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Statistically Speaking: July 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

2008 WAC Preview

Boise State
Seemingly for the first time in eons, the Broncos did not win the WAC in 2007. Their 17-game WAC winning streak, and strangle-hold on the conference, was broken in their regular-season finale on the Islands against Hawaii. Can the Broncos regain their crown and perhaps run the table en route to another appearance in a BCS bowl game?

Despite the departure of quarterback Jared Zabransky following the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, the Boise State offense did not miss a beat. In 2006, the offense averaged 421 yards per game (10th in the nation) and scored 39.7 points per game (2nd in the nation). In 2007, they averaged 468 yards per game (12th in the nation) and scored 42.4 points per game (4th in the nation). Quarterback Taylor Tharp acquitted himself quite well under center in his only season as a starter. His passer rating of 152.85 ranked 7th nationally. Like Zabransky before him, Tharp too has exhausted his eligibility. His likely replacement will be redshirt freshman Kellen Moore. While it may be a reach to assume greatness for Moore, the Broncos have a history of turning out quality quarterbacks every season. Bart Hendricks begat Ryan Dinwiddie who begat Jared Zabransky who begat Taylor Tharp. That’s a decade of good to stellar quarterback play. Moore has last season’s top-wideout Jeremy Childs (1045 yards through the air in 2007) and running back Ian Johnson (over 2700 yards and 41 touchdowns on the ground the past 2 seasons) to help him in his transition. The lone area for concern for the Boise State offense is continuity on the offensive line. The lone returning starter is guard Andrew Woodruff. The team will certainly miss departed left tackle Ryan Clady (1st round draft choice), and this may be the Broncos worst offensive line in a very long time. The offense should still be quite productive, but with a new quarterback and inexperienced line, it should not be as good as last season’s version.

Last season, the Broncos finished 25th in total defense, permitting only 338 yards per game. In WAC play, they were the top dog (or horse) in terms of defensive proficiency. The only WAC foes who were able to move the ball against them were Hawaii and Nevada (1213 yards in those 2 games, 1638 in the other 6 conference games. The latter came in a game on the Smurf Turf where the Broncos nearly lost for the first time ever to a conference opponent (69-67 win in 4 OTs). In perhaps their best performance of the season, they held New Mexico State (albeit without Chase Holbrook for the majority of the game) to 89 yards in a 58-0 pummeling. The Bronco defense returns 7 starters in 2008, including leading-tackler linebacker Kyle Gingg. The biggest loss for the Broncos will be in the secondary where safety Marty Tadman (second on the team in tackles and first in passes broken up) and corner Orlando Scandrick must be replaced. The Bronco defense may slip a little, but should remain one of the best in the WAC.

Prediction: Outside of the opener against Idaho State, the Broncos have a very fascinating non-conference schedule. They host Bowling Green (bowl team from last season), travel to Oregon, and also to Southern Miss. While the Oregon game gets top billing (and rightfully so), the Southern Miss game comes right between the WAC opener against Louisiana Tech, and the rematch with Hawaii. Still, the Broncos should go 3-1 at worst against their non-conference slate. I’m not buying them winning in Autzen though. To me, this year’s team seems a bit weaker than last year’s version which lost, lest you forget, on the road to Washington. In conference play, the Broncos should roll through their home schedule as usual and are blessed with a very winnable road slate. The most difficult test will come on November 22nd when they travel to Nevada. 2 losses will keep the Broncos out of a BCS bowl, but it may be good for them in the log run as it will likely ensure Chris Petersen stays in town for another season.


Nevada
Nevada’s 2007 season was bookended between a pair of embarrassing defeats. They opened the year with a 52-10 throttling by Nebraska and closed it with a 23-0 shutout at the hands of New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl. In between, they managed only a 6-5 record, but were statistically one of the best teams in the WAC. If their achievement aligns with their performance in 2008, the Wolfpack could find themselves as champions of the WAC.

The Wolfpack offense was one of the most proficient in the nation in 2007. They averaged 468 yards per game (11th in the nation) and scored 33.5 points per game (27th in the nation). In WAC play, only the incomparable offense at Hawaii gained more yards. The team’s biggest star was freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Pressed into action in the team’s 5th game, against Fresno State, Kaepernick responded by throwing for 384 yards and 4 touchdowns. On the season, Kaepernick posted an efficiency rating of 150.77 (10th in the nation). He also rushed for nearly 600 yards (593) and scored 6 touchdowns on the ground. The most interesting part of Kaepernick’s season was that despite his extremely high rating, he only completed 53.8% of his passes (not even in the top-100). Despite the bevy of incompletions, Kaepernick threw only 3 interceptions in 247 pass attempts. You can be certain he will top that number in 2008, especially if he remains as erratic throwing the football. Should he falter, the ‘Pistol’ offense will still be in good hands, as Nick Graziano (began last season as starter) posted a passer rating of 138.07 (would have ranked 27th with enough attempts to qualify) before breaking his foot. Joining the quarterback duo in the backfield is the rarest of all breeds—a pale-faced running back. Luke Lippincott led the WAC in rushing last season, gaining 1420 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns. Paving the way for Lippincott are 4 returning starters on the offensive line, so no matter how Kaepernick or Graziano perform, the running attack should remain outstanding. It’s also worth mentioning that the Wolfpack bring back their top-receiver from 2007, Marko Mitchell (the Wolfpack are an alliterators dream). Mitchell gained over 1100 yards in 2007 and averaged a robust 21.3 yards per catch (2nd in the nation).

On defense, the Wolfpack have some holes to fill. Last season they finished a mediocre 79th in total defense, permitting 415 yards per game. However, in WAC play, only Boise State and Hawaii allowed fewer yards. The Wolfpack lose 3 of their top-4 tacklers from last season and must replace 3/4ths of their starting secondary. Defense will be a question mark for the Wolfpack, but in a league with Idaho, Utah State, and Mexico State, the Wolfpack should have no worries about fielding the worst defense in the league.

Prediction: After the opener against Grambling State, the schedule stiffens significantly. They host Texas Tech the following weekend before traveling to Columbia to take on Missouri. They close the non-conference schedule against UNLV, who they have beaten 3 straight times. However, the Rebels could be one of the most improved teams in the nation, and the game is in Vegas, so a 1-3 start is very realistic. Once conference play starts, the Wolfpack should begin to assert themselves as one of the best teams in the league. They have the good fortune of hosting Boise State, but must face two of the other traditional powers—Fresno State and Hawaii on the road. Nevada was much better in 2007 than their 4-4 conference record would portend. All 4 of their conference losses were by 8 points or less (15 total points). With some better luck in 2008, they will be in contention for the conference crown.


Fresno State
For a team with so-so stats from last season that faces 3 BCS opponents, the Bulldogs are getting a lion’s share of preseason love. Fresno State followed up their first losing season since 1998 with a 9-4 campaign and a Humanitarian Bowl win over Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs went 6-2 in the WAC, with their only losses coming against the two best teams—Boise State and Hawaii. However, despite their 6 wins, the Bulldogs were actually outgained by over 400 yards over the course of the conference season. Both their units were below average in WAC play. The offense finished 6th in yards gained and the defense finished 7th in yards allowed. Those stats typically don’t signal a team destined to win their conference.

The Fresno State offense should certainly improve upon their lower-division finish in 2007. 10 of 11 starters return with the lone loss coming in the form of center Ryan Wendell. Wendell was a 4-year starter, so he will not be easily replaced. However, the other 4 returning starters on the line should be able to pick up any slack from his replacement. Elsewhere, quarterback Tom Brandstater looks to follow in the footsteps of Trent Dilfer, David Carr, and Paul Pinegar and leave an impressive resume in Fresno. Brandstater improved considerably in his second season as a starter in 2007. After posting a passer rating of 106.74 in 2006 (90th in the nation), Brandstater leaped to 140.48 in 2007 (23rd in the nation). Brandstater may give just a little of his improvement back (his 5 interceptions in 2007 are likely to rise), but the offense as a whole should trend towards the top of the WAC.

While the defense does not possess the continuity of the offense, 7 starters do return. 5 of the top-7 tacklers are back, but the Bulldogs do have to replace the 2007 WAC defensive Player of the Year—Marcus Riley. Along with Riley, the other significant loss is on the defensive line where Tyler Clutts (team and WAC-leading 7.5 sacks in 2007) has departed. Despite the loss of those two very talented individuals, the Bulldog defense should also improve. They won’t be the top unit in the WAC, but they should be much better than last season.

Prediction: Non-conference road trips to Rutgers, UCLA, Toledo, and a home contest against Wisconsin should temper the preseason enthusiasm for the Bulldogs. In WAC play, Fresno does get Hawaii and Nevada at home, but must travel to Boise to take on the Broncos. If the Bulldogs 2007 numbers matched their actual record, I would not be hesitant to peg them as the conference favorite heading into 2008 with so much returning talent. However, those numbers didn’t match up, and while the Bulldogs should improve (performance-wise), their record won’t.


Hawaii
2007 was the culmination of nearly a decade of work on the Islands. The Warriors were able to parlay a talented offense, a solid defense, some good fortune, and one of the easiest schedules imaginable into an undefeated regular season and Sugar Bowl bid. Unfortunately, the clock struck midnight in the Sugar Bowl as the Warriors were crushed by the Georgia Bulldogs 41-10. In between that game and their opener against another SEC team (Florida); the Warriors have had to replace their coach, quarterback, and 4 starting wide receivers (among others which we’ll get to later). New head coach Greg McMackin has a lot of holes to plug, and with the nightmarish non-conference schedule, may find the team shutout of a postseason invite.

