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August 25, 2008
Fatal flaws: Even the best teams have holes
RELATED: Projecting the BCS Championship Game
Fans in all sports often play the "what if?" game - "What if we had a better bullpen/quarterback/goalie/point guard/coach/schedule?"
Well, we're going to play an early version of the "what if?' game for the 2008 college football season.
We're betting that if (when?) any of our preseason top 10 teams come up short this season, it will be because of one "fatal flaw."
We're giving you that fatal flaw today, so you can start working on your excuses now.
Enjoy the season - but remember our warning!
The Trojans' go-to receiver last season ended up being tight end Fred Davis, who's now in the NFL. USC's go-to guy a tight end? That can't happen again. The Trojans have a group of quarterbacks who can wing the ball, and USC also has a ton of talent on the outside. But one or two of those guys - Vidal Hazelton, Patrick Turner, Ronald Johnson, Arkansas transfer Damian Williams - has to step up and live up to the hype. If no one emerges, opponents will have no qualms about using single coverage and inching a safety closer to the line to make sure USC's running attack doesn't take over the game.
The Bulldogs were young but surprisingly good on the line last season. But a case can be made that they will be weaker in four of the five positions this season. The only returning starter playing the same position is right guard Clint Boling, and he has been suspended and will miss the opener. The new center is Chris Davis, who played guard last season. Davis has to replace Fernando Velasco, who was the line's leader in 2007. Davis will be replaced at left guard by Vince Vance. Left tackle Trinton Sturdivant is out for the season with a knee injury. Sturdivant's replacement will be Kiante Tripp, and the new right tackle is Josh Davis - who is replacing the departed Chester Adams. The Bulldogs' offense is predicated on a strong rushing attack. Tailback Knowshon Moreno is going to get his yards - but can he get them when it matters against South Carolina, Arizona State, Tennessee, LSU, Auburn and Florida behind this line?
Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline and Ray Small - Ohio State's three leading wide receivers - return this season. They combined for 19 touchdown receptions last season. Still, they are the offensive weak link. Robiskie had 55 catches for 11 TDs last season; Hartline had 52 and six. But if you watched the BCS Championship Game, LSU's defense was not scared that either could get deep. LSU used a lot of press coverage and let its corners deal with Robiskie and Hartline one-on-one. Hartline (6-2/186) and Robiskie (6-3/199) have good size, but they lack elite speed and wouldn't be go-to guys on most of the nation's other top teams. In fact, they would be No. 3 or even No. 4 guys on some teams.
Curtis Lofton had a great season for the Sooners at linebacker last season, finishing with 156 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two pass breakups. But he's in the NFL now. Also gone from last season's starting linebacker group is Lewis Baker, who had 91 tackles. The only returning starter is Ryan Reynolds, who has been injury-prone throughout his career. The new starters are redshirt freshman Austin Box, who won't be 100 percent when the season starts, and Keenan Clayton, who began his OU career as a strong safety. Junior college transfer J.R. Bryant and redshirt freshman Travis Lewis also will be in the mix. Good news for the linebackers is that OU's line has the potential to be tremendous, especially at tackle. OU's cornerbacks also bear watching, with two new starters.
Florida proved in 2006 that a spread-offense team without a true feature back can win the national title. Missouri will try to prove that point again this season (though it's hard to believe Mizzou's defense will be as good as Florida's in '06). The Tigers have a lot of weapons on offense. Quarterback Chase Daniel is one of the nation's two or three best at the position. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin heads an explosive receiving corps. The line may not have star power, but it still will be solid. That leaves tailback. Tony Temple was dinged-up and missed time last season, but still finished with 1,039 yards - including a monster performance in the Cotton Bowl. This season, the Tigers figure to use a committee approach at tailback, with starter Derrick Washington and backups Jimmy Jackson and DeVion Moore likely to be the guys who get the bulk of the carries. Will opposing defenses respect them? The answer could be the difference between merely winning the Big 12 North or playing for the national title.
The Gators led the SEC in rush defense last season, but in three of their four losses, teams that made it a priority to run right at Florida (LSU, Georgia, Michigan) had great success. The linebacker group returns intact, so if the tackles can keep opposing blockers off the linebackers, UF will be solid against the run. Florida has eight guys vying for playing time at tackle, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see six rotate for new line coach Dan McCarney. But how effective will those guys be? There is talent, but it's untested. In addition, Florida could use a pass-rush push up the middle; that didn't happen last season, either. If Florida doesn't win the SEC, it will be because of its defensive tackles.
