Champion: Virginia Tech
The Hokies have some big holes to fill at skill positions on offense with the loss of RB Brandon Ore and each of their top four receivers from last year, but quarterback Sean Glennon is back for his senior season. On top of that, the strength of Virginia Tech has been its defense and special teams and that's where the Hokies are strongest in 2008. CB Victor Harris and FS Kam Chancellor lead what could be one of the top secondaries in the country and LB Cam Martin and DE Orion Martin will create havoc up front. The defense will also be assisted by an efficient offense that will protect the football. Glennon threw only five picks last season in 235 attempts and with another year of experience under his belt that trend will continue.
I know, I know, how can a team whose best option at running back is some guy named Jahre Cheeseman? (Seriously. That's not a made-up name. Cheeseman.) But Cheeseman is a better running back than most people know. Last year he averaged 6.3 yards per carry (21 attempts for 133 yards), thanks mostly to a 70-yard run against Georgia Tech.
This year will be his time to shine and in 2008 the ACC will behold the power of cheese.
The Terps are buried in the conference preseason rankings behind popular picks such as Wake Forest, Miami and Clemson, but Maryland will end up having a stronger 2008 than most expect. One of the reasons for the lower ranking is the uncertainty at quarterback with Chris Turner, Jordan Steffy and Florida-transfer Josh Portis all in the mix.
However, these three will have a senior-laden offense line to work behind and an athletic defense to keep the pressure off. If one of the senior receivers, like 6-3, 200-pound split end Isaiah Williams, can provide a reliable target for whomever wins the QB battle and sophomore running back Da'Rel Scott has a breakout year, quarterback may be the least of Maryland's opponents' concerns.
The prediction here is that Maryland surprises by winning the ACC Atlantic and earning a spot in the conference championship game. They'll lose the ACC Championship to Virginia Tech, but it'll still be a better-than-expected 2008 for the Terps.
The Clemson Tigers are ranked in the top ten by many publications and are picked to win the ACC by many more. But a team with offensive line issues and question marks all over the place just doesn't scream "conference champion" to me.
The running game will suffer from a very inexperienced O-line and the weapons, outside of senior Aaron Kelly, just aren't there at receiver. There are some bright spots, naturally, like a great group of defensive backs, but they aren't as solid top to bottom as their main rival for the conference championship, Virginia Tech.
The Tigers will finish 2008 better than they did in 2007 (a loss to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl), but this is simply a good team with far too lofty of expectations heaped upon it...much like the choice of underachiever over in the Big 12.
The reign of the South Division will come to a close in the Big 12.
In what will be considered a huge upset, the Missouri Tigers will win the Big 12 Championship in a rematch of last year's game, topping OU in the much more comfortable confines of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
The stars will be QB Chase Daniel and WR Jeremy Maclin, but the defense is what will put the Tigers over the top. Unlike most teams with the spread passing attack that Missouri sports, the defense is a legitimate threat, which is difficult to do considering how little ball control there is on offense. But with big-play threats like LB Sean Weatherspoon, FS William Moore and DE Stryker Sulak the defense will be the real reason the Tigers will be successful in 2008.
Depth is a minor concern on defense, but if Missouri can stay relatively healthy it'll be the most dangerous team in the conference.
Overachiever: Texas A&M
Yeah. That's right. Texas A&M.
For the last few years the Aggies have been one of the best examples of misplaced priorities in college football. They took a purely pocket passing quarterback -- one of the most prolific in Texas high school football history -- and tried to run an option offense with him. They hired a defensive coordinator who was demoted and then cast off by their primary rival. They hired a head coach who didn't fit the community and never quite got "it." (You don't call Texas "t.u."...Yes, I understand, that's what your fans do. You're the coach. And you don't publish team injury and depth chart information for a profit. And you...well, I could go on...)
With the hiring of Mike Sherman, though, the Aggies will look decidedly different in 2008. The most obvious change is the switch to the I-formation, which fits much, much more to the current offensive personnel (limited options at receiver, a big fullback in Jorvorskie Lane, etc.).
The greatest concern with A&M moving forward, though, is recruiting. Sherman has a lot of ground to make up on the recruiting front. This is not to say high school coaches have been averse to him, just that he doesn't have the proven recruiting prowess of Mack Brown, Bob Stoops or Les Miles, the three coaches he'll be up against the most in recruiting battles.
