Saturday, June 28, 2008

2008 Big 10 Preview

Ohio State
After 2 consecutive (embarrassing) defeats at the hands of SEC foes in the BCS National Championship Game, the Buckeyes look to make their 3rd straight appearance, and this time come out on top. The past three seasons, Ohio State has lost 5 games. 3 of the teams that defeated them won the MNC (Texas, Florida, and LSU). The other two played in BCS bowls (Penn State and Illinois). That’s a pretty impressive resume, no matter what conference you play in. With so much talent returning in 2008, it’s hard not to pick the Buckeyes to win their 4th straight Big 10 title.

Let’s start with what happened last season. The Buckeyes were head and shoulders over every other Big 10 team in 2007. In conference play, they gained the 5th most yards and had the best defense by a mile. In Big 10 play, they allowed 236 yards per game. The team with the second best defense, Michigan, allowed 321 yards per game. That 85 yards per game difference is larger than the difference between Michigan and the team with the 8th best defense (Purdue—allowed 396 yards per game in Big 10 play). The defense should once again be stalwart as 9 starters return. The one significant player the Buckeyes do lose is defensive end Vernon Gholston and his team-leading 14 sacks. The defense may regress from the paltry 233 yards per game (1st in the nation) they allowed in 2007, but they should still be in the top-5 nationally in total defense, and once again the best in the Big 10.

As stated earlier, the Buckeyes finished a rather mediocre 5th in the Big 10 in yards per game in conference play. That could be cause for concern if the Buckeyes did not return nearly their entire starting lineup in 2008. Quarterback Todd Boeckman, the 12th rated passer in the nation last season, returns along with all the other key skill position players—running back Chris Wells, the receiving Brians (Robiskie and Hartline) and 4/5ths of the offensive line. The Buckeye offense should improve substantially on the 394 yards per game they averaged last season (62nd in the nation).

Prediction: The Buckeyes have no negative indicators for 2008. They were 1-1 in one-score games, meaning they didn’t squeak by a lot of teams. Their turnover margin was actually -3, so that is likely to improve. Picking the Buckeyes not to win the Big 10 is an exercise in contrarian existentialism. They probably won’t win the MNC, not with a road test at Southern Cal and perhaps one loss coming in Big 10 play, but a Big 10 title is all but assured.


From 2000-2004, the Nittany Lions won only 26 games and Joe Paterno’s historical standing in college football was somewhat diminished. He set the Division IA record for all-time wins by a head coach, but was soon passed by Bobby Bowden. The past 3 seasons, the Lions have won 29 games, and Paterno is just one victory behind Bobby Bowden. In all likelihood, he will pass the Florida State patriarch on the all-time wins list in 2008.

Even when they were struggling to qualify for bowl games, the Nittany Lions could still hang their hat on their defense. In their 4 losing seasons this decade, the defense allowed 24.4, 25.5, 21.3, and 15.3 points per game. It was always the offense’s inability to supply average production that was the team’s undoing. They never averaged more than 22.5 points per game in any of those seasons. Now, 2 of the past 3 seasons, the Lions have averaged over 30 points per game. 2007 was one of those years. The only starters lost from the 2007 offensive unit are the quarterback, Anthony Morelli, and running back Rodney Kinlaw. Morelli was an enigma during his two years starting at State College. He was the 86th rated passer in 2006 (rating of 111. 90) and the 70th rated (124.23) in 2007. He was solid, if inconsistent, and never great. In 2008, the starter will either be senior Daryll Clark or sophomore Pat Devlin. The other weapons on offense should help whoever wins the job post decent numbers. Sophomore Evan Royster takes over for Kinlaw at running back. Royster gained over 500 yards last season in limited action and averaged 6.26 yards per rush. With all 5 offensive linemen back in the fold, Royster should have some holes to run through. With the inexperience at quarterback, the offense may not crack the 30 points per game barrier, but they should not be markedly worse than last season.

The defense should once again be fantastic. The Lions finished 11th in the nation in total defense in 2007, and return 8 starters in 2008. They do lose their top-2 tacklers in linebackers Dan Connor (graduation) and Sean Lee (ACL injury), and their top corner, Justin King. However, the entire front 4, including Maurice Evans (team-leading 12.5 sacks) returns intact. Penn State should once again be one of the national leaders in sacks (tied for 3rd in the nation with 46 last year), and their defense will likely keep opponents under 20 points per game.

Prediction: The Lions should breeze through the non-conference slate unscathed, with the only possible concern being a home game against Oregon State. In conference play, they host several mid-to-high level teams (Illinois, Michigan, and Michigan State), giving them a very favorable schedule. In fact, Joe Paterno will likely end his 9-game skid against Michigan (last win was in 1996). The Lions must travel to Ohio State in Big 10 play, but with Ohio State’s prospectus, that game may as well be on the road. The other conference road games are against Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It’s not a stretch to see Penn State taking 2 of those 3 and getting to 10 wins in the regular season.

Michigan State
If you just looked at the payoff stats—wins and losses, the Spartans 2007 season was pretty much indicative of their performance the past half-decade. But if you looked a little closer, you saw a team that was far superior than their 7-6 record. With that in mind, look out for the Spartans in 2008.

In Big 10 play, Michigan State gained the most yards of any team in the conference. They did this despite losing a senior quarterback, Drew Stanton, and replacing him with a player who had only a half-season’s worth of starting experience. Quarterback Brian Hoyer had a solid season, posting a passer rating of 133.18 (49th in the nation), but the Spartans offense was predicated on the ground. The Spartans ran the ball 580 times in 2007 (12th in the nation) and were pretty effective in doing so. They averaged 198 yards per game on the ground (25th in the nation) with Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick gaining over 2300 yards and scoring 27 touchdowns. Caulcrick is gone, but Ringer returns for his senior campaign. He may not surpass the 1447 yards and nearly 6 yards per carry of his junior season, but he should once again be one of the league’s best backs. Hoyer does lose his top 2 receivers, but the Spartan attack should once again be one of the best in the Big 10, even if they do not match their production from 2007.

Defense prevented the Spartans from being a Big 10 contender in 2007. While the unit ranked 32nd in total defense (better than the 42nd ranking of the offense), in Big 10 play, they finished 7th in yards allowed. 4 of their 8 opponents topped 400 yards, and Northwestern obliterated them by gaining 611 yards and averaging a robust 7.4 yards per play. 5 of their 8 conference opponents scored over 30 points. If the unit can be more stingy in 2008, the Spartans should climb in the standings. That may be a dicey proposition as the Spartans lose their best defensive players, linemen Jonal Saint-Dic and Ervin Baldwin. Those two combined for nearly half (18.5) of the Spartans 39 sacks in 2007. The pass-rush may not be as intense in 2008, and that could cause problems for the linebackers and secondary.

Prediction: Even if Michigan State does not match their performance from 2007, it’s extremely likely their record will be better. The Spartans were a lackluster 2-6 in one-score games in 2007, a trend that is not likely to continue in 2008. A few more lucky bounces and Michigan State could have conceivably won 10 games. In Big 10 play, the Spartans had the 3rd best yardage differential (behind Ohio State and Penn State), yet only finished in a 4-way tie for 7th place at 3-5. The Spartans will likely drop their opener at California and fall off the pollsters’ collective radars, but at the end of the year, they will be one of the Big 10’s best teams.

Believe it or not, Northwestern has been bowl-eligible in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Spin that a different way, and the Wildcats have had but one winning season in those 5 years. Of course, at a place like Evanston, mediocrity is not necessarily a bad thing. The table below lists Northwestern’s record by decade. With the team’s best offense since 2005, and a little bit of luck, Northwestern should return to the postseason in 2008.

In 2007, Northwestern featured a very prolific offense. They finished 32nd in the nation in total offense and were particularly adept at throwing the football, finishing 11th in passing offense. They were even very good in Big 10 play. Only 2 teams (Michigan State and Illinois) gained more yards in conference games. That unit returns its featured performers; quarterback CJ Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton. Bacher threw for over 3600 yards and 19 touchdowns. However, he also contributed 19 interceptions, including 11 in the last 4 games when the Wildcats went 1-3. His backfield mate, Tyrell Sutton was slowed by injuries and ran the ball in only 6 games. He still managed to top 500 yards and average 4.83 yards per rush. However, those numbers are far removed from his freshman and sophomore campaigns when he totaled over 2400 yards and averaged 5.64 yards per rush. If Bacher can take better care of the ball and if Sutton can remain healthy, the offense could be one of the Big 10’s best.

The defensive side is where Northwestern has not been able to consistently excel since their Rose Bowl season in 1995. That season they held opponents to 15.1 points per game. In the ensuing 12 seasons, they have not held opponents below 23.2 points per game in any one season. Even in their 3 bowl seasons in the new decade, they allowed 33.3 (2000), 25.1 (2003), and 33.9 (2005) points per game. If the defense can keep teams in the 26-28 range, 2008 could be a special season in Evanston. The defense does return 8 starters, but loses its top-2 tacklers in linebacker Adam Kadela and safety Reggie McPherson. However, for a team that gave up 31 points and 411 yards per game last season, 8 returning starters should equal at least marginal improvement. Plus the defense created only 16 turnovers in 2008 (108th in the nation), so they are also likely to improve in that area too.

Prediction: Northwestern has 4 very winnable non-conference games (Syracuse, Duke, Southern Illinois, and Ohio). They also have 2 very winnable road games within the Big 10 (Indiana and Minnesota). They do host Ohio State (sort of a bummer since that’s a likely loss no matter the venue), but they also host 3 other seemingly middling teams (Michigan State, Purdue, and Illinois). The opportunity is there for Northwestern. No this won’t be a Rose Bowl caliber 10-win season, but 7 regular season wins and an upper-division finish is certainly within the realm of possibility.

