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June 5, 2008

Rivals.com countdown to No. 1 begins

Rivals.com today begins its 2008 countdown, releasing our preseason ranking of the Division I-A teams from No. 120 to No. 1.

We're starting at the bottom, and the first week of rankings will be in groups of 10. Then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled July 31.

After that, you won't see any rankings from Rivals until early October. The reason: We will wait until enough games have been played so we can legitimately rank the teams.

The rankings were compiled by football writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee. They look forward to your e-mails and your comments on the message boards.

Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: Nos. 120-111
120. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL
COACH: Mario Cristobal (1-11 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 1-6 in Sun Belt (tied for seventh in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 119th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior tailback A'Mod Ned came on strong at the end of last season and lends hope that the Golden Panthers will be able to run the ball effectively. He'll run behind a line that returns three starters, including junior tackle Andy Leavine. Sophomore cornerback Anthony Gaitor heads what could be a good secondary. Gaitor was active and aggressive last season.
STAR POWER: Junior linebacker Scott Bryant is undersized (5-10/220), but he's always around the ball and racked up 91 tackles last season. Bryant has a chance to be an All-Sun Belt player this fall. He was a first-team all-state player at Lakeland (Fla.) High and the leading tackler on a state-title team as a senior.
STRENGTHS: The running game has some potential with Ned and backup Julian Reams. There also are some OK receivers on the roster, but can the quarterbacks get them the ball? The secondary has a chance to be the best unit on the team.
WEAKNESSES: The Golden Panthers were next-to-last nationally in total offense last season. FIU won't improve on that statistical ranking unless it can effectively throw the ball. The quarterbacks completed 45.8 percent of their throws last season, with 20 interceptions. The run defense must improve, as well. The front seven lacks size and frequently is overpowered. There are just five home games, and six of the first eight games overall are on the road. To make matters worse, the first three games are against "Big Six" conference opponents.
THE BUZZ: FIU won its final game last season, and Cristobal and his staff slowly are improving the talent base. But the Golden Panthers still have a ways to go, and a legit goal is doubling the win total from last season.
MIKE HUGUENIN
119. IDAHO
COACH: Robb Akey (1-11 in one season)
LAST SEASON: 1-11 overall, 0-8 in the Western Athletic Conference (last in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 120th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno were the only freshmen to rush for more yards per game last season than Deonte' Jackson (97.9 ypg), who reached the century mark in six of his first eight games before finishing with 1,175 yards. Junior strong safety Shiloh Keo earned second-team All-WAC honors last season after recording 81 tackles, picking off four passes and recovering three fumbles. Keo also ranked sixth in the nation with an average of 16.8 yards per punt return, including a 100-yard touchdown against Northern Illinois.
STAR POWER: Adam Korby is entering his fourth season as the Vandals' starting center. He was named a team captain as a junior last season, when he was a second-team All-WAC selection.
STRENGTHS: Korby anchors a line that returns all five starters, though Adam Juratovac technically split time as the starting right guard with the since-graduated Marcis Fennell. Having Jackson run behind a veteran line should give the Vandals one of the WAC's top rushing attacks.
WEAKNESSES: Idaho will have to run the ball well because the Vandals ranked 119th in passing efficiency last season. Nathan Enderle completed just 44.3 percent of his passes last year, with 18 interceptions and 10 touchdowns. Enderle is trying to maintain the job this year by holding off a challenge from Quinn Ashley. Idaho's linebacking corps must replace David Vobora, Brandon Ogletree and Jo Artis Ratti, who combined for 306 tackles last season. Vobora led the WAC with 148 tackles last year and ranked third in the nation with 12.3 tackles per game.
THE BUZZ: It's tough to succeed in the WAC when you can't throw the ball effectively. Playing in a league that featured five of the nation's top 40 passing offenses last year, Idaho is going to continue to lag behind until it shores up its passing attack.
STEVE MEGARGEE
118. UTAH STATE
COACH: Brent Guy (6-29 in three seasons).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 2-6 in the WAC (seventh in the league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 116th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior offensive tackle Derek Hoke has tremendous size (6-9/310) and started all 12 games last season. Hoke heads a line that has three returning starters. Senior Ben Calderwood was a second-team All-WAC selection at defensive end in 2006 but slumped last season./ Calderwood is expected to play both end and tackle this season. A return to form would give the Aggies a better pass rush, which in turn would help a secondary that struggled at times last season.
