After a topsy
2006 season that saw an also-ran win the conference title, a super-power finish 3-5, a new arrival stay in the title chase until the last weekend, a coach get axed despite beating both Florida State and Boston College, a team lose three conference games despite beating both conference title game participants by a combined 34 points, and an extremely flawed team team win five conference games by a combined 13 points. If 2007 is anything, it will be a (somewhat) return to normalcy in the Atlantic Division. For the third season in a row the Atlantic Champion will win the ACC
. I thought long and hard about selecting the Clemson Tigers to take the Atlantic crown. On the one hand, the Tigers lost a pair of conference games by a single point last season and get what many see as their toughest league games (Florida State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Boston College) at home in 2007. On the other hand, Clemson imploded down the stretch last season, finishing 1-4 and must break in an inexperienced quarterback for the second straight season. But the main reason for not choosing Clemson as the Atlantic champion is the fact that Florida State will be back in a big way this season. After their appearance in the Orange Bowl following the 2000 season, the defense was the cause for Florida State's decline from elite to merely very good. From 1987 thru
2000, the Noles
allowed more than 20 points per game once (1995--20.5). In 2001 and 2002 they allowed 25.3 and 21.5 per game respectively. When the defense righted itself in 2003 (16.7 points allowed allowed), the Noles
appeared to be back finishing 10-3 (with two of the losses to Miami by a combined 10 points). Then the offense fell apart. From 1982 thru
2003, the Noles
never averaged fewer than 30.6 points per game. The past three seasons, the Noles
have averaged 25.2, 28.9, and 26.5 points per game. Will Jimbo
Fisher make a big difference? He'd be hard pressed to be any worse than his predecessor, but we'll have to wait and see. It won't matter too much though. The Nole
defense will be superb, even national champion caliber. Last season the Noles
were one of the worst pass defenses on third down when compared to their pass defense. As their third down defense falls in line with their overall defense, the Noles
will only need a slight improvement on offense to jettison back to the top of the ACC
. Elsewhere in the division, look for NC State to return to bowl eligibility with their new coach Tom O'Brien and and some improvement in the luck department (2-7 in close games in 2006). Wake Forest will fall back to the pack as their third down defense was the anti-Florida State last season (33% better on third down). and they were 6th
nationally in turnover margin. Still, the Deacs
have a great shot at going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time ever. Boston College will also fall back to the pack in their first season under Jeff Jagodzinski
because their margin for error was so small last season. Eight of their games were decided by seven points or less (5-3 record). The only teams the Eagles dominated were Maine, Buffalo, Duke, and Maryland. They were also 2nd
nationally in turnover margin so expect some regression in that department. Finally at the bottom, Maryland loses it's starting quarterback and was much more lucky than good in 2006 (6-1 in close games). They won't be as lucky or as good this season.
Like their in-state brethren in the Atlantic Division, the Miami Hurricanes will be back in a big way in 2007. Like the Noles
, the Canes were also much worse on third down than they were overall. However, for the Canes, their struggles on third down came on the offensive side of the ball. Their passing efficiency was nearly 39% worse on third down that it was overall. That's part of the reason Miami averaged only 19.6 points per games; their lowest since 1979. Even a slight improvement by the offense will compliment a defense that is still ferocious. Still, the Canes will be playing for second place as they must travel to Blacksburg
for their annual clash with Virgina Tech. A loss there will put them behind the 8-ball and require them to make up two games over the rest of the conference schedule. Not gonna happen. In non-conference action, the Canes will probably lose at Oklahoma, but expect them to lay a resounding 'we're back' beating on Texas A&M on September 20th
. In the middle of the division, Virginia and Georgia Tech will battle for the table scraps Miami and Virginia Tech leave behind. I'll give the edge to Virginia, since they host the Jackets and only need some marginal offensive improvement (15.1 points per game in 2006) to be a much better team. In the bottom third of the division, North Carolina will be much improved, but their record will probably be about the same in Butch Davis' inaugural
season. Look for them to give the other Carolina team quite a game when they host the Gamecocks in mid-October. Duke will still be Duke, but they will win at least one conference game. Who will they beat? Well the tea leaves aren't as clear in that regard, but three straight seasonal o-fers
is not happening.