When a down year means you finish with 9 wins, 6 of them in conference play, you know you’re a player/fan/alum/coach of a college football power. Was last year a harbinger of things to come in the near future? Will things get worse before they get better? Relatively, yes. However, Michigan will not endure a laughingstock season like Notre Dame.

As you may have heard, Michigan hired a new football coach this offseason. Gone is Michigan man Lloyd Carr and into his shoes steps Rich Rodriguez. My personal belief in the practice of hiring/firing coaches is to not fire a good coach unless you have a great one lined up. This is likely one of the few situations where it’s alright to let go of a solid coach. Michigan’s offense had become somewhat stagnant the past few seasons. The Wolverines finished 47th, 54th, 38th, and 68th in the nation in total offense from 2004-2007. Even more disturbing is the fact that in Big 10 play, only one team (Iowa) finished with fewer yards than Michigan in 2007. Contrast that with Rodriguez’s last 4 West Virginia squads which have finished 26th, 50th, 5th, and 15th in total offense. A philosophical change is probably just what the AD ordered. Of course, Rodriguez will face some difficulties, particularly on offense, in his first season on the job. The offense brings back only 3 starters from last year’s team. The quarterback (Chad Henne), running back (Mike Hart), and alliterative receiving duo (Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington) are all gone. In addition, only a single offensive linemen returns to block for the new skill position players. To make matters worse, uber-recruit Terrelle Pryor chose arch-rival Ohio State over the Wolverines. That leaves Steven Threet, a Georgia Tech transfer, as the likely starter for opening day. The Wolverines may see their worst offensive production in a very long time with so many new faces.

Even with the offensive questions, Michigan has always been about defense. The Wolverines have allowed an average of more than 24 points per game in any one season exactly Never in their history. That’s a pretty impressive streak, and one that is apt to continue in 2008. The Wolverines do lose their top-4 tacklers, but those are the only starters the defense will have to do without in 2008. The entire defensive line returns, lead by Brandon Graham and his 8.5 sacks.

Prediction: Outside of conference road games at Penn State and Ohio State, there is not another definite loss on the schedule. That’s not to say the Wolverines will roll through the remainder of the slate unscathed, but it should serve as a reminder to those predicting dire straights for Michigan in 2008. In fact, besides those 2 contests, the most dangerous game may be the opener in the Big House against Utah. You can be certain the folks at the World Wide Leader will remind everyone what happened last year on the final weekend of August in the Big House. Michigan will lose a few games and slip to the middle of the Big 10, but a lost 3 or 4-win season is out of the question.

By all accounts, Bret Bielema has had a pretty good start to his head-coaching career. In two seasons he’s gone 21-5 and led the Badgers to 2 New Year’s Day bowl games with players recruited by Barry Alvarez. Like an impoverished parent who finally ‘makes it’ Alvarez has ensured his scion has access to all the things he never did growing up. By comparison, it took Alvarez 4 seasons to reach 21 wins, and he did not have 16 more victories than losses until his 9th season. Entering his 3rd season, Bielema may finally endure some of the hardships Alvarez had to deal with at the outset of his coaching career.

Though Wisconsin has gone 21-5 the past 2 seasons, they have been rather fortunate. Their Pythagorean record, based on their points scored and allowed, is 16-10. The difference is explained by Wisconsin’s providence in one-score games; in which they have gone 7-2. That means Wisconsin should not be evaluated as an elite team that returns a great deal of talent, but as a good team that returns a great deal of talent.

On offense, the Badgers bring back 8 starters, but do lose their signal-caller, Tyler Donovan. Donovan posted a passer rating of 133.96 (41st in the nation) in 2007 and gives way to senior Allan Evridge. Evridge transferred from Kansas State, where he played as a freshman. Hardcore Badger supporters may want to avert their eyes from this next sentence. In over 200 pass attempts, Evridge posted a passer rating of 104.45 (93rd in the nation) for Kansas State. Even taking into account that Evridge is now more experienced, it’s hard to imagine him giving the Badgers even average production from the quarterback spot. The good new for the Badgers, is that besides Donovan, nearly every other important piece is back on offense. Running back PJ Hill, who gained over 1200 yards in 2007 is back along with 4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen. The Badgers will try to pound opponents into submission in 2008 (as has been the case for what seems like forever), but when the offense must move the ball through the air against the better teams (Ohio State and Penn State for example), it will find the going very difficult.

The Badger defense returns 9 starters from the 2007 unit that was not quite as good as the final stats might lead you to believe. The Badgers finished a very solid 38th in total defense, but in Big 10 play, they were actually a little below average (6th in yards allowed). 5 of the top 6 tacklers return and every player save one who recorded a sack is also back. If everyone stays healthy the Badgers defense should be on par with last season’s unit.

Prediction: The non-conference slate has 3 sure wins (Akron, Marshall, and Cal Poly), with the only possible scare coming at Fresno State. In conference play, the Badgers do get Penn State and Ohio State at home, but that may not be enough to turn the tide against those two superior teams. In all likelihood, Wisconsin will shock at least one of those 2 at home. However, road games at Michigan, Michigan State, and Iowa should temper their record and leave the Badgers around the middle of the pack.

Joe Tiller begins his 12th and final season as the head coach at Purdue in 2008. While many Purdue faithful have been calling for a change, in reality, a statue of Tiller should be erected in West Lafayette. Can the Boilers make Tiller’s last season one to remember by making a return trip to Pasadena?

While the Purdue offense is usually the reason the team wins ballgames, it didn’t really do its part in 2007. While the Boilers finished 27th in the nation in total offense, averaging 436 yards per game, they accumulated most of those yards against inferior competition. In Big 10 play, that yardage total ranks only 7th. Against the best defenses in the Big 10, those numbers are even more pronounced. Against Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, the Boilers averaged only 296 yards per game and 4.0 yards per play. If it’s any consolation, the offense should not be worse in 2008. Senior quarterback Curtis Painter and 5 others starters return. Painter’s 2 leading receivers, Dorien Bryant and Dustin Keller, are gone, but Tiller seems to be able to plug and play skill position guys without too much drop off. Besides Painter, the Boilers return 3 starting offensive linemen. The Boilers allowed 24 sacks last season (51st in the nation), but considering how often Purdue throws the ball (5th in the nation in attempts in 2007), those numbers are pretty good. The offense should continue abusing the lesser defenses on the slate, but will once again likely struggle against teams with above-average to elite defenses.

Meanwhile, the Purdue defense also returns 6 starters. The defense was decidedly mediocre in 2007, ranking 63rd nationally in total defense. Like the offense, there should not be a distinct change in the performance by the defense in 2008. The Boilers do lose their top-6 tacklers!, and the defense will likely be a shade worse, but there are far worse defenses in the Big 10 (Minnesota and Indiana to name 2).

Prediction: Purdue’s non-conference schedule is actually pretty challenging in 2008. They open with an easy win over Northern Colorado, but then must host Oregon. While they will likely be home dogs in that game, an upset would not be terribly shocking. Then they host Central Michigan for the 3rd time in 14 games. Purdue dominated the Chips in the regular season, but then allowed a huge comeback in the bowl before winning at the last second. The Boilers finish non-conference action in South Bend against Notre Dame. Depending upon how much Notre Dame has improved, that could be a very tough game. All in all, one can envision the Boilers finishing with 1, 2, 3, or 4 wins to open the year. In conference play, they have winnable road games against Northwestern and Iowa, and gimme home games against Minnesota and Indiana. 2008 will look a great deal like the last few years. The Boilers will win some shootouts against teams with flawed defenses, but against the likes of Ohio State and Penn State, the Boilers will struggle.

After 2 seasons of paying their dues under Ron Zook, the Illini seemingly came from out of nowhere to win 9 games and play in the Rose Bowl. One of those 9 wins was a victory over then top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, the Buckeyes first loss at home since a 3-point defeat to eventual MNC Texas in 2005. Can the Illini continue their momentum or will 2008 be a hangover year from the previous season’s excesses?

The major revelation for fans who couldn’t be less concerned with a team that had won 8 games over the previous 4 seasons was the play of running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall rushed for nearly 1700 yards and averaged 6.42 yards per rush. Of course, in limited action, Mendenhall averaged over 8 yards per rush in 2006 (640 yards), so maybe Zook should have gotten his stud into more games as an underclassmen. Unfortunately, Mendenhall will never carry the ball again for the Illini as he will now ply his trade in the NFL. He leaves behind 7 starters, including enigmatic quarterback Juice Williams. Williams is still much more dangerous as a runner, but he did improve his completion percentage from a piss-poor 39.5% in 2006 to a solid 57.3% in 2007. Still, his passer rating of 119.22 ranked only 81st in the nation. As long as Williams is the quarterback, the Illini will have trouble throwing the football. And without their home run hitter, Mendenhall, the offense as a whole will decline somewhat in 2008.

The Illini defense improved as well in 2007, going from allowing 26.8 points per game (91st in the nation) to 21.8 (26th). However, while the pay off stat (points) improved, the actual down-to-down performance actually declined. The Illini finished 33rd in total defense in 2006, allowing 310 yards per game. They allowed 377 yards per game in 2007 (55th in the nation). So how did the Illini improve so much despite an actual decline in yards allowed? Ah the fickleness of turnovers. In 2006, the Illini had a turnover margin of -15. That margin improved to -2 in 2007. Fewer turnovers by the offense that put the defense behind the 8-ball, and more turnovers forced by the defense equate to an improvement in points allowed. The defense returns 6 starters in 2008, but loses 4 of its top-5 tacklers. The defense will likely decline much thanks to their somewhat unsustainable (yards to points) performance in 2007.

