You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
26 Aug 2008
By Russell Levine
The 2007 college football season began with a stunner, as Appalachian State won at Michigan. As the weeks went forward, the upsets just kept coming. Stanford beat USC in possibly the largest point-spread upset in history. South Florida was No. 2 in the first BCS rankings. Missouri and Kansas played a game with major national-title implications. West Virginia blew a berth in the national title game by losing at home to a four-touchdown underdog. LSU lost its 12th game -- its second loss of the year -- and won the national title. Ohio St. lost its 11th game -- and still reached the Bowl Championship Series title game. Scholarship limits and the proliferation of the talent-neutralizing spread offense would suggest that similar results are to be expected this season.
Will 2008 end with an upstart like Missouri or Clemson accepting the BCS championship trophy? Both could be out of the running after tough openers on September 30. Will this be the year Ohio State breaks through? The SEC might once again have something to say about that. If last year was any indication, about the only safe assumption is that the storyline will change every single week.
Last year was the ultimate for Notre Dame-haters, as the Irish staggered to a 1-9 start before winning their last two contests. The size of Charlie Weis' contract probably kept him off the hot seat in 2007, but another such campaign won't be tolerated in South Bend. The good news is that Weis continues to reel in top-notch talent, and this year's schedule is considerably easier, making a bowl a real possibility.
Coaches are college football's marquee stars. There were plenty of big names on the move during this offseason, as two of the sport's Tiffany jobs (Michigan and Nebraska) came open. Here's a look at the most significant hires:
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow made Heisman history in 2007 as the first sophomore winner. But don't assume he's going to join Archie Griffin as the trophy's only two-time honoree. All the short-yardage running Tebow did last season (23 rush TDs) left him battered and ineffective in the critical loss to Georgia. Look for coach Urban Meyer to limit his carries this fall. Here's a look at some other Heisman hopefuls:
Our pick? Wells.
Two years ago, the NCAA attempted to speed up games with a foolish set of clock rules. The new system was so reviled that it was scrapped after a single season. For 2008, common sense has prevailed and the NCAA has opted to go with an NFL-style 25-/40-second play clock, which should help ensure a consistent pace of play. As well, the clock will be restarted after certain out-of-bounds plays. The net result should shave a few minutes off those 3:30 marathons, without leaving loopholes like the one Wisconsin's Bret Bielema so infamously exploited in 2006.
Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Maryland, North Carolina State, Wake Forest
Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Headed for the BCS: Clemson
Best Offensive Player: James Davis, RB, Clemson
Best Defensive Player: Victor "Macho" Harris, CB, Virginia Tech
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Bobby Bowden, Florida State
Team That Will Surprise: North Carolina
Game of the Year: Clemson at Wake Forest, Oct. 9
This surely isn't what the ACC had in mind when it added Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College from the Big East. Instead of a 12-team super conference that rivals the SEC, the ACC has watched as its marquee programs -- Miami and Florida State -- have sunk into a period of sustained mediocrity. At the same time, none of the conference's other members have emerged to become regular title contenders. There is no better symbol of the league's struggles than the yawning sections of empty seats at its last two championship games in Jacksonville.
The struggles of the Hurricanes and Seminoles in recent seasons are largely attributable to poor quarterback play. Indeed, the conference as a whole is bereft of talent at the position. One of the main reasons that Clemson is favored to capture its first league crown in 17 years is that it has Cullen Harper under center. The senior is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,991 yards, with 27 touchdowns and just six interceptions. The Tigers also have perhaps the nation's best running back tandem in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. They have a history of inconsistency under coach Tommy Bowden, often looking like national-title contenders one week before falling to a seemingly overmatched opponent the next.
Clemson is the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division, though it could face a challenge from plucky Wake Forest if quarterback Riley Skinner can stay healthy. Florida State remains an enigma, vastly underperforming its talent level, and the biggest drama in Tallahassee this season is likely to be the future of legendary coach Bobby Bowden. Virginia Tech has the talent to walk away with the Coastal Division, but don't be surprised if North Carolina makes a significant leap in coach Butch Davis's second season.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia
Headed for the BCS: West Virginia
Best Offensive Player: Pat White, QB, West Virginia
Best Defensive Player: George Selvie, DE, South Florida
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Greg Robinson, Syracuse
Team That Will Surprise: Pittsburgh
Game of the Year: South Florida at West Virginia, Dec. 6
The Big East remains the anti-ACC. Four years after seemingly being robbed of its best teams, the conference is arguably more competitive than it was when Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech were still members. That is because their replacements -- Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida -- have all shown the potential to challenge for the conference crown, while West Virginia remains a national power.