Believe it or not, West Virginia may have been better in 2006 than they were in their Sugar Bowl season of 2005. In 2005, they outscored their opponents by 14.3 points per game. In 2006, they outscored their opponents by 17.1 points per game. The main difference in the two campaigns? Close games. In 2005, West Virginia was a perfect 4-0 in games decided by 8 points or less. In 2006, they were 2-1 in close games. This season, the Mountaineers return both their dynamic quarterback (Pat White) and running back (Steve Slaton
) and look poised to run rampant over Big East defenses. The real question will be whether their own defense can improve after allowing 21.7 points per game last season. That number may not seem so bad, but look how their defense fared in the final six games--32.2 points per game. You won't win any conference or national titles with that kind of defense. With eight starters back, I'm banking that it will improve at least marginally enough for the Mountaineers to win the Big East and finish the regular season undefeated, especially since they get the second best team (Louisville) at home. Unfortunately, the season will end much like their last undefeated season (1993) with a big loss to an elite team in New Orleans. Louisville is all set to finish second, but will not be nearly as dominant as they were last season. Louisville made it to the BCS
last year thanks to their defense. Their offense was about six points per game worse than it was in 2005, but the defense was over seven points per game better. All else being equal, improvement on defense leads to a better record than a similar improvement
on offense because extra offensive points are often superfluous (diminishing returns). This season, Louisville loses five starters on defense, and though they return the league's best passing quarterback (Brian Brohm
), they will not match last season's league title. In fact, they will lose two conference games. Once at West Virginia, and once at either Cincinnati or South Florida. After those two, look for a three-way tie for third between this year's preseason 'it' team (South Florida), last season's out of nowhere 'it' team (Rutgers), and this season's soon to be 'it' team (Cincinnati). Last season despite road games games at Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and West Virginia, the Bearcats
went to and won a bowl game. This year they return 16 starters, including an experienced quarterback, upgrade at the head coach position (look out for Brian Kelly), drop both Ohio State and Virginia Tech from the non-conference slate, and get Louisville and West Virginia at home. Rutgers returns 13 starters including an experienced quarterback and the league's second best running back (Ray Rice), but should see some regression in their luck this season (3-1 in close games and 10th nationally
in turnover margin in 2006). The defense was also spectacular last season improving from 25.6 points allowed per game in 2005 to 14.3 per game in 2006. An improvement that extreme is partly attributable to good fortune so expect the Rutgers defense and their overall record to decline. South Florida is the preseason 'it' team and rightly so, especially with dual-threat quarterback Matt Grothe
(only a sophomore) and eight other offensive starters returning to go along with seven defensive starters. However, for all the accolades heaped on South Florida, they still struggled to beat some bad teams last year, scraping by winless
Florida International 21-20 and a four-win Central Florida team 24-17. Though they do return seven starters, they lose perhaps two of their best linebackers (Stephen Nicholas and Pat St. Louis) and their most winnable games are all on the road (Connecticut, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh) so I expect them to drop at least one roadie they shouldn't. After those five teams, we get to the soft underbelly of the Big East. The Pitt Panthers are easy to summarize. They've gone 11-12 in Dave Wannstedt's
first two seasons despite having both Tyler Palko
(quarterback) and HB
Blades (linebacker). How can they possibly be better without them? Despite their 6-6 record in 2006, the Panthers did outscore opponents by 9 points per game. However, if we take out blowout wins against The Citadel, Toledo, and Central Florida, that scoring margin drops to negative 2.5. At the bottom of the league we have the Orange and the Huskies. I'm taking the Orange over the Huskies even though their game this season is in Storrs
because Syracuse had the worst 3rd down pass defense last season in comparison with their overall pass defense and because the Orange offense has been atrocious both seasons under Greg Robinson (13.8 and 17.4 points per game), while the defense has improved slightly (26.8 and 24.6 allowed per game). Since this is Robinson's third season, his players have had ample time to grasp his system and adjust to the new regime. Syracuse will avoid the cellar.
At the top of the league, it was a toss-up between the Maize and Blue and the Nittany
Lions. The Nittany
Lions will take the title, despite the fact that they must travel to Ann Arbor. Penn State has more returning starters (14 to 10)and while Michigan was great in regards to turnover margin last year (4th
nationally) Penn State was pretty average (55th
nationally). Michigan won't be as fortunate this season and while it's not a guarantee Penn State will improve in that area, their turnover margins should be much closer this season. Michigan will have company in second place. The Hawkeyes
finished 2-6 in Big 10 play last year, ahead of only Michigan State and Illinois. The Hawkeyes
had terrible luck in both close games (1-3) and turnover
nationally) in 2006. Despite the fact that they lose an experienced quarterback in Drew Tate, the offense actually declined last season (23.8 points per game--the worst since Ferentz's
second season in 2000). The defense gets 8 starters back and should be one of the best of the Ferentz
era. But the kicker is the fact that the Hawkeyes
have neither Michigan or Ohio State on the Big 10 schedule. Speaking of the Buckeyes, they do lose a ton of talent, including Heisman winner Troy Smith and 10 other starters. The Buckeyes also have to travel to both Penn State and Michigan; two teams that should the best in the league. It will be a rebuilding year, but even a rebuilding year in Columbus means an upper-division finish. Last season Wisconsin benefited
from a soft schedule (4 games against winning teams including the bowl), a good record in close games (3-0), and a defense that nearly cut it's points allowed per game in half (23.8 in 2005 and 12.1 in 2006). The Badgers schedule toughens up with roadies at Penn State and Ohio State to go along with a home date with Michigan. Plus they lose an experienced quarterback in John Stocco
. The Badgers get 16 starters back, including 7 on defense, but unfortunately improvement on defense will be nearly impossible over last season's outstanding unit. The Badgers will fall back to the middle of the pack. Heading in a different direction, the Illini
will rise from the primordial ooze and get to a bowl game for the first time since their Big 10 championship season of 2001. The Illini
can expect improvement in both close games (1-4 in 2006) and turnover margin (117th
nationally last season). They also return 17 total starters including dynamic
sophomore quarterback Juice Williams. The Purdue Boilermakers have been a bit of an enigma the past two seasons. Despite avoiding both Ohio State and Michigan over that span, they have only managed an 8-8 Big 10 record. This season the Boilers do return 18 starters (9 apiece on offense and defense), but the big boys come back on the schedule. Michigan State made a solid hire in luring Mark Dantonio
from Cincinnati (though it may only end up being a lateral move for him). Unfortunately, the Spartans lose a lot (just 12 returning starters) and they must break in a new quarterback to replace Drew Stanton. The Spartans were a tough luck 1-4 in close games last year so they should see some improvement in that area. They will compete for a bowl bid, but won't be a player in the conference race. Northwestern will be better on both sides of the ball, especially on offense after averaging only 16.5 points per game in 2006. However, the league as a whole is better too and nothing really sticks out that would make them a sleeper in the league. With Duke, Northeastern, and Eastern Michigan on the non-conference schedule though, they will flirt with a bowl bid. Indiana is in a mess after the tragic death of Terry Hoeppner
over the summer, but they were not a team on the rise even with Hep. Indiana's defense has been atrocious for a while (they have not allowed fewer than 30 points per game since 2001). That trend should continue in 2007, but the offense should at least make games entertaining with 9 starters back including enchanting quarterback Kellen Lewis. Minnesota may not regret firing Glen Mason 10 years from now (I bet they will though), but they certainly will in 2007. Minnesota loses their experienced starting quarterback (Bryan Cupito
) and will see their turnover luck trend back toward average after finishing first in the nation in turnover margin in 2006. The Gophers are in for a long season.