Prediction: Besides Missouri, the rest of the non-conference slate is imminently winnable (Eastern Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Western Michigan). In Big 10 play, 3 of their home games are very winnable—Minnesota, Indiana, and Iowa. The other is against Ohio State. Their road games are very tough (Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northwestern), but stealing one of those games is a reasonable goal. The Illini will drop to the middle of the Big 10, but should qualify for their 2nd bowl game in as many years.

Remember when Kirk Ferentz was the most sought after coach on the planet? From 2002-2004, the Hawkeyes were 31-7 (20-4 against Big 10 foes) with a pair of Big 10 co-championships. The past 3 seasons, the Hawkeyes have gone a very mediocre 19-18 (11-13 in Big 10 play) and have not won more than 7 games in any season. Last year, the Hawkeyes posted a solid 4-4 record in Big 10 play (tied with Penn State for 5th place), but were actually one of the league’s poorer teams. In conference play, the Hawkeyes finished 9th in yards gained and yards allowed; hardly numbers befitting a middle of the pack team. The Hawkeyes were able to manage 4 conference wins thanks to a 3-1 record in one-score conference games (3-2 overall) and a Big 10 best +9 turnover margin in conference play (+8 overall). Despite a host of returning talent on offense, a return to the top of the Big 10 standings is unlikely in 2008.

The Hawkeyes had a real problem protecting quarterback Jake Christensen last season. As a team, the Hawkeyes allowed 46 sacks (114th in the nation). With all 5 starters on the offensive line and Christensen back for another season, the pass protection has to be better. When he wasn’t getting put on his back, Christensen was busy not completing passes. His 53.5% completion percentage was not even in the top 100 last season. The one thing Christensen did do well last season was avoid turning the ball over. He had only 6 interceptions on the season. However, if his completion percentage does not significantly improve, it’s likely a lot of those incompletes will turn into interceptions. Elsewhere on offense, the Hawkeyes lose their top 3-rushers and the likely starter is juco transfer Nate Gullory. With the entire offensive line back, the offense will likely improve, but expect the offense to have more than the 13 turnovers (3rd in the nation) they had last season.

On defense, the Hawkeyes bring back only 5 starters and lose 4 of their top-6 tacklers, including defensive end Bryan Mattison (team leading 9 sacks in 2007). The defensive line, linebacking corps, and secondary each lose 2 starters apiece, so the unit will be somewhat patched together. Last season, the Hawkeyes ranked a solid 36th in total defense, but that was mostly due to their work in non-conference play. Against their 4 non-conference opponents they allowed 282 yards per game. Against their more talented Big 10 opponents, that number vaulted over 100 yards per game to 385. Realistically, the Hawkeyes defense should remain towards the nether regions of the Big 10 in 2008.

Prediction: The non-conference slate has two guaranteed wins (Maine and Florida International), a likely loss (at Pitt), and one toss-up (home against Iowa State—lost 7 of last 10 in the series). In conference play, Iowa avoids Michigan and Ohio State, but for a team that was not all that good to begin with in 2007, expecting anything other than a 6-win regular season is nothing more than unabashed enthusiasm.

Glen Mason never got the Gophers to the Promised Land, but he also never had a season quite as deplorable as the one Minnesota endured in 2007. The Gophers lone win was a triple overtime contest against a MAC foe. They went winless in the Big 10 and lost to a MAC school, a Sun Belt school, and a IAA school. The good news is, things can’t get any worse.

The Gophers actually had a decent offense in 2007. They ranked 48th nationally in total offense, but in Big 10 play, they were 6th in yards gained among the league’s 11 teams. That unit returns 8 starters in 2008, including dual-threat quarterback Adam Weber. As a freshman in 2007, Weber passed for nearly 2900 yards and threw 24 touchdowns. He was also the Gophers leader on the ground, gaining over 600 yards. Unfortunately, he also threw 19 interceptions and posted a passer rating of only 120.80 (77th in the nation). If he can cut his interceptions, Weber can be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Come 2009 and 2010, the Gophers will certainly be glad they started him as a freshman. Joining Weber on offense are 3 of 5 starting offensive linemen and his leading receiver Eric Decker. The Minnesota offense should see some minor improvement in 2008.

Defensively, the Gophers were a lost cause in 2007. They allowed 519 yards per game (dead last in the nation). There is no way to sugarcoat how bad they were. Only Iowa failed to gain 400 yards against their defense. 8 of their 12 opponents gained over 500 yards. The Gophers were the cure for the common offense in 2007. Even if the Gophers decided to blow it all up and cull every starter, they would likely improve somewhat from that dreadful performance. As it is, a healthy number of starters (7) return to the fold in 2008. Even if they are once again the worst defense in the Big 10, they will not be the worst in the nation.

Prediction: Minnesota was not only done in by a horrible defense in 2007, but also by horrible luck. They were only 1-6 in one-score games. Had they won even half of those one-score games, they would have been a bad (but not horrendous) 3-9 or 4-8. Their luck in close game will likely improve in 2008. The Gophers also had a horrible turnover margin (-15) in 2007 (114th in the nation). They were especially poor at forcing turnovers, gaining only 14 all season (114th in the nation). The ball will likely bounce Minnesota’s way a few more times in 2008, and the defense will create a few more turnovers. Schedule-wise, the Gophers can probably quadruple their win output before September is over (Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Montana State, and Florida Atlantic are their 4 non-conference opponents). In league play, they get two of the weaker teams, Iowa and Indiana, at home, so a bowl-eligible season is within the realm of possibility.

After nearly a decade and a half of staying in Bloomington in late-December, the Hoosiers finally participated in a postseason contest in 2007. Now that’s not to say their season was anything other than a non-conference fueled fluff piece. 4 of the Hoosiers 7 victories came against schools that play in the MAC (Akron, Western Michigan, and Ball State) and IAA (Indiana State). Against their Big 10 brethren, they managed to beat offensively challenged Iowa, winless (in conference play) Minnesota, and rival Purdue. Upon earning their postseason invite, the Hoosiers were swiftly dispatched by a mediocre Big 12 team (Oklahoma State), in a game that was not nearly as close as the final 16-point margin would portend. Suffice it to say, I’m not high on the Hoosiers chances of returning to a bowl game in 2008.

Last season, Indiana finished 61st in the nation in total offense. That’s a pretty solid finish, befitting their 7-6 final record. However, in Big 10 play, the Hoosiers finished 9th in yards gained. If the Hoosiers are to escape the cellar in 2008, their offense must improve. Unfortunately, that is a very unlikely scenario. Last season, quarterback Kellen Lewis posted a passer rating of 134.18 (40th in the nation) and also led the team in rushing with over 700 yards. Most of his passes went to the titanic James Hardy (6 foot 7). Hardy hauled in 79 catches in 2007, netted 1125 yards, and scored 16 touchdowns. Hardy had 27 more catches, 566 more yards, and 12 more touchdowns than his nearest competitors. To say Lewis launched jump balls to Hardy and ran around some is not an entirely accurate assessment of Indiana’s offense, buts its close. With Hardy gone to the NFL and the offensive line losing 3 starters, Kellen Lewis will need a sensational season to keep the Hoosiers offense from crumbling.

Alas, if only the Hoosiers had a defense that could keep them in games. The Hoosiers defense has been a sieve for a long time not. Last season marked the first time the Hoosiers did not allow an average of at least 30 points per game since 2001. They barely beat the mark, allowing teams to score 28.5 points per game. Still, they were pretty bad. Based on yards allowed, only 2 teams were worse in Big 10 play (Northwestern and Minnesota). The Hoosiers return 7 starters to that defense in 2008, and their only hope at a decent performance rests with defensive end Greg Middleton. Middleton led the nation with 16 sacks last season, and the Hoosiers as a team accumulated 42 (tied for 6th in the nation). Not surprisingly, most of those sacks came against their overmatched non-conference foes and Iowa. When they had to face teams with competent offenses, their sacks dropped precipitously. Unless Middleton has designs on an unholy 30 sacks or so, the defense will continue to be one of the worst in the Big 10.

Prediction: The non-conference slate has 4 very winnable games (Western Kentucky, Murray State, Ball State, and Central Michigan). However, the Chips from Central should not be taken lightly. In conference play, the Hoosiers can thank their lucky stars they avoid Ohio State, but grabbing any win on the road is unlikely (Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue), and winning more than 2 home games is wishful thinking (Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin).

Predicted Records:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

2008 Big East Preview

West Virginia
Seemingly one win away (at home no less) from positioning themselves to play for the MNC, the Mountaineers choked away a home game against Pittsburgh. To further make it a December to not remember, their head coach, Rich Rodriguez, headed for Michigan not long after the loss. Despite the turmoil, the Mountaineers proved their mettle in the Fiesta Bowl by shocking favored Oklahoma. Can they keep the positive momentum going and play in a BCS bowl game for the 3rd time in 4 seasons?