STAR POWER: Senior linebacker Jake Hutton had 102 tackles for the Aggies last season, earning second-team All-WAC honors. He has led Utah State in tackles in two of the past three seasons and had 16 tackles in each of Utah State's victories last season.
STRENGTHS: The running game has potential. Sophomore tailback Derrvin Speight played well down the stretch last season, and he'll be running behind a line that returns three starters. The back seven on defense could be at least adequate. Hutton is tough, and the move of linebacker De'Von Hall to safety bears watching.
WEAKNESSES: Who's the quarterback and who's the go-to receiver? Unless the Aggies can prove they can throw the ball, Speight is going to see a lot of eight-man fronts. There doesn't appear to be a big-play threat on offense. And while nine starters are back on defense, the unit gave up a bit more than 450 yards per game last season. The Aggies signed three junior college defenders in their latest recruiting class, and they especially need the two linemen end Magnum Mauga and tackle Casey Davis to make an impact.
THE BUZZ: Utah State enters the season on a two-game winning streak. They haven't won three in a row since 1996-97. But a 1-4 start looks likely, and unless the Aggies win at home against Idaho on Sept. 20, a winless season is a possibility.
MIKE HUGUENIN
117. EASTERN MICHIGAN
COACH: Jeff Genyk (13-33 in four seasons)
LAST SEASON: 4-8 overall, 3-4 in Mid-American Conference (third in MAC West).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 108th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Daniel Holtzclaw is entering his fourth year as Eastern Michigan's starting middle linebacker. The senior earned first-team All-MAC honors last season after compiling 125 tackles, which gave him a career total of 330. Senior defensive tackle Josh Hunt recorded 6.5 tackles for loss, recovered three fumbles and picked off two passes last year despite missing two games with an elbow injury.
STAR POWER: Senior quarterback Andy Schmitt showed plenty of promise as a dual threat last season. Schmitt went 164-of-255 for 1,613 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 279 yards and six touchdowns, making him the Eagles' second-leading rusher.
STRENGTHS: Eastern Michigan returns four offensive linemen who made at least six starts last season, including two-year starters T.J. Lang at left tackle and Andy Fretz at left guard. The Eagles also return all four starters in its secondary after ranking fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense last season.
WEAKNESSES: The defensive line could struggle to replace Eric Young and Tennessee Titans second-round pick Jason Jones, who combined for 28.5 tackles for loss last season. Even with Jones and Young around, Eastern Michigan ranked 102nd in the nation in sacks and 91st in total defense last season. Eastern Michigan also must find a No. 1 tailback now that Pierre Walker has departed after rushing for 839 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. The Eagles also would love to see someone emerge as a go-to receiver. Although EMU returns its top two receivers from last season in Jacory Stone and DeAnthony White, neither had more than 467 receiving yards.
THE BUZZ: Eastern Michigan's 4-8 record last year represented major progress after a 1-11 campaign in 2006, but the Eagles must shore up their defense before they can expect to take the next step. The Eagles allowed 136 points in their final three games last season despite having Jones and Young in the lineup. Seven of the Eagles' 12 opponents last year broke the 30-point mark.
STEVE MEGARGEE
116. WESTERN KENTUCKY
COACH: David Elson (37-22 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-5 as transitional I-A member.
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 109th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior offensive tackle Greg Ryan redshirted last season but should be the Hilltoppers' best lineman this season. Junior linebacker Blake Boyd missed the final three games with an injury, and he'll give Western a physical presence (he's 6-3 and 250) on the outside.
STAR POWER: Junior tailback Tyrell Hayden ran for 1,134 yards and 10 TDs last season, his first as the starter. He had four 100-yard games en route to putting together the ninth-best rushing season in school history. He could put up better numbers this season running behind a line that has five upperclassmen as starters.
STRENGTHS: Hayden heads what should be a strong rushing attack. The offensive line is a physical and experienced unit. The receiving corps is a deep one even with the loss of leading receiver Curtis Hamilton. Two quarterbacks share time (K.J. Black and Notre Dame transfer David Wolke), with each providing a different skill set.
WEAKNESSES: While there's a deep receiving corps, Western had a mediocre passing attack last season. There are two new starting safeties. The front seven on defense (Western runs a 3-4 set) has four new starters, and a playmaking linebacker needs to emerge. Five of the first six games are on the road and there are just five home games.
THE BUZZ: While the Hilltoppers won seven games last season, they were 1-5 against Division I-A teams. The schedule is noticeably tougher this season, with just two I-AA opponents. Western still is a season away from full-fledged I-A membership and further growing pains can be expected. There are five games against Sun Belt members, and winning two of those should be a goal.
MIKE HUGUENIN
115. NORTH TEXAS
COACH: Todd Dodge (2-10 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-6 in Sun Belt (tied for seventh in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 115th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Cornerback Antoine Bush should be the standout in a secondary that must improve. Bush is one of three returning starters in the defensive backfield and easily is the most experienced player on the Mean Green defense. Junior center Kelvin Drake is the best player on an offensive line that returns four starters. He did a nice job in his first season in the new offense, which calls for shotgun snaps on most downs.
STAR POWER: Senior wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald adjusted easily to Dodge's pass-happy offense last season, finishing with 111 catches for 1,322 yards and 12 TDs. He's a former walk-on who spent most of his first two seasons at UNT on the scout team.
STRENGTHS: The offensive line did an adequate job last season and should be better this season, thanks to the return of the four starters. There is a nice receiving corps headed by Fitzgerald, who'd be even more dangerous if a legit No. 2 receiver comes to the fore.
WEAKNESSES: The quarterback situation could become interesting. Giovanni Vizza did a nice job as a true freshman last season, but he still threw 20 picks. UNT's marquee recruit is quarterback Riley Dodge, the coach's son. Riley Dodge first committed to Texas, then changed his mind. UNT needs to get better running the ball. Defensively, a lot of things need to change because the Mean Green were awful on that side of the ball. New coordinator Gary DeLoach returns to UNT after spending five seasons at UCLA, and he has a monumental task ahead of him. Three of the first four games are on the road, including a contest against LSU, and the lone home game in that span is against offense-minded Tulsa.
THE BUZZ: The pass-happy offense was potent in Dodge's first season. But it won't matter what the offense does unless UNT gets a whole lot better on defense. The Mean Green was 114th nationally in total defense and last in the nation in scoring defense, allowing more than 30 points 10 times. This is a young team. While the staff did a nice job on the recruiting trail, the Mean Green looks to be at least another season away from challenging for an upper-division finish in the Sun Belt.
MIKE HUGUENIN
114. UAB
COACH: Neil Callaway (2-10 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 2-10 overall, 1-7 in Conference USA (sixth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 113th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior kicker/punter Swayze Waters is one of the best dual-position kickers in the nation. He hit 22 of 28 field-goal attempts last season, including 11 of 14 from beyond 40 yards. He also averaged 41.4 yards per punt and had 22 of his 69 kicks downed inside the 20. Senior free safety Will Dunbar was a tackle machine for the Blazers last season. He earned first-team all-conference honors after coming up with 122 tackles despite missing two games. He had double-digit tackles in seven games, with a high of 17 against Houston and Michigan State. He also had two interceptions and two pass breakups.
STAR POWER: Senior linebacker Joe Henderson was all over the field for the Blazers' defense. He finished the season with 109 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, and five sacks. He also had two interceptions.
STRENGTHS: Junior quarterback Joe Webb is athletic (he started eight games at wide receiver last season) and gives the Blazers a playmaker in the backfield. Wide receiver Frantrell Forrest has the potential to be one of the best at his position in C-USA. Dunbar, Henderson and Swayze are legit all-league candidates. The secondary returns three starters.
WEAKNESSES: The Blazers had an anemic rushing attack last season and will be breaking in a new tailback this season with the move of Rashaud Slaughter to wide receiver. And as bad as UAB was running the ball, the Blazers were even worse as in last in the nation in rushing defense last season. Nine defensive starters return, but the front four must get far more proficient against the run.
THE BUZZ: UAB signed 11 junior college transfers, and at least half those guys need to make an immediate impact. Webb provides some hope for the offense, but UAB still needs to find a tailback it can count on. The season rests on how much the defense can improve. If the Blazers again struggle to stop the run, it will be another long season.
MIKE HUGUENIN
113. KENT STATE
COACH: Doug Martin (15-31 in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in MAC (seventh in MAC East).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 100th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior linebacker Derek Burrell is expected to be the Golden Flashes' defensive leader. He was a third-team All-MAC performer last season, when he had 112 tackles. Senior offensive tackle Augustus Parrish could be a first-team All-MAC guy this fall. He is heading into his third season as the starter on the left side and is one of three returning starters on the line.
STAR POWER: Junior tailback Eugene Jarvis may be only 5 feet 5, but he's also the nation's leading returning rusher. He ran for 1,669 yards and 10 TDs last season. He had nine 100-yard games and also caught 23 passes. He's a former all-state performer for Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High.
STRENGTHS: Jarvis is a water bug with exceptional quickness. Despite his size, he's comfortable running between the tackles. Parrish heads what should be a good offensive line, and Burrell leads a linebacker unit that should be solid.
WEAKNESSES: The passing attack was woeful last season and there doesn't appear to be a wide receiver on the roster who's going to scare anybody. Quarterback Julian Edelman is adequate when healthy. When Edelman isn't on the field, the offense suffers. For the most part, the defensive front seven is undersized. As a whole, the defense lacks playmakers.
THE BUZZ: For a little guy, Jarvis faces a big task carrying the team. The passing attack is awful, which means that unless Jarvis (and maybe Edelman) produce on the ground, the Golden Flashes are going nowhere.
MIKE HUGUENIN
112. LOUISIANA-MONROE
COACH: Charlie Weatherbie (21-37 in five seasons; 66-101 in 14 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 4-3 in Sun Belt (tied for third in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 93rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster heads into his third season as the starter, and his running ability helps the Warhawks' offense go. Senior tight end Zeek Zacharie should be the best player at his position in the Sun Belt, and is coming off a season in which he had six TD receptions.
STAR POWER: Junior free safety Greg James has nine interceptions in his career and should be the best defensive backs in the Sun Belt this season. He's a solid tackler who also plays well against the run.
STRENGTHS: There's a nice group of receivers, headed by Zacharie and WR Darrell McNeal, though Lancaster is just adequate as a passer. Both starting linebackers return. Punter Scott Love is a weapon. The toughest conference games are at home.
WEAKNESSES: The Warhawks were excellent on the ground last season (209.0 ypg), but 1,400-yard rusher Calvin Dawson and four starters on the offensive line must be replaced. The defensive line will have two new starters at tackle. The secondary struggled last season and there will be three new starters (ULM uses a 4-2-5 set).
THE BUZZ: ULM pulled one of the biggest upsets in the nation last season, winning at Alabama in November. But Dawson was such a huge part of the offense that you wonder how the Warhawks will handle life without him. His replacement almost certainly will be Frank Goodin, who has some talent but will be running behind a rebuilt line. If would help matters if Lancaster becomes a more effective passer. ULM opens with two SEC teams (Auburn, then Arkansas) and plays at Ole Miss late in the season, so there is opportunity to beat another SEC team. But don't expect that to happen. Instead, expect a lower-division finish in the Sun Belt.
MIKE HUGUENIN
111. ARMY
COACH: Stan Brock (3-9 in one season).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 as an independent.
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 111th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Army lost every starter in its secondary, but Brock feels good about sophomore Jordan Trimble taking over one of the vacant spots at cornerback. Trimble, the brother of Army career receiver leader Jeremy Trimble, was the only freshman to play in all 12 games last year. Running back Patrick Mealy rushed for 301 yards as a freshman last year. He could be poised for a bigger season if Army adopts a run-oriented offense.
STAR POWER: Junior tackle Ted Bentler who began his career at Iowa leads the defense after taking over a starting job in the fourth game of last season. After compiling 22 tackles and three sacks last year, Bentler leads a deep group of experienced defensive linemen.
STRENGTHS: Army returns only one starter in the defensive backs seven (MLB Frank Scappaticci), but makes up for it on the defensive line. Bentler is the leader here, with Michael Gann (22 tackles, 2.5 for a loss) lining up at the other tackle spot. Defensive ends Victor Ugenyi and Nick Emmons return after combining for 11.5 tackles for a loss. The first three games are at home and at least look to be winnable. The schedule as a whole includes just two "Big Six" conference opponents.
WEAKNESSES: The Black Knights lose all four starters in the secondary. CB Josh Mitchell has the most returning experience, with four starts as a nickelback last season. Army must find replacements on special teams for returner Jeremy Trimble and kicker/punter Owen Tolson. The Black Knights used a running back-by-committee approach last season, but no one rushed for more than 330 yards. Army managed only six rushing touchdowns. The back seven on defense will have six new starters. There is an overall lack of speed and playmaking ability throughout the team. Army had a minus-10 turnover differential last season, and that number must be reduced.
THE BUZZ: Army was the story of the second day of the NFL Draft when safety Caleb Campbell became the Black Knights' first draft pick since 1997. Brock may be turning the back the clock, too. He installed a new offense behind closed doors during the spring, but it was widely reported to be a return to the wishbone after eight years with a pro-style offense. Navy and Air Force have had success with the option.
DAVID FOX

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 110-101



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