2007 is the 12th season of the Big 12. This will mark the first time a team besides Nebraska, Colorado, or Kansas State wins the North. That distinction will go to Missouri. The Tigers are an interesting dichotomy in third down performance. Last season the Tigers were the best team in the country in regards to positive disparity between their third down passing offense and overall passing offense. However, defensively, they were the 8th worse. The offense returns 9 starters including quarterback Chase Daniel so that facet of the team should be strong once again. The defense on the other hand returns only 5 starters and should regress some. However, the Tigers overall fortune should improve as they were a tough luck 0-3 in close games last year. The Tigers also host their toughest divisional conference foe (Nebraska). Speaking of Nebraska, they will finish in a tie for second. They return only 11 starters, but their quarterback is experienced (Arizona State transfer Sam Keller) and the North as a whole is much weaker than the South. Joining the Huskers in second place (and grabbing the tiebreaker thanks to a head to head win) is Colorado. The Buffs were 0-4 in close games last year and were the only team in the nation to finish in the bottom 10 in terms of disparity between third down passing offense and defense and overall passing offense and defense. The Buffs also return 15 starters (tied for most in the division) so they should be one of the nation's most improved teams. Kansas was probably the best team in the state last season, but failed to get to a bowl game thanks to some poor luck (3-4 in close games). They return an experienced quarterback (Kerry Meier) who is only a sophomore. Meier is already the best quarterback Mangino has had in his tenure at the school, and he may end up being the best in recent memory. Unfortunately, the Jayhawks lose their outstanding running back Jon Cornish and have struggled on the road in recent years (4-21 under Mangino in true road games), so they won't be able to finish in the top half of the division. The Jayhawks in-state rivals will decline some in Ron Prince's sophomore campaign. The Wildcats were very lucky last season (3-0 in close games) and their special teams contributed significantly to their record (16th in punt rturn average and first in kickoff return average). While special teams are certainly not luck, they are much more inconsistent from year-to-year than offense and defense. Finally, the Wildcats were actually outscored on the season last year (by an average of a point per game). They may improve performance-wise, but their record will be worse. Iowa State will finish at the bottom of the North for the second year in a row. The Cyclones are tied for fewest returning starters in the division with 11, and were actually very fortunate last year (4-0 in close games). Gene Chizik may yet raise the Iowa State program, but he won't make people forget Dan McCarney is his first season.
Like the North Division, the South has only sent three teams to the Big 12 Championship Game (Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M). The Aggies have only gone once, while the Sooners and Longhorns have the other 10 appearances. That trend will continue this season as Oklahoma and Texas should finish 1-2 in the South Division once again. For the fourth year in a row, the South winner will win take the conference crown too. Despite having to replace both quarterback Paul Thompson and running back Adrian Peterson, the Sooners will win the South. They return more starters than Texas (15 to 13), have four conference home games to Texas' three, and the gap in turnover margin btweeen the teams (-1 for Oklahoma and +9 for Texas) should also shrink via simple regression. After the big two, the next best team is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have 15 starters back, including quarterback Bobby Reid, running back Dantrell Savage, and wide receiver Adarius Bowman. The offense should be fantastic, the defense should be better, and the team should have better luck (1-4 in close games in 2006). The schedule is the only thing that will prevent Oklahoma State from an outright third place finish. They face Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all on the road. The Red Raiders will finish tied with the Cowboys even though they have only 10 starters back because they have the best player yet to run Mike Leach's system in Graham Harrell and because they get two crucial toss-up games (Colorado and Texas A&M) at home. Speaking of the Aggies, they do return 15 starters, including 9 on offense with quarterback Stephen McGee and their dynamic duo of running backs Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane. However, the Aggies were also +9 in turnovers last season and had a very small margin of error (8 games decided by 6 points or less--5-3 record) so any regression will take a big toll on the bottom line. The Aggies also have a tough schedule and may not be favored in any of their road games (Texas Tech, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, and a non-conference clash with Miami), so they should max out at 6 wins. Once again, the Baylor Bears will bring up the rear. The Bears have only 4 starters back on offense, and lose veteran quarterback Shawn Bell. Bell actually missed the final three games after suffereing an ACL-injury against Texas A&M. The offense will not be as bad as it was in Guy Morriss' first year (15.9 points per game), but it will be pretty bad.
The Pac-10 is Souhern Cal's world and despite would be usurpers from California, Oregon, and Arizona, it will remain their's for the time being. The Trojans return 10 starters from a defense that limited opponents to only 15.2 points per game (2nd best of the Pete Carroll era). Last season, the offense averaged the fewest points per game since Carroll's first season in 2001 (only 30.5 per game). This year they return an experienced quarterback in John David Booty along with 5 other starters, so they should run roughshod over the Pac-10 and play in New Orleans for the national title where they will romp over West Virginia. The Oregon Ducks will be back in a big way after their disappointing 7-6 season. For starters, the Ducks were 109th nationally in turnover margin so they should improve in that area. They were also pretty bad at covering punts (90th in the nation). Those two facts caused the Ducks to allow 26.5 points per game (89th in the nation) despite a decent finish in yards allowed per game (42nd) and a good finish in pass eficiency defense (28th). A little better luck coupled with better play at the quarterback position by experienced senior Dennis Dixon will have the Ducks back near the top of the conference. Joining them in second place will be Arizona State. The Sun Devils return 9 starters, including experienced quarterback Rudy Carpenter, to an offense that averaged only 26.8 points per game last year (2nd lowest in Dirk Koetter's six-year tenure). That number should go up. The Sun Devils also have a proven college coach in Dennis Erickson who seems to have attained his career goal of coaching every 'state' team in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils play Oregon in Eugene, so that's why Oregon is higher. The UCLA Bruins have all the trappings of a team ready to challenge the Trojans for the conference crown. They have 20 starters back (10 each on offense and defense) and do get their toughest games besides Southern Cal at home (Oregon, Arizona Stae, and Cal). Unfortunatley, their defense which allowed only 19.9 points per game in 2006 (best since 1993) performed much better on third down pass efficiency than they did on all other downs. Despite having 10 starters back, the defense will not be as stout as last season and the Bruins will only manage a tie for fourth. You may not have known this, but with UCLA's win over Southern Cal, Jeff Tedford's Bears actually shared the conference crown last year. Tedford is known as an offensive guru, and rightly so as all five of his Cal teams have averaged at least 32.6 points per game. That shouldn't change this season with 9 starters back including experienced quarterback Nate Longshore. However, Tedford has had his best teams (10-2 in 2004 and 10-3 in 2006) when the defense holds opponents under 20 points per game. With only 5 starters back on defense that won't happen this year. Seems people have been waiting for Arizona make the leap under Mike Stoops for a long time. The Wildcats will get back to a bowl this season for the first time since 1998. Stoops has the defense right where he wants it (19.6 points allowed per game in 2006 compared to 35.8 allowed per game in the season before Stoops' arrival). Now the offense just has to follow suit (only 16.6 points per game last year). With 8 starters back on offense (including talented quarterback Willie Tuitama) and 9 starters back on defense, this is the year for the Wildcats to start their leaping. Bill Doba is on the hot seat at Washington State and needs a solid season to save his job. The Cougars will be what they have been the past three season, a middling Pac-10 team that coud finish in the upper-half of the league with a few breaks. Washington State's scoring margin the past three seasons has hovered between -2.9 and 2.0 points per game. Expect something similar this season, and with an experienced senior quarterback (Alex Brink) a bowl game could be in the Cougars' future. After finishing 10-4 last season, the Oregon State Beavers are in for a decline this year. They were 5-1 in close games in 2006 and were +8 in turnover margin (24th in the nation). They also lose an experienced starting quarterback (Matt Moore) and play 5 conference road games, so a bowl bid is highly unlikely. It's hard picking a team coached by Tyrone Willingham to finish this low in the conference, but here's my rationale as to why the Huskies will get worse.
Without quarterback Isaiah Stanback (who missed the final 5 games last year), the offense sputtered. He's gone this season and the Huskies as a team only return 12 total starters. Still, they should be a little better than Stanford. The Cardinal were atrocious last year with a quarterback who was drafted (Trent Edwards) lining up under center. He's gone now and Jim Harbaugh appears to have a tough task ahead of him. He should at leat benefit from 16 returning starters (8 apiece on offense and defense) and a better turnover margin (112th nationally last year).
I have to admit my SEC East pick reaks of nothing but hubris. My Pythagenmelt rankings loved Tennessee from last season, and I can concoct a pretty lucid and coherrent argument why the other three contenders in the East won't take the crown. The Vols return an experienced senior quarterback who flourished in his first season under new old offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The Vols do have only 11 starters back and did have good fortune last season going 4-2 in clsoe games. Still, I think they will win not only the East, but also the conference championship because they get both South Carolina and Georgia to come to Knoxville. The Gamecocks would be the frontrunners for the East crown were it not for their schedule. South Carolina returns 17 starters, including 10 on defense and an experienced senior quarterback (Blake Mitchell). However, their road conference schedule includes games at Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Winning half of those will be a chore. The Georgia Bulldogs are a chic pick by many to win the East, and why not? They have won the division 3 times in Mark Richt's 6 years. They return a highly touted quarterback in Matthew Stafford who tooks his lumps as a freshman and now looks poised to become a very good player. However, the Bulldogs were the only team in the nation to finish in the top 10 for biggest positive disparity between third down passing offensive and defensive efficiency as compared to overall passing offensive and defensive efficiency. In fact, the Bulldogs were first in the defensive category. Their pass defense on third down (as determined by opponent quarterback rating) was a staggering 54% better than their overall passing efficiency defense. Army was second at 33% better. Expect some serious regression on third down for Georgia on offense and and especially defense with only 4 starters returning. The defending SEC and national champion Florida Gators lost an experienced senior quarterback and 4 other starters on offense, 9 starters on defense, were 5-0 in close games (5-1 if the Auburn game is counted as it was a one score game until the final play), and play four conference road games. Vanderbilt returns 18 starters, including an experienced quarterback (dual-threat Chris Nickson) and 9 others on offense. The Commodores were also a tough luck 1-4 in close games last year. Expect Vandy to end their 25 year bowl drought this season. The Kentucky Wildcats may bring up the rear, but they should at least be fun to watch. They return possibly the league's best pro prospect at quarterback, Andre Woodson, and 6 other starters on offense. They also bring back 8 starters on defense. So why the last place finish? Kentucky was extremely lucky last season as they were 4-2 in close games and second nationally in turnover margin.