While Rich Rodriguez, a fine coach, is no longer on the sideline, the offense he helped create remains. While running back Steve Slaton, fullback Owen Schmitt, and wide receiver Darius Reynaud will be missed, the maestro of the attack, senior quarterback Pat White does return. White ran for over 1300 yards last season and his passer rating of 151.40 ranked 9th in the nation. While a player the caliber of Steve Slaton will surely be missed, he carried the ball only once in the team’s shredding of Oklahoma. All told, over the final 3 games of his collegiate career, Slaton amassed only 20 carries and netted 63 yards. Noel Devine should be able to replicate his performance in 2008, especially behind an experienced offensive line that returns 4 starters—3 of which are seniors. The passing attack may suffer a bit with the loss of Reynaud, but the rushing game should be improved as long as White and Devine remain healthy.

What a lot of folks probably failed to realize about West Virginia circa 2007, was that defense was every bit as good as the offense. The unit finished 8th nationally in scoring defense and 9th in total defense. Beginning in game number 3 against Maryland, they held 5 straight opponents below 300 yards of total offense. For the season, they held 7 of their 13 opponents under that number, and only 2 squads topped the 400-yard mark (Cincinnati and Oklahoma). Unfortunately for head coach Bill Stewart, this year’s unit returns only 4 starters. Defensive end Johnny Dingle and linebacker Marc Magro, the team’s two leading sackers (combined 17) are gone. Every starter in the secondary save Quinton Andrews is gone. The defense will not fall off the face of the Earth, but it will likely slip to the middle of the pack in the Big East.

Prediction: For another season at least, West Virginia is the top team in the Big East. Their offense should once again be dynamic, but the defense will probably give away a conference game somewhere down the line (likely at Louisville). They also travel to Colorado in an early season non-conference affair that should not be taken lightly. Then in late October, in a marquee Thursday night game, they host SEC power Auburn. If they take both of those, they may still get into the MNC with one conference loss. A BCS bid is the likely path this team takes, but 2009 will tell us whether or not Stewart is the team’s long term answer at coach or whether he was just caught in the afterglow of an impressive Fiesta Bowl romp.

Normally an 8-win season in New Jersey would be celebrated by parades and talked about for years. Ah, but the times they are a changing. No longer a Big East doormat, Greg Schiano raised the expectations and the talent level for the Scarlet Knights. No longer content to merely qualify for a postseason game, the Knights now seek to participate in a New Year’s Day or BCS bowl. With the loss of Ray Rice, the bread and butter of the offense, can Rutgers rebound from a somewhat disappointing season and recapture their success from 2006?

Last season it appeared quarterback Mike Teel elevated his game to a new level. After posting a passer rating of 120.60 in his first season as a starter, Teel made an incredible leap to 145.37 in 2007. In 2006, he was 69th in the nation in passer rating and last season he was 17th. That’s quite a one-season jump. But did he really improve? The table below lists Teel’s numbers against BCS opponents in 2006 and 2007. For all intents and purposes, those numbers are identical. In 2007, Teel inflated his numbers by shredding Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk St, Army, and Ball State. He completed 63.9% of his passes, averaged an unfathomable 13.7 yards per attempt, and threw 11 touchdowns versus just 3 interceptions against those undermanned squads. So the Scarlet Knights lose Ray Rice, and their quarterback’s improvement has proven to be inconsequential. How can they be picked to finish 2nd?

The biggest difference between Rutgers in 2006 and Rutgers in 2007 was luck and turnovers. In 2006, Rutgers was 3-1 in one-score games and had a turnover margin of +11. In 2007, they were 2-2 in one-score games and had a turnover margin of -6. The Knights turned the ball over 20 times in 2006 and 25 times in 2007. However, in 2006, they gained 31 turnovers from their opponents (tied for 10th in the nation), while in 2007, they only managed to create 19 turnovers (tied for 94th in the nation). That variability in turnovers was the single biggest difference in Rutgers transforming from an elite 11-2 team to a solid 8-5 one.

In 2008, much like 2006 and 2007, the play of the defense will determine how high Rutgers can climb. The offense will likely be very similar to the 2006 and 2007 versions even sans Ray Rice. It will roll over the patsies, but struggle with the big boys. The defense, though solid in 2007, should be even better in 2008. Rutgers finished 17th nationally in total defense in 2007, after a 4th place finish in 2006. Unlike Teel, last year’s unit did not just pad their stats against also-rans. In Big East play, they finished 3rd in yards allowed, behind Pitt and West Virginia. That unit returns 8 starters in 2008, including the top-3 tacklers. The line, linebackers, and secondary each lose one key contributor, but overall the unit should be stronger than last season’s version. Plus, the odds are in favor of the defense forcing a few more turnovers than the paltry 19 they accumulated last season. If the fates allow them to improve significantly in that area, this year’s defense could rival the one from two seasons ago.

Prediction: Rutgers does face 4 Big East road tests in 2008, so calling for a conference title is a dicey proposition, but a split on the road (West Virginia, Pitt, Cincinnati, and South Florida) would keep the Knights in contention. Non-conference play includes clashes with 3 overmatched teams (Army, Navy, and Morgan State), and two intriguing battles with Fresno State and North Carolina to open the season. Winning at least 4 of 5 non-conference games is a given, so the Knights have a real shot at getting to 10 wins in either the regular season finale against Louisville or the bowl game.

Last season was a nightmare for the Cardinals. Fresh off a 12-1 campaign capped by an Orange Bowl victory, much was expected in 2007. The Cardinals won their first two games with relative ease, but there were concerns when they gave up 42 points and 555 yards to Middle Tennessee State. After that the wheels came off. Louisville was not able to string together consecutive wins at any point after their 2-0 start. To make things worse, the Cardinals were no longer invincible at Papa John’s Stadium. The Cardinals had not lost a home game since 2003, yet they suffered two home defeats in 2007, including one to woeful Syracuse. The primary culprit in Louisville’s fall from grace was the defense. The Cardinals went from 40th in total defense in 2006 to 84th in total defense in 2007. The offense remained stout and kept the team in most games cranking out 488 yards per game (6th in the nation).

Can the defense rebound in 2008? In fairness, the Cardinals did seem to improve as the season wore on. While the defense was still a bit below average at the end of the year (the yards per game totals would have ranked 62nd for the entire year and the yards per play would have ranked 79th), it was far from the horrendous unit of the first 6 games. The good news for the defense is that it probably won’t be as bad as last season thanks to simple regression. A performance that terrible is simply very difficult to sustain over the long haul. Secondly, while Steve Kragthorpe is considered an offensive coach, his defenses at Tulsa were solid most of the time. In 2008, the Cardinals return only 5 starters on defense, so a host of newcomers will have to get the defense back on the right track. The primary area Louisville needs to shore up is the pass rush. After finishing 3rd in the nation with 44.5 sacks in 2006, the Cardinals had only 17 in 2007 (102nd in the nation), with no player amassing more than 2.5.

The defense needs to rebound, and the offense needs to maintain. Unfortunately, that will be hard to do with the loss of 7 starters including quarterback Brian Brohm, running back Anthony Allen (transfer), receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, tight end Gary Barnidge. The Cardinals do return 3/5ths of their offensive line and a quarterback with some experience. Subbing for an injured Brian Brohm in 2006, Hunter Cantwell started 2 games, leading the Cardinals to wins over Kansas State and Middle Tennessee State. He won’t match Brohm’s production, but as a senior he should provide above average service under center.

Prediction: Louisville’s defense should be a little better and their offense should be a little worse in 2008. So why will they finish so high? For starters, the Cardinals have 4 Big East home games. In addition, one of their road games is at Syracuse. That should be good enough for a winning record in the league. Outside the conference, they tussle with Kentucky in their annual intra-state rivalry. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they lose a host of offensive playmakers and must travel to Papa John’s stadium. In fact, the Cardinals play 4 of their 5 non-conference games at home, with the only roadie coming against former Conference USA foe Memphis. The chance for a hot start is definitely there, with 6 of the first 7 games at home. If Louisville can knock off South Florida at Papa John’s in late October, they will likely start 8-0 (next game at Syracuse), before facing a tough road game against Pitt. 2008 will do wonders for Kragthorpe’s job security at Louisville.

South Florida
The Bulls seemed to be on the verge of something special last season. They opened the season 6-0, with victories over Auburn and West Virginia, and rose to number 2 in the nation. A 3-game losing streak, by a combined 15 points followed, and the Bulls were an afterthought. They closed the regular season with 3 straight wins and found themselves facing the Oregon Ducks in the Sun Bowl. Despite being a touchdown favorite over a team struggling to score without its starting quarterback, the Bulls were ambushed for 56 points and over 500 yards in a 5-touchdown loss. That loss took some of the luster off the Bulls otherwise stellar season. Now with a surplus of returning talent (particularly on offense), can the Bulls continue their upward trajectory and grab an improbable BCS bid in only their 4th season in the Big East?

Remember the Bulls offense in 2007? With the exception of one player, it’s the Bulls offense in 2008. Every skill position player and 4 of the 5 offensive linemen return. The Bulls had a solid offense in 2007, finishing 43rd in total offense. If there was one weakness for the unit, it was its over-reliance on quarterback Matt Grothe. Of the 5383 yards the Bulls gained last year, nearly 66% (3542 yards) were gained by either Grothe’s arms or legs. Not surprisingly, in the Bulls 3 close losses in the regular season, Grothe received almost no help from his teammates. In the loss to Rutgers, Grothe gained 84% of the team’s total yards. In the loss to Connecticut he accounted for 76%, and against Cincinnati, it was an amazing 95%. In those two games, the Bulls running back committee of Mike Ford and Benjamin Williams gained 130 yards on 40 carries (3.25 yards per rush). As long as Grothe continues to get so little support from his teammates, the Bulls will struggle to consistently gain yardage.