But we're not talking about moving forward. We're talking about 2008 and the Aggies will be immediately better in 2008. Not, Big 12 Champion better, but they won't be near the bottom of the conference as most are predicting.
Their will be some growing pains and the consecutive victories over Texas win end at two, but Texas A&M will finish third in the South Division in 2008, much better than fifth, where they've been placed in the conference media preseason poll.
Underachiever: Texas Tech
Like Clemson, this is good football team that's having way too many praises heaped upon it.
One of the reasons for these praises is the primary problem with preseason rankings, namely the "I told you so" factor. Far, far too many of those responsible for the official preseason polls use schedule as a factor in ranking a team. Many teams are placed high, not based only on how good the team actually is, but also on how easy of a path it has. Thus, when they do reel off victories in their weak schedule, the columnist/TV host/whatever appears justified for his ranking, which was never given to represent how good the team actually is.
Tech is an example of this. A good team for sure, perhaps the best under Mike Leach in Lubbock, but an incomplete one. I've heard the song and dance about Texas Tech having a better defense before and I'm hearing it again, but the Red Raiders just don't have defensive athletes on the level of an Oklahoma or a Texas.
Some like to point out that if you start from when new DC Ruffin McNeil was hired and take out the Texas game, Texas Tech had the best defense -- statistically -- in the Big 12 last season. But the problem is specifically that you have to take out Texas' 59-point touchdown-a-palooza. It's like saying, "If you take out the times they were bad, they were really good."
I'm still waiting to see it on the field against legitimate competition. Even if the Red Raiders are 8-0 when Texas travels to Lubbock on November 1, it won't mean that the Horns are facing a national title contender. I'm predicting a bumpy end to the 2008 season for Texas Tech.
Champion: West Virginia
Rich Rodriguez is still wearing Blue and Gold, he's just doing it in another state. But despite the loss of their head coach, the Mountaineers will still be a force to be reckoned with in the Big East.
Quarterback Pat White is back and is as dangerous a running threat as ever. He may have lost his running back from last year in Steve Slaton, but uber-talented sophomore Noel Devine steps right in and he's ready to explode onto the national scene. Helping Devine will be a tough offensive line, led by senior OT Ryan Stancheck. The defense is fast and athletic as well but won't have to be on the field that much due to the success of the running game.
In another league, West Virginia might be in a tougher fight, but in the steadily fading Big East the Mountaineers remain the class of the conference.
Most are expecting a serious drop-off, with some picking Louisville near or even at the bottom of the conference. A large part of this is because of the graduation of quarterback Brian Brohm, but 6-4, 230-pound senior Hunter Cantwell is better than most people know. He may not have a great deal of experience, but he's got a cannon of an arm and the talent to make some noise.
There are lots of holes on defense and plenty of concerns, for sure, but Louisville will be able to put together a decent run in the conference and perform much better than expected.
Greg Schiano has put together a solid program at the state school of New Jersey, but this year will be a rebuilding one for the Scarlet Knights. Most publications have Rutgers near the top of the Big East, competing with South Florida and West Virginia for the conference crown, but the Knights are going to have some tough sledding.
Running back Ray Rice is gone and his production will be hard to replace. Rutgers plans on getting many of those yards through the air with receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, the strength of the team, but with some serious holes on the offensive line it will be tough for quarterback Mike Teel to get the ball to his talented wideouts. The defense is full of talent but relatively inexperienced. They'll make some plays on defense but give up some big ones as well.
Rutgers will have a decent team in '08, but it will primarily be a rebuilding year that bodes well for 2009.
Champion: Ohio State
The Buckeyes will be on top of the Big Ten, just as they have been for the past three seasons.
An experienced quarterback, a Heisman-trophy candidate running back and the toughest defense in the conference, if not the nation, all adds up to another conference championship for Jim Tressel. But as solid of a gameday coach as Tressel is, it's his ability to recruit top athletes that really puts Ohio State head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten.
No matter what the reason, be it better travel and communication leading recruits to better climates, poor coaching hires, talent spreading to the smaller conferences, scholarship limitations, natural talent cycle or whatever else, the talent-level of the Big 10 just isn't where it used to be. One only has to look at the speed of defenses in the SEC to see the difference. But while other programs in the conference have fallen off a bit, Ohio State has stayed strong. True, the last two seasons did end in disappointing blowouts, but they were each in the BCS Championship Game and Tressel has managed to keep his team amongst the best in the nation, even while some of his competition has fallen off. It will continue this season.