New coordinator Tony Franklin has installed a version of the spread. The Tigers have a deep group of running backs who fit the offense nicely. But there are some issues at quarterback and wide receiver. At quarterback, Kodi Burns is a good runner, but his passing acumen is a mystery. Chris Todd is a good passer, but not as good a runner as Burns. The wide receiver group is even more of a mystery. Does Auburn have enough playmakers on the outside? Yes, the object of the spread is to, well, spread the field and get mismatches. But if your receivers don't scare anybody, defenses can key on the run. It's vital that receivers such as Tim Hawthorne, Rod Smith, Robert Dunn and James Swinton make defenses honest. Auburn will win the SEC West if the passing attack is adequate.
WVU is known for its explosive offense, but its defense also was superb last season. WVU's defense struggled some in 2006, but that wasn't the case in '07. Coordinator Jeff Casteel remained in Morgantown after the coaching change, and he has a rebuilding job ahead of him. WVU runs a 3-3-5 set, and the Mountaineers will have five new starters in the back eight - including four new starters in the secondary. For the most part, WVU's schedule is back-loaded, but a road game at Colorado on Sept. 18 and a home game against Rutgers on Oct. 4 will test the rebuilt defense. Linebackers Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy are givens, but the rest of the back eight bears watching.
The Tigers have everything else in place on offense. Quarterback Cullen Harper emerged from nowhere last season and is the best at his position in the ACC this season. The tailback duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller is the best in the nation. Wide receiver Aaron Kelly is the best in the ACC and should leave Clemson with every key receiving record. That leaves the line, which will have four new starters. If it does indeed start up front, as many folks are wont to say, can the Tigers truly get started? Center Thomas Austin has All-ACC potential; it's the other guys that are the concern. Good news for Clemson is that it doesn't go against a top-notch defensive line until its seventh game of the season, when it plays Georgia Tech. That gives the Tigers' o-line time to work out the kinks.
The Tigers have the best offensive and defensive lines in the SEC, and that will help make up for some other minor concerns. But quarterback play is a huge wild card. If Ryan Perrilloux still were in Baton Rouge, the Tigers would be the SEC favorite and a top-three team. Instead, it's Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee battling at quarterback. Coordinator Gary Crowton is one of the best in the nation at his job, and he'll scheme and play-call around their weaknesses. But there will come a time - or two or three - that Hatch or Lee will have to make a play, and you wonder if that play will be made. LSU lost twice last season with an experienced quarterback and a talented backup. Neither of these guys is experienced, and the jury remains out on how talented they are.
• You can bet folks in Tallahassee, Fla., were paying attention last week when the New Mexico football program was put on probation for academic violations. New Mexico was put on probation for three years and had five scholarships taken away during that span. The Lobos can't award more than 20 scholarships to incoming recruits (the NCAA limit is 25) in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes; further, it can't have more than 80 players on scholarship (the limit is 85) during that span. The NCAA found that two now-former assistants broke the rules by helping three recruits and one enrolled player receive fraudulent academic credit through correspondence courses from an accredited four-year school. Florida State will meet with NCAA officials this fall about its academic scandal. About 60 student-athletes across numerous sports were involved, and two staff members were fired by the school in the wake of an in-house investigation. The cheating happened in online tests for a music history class in 2006 and '07.
• There will be 34 bowls this season, and if a group in Seattle has its way, there would be at least one more on the schedule in 2010. A group wants to start a game that would involve a Pac-10 team and would be played at Qwest Field (home of the Seattle Seahawks) starting in two years.
• Florida State announced that Chief Osceola and his horse, Renegade, will be part of the pre-game ceremonies when FSU meets Colorado in Jacksonville on Sept. 27. The duo's last regular-season appearance away from home happened in 1994, when the Seminoles played Notre Dame in Orlando. And, no, Colorado is not bringing Ralphie. Meanwhile, Texas A&M will unveil its new mascot, a collie named Reveille VIII, on Saturday before its season-opener against Arkansas State.
• True freshman offensive lineman Britt Mitchell enrolled early at Oklahoma in January, then decided to leave after spring practice and enroll in the Marines. He changed his mind about the Marines and now is at UTEP, where he will sit out the season under NCAA transfer rules.