The Warriors finished the 2007 ranked 3rd nationally in total offense, averaging 512 yards per game. Not surprisingly, they were also the number one offense in WAC play, edging out Nevada by about 15 yards per game. But alas, most of those yards are no longer with the team. Record-setting passer Colt Brennan and his quartet of talented, but overlooked receivers (Ryan Grice-Mullen, Davone Bess, Jason Rivers, and CJ Hawthorne) have all moved on. Among returning players, the leading receiver is either wideout Malcolm Lane (14 receptions for 270 yards in 2007) or running back Kealoha Pilares (26 receptions for 249 yards in 2007), depending on your preference of yards or receptions. On the bright side, the likely starter at quarterback, Tyler Graunke, did see significant action in 2007. He threw a pass in 8 games, and started 2. His passer rating of 156.68 was negligibly lower than Brennan’s (159.84). Graunke also has 3 starting offensive linemen back to help protect him, as well as last season’s top-4 rushers. Still, the Hawaii offense has nowhere to go but down with the matriculation of such talent. Since Jones’ system will remain in place, they should remain in the upper tier of the WAC offenses, but will certainly lose their hold on number one.

While the Hawaii offense got the most of the pub, the defense was like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; quietly making plays in the background and avoiding the spotlight. The defense made a number of clutch plays in overtime wins over Louisiana Tech and San Jose State as well as in BCS-busting wins over Boise State and Washington. On the season, the unit ranked 34th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 348 yards per game. In WAC play, only Boise State was stingier. Like the offense though, the defense too loses a great deal of talent. The two-leading tacklers, linebackers Solomon Elimimian (9th nationally with 141 tackles) and Adam Leonard are back, but 3 quarters of the secondary and defensive line are gone. The defense will struggle to maintain their lofty ranking from 2007.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule contains only 1 sure win among 5 games—Weber State. Of course, one could also argue that there is only 1 sure loss as well—at Florida. But, none of the other 3 games (at Oregon State, home against Washington State, and home against Cincinnati) will be gimmes. 2-3 is probably a realistic expectation, with 3-2 the best possible scenario. In WAC play, Hawaii hosts San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, Nevada, and Idaho. Prognosticating ahead, it would seem that the only team likely to spring an upset in Honolulu would be Nevada. Of course, that is balanced out by the road schedule where the Warriors face Fresno State, Boise State, Utah State, and New Mexico State. Utah State and New Mexico State are winnable, but realistically the Warriors can probably only hope to grab one of their road conference games. Hawaii has a lot of negative indicators for 2008—the loss of a very good head coach, attrition on offense and defense, and a 5-0 record in one-score games in 2007. Despite all those things, the Warriors homefield advantage (28-5 since 2000 against WAC foes at home with 3 losses coming to Boise State) should keep them in the middle of the WAC if not back in a bowl game.


Louisiana Tech
First-year head coach Derek Dooley enjoyed a solid first season at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs finished 4-4 (tied for 4th in the WAC) and 5-7 overall. Their brightest moment was probably a 45-44 OT loss to Hawaii. Had they won that game, the Bulldogs would have been bowl-eligible, but the league would have lost out on a big-time payday as Hawaii would have likely stayed on the Islands and played in the Hawaii Bowl instead of traveling to New Orleans for the slightly more prestigious Sugar Bowl. What does Dooley have up his sleeve for an encore? Will another solid campaign make him a hot name in the coaching ranks after the season is over?

Last season Louisiana Tech did not do a whole lot of things well, but they made up for it by also not doing a whole lot of things poorly. Overall, they ranked 86th in total offense and 91st in total defense. Both those rankings are slightly below average, but remember, this is a WAC team, not an SEC member, so it’s best to compare them to their conference brethren. In conference play, they were 7th in yards gained (again slightly below average—the difference between them and the 4th best offense was about 18 yards per game) and 5th in yards allowed. Should either unit be substantially better in 2008? The offense could conceivably improve. While last season’s quarterback, Zac Champion, has concluded his Bulldog career, 8 other offensive starters return. Plus, while Champion was a competent player, his passer rating of 110.50 was not even in the top-100. As a team, the Bulldogs averaged a miniscule 5.6 yards per pass attempt (115th in the nation), a number that should improve even with a new starter under center. The new quarterback will be one of two transfers—Steven Ensminger from Auburn or Taylor Bennett from Georgia Tech. Bennett completed less than half his passes (49.5%) last season at Georgia Tech, so I’d be inclined to name Ensminger as the favorite to win the job. Ensminger will have a number of weapons to work with as the top-4 running backs (led by Patrick Jackson’s 935 yards), every player who caught multiple passes, and 3 starting offensive linemen return. The Bulldog offense should improve, but still remain a notch below those highly efficient units at Boise State, Nevada, and Hawaii.

The defense also returns some playmakers from last season. 4 of the top-5 tacklers from 2007, led by safety Antonio Baker are back. Unfortunately, besides those 4 gentlemen, only one other starter returns. The Bulldogs will certainly miss their departing defensive ends, Chris Pugh and Joshua Muse, who combined for 10.5 of the team’s 23 sacks last season. The defense should be roughly on par with last year’s unit; somewhere in the mish-mash middle of the WAC.

Prediction: The Bulldogs open with a very winnable home game against Mississippi State of the SEC. The other Bulldogs will certainly be favored, but a Tech win would not be extremely shocking. Elsewhere outside the WAC, the Bulldogs must travel to Kansas (certain loss), before hosting SE Louisiana (likely win), and traveling to West Point in the middle of the WAC season to take on Army. At worst, the Bulldogs should be 2-2 outside the conference. In conference play, the Bulldogs must face Boise State, Hawaii, San Jose State, and New Mexico State away from Ruston. Boise State may as well be on the road, but the Bulldogs could certainly benefit from hosting the Warriors, Spartans, or Aggies. The Bulldogs need to steal one of those to have a chance at a bowl bid. The home slate features Idaho, Fresno State, Utah State, and Nevada. Idaho and Utah State are likely wins, while the fact that the Fresno and Nevada games are in Ruston gives the Bulldogs a fighting chance. The Bulldogs have a chance to take 3 of those 4 and once again break even in the WAC. Depending upon their performance outside the league, that may be good enough for a bowl bid.


New Mexico State
It seems to be now or never for the Aggies. In Hall Mumme’s first 3 seasons, New Mexico State has gone a collective 8-29 (3-21 in the WAC), and have only 4 wins over IA foes. With several senior skill position players, this has to be the year Mumme Ball returns to the postseason, or it may be time to start over.

In 2007 New Mexico State averaged 424 yards per game (35th in the nation). However, in WAC play, the Aggies managed only a 5th place finish in yards gained. Hawaii, Nevada, Boise State, and even San Jose State gained more yards in conference play than the Aggies. Now to be fair, the Aggies did suffer some significant injuries in 2007. Quarterback Chase Holbrook missed parts of 2 games (the debacle against Boise State and a 1-point loss the following week to Louisiana Tech). His replacement, JJ McDermott, played very poorly against Boise (no touchdowns and a passer rating of 56.78), and very well against Louisiana Tech (2 touchdowns and a 155.99 rating). The Aggies were not going to win at Boise with or without Holbrook and they lost at Louisiana Tech despite McDermott’s fine game. So it’s hard to say the injury to Holbrook cost them anything except maybe some recruits who viewed the Boise beatdown. The big injury in 2007, and one that likely cost the Aggies a win or 2, was to wide receiver Chris Williams. After gaining over 1400 yards through the air in 2006, Williams began the 2007 season with 53 catches and 746 yards in 7 games. He broked his collarbone in game 8 and missed the last 5 and a half games. The Aggies did beat Idaho in the game when his injury occurred, but lost the last 5 games. Still, the Aggies did gain more yards per game in the last 6 (453 per game) than the first 7 (398 per game), so it’s hard to pin their struggles solely on his injury. All in all, the offense underachieved in 2007 and must be better in 2008 for the Aggies to get back to a bowl. Holbrook and Williams return for their senior campaign, joined by fellow senior receiver AJ Harris (81 catches for 611 yards in 2007) and 3 returning starters on the offensive line. The offense should improve and may challenge Nevada and Boise State for the top spot in the WAC.

The defense, once again, was porous at best in 2007. The Aggies rank in total defense during Mumme’s tenure is listed below. Not good. In WAC play they were not any better. Only Utah State allowed more yards to conference opponents. More than any other, this area will determine what the Aggies are able to achieve in 2008. The Aggies bring back 7 starters, but lose 2 of their top-3 tacklers. It would be hard for the Aggies to be any worse defensively in 2008, but another finish near the bottom of the WAC in defense should be expected.

Prediction: Outside of Nicholls State, there is not a whole lot to like about the non-conference schedule. The Aggies travel to Nebraska and UTEP before hosting New Mexico. While the Aggies did beat the Miners last season, they have not beaten the Lobos since 2002. 2-2 seems to be the ceiling for their non-conference record. In WAC play, the Aggies have the misfortune of hosting Boise State (a likely loss anywhere), but can win the other 3 (San Jose State, Hawaii, and Louisiance Tech). The road conference schedule features 2 very winnable games (Idaho and Utah State) as well as 2 toughies (Nevada and Fresno State). With the offense they have and the likelihood that their turnover margin (-15 in 2007—113th in the nation) will improve, the Aggies have a decent shot at attaining bowl eligibility. However, they are not a contender for the WAC title.


San Jose State
After gaining their first postseason invite since 1990 in 2006, the Spartans slumped somewhat in a 5-7 follow up. However, the Spartans were still solid in WAC play, finishing 4-4 and posting the best yardage margin outside the top-3 schools (Hawaii, Boise State, and Nevada). Unfortunately, some key personnel losses and regression in turnover margin should keep the Spartans out of a bowl game for the second straight season.

Before analyzing the Spartans performance in 2007, I feel it’s appropriate to pay some respect to the Spartans head coach Dick Tomey. For the uninitiated, Tomey guided the Hawaii and Arizona programs before resurrecting the moribund Spartans. Tomey posted a 158-100-7 record at those 2 schools, and since being let go by the Wildcats after suffering only his 3rd losing season in 14 campaigns in 2000, Arizona has gone a collective 28-53, and posted zero winning seasons. Anyway, time to jump off the soapbox. As stated before, the Spartans were a solid WAC team last season. They were 4th in the league in yards gained. Unfortunately, their starting quarterback from last year’s team (and the school’s all-time leading passer), Adam Tafralis, has no eligibility left. His replacement will either be Cal transfer Kyle Reed (who broke his foot in spring practice) or redshirt freshman Jordan LaSecla. Either gentleman will have a bevy of position players to get the ball to. The team’s top-3 receivers all return, highlighted by Kevin Jurovich (85 receptions for 1183 yards last year). In addition, the team’s leading rusher from 2006, Yonus Davis, will likely return for a 6th year of eligibility after carrying the ball only 3 times last season. If Davis is granted a 6th year, the running attack should certainly improve upon the atrocious 2.61 yards per rush (116th in the nation) they averaged last year. Of course, improvement in that area is likely no matter who totes the rock. Collectively, the running game should be better than last season, but with the loss of a senior quarterback, the passing game should decline.