Overachiever: Michigan State
You don't know who Javon Ringer is, but you should.
The Michigan State running back is one of the best in the nation, but he hasn't received a great deal of hype because he, well, plays for Michigan State. The program still suffers from the stigma of the late-game and late-season collapses the team has suffered in recent years. But second-year head coach Mark Dantonio has done a great deal to change the attitude of his team and feel of Spartan football.
Michigan State won't compete for a Big Ten title in 2008 and there is some work to be done bringing the young receivers and linebackers up to speed, but the Spartans have some fight in them now and some relatively unknown players, like Ringer, who are better than most know. Expect a decent year from Michigan State.
After making it to the Rose Bowl -- and summarily getting trounced by USC -- Illinois has become a popular pick in the Big Ten, generally getting picked second in the conference, just behind Ohio State. This year will be a disappointing one, though, for Illinois.
In last year's Rose Bowl, USC assaulted Illinois with a flurry of top-flight athletes and the Fighting Illini just couldn't keep up. There was only one player in orange who looked like he deserved to be on that field, Rashard Mendenhall, and he's now in the NFL. The committee of running backs set to replace him is decent, but I don't think people will really see how huge of a difference he made for Illinois until he's gone. Junior quarterback Juice Williams is back, but the running lanes will be a bit smaller for the speedy quarterback this season.
Now, this team does have talent. Ron Zook has done a greater job than anyone could have imagined at recruiting and he's got some players. For example, the nation will soon find out that sophomore Arrelious Benn is a huge weapon at receiver. However, this team is one season away from that talent kicking in.
I'm predicting a big 2009 for Illinois, but in 2008 its just not going to happen.
Ho-hum. Another year, another Pac 10 Championship for USC.
The Trojans are still a step in front of every other team in the conference and the trend will continue this season. There are four returning starters on the offensive line, there's plenty of talent at the quarterback position and almost everyone is back on defense, but the player who will get the most attention is sophomore running back Joe McKnight, who is set up for a huge 2008.
Expect USC to steamroll through the conference.
Overachiever: Oregon State
Few are expecting the Beavers to make any noise in 2008 and I probably shouldn't either.
There is very little experience on either side of the ball (all of the front seven on D graduated, for example), there's a quarterback controversy a-brewin' and by all accounts this shouldn't be a good season for Oregon State, but as I look up and down the roster I see play-makers here and there that can make a difference and, for some reason, I don't have a bad feeling about this team. WR/KR Sammie Stroughter is a dangerous weapon, CB Brandon Hughes has the potential to be lock-down corner and both options at QB, Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao, are good players.
Perhaps what makes me most comfortable about this pick is the general talent level on the team. Most are picking Oregon State to do poorly because of inexperience, but head coach Mike Riley, while not blowing the doors off in recruiting, has built a solid base of talent that will be better than advertised this season.
This one is much less scientific and much more gut feeling, but I say Oregon State pulls off a couple unexpected upsets this season.
There's plenty of talent, for sure, across the board for Cal, but the Golden Bears always seem to come up a little short, primarily from sloppiness and mental errors.
Cal fell completely off the map last year with a horrendous turnaround, starting 5-0 and then ending the regular season 1-6. And it wasn't like they were getting blown out. In many...ok, all of those games the Bears were in it late and could have won before shooting themselves in the foot.
The numbers bear it out: Ninth in the Pac 10 in turnover margin, ninth in the Pac 10 in penalties.
Once again Cal's got talent and once again they're rated high in the conference, but I'm not convinced this is the year they'll put it together.
The Bulldogs closed out their 2007 season by stomping Hawai'i and it wasn't because of Hawai'i not deserving to be there, it was because of how much Georgia did deserve to be there. Taking into consideration just how good they were at the end of the season and not total resume (although an argument using total resume could be used as well), the best team in the country last year may well have been Georgia.
The core of that team is back, including marquee players such as star running back Knowshon Moreno. This season, Georgia will take the conference crown.
Something that may give people pause for concern is an offensive line that starts four sophomores, but keep in mind that three starters from last year return. The line was even younger last season but managed to put together a tough group that really gelled by the end of the year, leading the offense to over 40 points in four of the final six games. It seems funny to say this about such a young line, but it may be one of the best units in the SEC this season.
Playing behind that line will be third-year starter Matt Stafford, a junior QB who plays smart and protects the football. He'll also have a great target to throw to in senior receiver Mohammed Massaquoi and the defense, which was exceptional last season, returns almost entirely intact.