Defensively, the Bulls were very good in 2007. That is until the Sun Bowl debacle. Before that game, the Bulls were ranked 17th in total defense. After that game they slid all the way to 28th. That game was an aberration, as the Bulls never allowed more than 437 yards before Oregon ripped them for 533. Still, that unit will regress some in 2008 as they lose 5 starters including linebacker and family man Ben Moffitt, and star corners Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins. The defense will also likely struggle to force as many turnovers as they did in 2007, when they led the nation (tied with Cincinnati) with 42.

Prediction: The Bulls seem to be a solid darkhorse contender to win the Big East and possibly even the MNC. That is until you look at their schedule. If they can get by Kansas in mid-September, they stand a good chance at opening 7-0. However, 3 of their final 5 games are on the road, including games against Louisville, Cincinnati, and West Virginia. Its long odds for them to take 2 of those let along all 3. Couple that with some major regression from the defense, particularly in the turnover department, and the Bulls don’t have the trappings of a Big East champ. For the 4th straight year, the Bulls will finish with 4 Big East wins and 3 Big East losses.

Last season the Bearcats began the season 6-0 and climbed into the top 15. They ended up with their highest win total since 1951 and for the first time in history, finished the season ranked. That’s a tough act for head coach Brian Kelly to follow, and in all likelihood, this year’s team will not match last years in win output.

The major difference between Cincinnati in 2006 and 2007 was turnovers and schedule. The 2006 squad finished 61st in total offense and 31st in total defense. The 2007 squad was 30th in total offense and 50th in total defense. The offense improved (almost entirely through the air) and the defense regressed. Yet amazingly, the defense allowed almost a point fewer per game despite allowing about 40 more yards per game. How? Of course, the answer is a combination of turnovers and schedule. In 2006, the Bearcats forced 23 turnovers (tied for 67th in the nation). In 2007, they forced 42 (tied with South Florida for tops in the nation). In 2006, two of their non-conference games were in Columbus against Ohio State, and in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech. Ohio State, you may remember, played for the MNC and Virginia Tech finished 10-3. In 2007, their non-conference schedule included only one bowl team—Oregon State. Those two factors explain the majority of the difference between Mark Dantonio’s final mediocre season and Brian Kelly’s moon shot first campaign.

In 2008, its time for the Bearcats to pay the piper for all their dancing in 2007. The non-conference slate is beefed up with a trip to Oklahoma to play the Sooners. Quarterback Ben Mauk, the maestro of last season’s air attack is likely finished after the NCAA denied his appeal for a 6th year of eligibility. Senior Dustin Grutza or Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones will attempt to fill his prodigious shoes if he is unable to play. The Bearcats do return the full compliment of their starting receivers and 3 of their offensive linemen, but expecting the offense to match last season’s performance is folly. The defense returns 6 starters, including stud corners Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith (combined 14 interceptions in 2007), but will not be nearly as good at forcing turnovers in 2008, and will likely certainly allow more points per game than last season.

Prediction: Believe it or not, Cincinnati beat the same 4 Big East teams in 2006 and 2007 (South Florida, Rutgers, Connecticut, and Syracuse) and lost to the same 3 teams (West Virginia, Louisville, and Pitt). A 3rd consecutive Big East record is possible, but highly dubious. Besides Oklahoma, the non-conference slate is soft enough to predict 4 wins (although the Friday night tussle at Marshall may be more difficult than expected), and with 4 Big East home games, the Bearcats should be back in a bowl game for the 3rd straight season.

Entering year 4 of the Dave Wannstedt, the Pitt Panthers have yet to accomplish much. They’ve won 16 games and lost 19, losing at least 6 each season, without a winning record. They have had some big wins, like last season’s shocker against then 2nd ranked West Virginia. They also beat bowl-bound Cincinnati teams in both 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately, there have also been some real WTF games. In Wanny’s first season, they lost to an Ohio team that finished 4-7. In 2006, they blew a 17-point 4th quarter lead and lost to Connecticut in double OT. They also lost to Navy in 2007. In that game, the Panthers allowed 331 yards to the Midshipmen on the ground. In their other 11 games they allowed an average of 112 yards rushing. Each loss cost the team a shot at a bowl bid. With a soft non-conference schedule, and perhaps the league’s best running back, Pitt should end their bowl drought in 2008.

That aforementioned best back in the Big East is sophomore LeSean McCoy. McCoy rushed for over 1300 yards in 2007, and topped the 100-yard mark 7 times. He has a long way to go to catch Pitt’s all-time leading rush Tony Dorsett, but two more similar seasons will leave him all alone in 2nd place. Along with McCoy, both starting receivers and his fullback, Conredge Collins, return. Quarterback Pat Bostick is also back for his sophomore season, but he will be challenged by Bill Stull, who actually started the opener last season before being lost for the year with a thumb injury. As a team, Pitt had a pretty poor passing offense in 2007, finishing with an efficiency rating of 113.69 (94th in the nation). With defenses keying on McCoy, and simple regression to the mean, the offense should be better in 2008.

The Pitt defense was the real story of 2007. Until their dynamite performance against West Virginia, it had gone relatively unnoticed. Yet the team finished 5th nationally in total defense, permitting only 298 yards per game. In the 11 games against teams not coached by Paul Johnson, the Panthers allowed an amazing 280 yards per game. That unit brings back 7 starters in 2008, but does lose perhaps its best player, defensive end Joe Clermond. Clermond had 10.5 sacks last season to lead the team. Despite the loss of Clermond, the Panthers may actually improve in the amount of points they allow per game. Last season the Panthers finished 5th in total defense, yet only 42nd in scoring defense. The primary reasons were the offenses inability to move the ball (108th in total offense) and the defenses inability to create turnovers. The stout defense gained only 19 turnovers in 2007 (94th in the nation). Barring some poor luck, the Panthers are likely to see more of their opponents drives end with turnovers.

Prediction: Pitt still has a long way to go to be a legitimate threat in the Big East. The offense should improve upon last year’s performance, but that has more to do with how awful they were last season than with any high hopes for the unit this year. The Panthers have a chance to run the table in non-conference play, and should win 4 of 5 at worst (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Iowa come to Pittsburgh, while the Panthers travel to Navy and Notre Dame). In conference play, the Panthers have some very winnable road games (Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Syracuse), but their home schedule is brutal (Rutgers, Louisville, and West Virginia). The Panthers won’t have a winning Big East record, but they will get back to a bowl game.

To say this is not what fan’s envisioned when Greg Robinson was lured away from the NFL is an understatement. The Orange have won only a pair of Big East games in 3 seasons. In addition, of their 7 total wins, 3 have come against MAC also-rans. The defense has had its share of issues, but the real problems have been on the offensive side of the ball. The offense has scored 20 points or more in 10 of the teams 35 games. They have been held to single digits 8 times, and their high-water mark for points per game in any season is 17.4 (accomplished in 2006). Is there hope for the Orange in 2008? Can they right the ship somewhat, or is Robinson a dead man coaching?

Before delving into all the negatives of the Orange offense, it would be wise to highlight one thing they did marginally well in 2007. Behind the passing of quarterback Andrew Robinson, the Orange posted their best team pass efficiency numbers of the Robinson era. And that’s where the praising shall end. The biggest problem for the offense in 2007 was their latent inability to run the football. The Orange ran for 63 yards per game in 2007 (ahead of only Texas Tech). They averaged 2.01 yards per rush (dead last in the nation). That is due in part to the prodigious number of sacks they allowed (54—ahead of only Notre Dame), but their leading rusher averaged only 3.34 yards per rush. Its not a surprise then that the likely starting running back for the Orange will be true freshman and hyped recruit Averin Collier. With 3 linemen back to block for him along with Robinson’s top 2 receivers back, the Orange should average !gasp! over 20 points per game for the season.

As bad as the offense was in 2007, the defense was plenty bad too. The Orange finished 111th in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. They netted only 9 sacks on the year (tied with Toledo for dead last in the nation). The good news is the Orange have a good number of players returning on that side of the ball (between 6 and 7 starters). The bad news is those players obviously weren’t too good in 2007. One good omen for the Orange defense is that they can likely count on creating a few more turnovers. They gained only 14 in 2007 (114th in the nation).

Prediction: There will be no miracles here in 2008. This is likely Robinson’s final season unless something miraculous does happen. The Orange have two very winnable non-conference homes games against Akron and Northeastern. In conference play, they are fortunate to host the league’s other weak team, Connecticut. That should add up to 3 wins, and an upset here or there could have them tying the record for wins in the Robinson era.

Going into their regular season finale in 2007, the Huskies actually controlled their own destiny in regards to a BCS bowl. Had they beaten West Virginia, they would have played in either the Fiesta or the Orange Bowl. As it were, West Virginia exposed a very flawed team and filleted their defense to the tune of 66 points and over 600 yards (over 500 on the ground). Following that defeat, the Huskies proceeded to expose more flaws in a bowl loss to Wake Forest in which they barely topped 200 yards of total offense. A lot of regression is in store for the Huskies in 2008. However, with an upset or 2, they could get back to a bowl game.

Why are the Huskies do for changes in fortune in 2008? Connecticut had a solid 3-1 record in one-score games in 2007. Their turnover margin of +14 was tied for 7th in the nation. Teams with an outstanding turnover margin one season often decline the next. The Huskies had 4 Big East home games in 2007 This year they have only 3. The Huskies had 9 non-offensive touchdowns last season (their opponents had only 3). That’s a net gain of about 42 points for the Huskies. The referees gifted them two games last season. Against Temple, an Owl player was clearly inbounds in the end zone with the go-ahead score in the closing seconds, yet was ruled out of bounds. Against Louisville, Larry Taylor signaled for a fair catch on a punt return, yet was allowed to advance it 74 yards for a touchdown in a 4-point win. The Huskies were extremely fortunate to win 9 games and tie for the Big East crown last season. They were actually outgained by 50 yards over the course of the season. In Big East play, the only team with a worse yardage differential was the Syracuse Orange.