Last season, the Spartan defense finished 4th in WAC play in yards allowed. Again only the big 3 (Boise State, Hawaii, and Nevada) allowed fewer yards. That defense should decline in 2008 as the team’s top-3 tacklers are gone. The Spartans will certainly miss linebacker Matt Castelo who finished 9th in the nation with 141 tackles in 2007. Besides Castelo, the Spartans also lose a second player who posted over 100 tackles in 2007 (linebacker Demetrius Jones). The Spartan defense will be a work in progress and should improve as the year goes on, but should not be as strong as the 2007 version.

Prediction: Besides UC Davis, the non-conference slate is very tough with a home game against San Diego State sandwiched around trips to Nebraska and Stanford. In league play, the Spartans get 3 very winnable games at home (Utah State, Louisiana Tech, and Fresno State). The 4th comes against Boise State. Of course, the Spartans gave BCS-bound Boise all they could handle last time they strolled into town in a 23-20 loss in 2006. The road schedule includes games in 2 very tough venues (Hawaii and Nevada) and 2 very winnable games (New Mexico State and Idaho). The Spartans could conceivable knock off both the Aggies and Vandals, but a loss to one or the other is likely. Another area to watch for the Spartans is turnover margin. The Spartans were +13 last season (7th in the nation), thanks mostly to the fact that they committed only 14 turnovers all season (6th lowest in the nation). Part of that was the measly 11 interceptions that Tafralis threw, but it should also be noted that the Spartans lost only 3 fumbles all season (lowest in the nation). With a new quarterback and worse luck in the random bounces that occur throughout the season, the Spartans should commit a few more turnovers in 2008. This facet of the team will contribute greatly to their bowl-less campaign.


Idaho
Robb Akey begins his second season in Moscow hoping to win his first WAC game and notch his first victory over a Division IA program in 2008. As one of only 4 Division IA teams that plays its home games in a dome (Syracuse, Minnesota, and Tulane are the others), I’ve always been fascinated by the Vandals. Do the Vandals enjoy any kind of special homefield advantage by playing their home games indoors? With the regular season set to begin in less than 5 weeks, I don’t have the time, energy, or wherewithal to conduct a systematic study of all 119 Division IA teams, but I will offer a miniscule analysis of Idaho’s 2007 season with some home/road splits. The following table displays Idaho’s performance at home and on the road in 2007. For a fair comparison, their road game against Southern Cal is not included as the Trojans are in another stratosphere talent wise, and that game would only serve to skew their road numbers. As you can see, Idaho was actually a solid team at home, outgaining their foes by about 8 yards per game. Unfortunately, this did not translate to wins (1-5 at home) thanks to their poor turnover margin (-4) and some other extenuating factors. This fact is best illustrated in their game against Northern Illinois. The Vandals outgained the Huskies by 230 yards (586 to 356), but lost 42-35 thanks to 3 non-offensive touchdowns from the Huskies (a 95-yard interception return, a blocked punt recovered in the end zone, and a fumble recovery in the end zone).

Despite their winless record in the conference, the Vandals were far from the worst team in the league. Based on the yardage version of SDPI, the Vandals were better than both New Mexico State and Utah State. With 10 starters returning on the offensive side of the ball (the lone departing starter is a guard), the Vandals have a chance to rise in the standings. The starters who do return on the offensive line are all seniors so sophomore running back, and nephew of St. Louis Rams’ running back Steven Jackson, Deonte Jackson (1175 yards in 2007) should easily go over the 1000-yard mark again.

On defense, the future does not appear to be as bright. Only 4 starters return, and the Vandals lose 5 of their top-6 tacklers. While they were far from a dominant force last season (6th in yards allowed in conference play), the loss of so many experienced players should cause a decline.

Prediction: The Vandals have lost 13 straight games against WAC foes and 16 straight to Division IA teams. Both of those streaks should come to an end when the Vandals travel to Utah State on September 20th. With winnable conference home games against New Mexico State and San Jose State, the Vandals could conceivably win 3 or 4 times as many games as last season.


Utah State
The Aggies are the youngest son in the Utah family. You know, the one who dropped out of school and is currently ‘between jobs’, depending on the kindness and couches of others for sustenance and sleep. Older brothers BYU (doctor) and Utah (lawyer) constantly look down and berate them for their failed life choices. Can the Aggies get their big break in the form of a Power Ball ticket in 2008 (first winning season since 1997)?

Despite their 2 conference wins in 2007, the Aggies were by far the worst team in the WAC. They gained the fewest yards among their conference brethren and allowed the most. The only thing the Aggies did well in 2007 was complete a high percentage of their passes. Their team completion percentage of 65.1% ranked 12th in the nation. Unfortunately, their starting quarterback from last season, Leon Jackson, has exhausted his eligibility. Aside from Jackson, the offense also loses leading-receiver Kevin Robinson. 6 starters, including 3 along the offensive line, do return, but the Aggies will be hard-pressed to improve offensively.

On defense, the Aggies could shine (relatively) in 2008. 9 starters, including the top-7 tacklers return. Of course, as mentioned earlier, last year’s defense was the worst unit in the WAC. If nothing else, the Aggies should do a better job at getting to opposing passers in 2008. The Aggies totaled only 11.5 sacks last season (116th in the nation) so it would be hard to be any worse. The defense should be marginally better, but still among the worst in the WAC.

Prediction: With UNLV, Oregon, Utah, and BYU on the non-conference slate, the Aggies had better win a conference game or they could be looking at an 0-12 year. Their best chance for a conference win will come either in the conference opener (hosting Idaho) or the finale (hosting New Mexico State). With improvements elsewhere in the league, I’ll call for a winless campaign in 2008 and a new coach in 2009.

Predicted Records:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

2008 SEC Preview

East

Florida
One season after capturing the MNC in a memorable rout against top-ranked Ohio State, the training wheels came off the Urban Meyer-spread option and the offense began to pound everyone into submission. However, while the offense became one of the nation’s best (3rd in total offense and 4th in scoring), the defense lost 9 starters and went from allowing 13.5 points per game in 2006 to nearly double that (25.5) in 2007. Still, 9 wins and a Heisman Trophy account for a pretty good season by most standards.

The Gator offense returns most of its playmakers in 2008. The team’s leading rusher and passer, quarterback Tim Tebow (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) returns and barring a cataclysmic injury, should again be one of the best players in the nation. Teaming with Tebow, be it in the passing game or toting the rock is uber-speedster Percy Harvin. In his 2 seasons in Gainesville, Harvin has gained 1192 yards on the ground and averaged a mind-boggling 9.61 yards per carry. To put that number in perspective, the leading receiver for Notre Dame last season, John Carlson, averaged 9.30 yards per catch. Harvin is no slouch catching the football either, gaining 1285 yards through the air in his Florida career. The Gators lose only 3 starters from last year’s team—2 offensive linemen and 2nd leading receiver Andre Caldwell. The Gators should once again be one of the best offenses, not only in the SEC, but also the nation.

As mentioned earlier, the defense was very green in 2007, having lost 9 starters from the unit that dominated Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game. That relative inexperience last season should pay dividends in 2008 as 8 starters, and 5 of the top-6 tacklers return. The major loss is defensive end Derrick Harvey, who led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2007, and opted to leave for the greener pastures of the NFL. Of course, last season the Gators had to replace 4 NFL draft choices from the defensive line, so replacing one should be a piece of cake. The Gators will probably not be the elite unit they were in 2006 (6th in total and scoring defense), but with this explosive offense, they don’t need to be.

Prediction: The Gators leave the state of Florida only 3 times in 2008. They must face Tennessee in Knoxville, Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Vanderbilt in Nashville. Tennessee and Arkansas should both field weaker squads in 2008 than they did in 2007, and Vanderbilt is, well Vanderbilt. If the Gators can get by LSU at home and Georgia in the Cocktail Party, their only other stiff test would come in the SEC Championship Game. Florida is as good a bet as any to take home the MNC in 2008. In other news, I can’t wait to see the spread for their first game, a home date with Hawaii. Georgia shellacked a solid Hawaii team on a neutral field in the Sugar Bowl. Imagine what the Gators may do to a depleted Hawaii team in the friendly confines of the Swamp.


Georgia
Mark Richt has done nothing but win since coming to Georgia before the 2001 season. His Bulldogs have played in 3 BCS Bowl Games in 7 seasons, and Richt has posted a cumulative record of 72-19. If Richt sticks around, sooner or later, the MNC will come. Unfortunately for Georgia fans, it won’t come in 2008.

Why such hate for a team that finished 11-2 in 2007, won their last 7 games, qualified for a BCS bowl, and returns 17 starters in 2008? For starters, the offense was below average last season. The Bulldogs finished 74th in the nation in total offense, averaging 376 yards per game. In SEC play, the Bulldogs finished a very average 7th in yards gained. They did this despite having two of the nation’s most highly touted players in the backfield—running back Knowshon Moreno and quarterback Matthew Stafford. Moreno has lived up to the hype in his one season of play, compiling over 1300 yards on the ground and averaging a robust 5.38 yards per carry. However, for all the hype surrounding Stafford, he just hasn’t been that stellar. In 2006, his freshman year, he threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (7) and completed only 52.7% of his passes. His passer rating of 108.98 was not even in the top-100. He improved substantially in 2007, throwing 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He still struggled with accuracy, completing only 55.7% of his passes. His passer rating, while better (128.92), ranked only 56th in the nation. Stafford may improve somewhat, but he will still likely be only slightly above-average. Plus, with the loss of his number one receiver (Sean Bailey), the Georgia attack will be overly dependent on Moreno.

The Georgia defense made up for the shortcomings of the offense. The Bulldogs allowed only 323 yards per game (14th in the nation). In SEC play, only the powerhouse defenses in the SEC West (Auburn and LSU) fared better. After an embarrassing showing in Knoxville, when they gave up 411 yards and 35 points in a loss to Tennessee, the Bulldogs held their next 4 SEC foes (Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn, and Kentucky) to 292 yards per game. Amazingly, the Sun Belt’s Troy Trojans gained the most yards against the Georgia defense in 2007, racking up 488 yards (a lot of it in garbage time). The Georgia defense should remain among the SEC’s best in 2008. 9 starters, including 6 of the top-7 tacklers are back. The Bulldogs will miss defensive end Marcus Howard and his team-leading 10.5 sacks, but the Bulldogs had 42 as a team (6th in the nation) in 2007, so the pass rush should still be brutal.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule has one gigantic landmine against Arizona State in Tempe. If they survive that game, they could very well be 7-0 when they travel to LSU in late October. Unfortunately, in their last 5 games, the Bulldogs must travel to LSU, Auburn, and face Florida in the Cocktail Party. The schedule is simply too daunting for a team with so many offensive issues to navigate without a few losses.


South Carolina
It wasn’t supposed to end like that. On the morning of October 20th, the Gamecocks stood 6-1 and were ranked #6 in the country. Their opponent that day in Columbia, Vanderbilt, had not beaten the Gamecocks since their winless campaign (0-11) in 1999. When the smoke cleared that Saturday evening, the Gamecocks had committed 4 turnovers and scored only 6 points in an embarrassing loss. That loss dropped the Gamecocks to 6-2, and they win not win another game. Some of the losses were heart-wrenching (Tennessee and Clemson) and some were ugly (Arkansas rushed for over 500 yards), but they happened, and they kept the Gamecocks home for the postseason. Can the Gamecocks shake off the ugly ending to last season and resume their hunt for an SEC East title?

The Gamecocks had a decent offense in 2007 (though not by typical Spurrier standards), averaging 372 yards per game (77th in the nation). In SEC play, the Gamecocks were 6th in yards gained. The Gamecocks bring back 7 starters in 2008, including 4 offensive linemen. In addition, two players who were not starters in 2007, quarterback Chris Smelley and running back Mike Davis, saw significant action in 2007. Smelly threw passes in 7 games and posted an efficiency rating of 127.46. Although he did not have enough attempts to qualify, that rating would rank 58th in the nation (just 2 spot below the aforementioned quarterback for the University of Georgia). Davis gained 518 yards on the ground in 2007 spelling Cory Boyd. The Gamecocks offense should be just as good, if not better in 2008 with the continuity on the offensive line and the return of the top-2 receivers, Kenny McKinley and tight end Jared Cook.

If the Gamecocks are to rise in the SEC standings, the defense, in particular the run defense will have to improve. The Gamecocks were a respectable 56th in total defense, allowing an average of 378 yards per game. However, the run defense was atrocious, permitting 209 yards per game (110th in the nation). They also allowed 4.85 yards per rush (101st in the nation), proving that they were not the victims of an inordinate number of runs. Every team gained at least 100 yards on the ground against the porous run defense (Tennessee at 101 yards was the lowest). The run defense was not appreciably worse in the 5-game losing streak either, it was bad all year, and if we remove the Arkansas game, it was arguably better at the end of the year. The good news for South Carolina fans is that 9 starters are back in 2008. That number jumps to 10 if we include Jasper Brinkley, a 1st Team SEC linebacker in 2006, who played in only 4 games last season due to injury. The Gamecock defense should be substantially improved, and the team’s record should follow suit.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule includes two walkovers (Wofford and UAB), a Thursday night home opener against NC State, and the annual rivalry game at Clemson. The Gamecocks should be 3-1 at worst against that lineup. In conference play, the Gamecocks have very winnable road games at Vanderbilt (won last 4 times in Nashville), Kentucky (won last 4 at Lexington), and Ole Miss. The home schedule has two very winnable games (Tennessee and Arkansas) and two toughies (Georgia and LSU). When all is said and done, the Gamecocks should be one of the top-3 teams in the SEC East.


Vanderbilt
The Commodores have come oh so close to gaining bowl eligibility 2 of the past 3 seasons. In 2005, they began the season 4-0, before losing 6 straight (4 by 7 points or less) to fall out of bowl contention. In 2007, they needed just 1 win in their final 4 games to attain bowl eligibility. They lost all 4 (2 by a combined 8 points). Can the Commodores end 26 years of heartache and qualify for their first bowl game since 1982?

Last season the Vanderbilt offense was among the worst in the nation. They gained only 327 yards per game (103rd in the nation) and scored only 21.7 points per game (93rd in the nation). In SEC play, only one team gained fewer yards (Mississippi State). That dilapidated unit loses 8 starters in 2008, including all 5 offensive linemen, the team’s leading receiver (Earl Bennett) and the team’s leading rusher (Cassen Jackson-Garrison). Sounds like the Commodores may be in for a truly lousy offensive season. Of course, it pays to remember that in 2007 Vandy brought back 10 offensive starters and actually averaged fewer yards (327 to 351) and fewer points (21.7 to 22.0) per game. So maybe those players starting all those games just weren’t that good? I don’t think Vandy will light up the scoreboard in 2008, but if the offense declines it will not be by much.

Defensively, Vanderbilt fielded one of the better units in the program’s history last season. Opponents averaged only 325 yards per game (16th in the nation). In SEC play, Vandy allowed the 6th fewest yards, but amazingly had the 2nd best yardage defense in the SEC East. Of East teams, only Georgia allowed fewer yards. That’s a pretty amazing feat for Vandy to allow fewer yards than the 4 other public institutions with much better traditions and talent (Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina) in the SEC East. The Vandy defense returns 6 starters in 2008, but loses 2 of their best players in linebackers Jonathan Goff (1st in tackles) and Marcus Buggs (3rd in tackles). The entire secondary does return, so the pass defense which held opposing passers to a solid rating of 118.03 (42nd in the nation) should remain a strength.

Prediction: With non-conference games against Miami (Ohio), Rice, Duke, and Wake Forest the chance for a 3-1 mark outside the SEC is very good. If the Commodores can upset Wake on the last weekend in November, they could be looking at 4 non-league wins. In SEC play, Vandy has a very tough home schedule (South Carolina, Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee). I wouldn’t expect them to knock off the Tigers or Gators, but the Gamecocks or Vols (beaten each once in the last 3 seasons) could be an upset victim. The road schedule is very manageable with winnable games at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky (lost last 4 to Wildcats). Vandy’s luck just has to change. In one-score SEC games under Bobby Johnson, the Commodores are just 4-17. With a little bit of luck, they could have played in 2 bowl games already. The fates will smile on the Commodores in 2008, and they will qualify for their first bowl game since 1982.


Tennessee
Take a moment and try to remember back to the 2004 season. Tennessee played in the SEC Championship Game after seemingly narrowly escaping each conference opponent. In the offseason, Tennessee was the toast of pundits nationwide. But alas, one man told Tennessee fans to reel in expectations. Unfortunately, for Tennessee fans, 2008 could look a great deal like 2005.

Can you guess which SEC team allowed the most yards in conference play last year? That’s right, it was the Tennessee Vols. What’s even more amazing is how schizophrenic the defense was. The table below lists the yardage totals Tennessee allowed in their 8 conference games. As you can see, the defense improved substantially throughout the course of the season. Just kidding. I fudged those numbers quite a bit. The games where they allowed over 500 yards came throughout the season, just as the games where they offered a stiff defense came sporadically. In their first SEC game, Florida gained 554 yards in a thorough beating at the Swamp. 3 weeks later, they held Georgia to 243 yards. They followed that up with a solid performance against Mississippi State (338 yards), before getting blitzed by Alabama (510 yards) and South Carolina (501 yards) in consecutive weeks. Just 2 weeks later, they held the explosive Arkansas attack to 289 yards (one week after the Hogs eviscerated the Gamecocks) and then allowed a scant 270 yards to Vanderbilt. The Vols closed the SEC regular season by allowing 564 yards to Kentucky. If there ever was a time when you really didn’t know what you were going to get, it was with the Tennessee defense in 2007. Even outside the SEC, they could be good (held Wisconsin to 347 yards in the bowl win) or bad (gave up 471 in the opener at Cal). The Vols return 6 starters from that helter-skelter unit. They do lose their best player, linebacker Jerod Mayo, who bolted early for the NFL, but the Vols should no longer feature the worst defense in the SEC.

While the defense should be better, the offense has to replace perhaps the most important member of the 2007 unit, quarterback Erik Ainge. Ainge tossed 31 touchdowns last season and posted a passer rating of 135.48 (36th in the nation). Besides Ainge, most of the key contributors return. Running back Arian Foster, the team’s three best receivers (Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers, and Josh Briscoe) and 4 starting offensive linemen return. Ainge’s likely replacement, junior Jonathan Crompton, will have good talent surrounding him. While the Vols will surely miss Ainge, the offense, if it does falter, should do so only negligibly.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features 3 sure wins (UAB, Northern Illinois, and Wyoming all come to Neyland Stadium) and one very dangerous game—the opener at UCLA on Labor Day. Inside the SEC, the Vols have tough road trips to Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt while hosting Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Kentucky. While the Vols won 10 games last season, they were extremely fortunate to do so. Even if the offense and defense improve, the luck may not. Expect the Vols to have a losing SEC record for the 2nd time in 4 seasons.


Kentucky
Flashback if you will to the late 1990’s. Mel Gibson was a box-office stud (and not the hate-spewing anti-Semite he has become—at least not in public), Britney Spears was an innocent pop princess, and the Kentucky Wildcats had just participated in their second consecutive bowl game. The Wildcats followed up that pair of bowl games with a 2-9 record (winless in the SEC) in 2000. Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, a similar fate may await the 2008 squad.

The past 2 seasons, the Wildcats have been a little more lucky than good. While they have gone a collective 16-10 over that span, they have a sterling 8-4 in one-score games. That luck is likely to reverse course in 2008. In addition, the Wildcat offense, the driving force behind the team’s run of success, losses all of its stars. Quarterback Andre Woodson (13th in pass efficiency in 2006 and 20th in 2007) is gone, as are running back Rafael Little (over 1000 yards rushing and 42 catches last season), and receivers Steve Johnson (over 1000 yards and 13 touchdowns last season) and Keenan Burton (over 1000 yards in 2006 and over 700 last season). The positives for the offense are that 3 starting linemen return and receiver Dicky Lyons (nearly 1500 receiving yards the past two seasons) could prove a solid replacement for Johnson or Burton. Still, likely signal-caller Curtis Pulley, should not come close to matching Woodson’s production.

Defense has been a problem for the Wildcats seemingly since the dawn of time. Last season the Wildcats finished a respectable 67th in total defense, permitting 397 yards per game. However, in SEC play, their 10th place finish in yards allowed was much more indicative of their quality. Only Ole Miss and Tennessee allowed more yards in SEC play. The Wildcats do bring back 8 starters in 2008, and could conceivably improve. However, improve in this case means trend toward mediocrity, which will not be good enough to make up for the losses on offense.

Prediction: Outside of Louisville, the non-conference schedule is a breeze, featuring the likes of Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky. After a 3-1 start, things will start to get rough. Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State, and Tennessee dot the road schedule, while South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Vanderbilt come to Lexington. With so much talent departing on offense and an almost assured reversal in good fortune, the Wildcats will sink to the bottom of the SEC East.


West

Auburn
In the Brandon Cox era (2005-20070, the Auburn Tigers went 29-9, 18-6 in the SEC, and defeated rival Alabama 3 times. However, one has to wonder what the team could have done with a little more consistency at the quarterback position. The following table lists Auburn’s national rank in total offense, total defense, and passer rating the past 3 seasons. As you can see, as the defense became elite, the offense became putrid. A great deal of that is due to the play of Brandon Cox. In his first season as a starter, Cox threw 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, hardly Heisman numbers, but very solid. In his senior season, he threw only 9 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In fact if he look at the disappointing losses over the past 3 seasons, nearly all of them involved a terrible game from Cox.

2005: In the season opener (his first game as a starter), Georgia Tech picked him off 4 times. In the bowl upset to Wisconsin, Cox completed only 15 of 33 passes for a measly 137 yards.

2006: In the loss to upstart Arkansas, Cox gained only 153 yards on 29 passes. In the whitewashing at the hands of Georgia, he totaled just as many interceptions (4) as completions.

2007: In the loss to South Florida, Cox completed less than half his throws (16 of 35) for only 165 yards. In the shocker to Mississippi State, Cox threw 2 interceptions in only 10 pass attempts. In yet another blowout loss to Georgia, Cox threw 4 picks. All told, here is how Cox performed in the 29 Tiger wins versus the 9 Tiger losses of his starting career.
As you can see, when Cox was bad, he was very bad. So what does this have to do with 2008? Not a whole lot. Cox has moved on and the Tigers have embraced some form of the spread offense, complete with a mobile quarterback (Kodi Burns), which they showcased with moderate success in the Peach (err Chick-Fil-A) Bowl win over Clemson. Besides Cox, the only other loss on offense is a non-descript tight end. The offense should improve substantially in 2008 and give the team a legitimate shot at getting to the SEC Championship Game.

The Tigers had the best defensive unit in the SEC last season. Even better than conference (and MNC) champion LSU. These Tigers allowed a scant 283 yards per game to their SEC foes. 7 starters return, including defensive end Antonio Coleman, whose 8.5 sacks led the team last season. The defense may fall somewhat from its perch at the top, but it should remain one of the finer units in the nation.

Prediction: The Tigers begin the year with Louisiana-Monroe, and two upsets over SEC schools in 10 calendar months seems a little much for the Warhawks. Elsewhere in non-conference play, the Tigers host Southern Miss and Tennessee-Martin and in one of the marquee games of the year, travel to West Virginia on a Thursday night in late-October. That game will serve more to validate West Virginia’s season, but an Auburn win could position them to play for the MNC even with an inevitable loss in SEC play. In league play, the Tigers road schedule (Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Alabama) is very manageable, but the Tigers will probably slip up in one of those games. The home schedule is where the action is, with LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia coming to Jordan-Hare. The benefit of hosting LSU gives Auburn the edge over those other Tigers in the SEC West.


LSU
The 2007 season ended like the previous two years of the Les Miles era, with two losses and a bowl win. However, since every other major team in the nation also had two losses, and more importantly, the teams in their division all had at least three losses, the Tigers were able to take home the MNC. Was LSU the best team in 2008? There’s some pretty significant statistical evidence that they were. By the both measures of SDPI, they were the best team in the best conference. For posterity’s sake, it would be prudent to note that the Tigers did lose to two teams—Kentucky and Arkansas that combined to lose 10 games last season. The also had a solid 4-2 record in one-score games and had an outstanding turnover margin of +20. The Tigers were a very good team (I’m hesitant to throw out the word great) in 2007, but they were also propped up by a host of other mitigating factors; many of which lay outside their control.

In SEC play, the Tigers the gained the 3rd most yards (behind Florida and Arkansas) and allowed the 2nd fewest (behind Auburn). In other words they were strong on both sides of the ball. With significant losses on both sides, they should remain strong, just not as strong. On offense, the Tigers lose their starting quarterback (Matt Flynn) and running back (Jacob Hester). The Tigers do return their top-2 receivers (Brandon LaFell and Demetrius Byrd) as well as 4 starting offensive linemen. However, the biggest loss on offense may be quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who was slated to be the starter in 2008, but has subsequently been dismissed from the team. Likely starter, redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee, has yet to see any game action. He was weapons, but lacks experience, so the offense is likely to go through some growing pains early on.

The defense loses the most talent from the squad with only 5 starters returning. Among those departing are defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (1st round draft pick), linebacker Ali Highsmith (2nd team All-American), and safety Craig Steltz (4th round draft pick). The best returning player is defensive end Kirston Pittman, who led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2007. The unit should remain stout, but is likely to decline somewhat with the loss of so many talented players.

Prediction: Even with Appalachian State on the schedule, the non-conference slate should result in 4 wins (Troy, North Texas, and Tulane are the other foes). In SEC play, the Tigers have 4 very tough road contests—Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas. The home schedule has Georgia as the marquee foe along with Alabama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. The schedule is too daunting and the ridiculous turnover margin of +20 will surely come down and prevent the Tigers from defending their conference and national title.


Alabama
Talk about not getting what you pay for. After forking over a king’s ransom to acquire the services of perpetual job hunter Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide won exactly one more game in 2007 than they did in 2006. To be fair they did win twice as many SEC games (4 versus 2), but when you lose to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, the season cannot be considered a success.

Last season the Alabama offense was mediocre by national standards (75th in total offense) and below average by SEC standards (8th in yards gained in conference play). The good news for Alabama fans is that the offense should improve in 2008. Quarterback John Parker Wilson returns for his senior season (3rd as a starter). Wilson posted a respectable passer rating of 126.50 in 2006 (47th in the nation), but saw his efficiency plummet to 114.61 in 2007 (92nd in the nation). If Wilson can regain his 2006 form, the offense could see some significant improvement. Elsewhere on the offensive side of the ball, the Tide return their leading rusher, Terry Grant. Grant gained nearly 900 yards in his first season of action. With 4 starting offensive linemen back, Grant should easily top 1000 yards. The only issue the offense could have is finding a reliable go-to receiver. The top-3 pass-catchers from 2007 (DJ Hall, Matt Caddell, and Keith Brown) are all gone. The lack of an experienced reliable receiver could hinder Wilson’s progression and slow down the entire offense.

The Tide defense was pretty good last season, finishing 31st in total defense, permitting 346 yards per game. In SEC play, they were 4th in yards allowed, behind the stout defenses at Auburn, LSU, and Georgia. The Tide defense returns 6 starters in 2008, including leading tackler and 1st team All-SEC safety Rashad Johnson. However, the team’s top sacker, defensive end Wallace Gilberry (10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 2007), has exhausted his eligibility. The defense should be roughly on par with last year’s unit. Perhaps a bit better, perhaps a bit worse, but for all intents and purposes very similar.

Prediction: The Tide open with Clemson in an intriguing ACC/SEC clash. Their other non-conference games are against Tulane, Western Kentucky, and Arkansas State. Barring another total meltdown like last year’s debacle against Louisiana-Monroe, the Tide should be 3-1 at worst outside the SEC. In conference play, the Tide’s home schedule is very manageable—Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn. If the Tide can reverse their recent trend against the Tigers, they could very well sweep the home schedule. The road schedule is another issue entirely—Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and LSU are all conceivable losses. The Tide don’t seem to be significantly improved in Saban’s 2nd season, so another 4-4 SEC record seems likely.


Ole Miss
In the fiasco that was the Ed Orgeron era (2005-2007), the Ole Miss Rebels won 3 SEC games. With a new coach (former Arkansas head man Houston Nutt), an intriguing quarterback transfer, a favorable schedule, and some positive statistical indicators, the Rebels should equal and could exceed their SEC win total from the 3 previous seasons.

Last season, Ole Miss featured one of the worst offenses in the nation and in the SEC. The Rebels gained only 345 yards per game (91st in the nation) overall and in SEC play only Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State gained fewer yards. A single player, quarterback and Texas transfer Jevan Snead, may be just what the offense needs to get out of the doldrums. These are the quarterback ratings and national ranking the Ole Miss offense has produced the past 4 seasons (since Eli Manning graduated). That’s a pretty horrendous track record. However, Snead, a highly sought after recruit who failed to beat out Colt McCoy at Texas in 2006, should go a long way toward rectifying those numbers. To aid Snead in his quest to bring relevance to Oxford are 4 returning starters on the offensive line (including Michael Oher of Blindside fame) and the top-3 receivers from 2007. The Rebels do lose their leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (over 1100 yards in 2007), but Nutt has a history of producing quality running backs. The Ole Miss offense should be substantially improved in 2008.

