2008 Record: 2-10
2009 Returning Starters: 13 (7*, 6)
Reason to get excited: 44-17. That was the score of last year's Army-Tulane game, as the Cadets trounced the Green Wave in one of the few bright spots in Stan Brock's final season at West Point. Army's offense rolled up 291 yards on the ground (6.6 ypc average) on Tulane's woeful defense, with Colin Mooney exploding for four rushing touchdowns. And it's not like Tulane has the benefit of claiming to be more experienced heading into 2009 either. The Green Wave return just 13 starters from a season ago, with the team's best player in LT Troy Kropog moving on to the NFL. And there is that point about Tulane finishing on a "low note" last season, with the Green Wave dropping their last five games of 2008 by an average of 31.6 points per game! If that doesn't deserve an exclamation point, I don't know what does…
Reason to lose sleep: How can you lose sleep over a game like this? After all, Army absolutely shellacked the Green Wave in New Orleans last season! Maybe on the scoreboard, but a closer look reveals the Black Knights were the beneficiaries of some major breaks. For instance, Tulane actually outgained Army in terms of total yards, holding a 486-334 advantage. The Black Knights got a major momentum boost by an early punt block, and benefited from five Green Wave turnovers, including an interception and fumble that were both returned for touchdowns. Likewise, Army was able to get a key interception in the endzone to halt another Tulane scoring chance, and also blocked a Tulane field goal. In short, there is no way the Green Wave can be as unlucky against Army as they were last season, and with several key playmakers back in 2009 (like running back Andre Anderson and receiver Jeremy Williams) the Tulane offense should be much better than it was last season.
Bottom Line: Everything that went wrong for Tulane last season did, but despite their 2-10 record the Green Wave showed promise at times. They could have easily beaten a 14th ranked East Carolina team in week two, and if not for some untimely injuries to playmakers such as Allison and Williams the team likely would have had a better showing at the end of the year. With last year's loss to Army still fresh in their minds, the Green Wave will have no shortage of incentive to extract revenge on the Cadets this season.
Final Verdict: Tulane will have a better record in 2009 than they had in 2008, and will be better than the ‘experts' think in 2008.
2008 Record: 7-6
2009 Returning Starters: 17 (8, 9)
Reason to get excited: Just as Tulane was unquestionably unlucky in 2008, last year's Vanderbilt team has to be counted as having been one of the luckiest teams in the country. Not only did Vanderbilt benefit from close wins against South Carolina, Auburn, and Mississippi, but the Commodores were +9 in the turnover department and were actually outgained by an average of 76.1 yards per game in SEC play. For as good as the Commodores appeared at times last year, they were woefully inconsistent on offense, managing just seven points in a loss to Duke and 10 points in a loss at Wake Forest. McKenzie Adams, who is expected to start at quarterback this year for Vanderbilt, completed fewer than 50% of his passes last season. The last time Vanderbilt played a service academy (Navy in 2004) the Commodores lost.
Reason to lose sleep: Lucky or not, going 4-4 in the SEC is no small task, especially when you consider three of those four conference losses came by ten points or less, and that the other loss came to the National Champion Florida Gators. What's amazing about last year's team is that they were amongst the youngest in the country, and with nine returning starters on a defense which held opponents to under 20 points per game in 2008, Vanderbilt figures to be even better this year. Offensively, little went right for Vanderbilt in 2008, but they do get back all five starting offensive linemen from a season ago, as well as leading rusher Jared Hawkins. This should be one of the best defenses in the entire country this year, as the team returns three players who had over 100 tackles in 2008, including second team All-SEC linebacker Patrick Benoist.
Bottom Line: It'll be tough for the Commodores to top last year's 7-6 season, yet that might be more of an indicator of their SEC schedule than anything else. Vanderbilt is a very strong defensive team and well coached under Bobby Johnson, and despite the offensive inconsistencies the Commodores still have their fair share of SEC caliber skill position players on offense. This is no run-of-the-mill, bottom-tier BCS conference team, and the Commodores will present a considerable challenge for an Army offense that will still be trying to find its way at the halfway mark in the season.