All eyes will be on Morgantown this season to see if the Mountaineers can maintain the success built by Rich Rodriguez. His replacement, Bill Stewart, had never been a Division I-A head coach before the Fiesta Bowl thumping of Oklahoma last season. Stewart still has Rodriguez's schemes, and something that Rodriguez only wishes he had in Ann Arbor: the quarterback to operate them. Pat White is the most important player in the conference. When he injured his thumb against Pittsburgh, the West Virginia offense sputtered, setting in motion the dominoes that eventually led to Rodriguez's exit. With Steve Slaton gone, White will look to get the ball to pint-sized running back Noel Devine, one of the nation's most explosive talents.
If West Virginia is to take the next step, it will have to solve the riddle of South Florida, the Big East's most upwardly mobile program. The Bulls have beaten West Virginia two years running, primarily because they have the athletes on defense (like lighting-quick but undersized defensive end George Selvie) to consistently get into the backfield and disrupt the spread. Rutgers kept coach Greg Schiano, who turned down Michigan, but this could be a transition year after losing Ray Rice to the NFL. It is a critical season for the Knights on and off the field, as fund-raising for controversial stadium improvements has not gone as expected.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Headed for the BCS: Ohio State, Wisconsin
Best Offensive Player: Chris "Beanie" Wells, RB, Ohio State
Best Defensive Player: Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Team That Will Surprise: Iowa
Game of the Year: Ohio State at Wisconsin, Oct. 4
A league once known as the "big two, little eight" became much deeper in the 1990s. But at the tail end of the current decade, Ohio State stands head and shoulders above its conference brethren. The Buckeyes have appeared in the last two BCS title games and have the pedigree to do so again this season. Of course, there's a big difference between "appeared in" and "won," as all SEC fans know. A third-straight BCS title loss -- possibly to another SEC squad -- would stamp the Buckeyes as the Buffalo Bills of college football.
Ohio State's 2007 success was a surprise, but this year it is expected to run roughshod over the Big Ten. A win at USC September 13 would put the Buckeyes on the fast track to the BCS title game. They are loaded on both sides of the ball, but the biggest name is tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells, the probable Heisman favorite. Quarterback Todd Boeckman is a game-manager, but look for Jim Tressel to spell him with uber-recruit Terrelle Pryor to provide a spread-option look.
The line to challenge the Buckeyes forms behind Wisconsin, which gets Ohio State at home on October 4. Penn State also appears poised for a good year with 18 returning starters, while Illinois looks to build on last year's Rose Bowl season. Iowa should be improved by virtue of a willow-soft schedule. Michigan made a splash hiring Rodriguez, but the Wolverines are facing a massive rebuilding project (one returning offensive starter). A bowl bid would mark this season a success in Ann Arbor.
Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Missouri
Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
Headed for the BCS: Oklahoma, Missouri
Best Offensive Player: Chase Daniel, QB, Missouri
Best Defensive Player: Auston English, DE, Oklahoma
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Ron Prince, Kansas State
Team That Will Surprise: Colorado
Game of the Year: Texas vs. Oklahoma (Dallas), Oct. 11
In a season of surprises, no league provided more shockers than the Big 12. From surprising teams (Missouri and Kansas) to surprising results (Colorado over Oklahoma, Kansas State over Texas), the conference opened plenty of eyes in 2007. The big question this season is, can the upstarts prove they have staying power while the traditional powers (Texas, Oklahoma) try to retain their place?
Missouri would appear to have a better chance than Kansas to be a 2008 contender thanks to its schedule. Last season, the Jayhawks had the good fortune to miss the South Division's big three: Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech. This fall, they face all three, plus a road trip to dangerous South Florida. Missouri, meanwhile, has a road date at Texas but skips Oklahoma, which handed the Tigers their only two defeats a year ago. Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel will have plenty of chances to pad his Heisman resume while throwing to Jeremy Maclin, one of the nation's top receivers as a freshman.
