to struggle, Malzahn could look to Chris Todd, who had offseason shoulder surgery, or Neil Caudle, who threw just five passes a year ago. If none of those three prove capable, highly touted incoming freshman Tyrik Rollison could get a shot.
STAR POWER: Auburn's only player to earn first-team All-SEC honors in '08 was DE Antonio Coleman, and he'll be a contender for postseason honors again. A strong pass rusher with speed off the edge, Coleman led the Tigers in sacks in each of the past two seasons.
STRENGTHS: With Coleman and E Michael Goggans, the defensive front should be solid. The secondary will be among the SEC's best. CB Aairon Savage, a two-year starter who sat out last season with a knee injury, is back to join three returning starters. Three starters are back in the offensive line, led by rugged T Lee Ziemba. P Clinton Durst will contend for all-conference accolades.
WEAKNESSES: The passing game was woefully inept and ranked 99th in the country in '08. Quarterback play is the most obvious problem. The Tigers had nearly twice as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes (seven) in '08. If Malzahn straightens out the mess, he should be an attractive head-coaching candidate in 2010. Senior WR Montez Billings had just 24 catches last season, and he's the most productive returning receiver. But he missed spring practice with an undisclosed injury.
THE BUZZ: Chizik faces more scrutiny than perhaps any first-year coach anywhere. He replaces Tommy Tuberville, who was fired despite a successful 10-year tenure on The Plains. Chizik has five victories in two seasons, but that was at Iowa State, where wins are hard to come by for any coach. He did assemble an impressive staff led by Malzahn, who helped put together a scintillating offense at Tulsa. Auburn's conversion to the spread offense a year ago turned into a disaster. Chizik and Malzahn need to make sure there's a smoother transition this season. Auburn slipped from SEC contender to second-division finisher in one year. They demand much more on The Plains. The first four games and five of the first seven are at home, and the first three league games are against teams that didn't go to a bowl last season.

OLIN BUCHANAN

ROSTER | STATS | SCHEDULE

Top 120 countdown
No. 51 Minnesota
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Adam Weber (6-3, 217, Jr.)
RB DeLeon Eskridge (5-11, 190, Soph.)
WR Eric Decker (6-2, 215, Sr.)
WR Ben Kuznia (6-0, 192, Sr.)
WR Brodrick Smith (6-3, 207, Soph.)
TE Nick Tow-Arnett (6-2, 247, Sr.)
T Matt Stommes (6-7, 296, Sr.)
T Jeff Wills (6-7, 375, Jr.)
G Dominic Alford (6-3, 332, Jr.)
G Matt Carufel (6-5, 303, Jr.)
C Ryan Wynn (6-5, 291, Soph.)
DEFENSE
E Anthony Jacobs (6-2, 286, Soph.)
T Garrett Brown (6-2, 310, Sr.)
T Eric Small (6-2, 295, Sr.)
E Cedric McKinley (6-5, 262, Sr.)
LB Lee Campbell (6-3, 246, Sr.)
LB Simoni Lawrence (6-1, 205, Sr.)
LB Nate Triplett (6-3, 239, Sr.)
CB Marcus Sherels (5-11, 165, Sr.)
CB Traye Simmons (5-11, 179, Sr.)
S Kim Royston (5-11, 182, Jr.)
S Kyle Theret (5-10, 186, Jr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Eric Ellestad (6-2, 200, Jr.)
P Blake Haudan (6-1, 216, Sr.)
KR Troy Stoudermire (5-10, 183, Soph.)
PR Marcus Sherels (5-11, 165, Sr.)
COACH: Tim Brewster (8-17 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (tied for sixth in league). Lost to Kansas in the Insight Bowl.
FINAL 2008 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 57th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Gophers are aiming to re-emphasize a once-productive running game that largely was stagnant in '08. That could result in a big year for RB DeLeon Eskridge, who led Minnesota with 678 rushing yards last season. More carries and more emphasis should produce more yardage for Eskridge. He'll have to hold off a challenge from sophomore Duane Bennett, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry in his debut season.
STAR POWER: There are faster receivers and better pro prospects in the Big Ten, but WR Eric Decker might be the conference's best. Last season, he led the Big Ten with 84 receptions and an average of 89.5 receiving yards per game. He had eight games with at least seven catches and should be that productive again this season.
STRENGTHS: QB Adam Weber and Decker form one of the country's best pass-and-catch combinations. A big reason Decker had such a big season in '08 was because Weber had a strong sophomore season with 2,761 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Four starters return in the offensive line, which was good in pass protection last season. G Matt Carufel, a transfer from Notre Dame[/db], could make the Gophers even better up front. The Gophers have excellent return men. Marcus Sherels averaged almost 12 yards on punt returns, while Troy Stoudermire is the best in the Big Ten on kickoff returns.
WEAKNESSES: Minnesota has to bolster a rushing offense that was last in the Big Ten. Pass defense also is a big area of concern, and the Gophers are counting on transfers for help. They ranked 93rd in the nation and allowed 21 touchdown passes a year ago. Junior Kim Royston, a transfer from Wisconsin, is expected to provide a boost a safety. The Gophers' pass rush may struggle with E Willie VanDeSteeg having completed his eligibility.
THE BUZZ: The Gophers who open a new on-campus stadium this season made tremendous progress in their second season under Brewster, improving by six victories. The climb projects to continue. There are 17 returning starters, many of whom received significant playing time as freshmen and sophomores. Minnesota might not be ready to seriously contend for the Big Ten championship there are too many doubts about the pass defense and running game but the Gophers have a good chance to better last year's seven-win total and make another bowl appearance. The schedule is tough. The Gophers play arguably the Big Ten's three best teams Iowa, Ohio State and Penn State on the road. There are non-conference games against Air Force and California, and four of the first five games are against bowl teams from last season.

OLIN BUCHANAN

ROSTER | STATS | SCHEDULE




 

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