Connecticut does return a host of talent (17 total starters), but those players should be thought of as coming from a below-average team instead of from a championship caliber team. Connecticut has the potential to surprise with so many starters back, but in this case it’s hard to envision them winning more than 2 conference games.

Prediction: The non-conference slate includes some very winnable games (Hofstra, Temple, Baylor, and Virginia), which is crucial because the Big East slate does them no favors. Their home games should all be challenging (Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Pitt), and the road games in any league are always a tussle. Connecticut has reasonably high expectations for this season that could easily be dashed. However, any rash decisions, such as firing Randy Edsall should be avoided. The Huskies need only look to upstate New York to find out what firing a decent coach can do to your program without a suitable replacement.

Predicted Records:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

2008 ACC Preview

We are just 11 short weeks away from the return of college football. A mere 77 days (75 until the Thursday kickoff). Over the next 11 weekends, I will be guiding you through the wilderness that is the summer offseason. We'll begin with a look at the ACC.

Atlantic Division

For 3 straight years, Clemson has been on the precipice of an Atlantic Division title. For 3 straight years the Tigers have finished one game out of the money. In fact, in both 2005 and 2006, the Tigers actually defeated the eventual Atlantic (and ACC) champs (Florida State and Wake Forest). So is this the year Clemson finally gets over the hump? It better be or Mr. Bowden will have some serious explaining to do.

In 2007 the Tigers had the second most prolific off, and the best defense in ACC play. The offense returns all the key skill position players including quarterback Cullen Harper, who finished with a sterling pass efficiency rating of 140.97 (tops in the ACC and 22nd in the country) and the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ running back duo of James Davis and CJ Spiller. The Clemson defense has been good and steady under 4th year coordinator Vic Koenin, finishing between 10th and 16th in scoring and 9th and 20th in total defense each season, but has yet to emerge as an elite unit. Expect more of the same this season, where the Tigers are strong at every defensive position with the possible exception of linebacker. Leading tackler Nick Watkins and fellow senior Tramaine Billie are gone and Antonio Clay’s return is questionable as he is dealing with emotional issues. Still, good and steady should be enough to get things done in the ACC—the weakest of the BCS leagues.

The only possible hitches in the Tigers giddy up could be the offensive line, where only a single starter, center Thomas Austin, returns. If the line is unable to open holes for Davis and Spiller, and keep Harper upright against the better teams on the schedule, the dreams of a championship could once again be dashed in tragic fashion. The other thing to keep in mind is the Tigers penchant for some confounding losses under Bowden. In 2003 there was the 28-point loss at Wake Forest, in 2004 there was the loss at Duke, in 2005 there was another loss at Wake Forest, in 2006 it was a blown game against Maryland, and last season there was the inexplicable 3-point showing at Georgia Tech. With road conference games against Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Virginia, you can bet 2008 will include another head-scratcher.

Prediction: Clemson should roll through the home portion of their conference schedule, but expect them to drop 2 of the aforementioned road games. All told, the Tigers should get to Jacksonville, and stand a good chance at playing an important game in Miami in early January.

NC State
You’d think after last season I’d learn my lesson about picking NC State to do anything of note. After pegging them as a potential conference sleeper, the Pack went out and started 1-5, with the lone win coming against Wofford. Then something strange happened. The Wolfpack started turning the ball over occasionally instead of every other possession and even began snagging a few turnovers themselves. The result was a 4-game win streak that brought about expectations of a bowl bid before a dazzling display of ineptitude in season-ending losses to Wake Forest and Maryland (combined score of 75-18). As the table below illustrates, the Wolfpack were not a ‘good’ team in their closing 4-2 stretch, but they were much improved over their early season incarnation. So the good news is, the team improved throughout the season under first-year coach Tom O’Brien. However, despite that improvement, the Pack allowed more yards in conference play than every team (even Duke). Couple that with the fact that they gained fewer yards in conference play than all but 3 teams (Duke, Miami, and North Carolina), and you see they still have a ways to go.

Those below average units from 2007 will see a lot of new faces in 2008. Only 4 or 5 starters return on the offensive side of the ball, depending on who nabs the starting quarterback job. Returnees Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck posted pass efficiency ratings of 111.54 and 93.42 respectively, so the insertion of redshirt freshman Russell Wilson may not be a bad thing. Regardless of who lines up under center, expect O’Brien to try to win games on the ground with Jamelle Eugene and Andre Brown. On defense, the Pack lose 7 starters, including all 3 starting linebackers. However, for a unit that was 91st in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, this may not be a bad thing. The playmakers for the Pack defense reside on the line where both Willie Young (end) and Alan-Michael Cash (tackle) return. The pair combined for 1/3rd of the Pack’s sacks (9 of 27) last season and will be vital to the defense this year.

Normally a team that was statistically better than only Duke and loses as many starters as NC State would be in for a long season. But the Wolfpack do have some trends in their favor going into 2008. Their turnover margin of -16 was among the worst (116th) in the nation. It’s unlikely to be as horrendous this season. The Pack can also thank the scheduling gods for their fantastic conference home schedule. Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Miami all come to Raleigh. 2 seasons ago when they finished 3-9, the Pack defeated Boston College and Florida State at home, and lost a 2-point decision to the perhaps the best Wake Forest team in history. The final reason to be optimistic is the fact that the Pack play in the ACC. As Wake Forest has proven the past 2 seasons and Virginia showed last year, you don’t have to necessarily be good to win games. O’Brien’s style of playing games close to the vest and establishing the run could pay dividends in a weak league with few elite teams.

Prediction: The Pack’s home schedule is a godsend for a team with their issues. It’s reasonable to envision them winning 3 of 4 against the aforementioned quartet. NC State is not in the same stratosphere talent-wise as Clemson, so that game may as well be on the road. The Pack also draw Duke in one of their games against the Coastal Division, so at least one road contest is very winnable. The Pack are probably not one of the top-50 teams in the country, but the schedule, coupled with an improved turnover margin will have them contending, but not really contending in 2008. Outside the league a 2-2 record is realistic with South Carolina, South Florida, East Carolina, and William & Mary on the ledger. Look for the Pack to be bowl-eligible in O’Brien’s second season.

Florida State
Is this the year the Seminoles return to their former glory? We’ve been hearing for quite sometime that their return is imminent. No one seems to be pushing those views this year. Is that a good omen for the Seminoles? Will they rise just after everyone has stopped expecting it?

Despite their ‘struggles’ in the new decade, the Seminoles still have the best conference record in the 2000s by a healthy margin among the old 9-team ACC (8 games better than 2nd place Georgia Tech). However, as the table below illustrates, that margin was acquired entirely in the first half of the new century. Since 2004, Florida State is tied for 2nd with Clemson and Virginia with a very middling 18-14 conference record. Rumors of their demise have not been greatly exaggerated.

Florida State is an afterthought in the 2008 ACC season. At best playing second fiddle to Clemson, and at worst further tarnishing Papa Bowden’s legacy. However, the pieces and the schedule are in place to make Florida State a contender in the ACC and give the Noles a shot at 9 wins for the first time since 2004. Florida State was actually a pretty proficient team last season despite their 7-6 record. They were above average in conference play on both offense and defense (3rd and 5th respectively). Both units return 7 starters and should remain in the upper-echelon of the league. On offense a trio of seniors at the skill positions—quarterback Drew Weatherford, running back Antone Smith, and receiver Greg Carr—will not make Nole fans forget Chris Weinke, Warrick Dunn, or Peter Warrick, but should make the offense one of the league’s best. Defensively, the Noles should also remain among the ACC’s best even with the early season suspensions (which we’ll get to in a moment).

Prediction: The Noles leave the state of Florida exactly 3 times during the season. In conference play, Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson, and Virginia Tech must all come to Tallahassee. Boston College and Virginia Tech, last year’s ACC Championship Game participants, lose a great deal of talent, and it’s very unlikely Wake Forest makes it 3 in a row over the Noles. That leaves Clemson as the toughest home conference game on the slate. The Tigers have won 3 straight in the series, but only one of those has come outside of Death Valley. Florida State has a great chance to sweep their ACC home games and position themselves in the Atlantic Division race. Outside the league, the Noles have taken the Clemson path of non-conference scheduling—2 Division IAA teams, an in-state rival, and a non-conference tilt with a former power. The two cupcakes come in the first two weeks when the Noles will be without as many as 10 returning players thanks to last year’s academic fraud scandal, which is great for Florida State athletics, but maybe not so much for the university’s academic integrity. The ‘neutral’ site game against Colorado is in Jacksonville, so the crowd will likely be heavily in the Noles favor. The final non-conference game is against Florida. The Gators are strapped to the nines, and the Noles have not beaten them since 2003, but the game is at home, and stranger things have happened in this rivalry. All together, the Noles are not ready to ascend to the top of the ACC, but a 3-1 non-conference record would put them on a collision course with a possible 9th win in the bowl game.

After taking the league by storm in 2001, and continuing to win games at a prolific clip through 2003, the Fridge and the Terps have fallen on relative hard times. 3 of the past 4 seasons have ended with the Terps below .500. They have only one winning ACC record in that same span, and their highest finish in scoring offense and total offense is 69th and 56th in the nation respectively. To put it mildly, Friedgen’s reputation as a coach and an offensive guru has taken a major hit. If there ever was a year for the Terps, and especially their offense to get back on track, this is it.