It appears the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry will resume its place as the most important in the Big 12, unless Texas Tech can get in the way. The Red Raiders, who return prolific quarterback Graham Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree, plus perhaps their best defense of the Mike Leach era, could be 8-0 when Texas visits Lubbock on November 1.
Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
Headed for the BCS: USC
Best Offensive Player: Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Best Defensive Player: Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Mike Stoops, Arizona
Team That Will Surprise: Oregon State
Game of the Year: Arizona State at USC, Oct. 11
It is a measure of Pete Carroll's success at USC that the Trojans were seen as a disappointment in going 11-2 and winning the Rose Bowl last year. Such are the expectations surrounding a program that went 37-2 from 2003-2005, with a pair of national titles. But as dominant as USC has been, the Trojans could not overcome a banged-up starting quarterback (Mark Sanchez), and a schedule that saw them face Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State, all on the road.
Fall camp has been trying for Carroll, as Sanchez missed time with a dislocated kneecap and standout tailback Joe McKnight, the star of the Rose Bowl rout of Illinois, suffered a variety of injuries. USC is also plenty green, returning just 11 starters. Seven of those are on defense, however, where the Trojans have high-round NFL prospects at every level, including defensive tackle Fili Moala, linebackers Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, and safety Taylor Mays.
Arizona State, coming off a surprising 10-win season in Dennis Erickson's first year, still has quarterback Rudy Carpenter and a potent offense, but the Sun Devils' leaky line must protect him. Oregon and Cal could also be in the mix if they can find consistency at quarterback.
Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State
Headed for the BCS: Auburn, Florida
Best Offensive Player: Knowshon Moreno, RB, Georgia
Best Defensive Player: Jasper Brinkley, LB, South Carolina
Coach on the Hottest Seat: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Team That Will Surprise: Mississippi
Game of the Year: Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville), Nov. 1
Georgia is getting all the preseason hype, and sits atop both major polls after crushing Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl to cap a strong 2007. But the Bulldogs have a brutal schedule, even by SEC standards. The conference slate sends them on the road to South Carolina, LSU, and Auburn, making the decision to schedule a non-conference road game against Arizona State a head-scratcher. Georgia certainly has the talent, particularly on offense with quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno.
To fulfill its promise and get to the BCS championship, Georgia will have to not only survive the killer schedule, but will have to prove that it can play consistently from week to week. Florida, on the other hand, needs to prove it can play defense, because the Gators have all the tools they need on offense (Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin) and a favorable schedule (only three SEC road games: Tennessee, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt). The Florida-Georgia game should determine the SEC East champ.
In the West, defending national champion LSU is loaded everywhere -- except at quarterback. Deficiency there, plus road trips to Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas could knock the Tigers down a peg. Auburn, which is moving to the spread offense, has 16 returning starters and, like Florida, a favorable schedule.
Conference-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, WAC, Independents
Headed for the BCS: BYU
Possible Heisman Dark Horse: Dan LeFevour , Central Michigan
Coaches on the Move: Bronco Mendenhall, BYU, Turner Gill, Buffalo
Best Games vs. BCS Schools:
Hawaii at Florida, Aug. 30
East Carolina vs. Virginia Tech (Charlotte), Aug. 30
Utah at Michigan, Aug. 30
Southern Miss at Auburn, Sept. 6
Central Michigan at Georgia, Sept. 6
Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13
UCLA at BYU, Sept. 13
Boise St. at Oregon, Sept. 20
TCU at Oklahoma, Sept. 27
Tulsa at Arkansas, Nov. 1
In the annual race to get to the BCS from the non auto-bid conferences, BYU appears to have the best shot to go undefeated and claim a big-money bowl berth. The Cougars must survive a pair of tests against the PAC-10, a road trip to TCU, and a season-ending visit to Utah, which could also factor into the BCS if the Utes can escape Ann Arbor with a win over rebuilding Michigan in their opener. Fresno State has one of its better teams under Pat Hill, but a murderous schedule probably precludes an unbeaten campaign.
This season, I'll again be voting in the BlogPoll, hosted by mgoblog. I'll post my ballot in Junkie each week. Feel free to comment, and I may make changes based on comments for next week. As with all preseason polls, you should take these rankings with a grain of salt.
Portions of this article appeared in Tuesday's New York Sun.
59 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2008, 10:57pm by Bobby