Out West, it's hard not to like the Crimson Tide. Alabama was a hard luck 3-5 in close games last season, returns 9 starters from an under-achieving offense, including quarterback John Parker Wilson, and has one of the nation's best college coaches leading the team. Alabama will finish tied with LSU for the division crown, but will hold the tie-breaker thanks to their head to head win in Tuscaloosa. Speaking of the Bayou Bengals, their defense should be rock solid once again with 8 starters back (they have not allowed more than 20 points per game since 2001). However, LSU will miss JaMarcus Russell. Not only was Russell a spectaular talent, but the Tiger's offense also over-performed on third down passinng efficiency by 21.4% (2nd best in the country) compared to their overall passing efficiency. The offense will regress a little this season and that will prevent LSU from advancing to the SEC Championship Game. The Arkansas Razorbacks will remain in the upper-half of the division thanks to their running attack; Darren McFadden and Felix Jones return to man the running back position and quarterback Casey Dick returns for his junior season. However, the real reason Arkansas advanced to the SEC Championship Game last year was the improvement on defense. McFadden, Jones, and Dick were all around in 2005 when Arkansas managed only a 4-7 record. The Razorbacks increased their points per game from 25.7 to 28.9 in 2006 (4.2 per game), but the defense went from allowing 24.6 points per game to 18.3 (6.3 per game). With only 6 starters back on defense, Arkansas will give some of that improvement back and slip in the standings. For the first time since 2003, Auburn will not finish either first or second in the SEC West. The Tigers were not quite as good as their 11-2 record last season (5-0 in close games), and have only 12 starters back this year. Their road schedule consists of trips to Florida, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia. After going 32-5 the past three seasons, the Tigers will lose at least four conference games this year. The two teams at the bottom of the West are so far below the other four, that the only way to differentiate between them is to look at the schedule. Mississippi State and Ole Miss play three teams from the SEC East. Mississippi State hosts Tennessee and plays at South Carolina and Kentucky. The only one of those they can reasonably hope to win is against Kentucky. Ole Miss hosts Florida and travels to Vanderbilt and Georgia. The only one they can reasonably hope to win is against Vanderbilt. Since Vanderbilt should be stronger than Kentucky and both games are on the road, the edge goes to Mississippi State. Finally, in the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs host the Rebels so all signs point to as basement finish for Ole Miss.
Memphis will go from the worst team in the East to the best team, not only in the East, but in the whole conference. Last season Memphis had to replace 11 starters, including their starting quarterback and running back, were a tough luck 0-5 in close games, and had the third worst third down pass efficiency defense compared to their overall pass efficiency defense. This year they return 16 starters (8 apiece on offense and defense) and should see some improvement in their third down pass efficiency defense. The Southern Miss Eagles also return an experienced quarterback (Jeremy Young), but should see their luck regress in close games (3-1 last year) and third down pass efficiency defense (7th best in terms of disparity last year). The East should be pretty defined and rigid in 2007. Memphis and Southern Miss are the class of the division. Central Florida and East Carolina should both be mediocre and Marshall and UAB should both be pretty bad. The Golden Knights get the nod over the Pirates because they return more starters (17 to 14) and actually have an experienced quarterback returning (Kyle Israel), while the Pirates must go with unproven sophomore Rob Kass. Marshall gets the nod over the Blazers because they too have more starters returning (14 to 8), have more coaching stability (UAB has a new coach in Neil Callaway while Mark Snyder enters his third season in Huntington). If not for the new coach and low number of returning starters, UAB would be a real candidate to improve as they were a hard luck 2-5 in close games in 2006.
After over two decades of waiting, the SMU Mustangs will return to postseason play after they take the Conference USA West crown. The Mustangs return 8 starters on offense including perhaps the league's best quarterback, Justin Willis. They also bring back 6 defensive starters and should be good enough to advance to the Conference USA Championship Game. The UTEP Miners will rebound from a disappointing 2006 season and return to a bowl game. The Miners do have to replace quarterback Jordan Palmer, but benefit from hosting both Tulsa and Houston. They return only 4 starters on defense, but actually the 2006 incarnation had the worst defense (31.3 points allowed per game) of the Mike Price era and should improve marginally. Tulsa returns only 10 total starters, but one of them is their experienced senior quarterback Paul Smith. Only 3 other starters join him on offense, so the Golden Hurrican may not improve upon their 27.7 points per game they scored in 2006. Tulsa does have a new head coach in Todd Graham, but he is a familiar face as he was their defensive coordinator from 2003-2005. Interestingly, they had their best defense when he left (20.2 points allowed per game in 2006). After winning last season's Conference USA title, the Houston Cougars will decline. Thir offense will especially feel the loss of quarterback Kevin Kolb. Houston was also 20th in the nation in turnover margin (+9) so look for that number to fall as well. While head coach Art Briles is known as an offensive guru, the Cougars' defense has improved in each of Briles' four seasons on the job. The Rice Owls were not nearly as good in 2006 as their 7-6 overall, 6-2 conference record would indicate. They were 5-1 in close games and +8 in turnover margin. Both of those aspects of their team should fall this season. Still, even with a new coach and worse luck, the Owls have 9 starters back including an experienced quarterback (Chase Clement) and one of the nation's best receivers (Jarett Dillard), so it would be hard to see them fallling below Tulane. The Green Wave bring in a proven head coach (Bob Toledo was 49-32 at UCLA from 1996-2002) and were awful in turnover margin last year (-11 good for 112th nationally). Still, they must break in a new quarterback and have only 5 starters returning on offense. It looks like one more year for the Green Wave in the West's basement.
This season, the MAC adds one more team (Temple) to give them 13 totals schools. Unfortunately, 13 is not an even number so the East now has 7 teams while the West still has 6. 2006 was not the best year for the MAC as only Central Michigan finished with a Pythagenmelt ranking better than .500 (above average) and only Central Michigan won their bowl game (Ohio, Western Michigan, and Northern Illinois all lost). Last season the West was clearly the more powerful division, and should remain as such. However, with improvements scheduled for Bowling Green and Miami, the East should narrow the margin. After a disappointing 4-8 season, Bowling Green will rise up and take the East crown. The Falcons averaged under 20 points per game (19.5) for the first time since 2000. From 2001-2005, they averaged at least 30.3 points per game. With 7 starters back, including experienced quarterback Anthony Turner, the offense should be much better. The defense also allowed the most points per game since 1999 (28.3 per game) and with 8 starters back should also improve. Another reason to expect improvement is because their special teams cannot be as horrible as they were last season. The Falcons finished 89th in average punt returnn, 108th in average kickoff return, 118th in net punting, and made only 4-9 field goals. That all-important 'hidden yardage' will be more in the Falcons favor this season. Speaking of poor special teams, that is what caused Kent State to fail to win the East last season. The Golden Flashes were plenty bad themselves on special teams, finishing 94th in average punt return, 86th in average kickoff return, 116th in net punting, and connecting on only 2-10 field goals. Their special teams' numbers have nowhere to go but up and with 16 starters returning (8 apiece on offense and defense), Kent State will be in the race until the very end. Another team slated for improvement is the Miami Redhawks. Though they finished only 2-10 last year, the Redhawks were an unlucky 2-5 in close games so they should see some improvement in the luck department. They also bring back 8 starters, including an experienced senior quarterback, to an offense that averaged only 18.5 points per game (fewest since 1993). The Ohio Bobcats made some real noise under Frank Solich in his second season, advancing to the MAC Championship Game. With no extended experience at quarterback and only 11 starters returning, they won't match last season's success. The Akron Zips suffered their first losing season since 2002 last year and look poised for an encore this season. The division as a whole has gotten better and the Zips have to break in a new quarterback. They also lost their best receiver, sophomore David Harvey, for academic reasons over the summer. The bottom two teams should not surprise anyone as both Buffalo and Temple have been bad for a long time. Buffalo has not won more than 3 games since coming to Division IA in 1999 and Temple has not had a winning record since 1990. The Bulls will escape the basement because they have more starters back (18 to 14) and were at least marginally functional on both sides of the ball last year. The Bulls averaged a sorry 2.8 yards per rush last season, but it was much better than the Owls average of 1.9 yards per rush attempt. The Bulls 'held' opponents to 4.7 yards per rush while Temple would have struggled in two-hand touch football, allowing opponents to gain 6 yards every time they ran the ball.
The Western Michigan Broncos should rule the MAC West this season. They do not return their starting quarterback from last season, but do bring back their starter from 2005. Tim Hiller completed over 65% of his passes while averaging almost 9 yards per attempt with a 20-3 touchdown to interception ratio over the final 7 games of 2005 (he played the whole game in only 5). In the season finale he was injured against Northern Illinois and opted to redshirt in 2006.
This table shows the Bronco offense with and without Tim Hiller. Though the sample size is only 5 games with Hiller, the numbers are pretty staggering. With 8 other starters back on offense and 8 on defense expect the Broncos to win the MAC. Another stud sophomore quarterback, this one in Muncie, Indiana, will lead Ball State to a bowl game. With 14 starters back, including quarterback Nate Davis, the Cardinals should have their best season yet under head coach Brady Hoke. Central Michigan should be strong once again with 14 starters back (7 apiece on offense and defense), including sophomore quarterback sensation Dan LeFevour. However, the Chippewas do lose their head coach (Brian Kelly left to take the job at Cincinnati) and must face Western Michigan and Ball State on the road. Northern Illinois will also fall back as they return the fewest amount of starters in the division (12) and lose both their stud running back (Garrett Wolfe) and senior quarterback (Phil Horvath). Toledo will suffer their second straight losing season unless either quarterback Clint Cochran or Aaron Opelt vastly improves. The Rockets offense averaged only 23.4 points per game last year (easily the worst of the Tom Amstutz era) despite having a much better passing efficiency on third down than overall (7th biggest positive disparity). They won't be as good on third down this year, so the offense should only marginally improve even with the experience returning at the quarterback position. The Eagles from Eastern Michigan will suffer a third straight finish in the MAC West basement, but should be much improved. They were a very unlucky 1-6 in close games last year. With a little better luck, they could triple last year's win total (1-11), but it probably won't be enough to save Jeff Genyk's job.
Aside from the league champion, the Mountain West is the hardest league to project. That top team should be the TCU Horned Frogs. The erstwhile Purple People Eaters return 9 starters from a defense that allowed only 12.3 points per game last season. The Frogs are one of, if not the best mid-major team this season, but they won't be garnering a BCS bid for several reason. For starters, they lose their talented, experienced senior quarterback (Jeff Ballard). Then theres the little issue of the schedule. A September 8th date with the Longhorns in Austin will prove to be too much for an undefeated season and a November 8th date with BYU in Provo will end their dreams of an undefeated conference season. The Utah Utes have the good fortune of bringing back a quarterback who did not play a down last season, but did throw for over 2800 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2005. Brian Johnson was injured and redshirted last season, but his return along with 9 other offensive starters should ensure the offense remans at least as strong as it was last year. The BYU Cougars enjoyed a dream season last year, and were a few breaks away from finishing undefeated and garnering a BCS bid of their own. Unfortunatelt, they lose quarterback and NFL draft pick John Beck as well as 4 other offensive starters. They were also 4th in the nation in turnover margin so there should be some regression there. The Wyoming Cowboys may be a bit of a reach at number four, but they have Karsten Sween, who may be the league's second best quarterback after Brian Johnson at Utah. They were also a bit unlucky in close games last year (3-4) and host two teams (New Mexico and UNLV) that should finish close to them in the standings. The aforementioned Lobos return 18 starters, including 10 on defense. The offense should also improve upon its 21.8 points per game with dynamic sophomore Donovan Porterie at quarterback. With some luck, the Lobos could win their first bowl game since 1961. This is where it starts to get hairy. UNLV was unlucky in both close games (1-3) and turnover margin (112th nationally). They also return an experienced quarterback (Rocky Hinds). Unfortunately, Hinds was far from great last season completing only 54% of his passes with 8 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Still, with 8 starters back, the offense should improve upon its production from last season (19.8 points per game) and with some better luck should at least triple last season's conference wins (1) and double the overall wins (2). Air Force may be the most interesting team to follow in college football in 2007. The Falcons were a tough luck 2-5 in close games and return an experienced senior quarterback (Shaun Carney). So why aren't they projected higher? First year head coach Troy Calhoun has said he will integrate a more balanced offense at Air Force instead of the wishbone attack the Falcons have run for years. How do teams that have run the wishbone for many years perform in their first year in a new offense? To be honest I don't know. Conventional wisdom says they will struggle, but conventional wisdom is not always accurate. The Rice Owls are a data point in opposition to this hypothesis. Last season the Owls scrapped the option for a more balanced attack and upped their points per game from 21.9 to 26.9 and qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 1961. An upper-division finish for the Falcons would not totally shock me, but for now I'm hedging my bets. I'll be keeping a close eye on them this season. After Air Force, well someone has to finish last. In this case, it's someones. San Diego State should be much improved, at least offensively where they have 9 starters back. Improving upon last season's 14.2 points per game is a given. Defensively they have only 4 starters back, but were a hard luck 1-3 in close games in 2006 which is why they are not in the basement all alone. Colorado State returns 18 starters, but don't have many other positive indicators besides a returning experienced quarterback to warrant slotting them higher in the conference.
Conferences like the Sun Belt can be very hard to project because the difference in talent between the league's best and worst teams is much smaller than the difference in most BCS leagues. The Sun Belt also doesn't have the stratified recruiting tiers of a BCS league, so it's easier for both the have-nots to rise up and the haves to fall back. The five teams that have been members since the league formed in 2001 (North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, and Arkansas State) have all finished tied for first at least once and finished as low as a tie for 4th. North Texas, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Louisiana-Monroe have also finished last or tied for last at least once. Those factors help explain why a team that finished only 4-8 last year will win the league. The Warhawks tied for fifth in conference play at 3-4 last year, but their season could have been much better as they were 0-5 in close games. This season, they return all 11 starters on offense, including the league's leading rusher (Calvin Dawson) and leading receiver in terms of yardage (LaGregory Sapp). The Troy Trojans and Florida Altantic Owls will share second place with the Trojans garnering the league's second bowl tie-in. The Trojans can expect some regression in the luck department (4-2 in close games last season) and return only 13 starters. However, one of them is the league's best quarterback, Omar Haugabook. They also get the Owls at home, hence they should get the tie-breaker for the bowl bid. After experiencing 4 crushing defeats to start the 2006 season (combined score of 192-20 at Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and South Carolina), Howard Schnellenberger kept his team together and they won 5 of their last 8. This season they return 18 starters, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball and should stay in contention for the Sun Belt title until their season ending game at Troy. Middle Tennessee has just 12 starters returning and must break in an inexperienced quarterback to replace departed signal-caller Clint Marks. After dominating the league last season, they should drop back to the middle of the pack. Louisiana-Lafayette also returns only 12 starters and must also break in an inexperienced quarterback. They must travel to Middle Tennessee, hence their designation behind the Blue Raiders. The very bottom of the league is hard to figure out. Florida International could very well have had a few more wins last season as they were 0-5 in close games and were -9 in turnover in turnover margin on the year. North Texas also had a poor record in close games (1-3) and were even worse in regards to turnover margin (-15 on the year--117th nationally). Arkansas State was a veritable Power Ball winner compared to those two squads, finishing 4-0 in close games and only -4 in turnover margin. Still, it would be hard to fathom either Florida International or North Texas finishing ahead of the Indians since they both must travel to Jonesboro and Arkansas State returns both an experienced quarterback and has coaching stability. North Texas has experience returning at the quarterback spot, but neither of them were very good last season. Both Florida International and North Texas are debuting new coaches this season so they should remain at the bottom of the league. Since Florida International hosts the game between the two teams this season, they get the nod of finishing out of the basement.
A lot of people have the Warriors pegged as this year's Boise State--a mid-major team that runs the table and crashes the BCS. Don't get me wrong, they could very well find themselves in the Fiesta Bowl come January. I don't think they will though and here's why.
The table on the right lists Hawaii's stats in road games with short weeks (less than 6 days off) since 1996. This season they play one game that fits that criteria--November 16th at Nevada (merely 6 days after hosting Frenso State). They have played 7 such games since 1996 and have been trounced by an average margin of 28 points. Two of those games occurred in seasons where Hawaii finished with a losing record and five occurred during seasons which Hawaii finished with a winning record. Their scoring margins in those games are also included. The important category to look at is times Hawaii has had the superior record. In all likelihood, Hawaii will finish the year with a superior record than Nevada. In games fitting that criteria, Hawaii is 1-2, but their scoring margin is almost even (negative 1.6 points). That final split is key, and is much less damning than the overall split. Still, even an optimist has to believe Hawaii's chances of winning at Nevada are a little less than 50%. Another reason to believe Hawaii cannot finish undefeated is the fact that Colt Brennan, and by extension the Hawaii offense cannot possibly play any better than last season. Brennan completed over 72% of his passes last year while throwing for 58 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Expecting his numbers to improve is foolish. Still, Hawaii should win the league, but they will have to settle for a Liberty or Hawaii Bowl invite. The Boise State Broncos have to replace an experienced quarterback (Jared Zabransky) and five other offensive starters. They were also 4-0 in close games last season and were +11 in turnover margin. Odds of another undefeated season are very low, but the Broncos should be in the WAC race until the very end. New Mexico State will be one of the most improved teams in the country. The Aggies enter their third season under Hal Mumme's guidance and return 10 of 11 offensive starters. They should improve upon the 31.2 points per game they averaged last season. The Aggies should also be a little luckier as they were 0-4 in close games in 2006 and -11 in turnover margin. After a rare losing season under Pat Hill (first since 1998), Fresno State should rebound and qualify for a bowl game. Last season's team had the dubious distinction of having both the worst offense (tied with 2003 at 23 points per game) and worst defense (28.3 points per game) of the Pat Hill era. The offense should improve with 7 starters back including an experienced quarterback (Tom Brandstater). However, the defense may be of some concern as they return only 4 starters. The Nevada Wolfpack have a good deal lot of negative indicators (+12 in turnovers in 2006, lose an experienced starting quarterback, and only 12 returning starters), but the rest of the league is just too weak to jump them. San Jose State was a great story last season going 9-4 and making a bowl game for the first time since 1990 in only Dick Tomey's second season. This season the Spartans return 15 starters including an experienced senior quarterback (Adam Tafralis). However, last season the Spartans failed to defeat a single team that finished with a winning record. Their wins came against Stanford, Cal-Poly (non-Division IA), San Diego State, Utah State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, Idaho, Fresno State, and Nex Mexico (in the bowl). This season, two of the teams they beat (New Mexico State and Fresno State sould be markedly improved and they must play three BCS teams on the road in non-conference action (Arizona State, Kansas State, and Stanford). Getting back to a bowl game will be an arduous task. Louisiana Tech was horrendous last season, giving up 41,7 points per game on defense and scoring only 18.6 per game. This year the defense has 10 starters back, and they will be hard-pressed to be any worse. The offense returns 6 starters including an experienced senior quarterback (Zac Champion) so that side of the ball should improve as well. The Bulldogs were also -8 in turnover margin last season so they should see improvement in that department as well and move out of the basement despite having a new head coach (Derek Dooley--yes he is Vince's son). Utah State brings back 11 starters from a terrible defense (38.5 points allowed per game) and 8 from an even worse offense (10.8 points per game). The Aggies would have to try to be any worse offensively this season. Idaho is breaking in a new coach (Robb Akey), who is their third in 3 years. Idaho returns only 12 starters and has virtually no experience returning at the quarterback position.
Both Notre Dame and Navy should finish with either 6 or 7 wins, and with Notre Dame doing what they always do (beaten Navy 43 straight times), the Irish get the tie-breaker. The Irish return only 9 starters, have a tough schedule, and should see their luck decline (3-0 in close games last season). Navy has only 10 starters back and has toughened up its schedule (by Navy standards) so the Midshipmen should see their win total cut by about 1/3. This season Navy plays six of the same teams it played last year (Temple, Duke, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Air Force, and Army) a non-Division IA team (Delaware) that is comparable to the non-Division IA team they played last year (Massachusetts). That leaves five unique games for 2007. Last year Navy played a bad MAC team (Eastern Michigan). This year they play a good MAC team (Northern Ilinois). Last year they played a bad Big East team (Connecticut). This year they play a decent Big East team (Pittsburgh). Last year they played a bad Pac-10 team (Stanford). This year they play a decent ACC team (Wake Forest). Last year they played two Conference USA teams, one solid (East Carolina) and one good (Tulsa). This year they play a good MAC team (Ball State) and a bad Sun Belt team (North Texas). The Black Knights from Army should be in for another long season. They have a new coach, just 12 returning starters, and were the second best pass efficiency defense on third down as compared to overall pass efficiency.