The Maryland offense returns 9 starters, including 4 offensive linemen. Whichever member of the Chris Turner, Jodan Steffy, or Josh Portis triumvirate wins the starting job should be well protected. The only real downside to the Maryland offensive attack is the loss of running back Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball, who combined for nearly 1600 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Likely starter Da’Rel Scott had only 14 carries last season, but with the experience returning up front, there should be some holes for him to run through.

The other side of the ball was not without its blemishes last season either. The Terps finished a respectable 40th in the nation in total defense in 2007, but those numbers are a bit deceiving. In ACC play, the Terps were ahead of only NC State and Duke in yards allowed. That unit returns only 5 starters, so it should once again be behind the curve.

Prediction: It’s highly likely that Friedgen will have his best offense at College Park since 2003. That should make up for the below average defense and keep the Terps competitive in most games. In conference play, three key swing games against teams of similar abilities (Wake Forest, NC State, and North Carolina) are at home. With a little luck the Terps could be undefeated against their non-conference opponents. They face Delaware, Middle Tennessee State, and Eastern Michigan in the cupcake division, but also play host to California in mid-September. The Golden Bears are a better team, but playing a game across the country is never easy. Maryland should get to at least 7 wins in the regular season and assure themselves of a finish above .500 for the 2nd times in 3 seasons.

Wake Forest
20 wins over the past 2 seasons and a plethora of returning starters on both sides of the ball should have Deacon fans excited about the possibilities for a special season in 2008. Alas though, it pays to keep in mind how fortunate the Deacons have been the past two seasons. In that span, Wake Forest is 8-2 in close games (those decided by 8 points or less), their turnover margin is +22, and they have 13 non-offensive touchdowns in that span. Last season, corner back Alphonso Smith and linebacker Aaron Curry combined for more touchdowns (6) on interceptions that Kenny Moore and Kevin Marion on Riley Skinner passes (5). Like any extreme performance, the market is due for a correction. While the extent of the correction is indeterminate, it’s a safe bet that the Deacons will not have their defense and special teams score as many touchdowns next season.

But hope for a special season is not lost. The Deacon offense, while it loses the aforementioned receiving duo of Moore and Marion, plus tight end John Tereshnski, and 3 offensive linemen, including All-American center Steve Justice, does return quarterback Riley Skinner and running back Josh Adams. Skinner saw his interceptions jump from 5 as a freshman to 13 as a sophomore, but he also led the NCAA in completion percentage at 72.4%. The passing game will not be a big-play threat, but it should be able to consistently move the ball. Josh Adams on the other hand, could be the team’s big-play threat. Adams gained 953 yards as a freshman and scored 11 touchdowns. His electrifying run against Florida State helped the Deacons emerge victorious. Expect more of the same from the offense in 2008: a conservative attack that still manages to keep the chains moving.

The defense should once again be the real strength of the team. 9 starters return from last season’s unit, with the only losses linemen Jeremy Thompson and Zach Stukes. Thompson did lead the team in sacks last year (6.5), but the Robinson boys (Matt and Boo) should hold down the fort in his stead. The entire secondary and linebacking corps return. 6 of the 7 members are seniors. That may not bode well for 2009, but for 2008 Deacon fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Prediction: If things break right, the Deacons could be back in Jacksonville. However, things have broken right for the Deacons that past 2 years. A realistic expectation is that things won’t break just right. Still, the conference home schedule is very advantageous (Clemson, Duke, Virginia, and Boston College come to Winston). I think a good chance exists that Wake sweeps all 4. However, the road schedule is just as daunting (Florida State, Maryland, Miami, and NC State). A realist would see only about 1 win in those 4 games. A .500 conference record seems likely and with 4 winnable non-conference games (Baylor, Ole Miss, Navy, and Vanderbilt), the Deacons should go bowling for an unprecedented 3rd straight year.

Boston College
Jeff Jagodzinski rode Tom O’Brien’s players all the way to Jacksonville in 2007, before falling short against Virginia Tech. The table below lists the Eagles splits through their first 7 games (a 7-0 start) and their last 7 games (4-3 beginning with the comeback win over Virginia Tech). As you can see the Eagles were quite dominant in their opening 7-game run. In the second half of the year, the offense slowed a great deal (down 60 yards per game or roughly 13% less). The defense remained quite stout, but the ever fickle turnover margin reversed. The result was that a team that had outscored it’s opponents by almost 17 points per game, was actually outscored in the second half of the season. Still, an 11-win season is nothing to sneeze at. Now comes the hard part. The morning after. Matt Ryan. Gone. Andre Callendar. Gone. Kevin Challenger. Gone. Those 3 players accounted for over 92% of the team’s yardage in 2007. Receivers Brandon Robinson and Rich Gunnell return for new quarterback Chris Crane to throw to. However, the offense is sure to experience some growing pains with so much lost talent.

The Eagle defense, also suffers some extreme personnel losses. Only 4 starters return, and the biggest hit is in the secondary where safety Jamie Silva and corner DeJuan Tribble leave a tremendous void with their departure. The duo combined for 11 interceptions last season and were two of the best defensive backs in the ACC. The Eagles were second in the nation with 25 interceptions last season, and should see significant drop off in that area this year.

Prediction: It’s time to rebuild for Boston College. The bad part of it is there is little help from the home conference schedule. Clemson is likely the strongest team in the ACC. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, despite their flaws, are formidable foes from the Coastal Division. Even Maryland will pose a threat. The non-conference slate could also pose a problem. Rhode Island should be an easy win, but Central Florida was last year’s Conference USA champ, and Notre Dame can’t possibly be as bad as they were last season. Even the opener against Kent State (in Cleveland) should be cause for concern. Remember, 2 seasons ago the Eagles opened against Central Michigan and escaped Mount Pleasant with a 7-point win. The Eagles should finish in the Atlantic basement, and only a non-conference sweep would get them to bowl eligibility.

Coastal Division

Virginia Tech
Can the Hokies make it 5 straight 10-win seasons? With major personnel losses on both sides of the ball, it would be hard to make a compelling argument in favor of that. However, the Hokies do have a reasonable shot at yet another ACC Championship Game appearance.

Before we delve into what the Hokie offense will look like in 2008, let’s answer a question about the offense was 2007: Was it any good? While the Hokies were a respectable 53rd in scoring offense, they were horrible in total offense (100th in the nation). It stands to reason that a lot of their points were scored thanks to the 31 turnovers and numerous 3 and outs the defense forced. But if we look a little closer, we can see the Hokies were actually a middling offense, at least in the ACC. The Hokies gained only about 331 yards per game. However, that number is depressed by their struggles in the opener against East Carolina (278 yards), the beatdown in Baton Rouge (149 yards), their surprising ineptitude against William & Mary (287 yards), and the bowl loss to Kansas (306 yards). In ACC play, the Hokies actually gained about 354 yards per game (5th in the league). Fortunately for them, after much debate, they will continue to play a schedule comprised of mostly ACC teams in 2008. To summarize, by national standards the Hokies were below average (though not as dismal as their national rank would lead one to believe), but by ACC standards, they were a shade above average. So what can we expect in 2008? For starters, the team loses their top 4 receivers, who accounted for 15 of the team’s 17 touchdown receptions and 73% of the team’s receiving yards. The Hokies also bid adieu to troubled running back Brandon Ore, who gained nearly 1000 yards last season. The good news is, despite his status as the team’s leading rusher, Ore averaged only 3.72 yards per rush. The Hokies also have 4 of their 5 starting offensive linemen back so Ore’s replacement(s) (probably freshmen Darren Evans and Josh Oglesby) should match his production. The quarterbacking duo of pocket passer Sean Glennon and running threat Tyrod Taylor also return to the Tech backfield. The passing game should sputter with the loss of so many receivers, but the stability of the offensive line should enable the running game to improve. The Tech offense may be a little worse than last season, but not appreciably so.

The other side of the ball is where the Hokies will feel the biggest pinch. 7 starters are gone including linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. The defensive line also loses standout Chris Ellis who led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2007. The Hokies should slip from the elite status they attained last season (3rd in scoring and 4th in total defense), but behind Bud Foster (Australian for defense) should remain one of the top units in the ACC.

Prediction: The Coastal Division is there for the taking. Virginia Tech has lost 12 starters including their entire receiving corps. They also had a turnover margin of +11 in 2007 that is likely to regress. The other three contenders in the Coastal (North Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Miami) could each conceivably head to Jacksonville. However, Georgia Tech probably will not master Paul Johnson’s system in his first season, North Carolina was competitive last year, but they have a long way to go to reach the top of the division, and Miami has not developed a competent quarterback since Ken Dorsey left town. They are flawed, but they remain the likely champion of the Coastal Division.

Georgia Tech
If you’re on the lookout for a sleeper in the ACC this is team. The Yellow Jackets nabbed the best coach in the NCAA this offseason when they inked Navy’s Paul Johnson to replace Chan Gailey. The question is, will Johnson’s offense take hold immediately in Atlanta, or will it take time. For reference here’s how Navy has performed in regards to points per game since 2000. The seasons shaded blue are pre-Johnson, and the red years are Johnson’s tenure. The team improved substantially his first season with players who were not recruited run his option-style offense. In the 5 seasons following his initial term, the team remained above the points per game standard he set in his first season, topping out at nearly 40 points per game in 2007.