The Reb defense from last season did the misfiring offense no favors. Only Tennessee allowed more yards in SEC play than Ole Miss. In non-conference action, even IAA Northwestern State gained 499 yards! Overall, the Rebels finished 88th in total defense, allowing 423 yards per game. However, the 2008 unit should be one of the most improved defenses in the nation. Amazingly, the Rebels return their top-14 tacklers in 2008! That’s not a misprint. 14. The best of the lot is undoubtedly defensive end Greg Hardy who registered a team-leading 10 sacks in 2007. The Ole Miss defense should rise to the upper-half of the SEC in 2008.

Prediction: In non-conference action, the Rebels open with Memphis for the 5th straight season. The Rebels have faced Memphis every season since 2002, and have won 4 of 6, but the last 4 games in the series have been decided by 7 points or less. The Rebels would be wise to not overlook their opponent from Conference USA. The Rebels follow that up with a trip to Winton-Salem to take on Wake Forest. In their last meeting, in Oxford in 2006, the Deacons trounced the Rebs 27-3. It won’t be easy, but Ole Miss could very well knock off the Deacons. The Rebels other two non-conference games are relative layups at home against Samford and Louisiana-Monroe. Anything worse than 3-1 outside the SEC is grounds for worry. In SEC play, the Rebels have 3 very winnable home games—Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi State. The other is against Auburn. The road schedule is much more daunting with trips to Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU. If the Rebels can score a mild upset at home, they could break even in SEC play. Besides the new coach, talented quarterback, and host of returning starters, the Rebels were also a poor -10 in turnover margin last season. All those positive indicators should have the Rebels back in postseason play for the first time since 2003.


Arkansas
One year after taking the nation by storm and rising as high as #5 in the polls, the Hogs fell back to Earth and suffered their 6th .500 or worse finish in SEC play in the last 8 seasons. They were also utterly decimated by Missouri in the Cotton Bowl and figure to be a much different (though not necessarily better) team in 2008.

The 2007 Arkansas offense was the antithesis of balance. They averaged 287 yards per game on the ground (4th in the nation) and an otherworldly 5.96 yards per rush behind the dynamic duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. They averaged only 163 yards though the air (112th in the nation). When the offense couldn’t run the ball, the team was toast. In the games where they were offensively impotent (7 points versus Auburn, 13 points versus Tennessee, and 7 points versus Missouri), the team averaged only 119 yards on the ground and 3.23 yards per rush. Quarterback Casey Dick was unable to rescue the offense when McFadden or Jones were contained. Dick posted solid overall numbers, with an efficiency rating of 126.63 (62nd in the nation), but he was prone to mixing in good games with some real ugly ones. Dick posted a very good rating of 135.12 against a solid Alabama pass defense, and followed that up with a 79.24 rating against a weak Kentucky defense. Further illustrating the point, he was eaten alive by the manic-depressive Tennessee defense (89.83 rating) and then torched the solid Mississippi State unit the following week (258.33 rating). New head coach Bobby Petrino has a penchant for cultivating good quarterbacks, but with just one season to work with, I wouldn’t bet on Dick becoming an elite passer. With the loss of McFadden and Jones, as well as number one receiver Peyton Hillis, the Hog offense should decline in 2008.

The Arkansas defense, a strength in 2006 when they allowed a mere 300 yards per game (26th in the nation), became a weakness in 2007. The Hogs finished a respectable 46th in total defense (366 yards per game), but in SEC play, only Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee allowed more yards. Marked improvement is not likely in 2008 as the Hogs return just 5 starters and lose their top-2 and 5 of their top-6 tacklers. The biggest loss is in the secondary where the entire starting lineup has departed. The Hogs should be about where they were last season in regards to defense, below average, but not terrible.

Prediction: Arkansas has 3 non-BCS foes on the schedule, and the first two they face should offer no real test (Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe). However, the third presents a very unique challenge. Tulsa comes to Fayetteville in the middle of the SEC season (November 1st) and their spread offense is led by coordinator Gus Malzahan, who coordinated the Arkansas offense in 2006. While the Hogs certainly have the talent advantage, the Tulsa offense could give the Hogs some trouble. Realistically, that game could determine if Arkansas is bowl bound, as 3 wins looks to be the maximum in conference play, and the Hog other non-conference game is in Austin against Texas.


Mississippi State
Although they were outscored on the season by 22 points and outgained by 452 yards, the Bulldogs finished 8-5 and won a bowl game for the first time since 2000. Despite some solid returning players, especially on defense, Mississippi State should be due for a big fall in 2008.

How did Mississippi State win in 2007? With a good defense (21st in total defense and 5th in yards allowed in SEC play) and some good luck. The Bulldogs were 4-0 in one-score games, befitting a team that won 8 games despite being outscored. The Bulldogs also had 6 non-offensive touchdowns (5 interceptions and one punt return), many of which came at very opportune times. An interception return was the difference in a 19-14 win over Auburn, the very famous pick-6 before halftime was the difference in a 17-12 win over Alabama, and safety Derek Pegues punt return tied the game against rival Ole Miss (eventually won by the Bulldogs on a last-second field goal). Of course, these things happened, so let’s give the Bulldogs some credit. However, defensive and special teams touchdowns are essentially random events and not highly correlated from one season to the next. Suffice it to say, the Bulldogs will have a tough time matching their non-offensive touchdowns in 2008. They will have an even tougher time having those non-offensive touchdowns occur at such critical moments.

With the 5th best defense in the SEC, why did the Bulldogs need such good fortune to qualify for a bowl game? Because the offense sucked. The Bulldogs gained only 297 yards per game (113th in the nation) and in SEC play, they gained the fewest yards of any team. Freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll fared much better than junior Michael Henig (104.57 quarterback rating versus 75.44), but his passer rating was not even in the top-100. As a team, the Bulldogs finished 117th in passer rating (98.46), ahead of only Idaho and Florida International. While Carroll may improve slightly, it would be a mistake to expect him to finally ‘get it’ and become an above-average passer. The Bulldogs best hope to field a decent offense is running back Anthony Dixon. Dixon topped 1000 yards last season (1064), but of all the running backs to top that mark, he was the only one to average under 4 yards per carry (3.69). With only two starting offensive linemen returning to lead the way, Dixon will have a tough time bettering his 2007 numbers.

Prediction: Mississippi State’s season may well begin rather ominously as they travel to Ruston, Louisiana to take on some more Bulldogs from Louisiana Tech. I’m not saying the lesser-regarded canines will win, but it should certainly be interesting. Elsewhere in non-conference action, Mississippi State hosts SE Louisiana and Middle Tennessee State before traveling to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. Depending on the result of the opener, the Bulldogs should either be 3-1 or 2-2 outside the SEC. In SEC play, the Bulldogs best odds at winning come at home against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Arkansas. If they win all 3 of those, they should get to bowl eligibility, but that’s a dubious proposition.

Predicted Records:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

2008 Pac-10 Preview

Southern Cal
The Trojans look to make it 7 straight Pac-10 titles. Can anyone out west loosen their Florida State-esque stranglehold on the conference? The past 6 seasons, USC has gone an incredible 44-6 against Pac-10 foes. Amazingly, no team in that span has beaten the Trojans twice. Each of their 6 Pac-10 losses has also come by no more than 7 points. That is the epitome of dominance. Barring some miraculous seasons at Cal or Oregon, their run should continue in 2008.

In 2007, the Trojans had a very prolific offense, led by quarterback John David Booty. The Trojans averaged 435 yards per game (29th in the nation) and scored 32.6 points per game (34th in the nation). While the Booty-led Trojans didn’t live up to the standard set by Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Lendale White, they were still pretty good in their own right. Amazingly in 2008, the Trojans bring back only 4 offensive starters. Their leading passer (Booty), rusher (Chauncey Washington) and receiver (Fred Davis) are all gone, as well as 4 starting offensive linemen. The men replacing them are all blue-chip recruits, but the Trojans should suffer a decline in their offensive capabilities and may average under 30 points per game for the first time since 2001.

The defense, which ranked 2nd in the country in yards allowed per game (273), returns 7 starters in 2008. The unit should still be among the best in the Pac-10, but arguably the two best players (both from the defensive line) are gone. Lawrence Jackson, a defensive end who led the team with 10.5 sacks has departed and his partner on the line, tackle Sedrick Ellis (the Pac-10 defensive player of the year) is also gone. Those two players alone accounted for 19 of the Trojans 45 sacks (4th in the nation) last season. Despite the players Pete Carroll has recruited to fill the holes, the Trojans defensive line will suffer a small decline and the team will not get as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks from their front four.

Prediction: The Trojans have, not necessarily holes, but certainly inexperience at key positions (quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive line) in 2008. Still, the Trojans have won 6 Pac-10 titles in a row for a reason. I won’t be picking against them until someone finally knocks them from their perch. I don’t expect an undefeated conference record, but they do get their toughest Pac-10 foes (Oregon, Cal, and Arizona State) in Los Angeles in 2008. In non-conference action, the home against Ohio State will get the most pub, but the opener at Virginia, with so many new starters to integrate, could end up being a compelling game.


California
2007 marked the first time the Cal Bears had a losing record in Pac-10 play with Jeff Tedford as the coach. The Bears began conference play 2-0, but lost 6 of their last 7 to finish with a 3-6 record. The previous low-point under the Tedford administration was a 4-4 record in 2002 (his first season) and another 4-4 record in 2005. What happened? Why did the Bears suddenly collapse? As you can see, in the first 2 games, the Bears and their opponents (Arizona and Oregon) gained about the same number of yards, but the Bears were much more efficient, averaging 7/10ths of a yard more per play. They also had a fantastic turnover margin of +6. Over the next 7 games, the Bears continued to outplay their opponents on a down-to-down basis, manifested in the yards and yards per play totals, but they couldn’t stop turning the ball over. Most of those turnovers belonged to quarterback Nate Longshore who threw 11 interceptions over the team’s final 7 conference games. Entering his senior season, Longshore is no longer entrenched as the starter. He will be challenged by last year’s backup Kevin Riley. Riley posted a much better passer rating (174.64 to 123.01) in limited action and will get every chance to win the job. He took over for Longshore in the bowl and led the Bears to a comeback win over Air Force. Whoever wins the starting job will have a lot of new faces to throw and hand off to. The leading rusher, Justin Forsett (over 1500 yards) is gone, as are the top-4 receivers. Fortunately, 3 starting offensive linemen do return so protection should not be an issue. For the second season in a row, Cal should average under 30 points per game. However, if the quarterback can take better care of the ball, Cal should rise in the standings.

The Cal defense finished a rather bland 58th in yards allowed in 2007, permitting opponents to roll up 379 yards per game. However, in Pac-10 play (the most offensive of the BCS leagues), Cal finished a respectable 5th in yards allowed. The defense should improve in 2008, with 8 starters returning. The Bears must replace leading tackler Thomas DeCoud, but nearly all the other key contributors return. All 3 linebackers and 3 of 4 defensive linemen are back, making the front 7 very formidable. Look for Cal to improve upon the pedestrian 21 sacks (85th in the nation) they amassed in 2007.

Prediction: Sandwiched between their Pac-10 opener at Washington State, the Bears host the Big 10’s Michigan State and travel to College Park to take on Maryland out of the ACC. Kudos to the Bears for scheduling some living, breathing BCS teams (and even going on the road) in their non-conference schedule. The Bears should handle the Spartans at home, but the cross-country trip to Maryland will be very tough. In their final non-conference game, they host Colorado State. At worse, they should have a 2-1 record outside the Pac-10. In conference play, they have 5 home games, all of which are very winnable (Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, and Washington). On the road, they must face Southern Cal (a certain loss) and then 3 teams that they can realistically expect to beat (Washington State, Arizona, and Oregon State). They won’t win all 3 of those, but taking 2 is certainly within reason. Cal should be headed to the Holiday Bowl in late December.


Oregon
It’s hard not to look back on 2007 as somewhat of a disappointment for the Ducks. If Dennis Dixon hadn’t gone down against Arizona, could they have finished off the Wildcats, Bruins, and Beavers and positioned themselves for a shot at the MNC? Ah, but we shall never know. Dixon did go down against Arizona, and his replacements failed to do much of anything until the surprising thrashing of South Florida in the Sun Bowl. Especially in line for some staunch criticism is quarterback Cody Kempt who started the game immediately after Dixon’s injury—a shutout at the hands of UCLA. Kempt’s stat line for that game? 6 completions in 23 attempts for 52 yards and 2 interceptions. Yikes. He missed his first 3 pass attempts against Oregon State the next week and was yanked in favor of Justin Roper. Roper posted decent numbers against the Beavers and again against the Bulls in the Sun Bowl, but the Ducks trounced South Florida thanks to the ground game. Jonathan Stewart went over 253 yards and averaged 11 yards per carry against the previously stout South Florida defense. Unfortunately for Roper or fellow sophomore Nathan Costa (the competitors for the starting quarterback job), Stewart’s days as a Duck are over. His 1700+ plus yards will be hard to replace. And don’t forget the Duck ground game that churned out 253 yards per game (6th in the nation) also loses Dixon. Roper is not athletic, but Costa does give the Ducks a dual threat under center. It will be interesting to see if the prototypical pocket passer or the more athletic speed guy wins the quarterback battle. Whoever wins the battle, will have the services of wide receiver Jaison Williams (another one!) and tight end Ed Dickson, the two leading receivers from 2007. The offensive line also returns 3 of 5 starters, so while the offense will certainly not be as prolific as last year’s version, it should remain in the upper tier of the Pac-10.

Defensively, the Ducks were very nondescript in 2007. They ranked 60th in the nation in total defense, allowing 382 yards per game. In Pac-10 play, they were 6th in yards allowed which was right at average last season. The defense was not going to win games by itself, but coupled with the Dixon led offense, it was good enough for a Pac-10 title. The best thing the defense did in 2007 was pressure the quarterback. The unit had 38.5 sacks (17th in the nation) for the season. The majority of those sacks, and 7 total starters return to the team in 2008. Led by senior defensive end Nick Reed (team-leading 12 sacks in 2007) the front 7 should once again be able to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks. Oregon’s defense will not rise to an elite level in 2008, but it should improve.

Prediction: Outside the Pac-10, the Ducks have a walkover against Utah State, a dangerous road test at Purdue, and a very sexy showdown with Boise State in Autzen Stadium. The game against Boise State may well determine if the Broncos can qualify for a BCS bowl in 2008. In conference play, the Ducks have only 4 home games, and they must face Southern Cal, Arizona State, and Cal on the road. Even if they lose all 3 of those games (likely), the Ducks should be able to steal a roadie against either Washington State or arch-rival Oregon State and post a winning record in the league.


Arizona
After posting a pathetic offensive showing in 2006, during which they averaged only 253 yards per game (115th in the nation), the Wildcats poached offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes from Texas Tech to resuscitate their dying attack. They still couldn’t run the ball at all (77 yards per game—114th in the nation), but they passed for over 300 yards per game and jumped to 67th in the nation in total offense. However, their total offense was still below average, especially for the Pac-10. In Pac-10 play, they were 7th in yards gained, ahead of only Oregon State, UCLA, and Stanford. If a bowl bid, and a saved job, are in the works for 2008, the offense must continue to improve.

The good news is that offensive improvement could very well happen in 2008. Only a solitary starter from the 2007 team (left tackle) is gone. The quarterback, running back, and top-4 receivers are all back for more in 2008. The quarterback, Willie Tuitama, took a real shine to the new offense in 2007. His passer rating of 134.23 (39th in the nation) was nearly 20 points higher than his rating in 2006 (114.33). Tuitama also displayed surprising durability, a real concern since he missed parts of 6 games in 2006. If Tuitama can maintain and the running game can rise from the abyss the Arizona offense will continue to improve in 2008.

On the other side of the ball, things don’t look quite as rosy. In 2007, the defense, like the offense was the 7th best in the Pac-10 in terms of yards. They return a paltry 3 starters in 2008. 7 of their top-9 tacklers and 75% of their total sacks (19.5 of 26) are gone. A major rebuilding effort will be in order. Thankfully, the offense should be able to keep the team in most games.

Prediction: Arizona does benefit from 5 Pac-10 home games in 2008. Unfortunately, one of them is against Southern Cal. If they can steal a road game at Stanford, and hold serve at home (easier said than done with Cal also on the home slate), they could finish with a winning record in conference play. Outside the league, they host Idaho and Toledo. They should roll over Idaho, and while the Toledo offense may give them problems, they should be able to outscore the Rockets. A winning record in the regular season will likely come down to the 3rd non-conference game at New Mexico. The Lobos shocked the Wildcats in Tucson last season, so this is definitely not a sure thing. While researching Arizona, I came upon an interesting little statistical nugget. If only they could play all their games in November.


Arizona State
After never quite being able to get over the hump in the Dirk Koetter regime, the Sun Devils finally made it in 2007. Under first year head coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils rolled out to an 8-0 start and by season’s end were co-champions of the Pac-10. The Sun Devils were somewhat exposed in the last 5 games when they faced 3 ranked teams (Oregon, Southern Cal, and Texas), and lost all 3 games. Contrast that to their first 8 games when they faced only one ranked foe (Cal). The Sun Devils are due for some regression in 2008, but they will remain a solid Pac-10 team.

Despite their solid credentials (7 conference wins, 10 wins overall, 8-0 start, etc.), the Sun Devils were a mid-level Pac-10 team last season. In conference play, they were 6th in yards gained and 4th in yards allowed. The Sun Devils were able to win such a high percentage of their conference games because they had the best turnover margin (+7) in Pac-10 play, and because they won the close ones. Arizona State was 3-0 in one-score games in 2007, defeating Washington State, UCLA, and Arizona by a combined 10 points.

In 2008, the offense returns 6 starters, including quarterback Rudy Carpenter (145.09 passer rating in 2007—18th in the nation), leading rusher Keegan Herring, and leading receivers Chris McGaha and Michael Jones. 3 starting offensive linemen are gone, but that may be a godsend for Carpenter as the Sun Devils allowed 54 sacks (117th in the nation) last season. All in all, the offense should be at about the same level as last season.

Defensively, the Sun Devils bring back 7 starters from what was basically an average Pac-10 defense. Bookend linemen, Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez (15 combined sacks in 2007) are perhaps the two most important players. Like the offense, the defense should remain at about the same level as the 2007 unit.

Prediction: The Sun Devils stay in the desert for all their non-conference action, hosting Northern Arizona, UNLV, and in one of the best non-conference matchups (at least on paper)—Georgia. Remember in 2005, the Sun Devils nearly knocked off an LSU team ranked in the top-5 before falling 35-31. A 2-1 non-conference record is the likely worst case scenario. In conference play, the Sun Devils have only 4 home games and the road schedule features 2 almost certain losses (Cal and Southern Cal). With some regression in turnovers and fortune in one-score games, look for the Sun Devils to fall to the middle of the Pac-10.


Oregon State
Guess which team has the second best record in Pac-10 play over the last 2 seasons. Since this is under the Oregon State team preview, chances are you guessed right. Amazingly, the Beavers started out 0-2 in Pac-10 play in both 2006 and 2007, before rallying to win 6 of their last 7 conference games both seasons. No team in the nation has won 19 games in a quieter fashion over the past 2 seasons. Can the Beavers continue the best sustained run of relevance in their history under Mike Riley?

The Beavers won games last year thanks to their front 7. Opponents averaged only 71 yards per game on the ground (tops in the nation) and a meager 2.06 yards per rush (again tops). That number is buoyed by the 41 sacks they collected (10th in the nation), but even without the sacks, the line still held its own against opposing runners. Unfortunately, the front 7 has been decimated by graduation. The entire starting front 7 is gone. The top two-sack men, defensive ends Slade Norris and Victor Butler (combined 19.5 sacks in 2007) are back. However, those two were situation players as evidenced by their 41 combined tackles (nearly half were sacks!). Look for a significant drop off from the Beavers run defense. Last season, only Southern Cal allowed fewer yards in Pac-10 play. In 2008, the Beavers should fall to the middle of the Pac-10 in defensive acumen.

And thank goodness for that outstanding defense in 2007. Because the offense, outside of the running of Yvenson Bernard (over 1200 yards in 2007), was among the worst in the Pac-10. Only the M*A*S*H unit at UCLA and the moribund offensive attack of Stanford gained fewer yards in Pac-10 play. The two-headed quarterbacking monster of Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao helped the Beavers compile a passer rating of 103.90 (114th in the nation). This season, the offense returns 7 starters, including the aforementioned platoon of below average passers. The biggest loss is Bernard who topped 1000 yards on the ground in 2005, 2006, and 2007. However, the Beavers do welcome back wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. Stroughter had nearly 1300 yards receiving in 2006, but Stroughter played only 3 games in 2007, catching a scant 15 passes. If he can approach his 2006 form, either Canfield or Moevao could see improvement in their passing statistics. Overall, it will be hard for the offense to be as bad as last season. However, no one will confuse them with their high-powered brethren in Eugene.

Prediction: The non-conference schedule for the Beavers is fairly daunting. They travel to Beaver Stadium to take on Penn State, host Hawaii, and travel to Salt Lake City to take on a very dangerous mid-major in Utah. 2-1 is the best case with that schedule, and 1-2 may be a more realistic expectation. The Beavers do catch some breaks in the conference schedule, with 5 homes games. Unfortunately, most of the teams they face at home are all among the best in the conference—Southern Cal, Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State. Depending upon how they do outside the league, the Beavers could be back in a bowl for the 6th time in 7 seasons, something unheard of in Corvallis a decade ago.


UCLA
The Bruins have a new head coach which always brings eternal optimism. Will that optimism be justified or is UCLA in for another season in the 6-7 win zone (6 of the last 8)?

Last season, injuries and general suckitude led the Bruins to give significant playing time to 4 quarterbacks. Those gentlemen combined to complete only 47.6% of their passes (116th in the nation). The fact that the Bruins were able to win 6 games (an amazing 5 in Pac-10 play) and nearly upset BYU in the bowl game is a testament to the Bruin defense. The defense allowed 343 yards per game (29th in the nation), and in Pac-10 play, only the uber-strong Trojans and run-stuffing Beavers were better. Unfortunately, that unit loses 6 starters in 2007, including the top-3 tacklers and leading sacker, defensive end Bruce Davis (12 sacks in 2007). The Bruin defense will regress in the first season of the Rick Neuheisel-era.

Of course, while the defense will likely get worse, the offense will almost certainly get better. While the unit returns only 5 starters, and must replace 4 starting offensive linemen, their injury luck cannot be as bad as last season. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job, either incumbent Ben Olson or JUCO transfer Kevin Craft, will certainly put up better numbers than last season.

Prediction: The Bruins should be a little better on offense, and a little worse on defense, and thus end up about where they were last season. In non-conference play, the Bruins host Tennessee on Labor Day night, in a game that could very well kick-start the Neuheisel-era. In their other two games outside the league, they travel to BYU and host Fresno State. A 2-1 record, or perhaps even 3-0, outside the league is very feasible. However, inside the Pac-10 the Bruins should remain a mid-level team.


Washington State
A 4th straight non-winning season got Bill Doba his walking papers. His replacement is Paul Wulff. Wulff fashioned a 53-40 record with 3 playoff appearances in 8 seasons at Eastern Washington. He posted only 1 losing season in his tenure and knows about the culture in Pullman, having played offensive line here in the 1980s.

Last season, only Oregon gained more yards against Pac-10 foes than the Cougars. Led by quarterback Alex Brink, the offense gained 435 yards per game (28th in the nation). However, the team only scored 25.7 yards per game (73rd in the nation), thanks to poor starting field position. The team gained only 19.34 yards per kickoff return (97th in the nation) and 6.50 yards per punt return (95th in the nation). If those special team numbers can improve a little, the Cougar offense could be nearly as productive even with the loss of Brink. Brink’s replacement is senior Gary Rogers, who has thrown all of 52 passes in his first 3 seasons. Rogers will have 4 starting offensive linemen returning to protect him and the team’s leading receiver (Brandon Gibson) to throw to.

Defensively, the Cougars were mediocre to bad in the last 4 seasons of the Doba regime (54th, 108th, 81st, and 87th in total defense). 8 starters are back in 2008, and the only significant loss is safety Husain Abdullah (leading tackler in 2007). After Abdullah, the rest of the top-9 tacklers are back. The Cougars defense should see some improvement in 2008, and may field the best unit since the last bowl season in 2003.

Prediction: Even if they don’t qualify for a bowl game, the Cougars will end the season in Paradise, as they travel to Hawaii in the last regular season game. Besides Hawaii, the Cougars take on Oklahoma State (in Seattle), Portland State, and travel to Baylor. Each game is winnable, but it’s unlikely the Cougars can take all 4. Best case scenario is probably 3-1. In conference play, the Cougars have 5 home games, but 3 of those come against the league’s top teams (Southern Cal, Oregon, and Cal). Still, with a little bit of luck and some better play on special teams, the Cougars could be back in a bowl game for the first time in 5 seasons.


Washington
Since he shocked the world, and set expectations a little high, with a 10-3 record (8-0 start) in his first season at Notre Dame, Tyrone Willingham has not enjoyed much success. To be fair, Willingham inherited a Washington team coming off a 1-10 season, but that cumulative winning percentage of .373 would not be considered a success at many places. Can the Huskies break through in Willingham’s 4th season and get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2002?

Know who the leading returning rusher in the Pac-10 is? Here’s a hint, he’s not a running back. Among Pac-10 players, Jake Locker finished 5th in rushing with 986 yards. The 4 running backs who finished ahead of him will not be back in 2008 (including Louis Rankin, the leading rusher for the Huskies in 2007). While Locker was an excellent runner in 2007, he struggles throwing the football. Locker completed only 47.3% of his passes, and as a team, the Huskies completed only 46% of their throws (117th in the nation). Locker completed more than 50% of his throw in only 4 of 13 games, and was over 60% just once—in the opener versus Syracuse. With a year of experience after being thrown to the wolves as a redshirt freshman, Locker should see his completion percentage climb above 50% for the year, but he will likely still be a below average passer, at least based on accuracy. However, his legs should allow him to remain entrenched as the starter and help the Husky offense continue to improve.

However, if the Huskies are to have any chance at a bowl bid in 2008, the defense must improve. Only Stanford allowed more yards in Pac-10 play last year, and for the season, they finished 103rd in the nation in total defense, permitting 446 yards per game. If we remove the 3 games against offensively challenged Syracuse (114th nationally in yards per game), Stanford (107th), and Oregon State (78th), the Huskies allowed 502 yards per game. The Huskies have not finished better than 95th in total defense in Willingham’s 3 seasons. The defense is not likely to significantly improve in 2008. 6 starters return, but outside of defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (8.5 sacks in 2007), there is a dearth of playmakers—the team-leader in interceptions, Mesphin Forrester, had 2 last season. No one else had more than 1. Normally a team that only intercepted 11 passes would stand a very good chance of creating significantly more turnovers the next year. However, while they only intercepted 11 passes, they gained 24 turnovers, which was actually about average (59th in the nation).

Prediction: The non-conference schedule features all home games, but each will be very difficult. BYU, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame all travel to Husky Stadium, and it’s likely the Huskies will not be able to win more than one of those games. In conference play, the Huskies have 5 road games and figure to be underdogs in each one (Oregon, Arizona, Southern Cal, Washington State, and Cal). 2008 looks to be another losing year for Willingham and company.


Stanford
The overall record may have been better, but the underlying performance was still the worst in the Pac-10. Stanford had the worst offense in Pac-10 play (about 51 yards per game worse than 9th place UCLA) and the worst defense (only about 7 yards worse than 9th place Washington State). The Cardinal were outgained in all 9 of their Pac-10 games. On the season, the only teams they were able to outgain were San Jose State and Notre Dame. Don’t be fooled by their 4-8 record, the Cardinal have a long way yet to go.

On offense, Stanford returns 7 starters from what was the worst unit in the Pac-10. Tavita Pritchard, who split time at quarterback with TC Ostrander, returns to lead the offense. Pritchard posted an abysmal passer rating of 97.45 last season, and will need marked improvement to become a below-average passer. Pritchard’s top pass-catcher, Richard Sherman, and the team’s leading rusher, Anthony Kimble, also return meaning the offense should be a bit better in 2008. Still, while improvement is likely, the Cardinal should remain at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 in terms of offense.

The Cardinal defense returns 9 starters, including 3 of the top-4 tacklers and may avoid the moniker of the league’s worst defense in 2008. Led by the linebacking duo of Clinton Snyder and Pat Maynor (14 combined sacks in 2007), the Cardinal did manage to tackle opposing quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage 37.5 times in 2007 (20th in the nation). When they were not able to get to opposing quarterbacks, the secondary struggled. The Cardinal permitted opposing quarterbacks to post a pass efficiency rating of 134.30 in 2007 (84th in the nation). If the secondary can show some improvement (3 starters are back), the Cardinal could rise to the middle of the conference heap in defense.

Prediction: Besides their evisceration of San Jose State, the Cardinal won their other 3 games by a combined 9 points. The non-conference schedule includes the same 3 teams as last season (San Jose State, TCU, and Notre Dame), only now 2 are on the road (TCU and Notre Dame), instead of Palo Alto. Plus TCU and Notre Dame figure to be improved over their 2007 versions. In conference play, the Cardinal have 5 road games, and one of their home games will include an angry and out for revenge Trojan squad. The Cardinal may improve performance-wise, but will fail to match last year’s win total.

Predicted Records:
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