Final Verdict: Vanderbilt's record should hover around .500 in 2009, but the team should be stronger than it was in 2008, making the Commodores better than the ‘experts' think heading into the fall.
2008 Record: 5-7
2009 Returning Starters: 14 (6, 8)
Reason to get excited: Yes, Army may have lost to Temple by a score of 35-7 last season, but the Cadets actually outgained the Owls 284-250 in terms of total yards. In that game, Temple was the beneficiary of a kickoff return touchdown and a fumble return touchdown which helped to break the game open, revealing a deceiving (if not lopsided) final score. Temple loses their three best offensive players from a season ago in quarterback Adam DiMichele, receiver Bruce Francis, and center Alex Derenthal (two time team MVP), while the Owls suffer two major hits on defense with the departure of DT Terrance Knighton (graduation) and DE Junior Galette (kicked off team). And there is always the point about Temple having not had a winning season in 18 straight seasons…
Reason to lose sleep: Even with the loss of a veteran like DiMichele, this is still a very experienced Owl team on both sides of the ball, and one which looks ready to contend for the MAC East title. Temple's defense (ranked 80th in the country last season) returns players who accounted for 84% of their tackles a season ago (the 7th highest mark in country), while the rushing offense should get a boost from Syracuse transfer Lamar McPherson. Temple could have very easily been bowl eligible in 2008 had several "unlucky" breaks gone their way, including three "last second" losses to Buffalo, Connecticut, and Navy. Temple is one of the few teams in the country with an experienced defense that has seen the option on a regular basis, having played Navy each of the past four seasons.
Bottom Line: Temple has been a perennial bottom feeder for years, but 2009 finally looks to be the year that everything clicks for Al Golden's team. While there are some critical questions heading into the season (notably who will replace Adam DiMichele at quarterback) the talent is there, and now it's just a case of Temple getting the "breaks" that the team has been missing out on over the past two seasons.
Final Verdict: Temple will go bowling in 2009, and will be a better team than their 2008 record indicates.
2008 Record: 8-5
2009 Returning Starters: 13 (7, 6)
Reason to get excited: Yes, the Scarlet Knights went 8-5 a season ago, and yes, they dominated Army in the two teams' Week 11 matchup, but Rutgers still isn't an elite program, and they're still not invincible. Navy showed that an option offense can move the ball on even a well-coached Greg Schiano defense when the Mids beat the Scarlet Knights last year, with only a late season resurgence by quarterback Mike Teel providing the spark to get the team to the Papajohns.com bowl. Teel departs this year however, as do his two top targets in wideouts Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood. The team also loses two of their top three tacklers from a season ago, including safety Courtney Green, who was especially known for his ability to "run the alley" effectively against option teams.
Reason to lose sleep: 71-9. That's the combined score of Army's last two meetings with the Scarlet Knights, who are among the few teams in the nation to square off against option-based attacks on a consistent basis. Not only did Rutgers dominate Army in last year's Week 11 victory, but the Scarlet Knights thrashed the Army defense to the tune of 359 yards through the air. The Scarlet Knights may lose quarterback Mike Teel and top targets Kenny Brit and Tiquan Underwood, but they do get back their entire starting offensive line from the end of last season, as well as a trio of capable backs in Joe Martinek, Kordell Young, and Jourdan Brooks. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights remain one of the best coached units in the nation, and having played Navy each of the past five seasons (winning three of the last four matchups) they won't be taken aback by coach Shields' unconventional scheme.
Bottom Line: Teel or no Teel, national ‘power' or not, Rutgers remains a solid program and a contender for the Big East title. While they showed in the loss to Navy last season that they are vulnerable to the likes of a well conceived option gameplan, Army's offense isn't going to be able to carry the day alone. Talent wise this might be the best team Schiano has fielded, and with the veteran presence up front Rutgers is likely to attack coach Ellerson's defense right up the middle. Rutgers may not win the Big East in 2009, but they don't have to in order to present a considerable challenge for Army.
Final Verdict: Rutgers will not be as good in 2009 as their 2008 record indicates, but the Scarlet Knights are still the toughest team on Army's schedule.
Tune in next week as Adam continues his look at whether or not Army's 2009 schedule will really be as "easy" as the experts say. As always, Adam can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com