Even with its tough schedule, Georgia is a great enough team this season to make a run at a national championship.
Quarterback questions have dogged the Vols for several seasons, but this year the team is Jonathan Crompton's and the 6-4, 220-pound junior brings an element of mobility that could make him and senior running back Arian Foster a dangerous combination.
This year's Tennessee Volunteers are getting buried in the rankings behind a lot of talented teams in the conference, but the experts may be underestimating an upperclassman-heavy team that could pull off some upsets in the SEC East. The defense will also get a boost from the return of junior safety Demetrice Morley, who missed all of last season with academic issues. He'll combine with sophomore Eric Berry to create one of the best safety tandems in the nation.
Expect a national championship hangover for LSU this season. As a program, the LSU Tigers are better for having finally jettisoned Ryan Perrilloux, but they're not a better football team for it. Perrilloux, for all his problems, was a supreme talent and whoever, be it Jarrett Lee or Andrew Hatch, wins the quarterback competition will have a tall task in front of him.
The defense will be fast, as always, but the D-line won't have the same pop without Glenn Dorsey completely wrecking shop in the middle. The Tigers will be good and have a decent season, but they won't win the SEC West as most are predicting and will be upset by a resurgent Auburn team for the west's spot in the conference championship game.
Biggest Surprise of the 2008 Season: BYU goes undefeated in the regular season, crashes BCS party
I know I'm not the first one to make this prediction, but there's a reason why some predictors are jumping on the slowly growing Cougar bandwagon. There are a few potential land mines on the schedule (at Utah, at TCU, at Washington, vs. UCLA), but all of those are winnable for a surprisingly talented football team that surpassed all expectations by going 11-2 last season.
There always seems to be one team, a Hawai'i, a Boise State, a Utah, that's good enough to run with the big dogs and in 2008, with experienced junior quarterback Max Hall (who led all sophomores in passing last season) and a tough running back tandem of Harvey Unga and Fui Vakapuna, that team will be the BYU Cougars.
Heisman Winner: Chris Wells, RB, Ohio State
To be successful this season, the Ohio State Buckeyes need to play to their strength, which is the defense. That means protecting the football and pounding it on the ground with "Beanie" Wells. As a sophomore, Wells ran for 1630 yards and 15 touchdowns and began to separate himself from the other great running backs in the nation. He also showed his talents in last season's BCS National Championship Game. Yes, the Buckeyes were blown out in the game and LSU had many more great athletes, but Beanie was the best athlete on the field. While the rest of the Ohio State offense was shut down, Wells still ran for 143 yards on 20 carries (7.3 yards per rush).
He'll be even better in 2008 and will bring home the Heisman.
National Champion: USC over Georgia
Propelled by a Sept. 13 win over Ohio State, the USC Trojans will make short work of their Pac 10 opponents and coast into the national title game. The Trojans are by far the most complete team in college football -- but by no means the greatest team ever; we all saw where that talk got us last time, no? -- and will go undefeated in the regular season. They will also be the only undefeated team in the country (well, amongst the BCS conference teams. Don't forget about our friends the BYU Cougars). The ever-shortening gap between the top and bottom teams in college football has created situations like we saw last season, with everybody beating everybody and a two-loss team winning the national championship. That does, however, bode well for a team that has played a tough schedule and emerged from the fray with only one loss.
Georgia has consistently been in the top three in preseason publications and the No. 1 team by many, but only a handful are predicting the Bulldogs will make it to the BCS National Championship Game. This doesn't have anything to do with the Dawgs' ability, but rather the seemingly inevitable fratricide that occurs in the SEC each year. But with only one undefeated team from a BCS conference in play, Georgia losing one game here or there -- like to LSU on Oct. 25 or to Florida on Nov. 1 or to Auburn on Nov. 15 -- won't stop the eventual SEC Champions from making it to Miami for a showdown with the Trojans.
USC will emerge victorious in a close contest and, since the Trojans will be returning huge offensive weapons like McKnight, quarterback Matt Sanchez and four offensive linemen for another run in 2009, the hype will begin to build and the question will again be asked, "Is this greatest team in the history of college football?"
How quickly we forget...
Well, those are my predictions. Since they are preseason college football prognostications, they, in all likelihood, will be wrong, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em and that's what I see happening across the college football landscape in 2008.