Johnson’s offense will have to make due with a host of new faces in 2008. After doing his best Reggie Ball impression in 2007, quarterback Taylor Bennett transferred to Louisiana Tech. That leaves athletic sophomore Josh Nesbitt as the likely starter. Nesbitt threw only 13 passes last season, so his abilities as a passer could be lacking, but there’s no question he poses a significant threat operating the triple option. 3 offensive linemen and the two leading receivers, Greg Smith Demaryius Thomas, return, but Jacket fans will see a lot of new faces to go along with the new schematic look of the offense.

The Jacket defense returns only 4 starters, but one of them is Vance Walker, perhaps the best defensive tackle in the nation. Walker led the Jackets with 8.5 sacks last season and was second on the team with 14 tackles for loss. Joining Walker on the line is senior defensive end Michael Johnson. He played sparingly last season, accumulating 4 sacks and blocking two kicks. As a starter this season, he could possibly reach double digits in sacks and make the Georgia Tech defensive line one of the best in the nation. Outside of the defensive line, the Jackets have some holes to fill in the linebacking corps and the secondary. The 4 leading tacklers from last season—linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Gary Guyton, and defensive backs Jamal Lewis and Avery Roberson, are all gone.

Prediction: Based on SDPI, the Jackets were about the 4th best team in the ACC last season. Such a discrepancy in their performance and achievement makes them a good choice to surprise in a Coastal Division very much in flux. I don’t quite have the guts to predict a division title in Johnson’s first season, but one will come sooner rather than later. Outside the conference, the Jackets splay two SEC teams, Mississippi State and Georgia. The Georgia game is the only likely loss on the non-conference slate, so if they make a run in the ACC, a high win total is possible.

To say Miami has not been the same since Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, and Kellen Winslow left town is an understatement. The table below lists Miami’s nation rank in terms of scoring offense (points per game) and total offense (yards per game).

The Canes solid showing in points per game for the 2004 season belied their below average finish in terms of yards per game. There points fell closer in line with their yards over the next 3 seasons; bottoming out at 101st in 2007. The good news for the Cane offense in 2008 is that there are a lot of new faces. A pair of freshman, Robert Marve and Jacory Harris, will vie for the starting quarterback position. The Miami passing attach posted a cumulative passer rating of 114.50 (91st in the nation), so surpassing that number will not be out o the question. Joining those newbies in the backfield are Graig Cooper and Javarris James. Cooper and James combined to rush for over 1200 yards last season and will likely be the focal point of the offense, at least early on.

The team’s defense, long a strength in the mini-Renaissance under Butch Davis and Larry Coker, fell on hard times last season. The team finished respectable 33rd in the nation in total defense, but part of that was playing in the offensively challenged ACC. In conference play, only 3 teams allowed more yards than the Canes—Maryland, Duke, and NC State. Like the offense, that unit will see a ton of new faces in 2008. Eric Moncur is the lone returning starter on the defensive line, and Colin McCarthy is the sole linebacker back. The secondary, at least comparably, has an abundance of talent returning with 3 starters back. The newbies on both sides of the ball will determine how high Miami can rise in the ACC standings.

Prediction: Despite their horrid finish last season, Miami does have some positive indicators heading into 2008. They were a tough luck 1-3 in one-score games and had a turnover margin that ranked 96th in the nation (-6). Normally a team with all the issues Miami faces would be hard-pressed to return to qualify for a bowl game, much less contend for a division crown. But in the ACC, every team save Duke can dream of a bowl game in 2008, and about 2/3rds of the conference can dream of a Championship Game appearance. Miami is no exception. Two likely losses stand out on the non-conference schedule—roadies at Florida and Texas A&M, but if Miami’s highly touted recruiting class comes to campus ready to contribute immediately, a season of contention is in the cards.

North Carolina
The first season of the Butch Davis era in Chapel Hill was one of missed opportunities. The Tar Heels lost 4 games by 4 points or fewer and 6 games by 7 points or less. Of course, on the other hand, 3 of Carolina’s 4 wins were by 6 points or less. On the whole, the Tar Heels were probably a little better than their 4-8 record but not much so. Is 2008, the year the Heels return to Mack Brown level glory?

It certainly could be. The Tar Heel offense returns 9 or 10 starters depending on how you are scoring at home. The two most important players are likely the backfield tandem of TJ Yates and Greg Little. Yates had a solid freshman season, posting a pass efficiency rating of 123.63 (72nd among qualifying passers). If he can cut down on his interceptions (18 in 365 attempts), he could be one of the ACC’s premier passers in 2008. His backfield mate, Greg Little, is the ultimate X-factor. After playing much of the 2007 season at wide receiver, Little started the final two games at running back and gained 243 yards on the ground in those games. Of course, 154 of those yards came against Duke, so it remains to be seen if he can consistently pound the rock. He’ll have 4 returning starters on the offensive line leading the way, so a solid season is not a pipedream.

The Tar Heel defense also brings back some familiar faces. 8 starters return, but the Tar Heels will miss Hilee Taylor and his 10.5 sacks. Besides Taylor, the only other siginifant loss is linebacker and leading tackler Durell Mapp. Despite the absence of those two playmakers, the Tar Heels defense should improve upon their middle of the pack status (the Tar Heels allowed about 5 more yards over the course of an 8-game conference season than an average ACC team).

Prediction: Yet another team with reasonable aspirations at taking the Coastal Division. The Tar Heels get two of their fellow divisional contenders (Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) at home. However, the Tar Heels are longer on potential that they are results. While a division title is certainly possible, I foresee more of a minor improvement, and the first bowl bid of the Butch Davis era.

The Cavaliers certainly had a tight grip on the rabbit’s foot in 2007. After a bludgeoning at the hands of Wyoming that turned down the expectations cranked up the heat on Al Groh, the Cavs won 7 straight games. 5 of those wins were by a combined 11 points. On the season, the Cavs were 6-2 in one-score games. That exceptional record in close games nearly got the Cavs all the way to Jacksonville. To be fair, the Cavs did eventually get there, as they accepted a bowl big to the Gator Bowl, but alas the trip was about a month later than they would have liked. After buying himself some time with a 9-win season, Al Groh may once again feel the heat in 2008, as the Cavs suffer some major personnel losses and are sure to see their luck change.

The Cavalier offense, average by ACC standards (6th in yards in conference play), was pretty bad nationally (101st in total offense). Unfortunately, improvement is not likely in 2008. Quarterback Jameel Sewell, a below-average passer, but an effective runner (279 yards in 2008), will not return thanks to academic issues. That leaves Peter Lalich as the likely starter. Lalich appeared in 8 games, but threw only 61 passes, so he remains relatively inexperienced and the Cav passing attack will likely pose about the same threat in 2008, which is to say not much of one. Taking some of the load off of Lolich is the running back duo of Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson. Peerman and Simpson ran for over 1100 yards last and both averaged over 5 yards per carry. They will e hard-pressed to top those numbers as the entire interior of the offensive line (center and both guards) must be replaced.

Defense was where Virginia shined last season, especially when it came to tackling the opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. The Cavs finished 5th in the nation with 43 sacks. Unfortunately for the Cavs, the player with the most sacks, Chris Long (14), has exhausted his eligibility. Also gone from the defensive line is Jeffrey Fitzgerald, who garnered 7 sacks. Fitzgerald left, like Sewell, because of an academic issue. If the Cavs are unable to generate a serious pass rush, their secondary, which must replace 2 starters, will feel the pain. All told, the Cavs defense cannot expect to be at the same level as the 2007 unit.

Prediction: 2007 was the year for the Cavs to win the ACC. Unfortunately, like Boston College, Virginia Tech dashed their dreams of a conference title. Now its time to pay the piper in 2008. The offense, at best, will be only marginally better, while the defense will certainly be worse. Couple that with worse luck (the 6-2 mark in one-score games is unlikely to be repeated) and a non-conference game against Southern Cal, and the pieces are in place for the Cavs to endure their 2nd losing season in 3 years.

The Blue Devils have not won an ACC game since they snuck up on Clemson late in the 2004 season. That’s a string of 25 games and counting. If 2008 features nothing else, it should include at least 1 ACC win, and be the year when the culture changed at Duke. Wake Forest has shown that if you get the right coach, have patience, and catch some breaks, you can do some pretty special things, The Blue Devils have shown they are finally committed to winning by hiring one of the best coaches on the market in David Cutcliffe.

Citcliffe’s forte at Tennessee and Ole Miss has been offense. He will have the opportunity to tutor a talented quarterback for at least 2 seasons in Thaddeus Lewis. Lewis rebounded from a spotty freshman season to post a passer rating of 125.67 (65th in the nation). Lewis had a very good TD to INT ration of 21:10. However, he still needs to work on his accuracy as he completed just a shade over 55% of his passes. If Cutcliffe can pass some of his knowledge on to Lewis the Blue Devil offense could aspire for mediocrity.

If things break right, the defense could be much better as well. 9 players are back from a unit that did not finish as the worst in the ACC in conference play (damning with faint praise for sure). Still, 8 of the top 10 tacklers are back and thanks to some better luck (the Blue Devils forced only 18 turnover last year—good for 103rd in the nation), the improvement is certainly likely.

Prediction: A chance for a strong start exists for Duke. The Blue Devils open the season against James Madison and then play host to Northwestern and Navy. The Blue Devils figure to be slight underdogs in those games, but Duke did beat Northwestern on the road last season and led Navy for the whole game in Annapolis before falling 46-43. Look for Duke to win at least 1 ACC game and triple (at worst) their total wins from 2007.

Predicted Records: