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More OTP Rankings

Never ones to sit idly by and let Alan have all the fun, Edge and RV have chimed in with their own versions of the Preseason Top 25. Expect hardcore railing (not the Peter North kind) on their end to get their sleepers and potential champions ranked higher in the official OTP ballot. Surprisingly, RV did not rank Notre Dame 1-24 with Ball State 25, and Edge did not make his Top 25 the best Phish moments in history. Life… it is simply full of surpises. Expect whomever does poorest amongst the three of us at year end to be mocked. Excessively. More than normal.

There will be reason to drink after this poll is evaluated

There will be reason to drink after this poll is evaluated

RV’s PreSeason Top 25 (With Explanations!)
1.) Florida – Tebow eventually will die for our sins…just as soon as he gets into the NFL.
2.) Oklahoma – too much talent coming back and an older defense make this a scary matchup for everyone they face.
3.) Texas – Despite losing all their TEs, Mack Brown will find a way like he always does.
4.) USC – Corp going down, albeit momentarily, might force Barkley to start too early but since when has USC had a problem winning games?
5.) OSU – If Pryor really has improved his passing game in the offseason he’ll make Tebow look human and bring OSU to a level they haven’t seen in a while, SEC speed be damned.
6.) Alabama – Saban only has 10+ win seasons right? Luckily, Louisiana Lafayette isn’t on the schedule…
7.) LSU – Les has run out of the previous regime’s players and needs to prove that he’s more than giant testes and even bigger hats.
8.) California – Jahvid Best. That is all.
9.) Notre Dame – I could write a book on the upcoming season, but new coaches (Verducci – OL, Hart – DL, and Alford – RB) are all major upgrades over positions of weakness in Charlie’s tenure in South Bend. Oh and Bryant Young is a GA…improvement is inevitable.
10.) Penn State – I wasn’t impressed with PSU’s run last year, but they have a perfect schedule to end up in the top 10 and get their asses handed to them by USC again.
11.) TCU – Someone has to be the top ‘mid-major’ around here. I wish they’d just go to the Big XII already…
12.) Oklahoma State – Its hard to deny Zac Robinson as one of the most dynamic players in the country and this team brings back a ton of talent to compete in a predictably top heavy Big XII
13.) Georgia – Should be a top ten team based on Uga alone, but Richt is a great coach and has enough of a team to continue his success.
14.) Nebraska – I miss the days of Nebraska manhandling teams on defense and just destroying teams with a power running game. Pelini might not invoke the days of old, but he has his finger on the pulse of a great team.
15.) Ole Miss – I feel like any Houston Nutt team is either boom or bust. Snead gets more credit than he deserved last year but like every other young QB is bound to improve. Who knows what’ll come out of this season besides ridiculously hot ladies dressed to the nines. Nice.
16.) Georgia Tech – Tech fans are extremely high on Paul Johnson and so am I. He can finally get all the talent he needs and still has a few pieces to get in place but are my pick to win the ACC.
17.) Virginia Tech – Beamer has always been a fantastic coach, as evidenced by his special teams units. It’s hard to put them too high as they have an extremely difficult OOC schedule, but I look forward to seeing how much this young team has grown up.
18.) UCLA – As long as Neuheisel stays away from the bracket pools he will continue to attract talent. With a little consistency at QB they figure to continue their history of strong defenses and make a splash in the Pac-10. Plus they host The Hoke on Sept 5th and I hope they hang 60 on him.
19.) North Carolina – Butch Davis has quickly assembled a respectable ACC squad and should garner more positive media this year after injuries impacted their season.
20.) Michigan State – Dantonio lost 400 carries in Javon Ringer, but he’s always seemed like the coach who adapts well to his team’s talent. Cousins or Nichol are both major improvements over Hoyer. Plus they have Greg Jones who is scary talented and one of the best LBs in the country.
21.) Oregon – How many jerseys will they feature this year? 700? 800? Chip Kelly will be interesting to see in his first year running the whole show but Oregon always has talent everywhere.
22.) Rutgers – Um, the Big East still plays football, right? Schiano has a lot to live up to and needs a top 25 finish if he’s going to keep his job, in my opinion.
23.) Pittsburgh – Ugh, this team does not seem worthy of a top 25 ranking. But that is when Wanny seems at his best, so who am I to doubt that it’ll be different this time around.
24.) Oregon State – Love the way ‘Quizz Rodgers plays and look forward to seeing if they can add on to the success they had last year.
25.) Boise State – It’s hard to deny that the Smurf Turf doesn’t hold some mythical advantage over it’s visitors, but Boise has a knack for hanging around the top 35 and with their schedule could find themselves in favor with the pollsters.

For Edge’s preseason poll, it’s straight to the point. Says Edge, “I don’t offer context not because I’m being difficult. It just kinda is what it is.” Spoken like a true rocker.

These rankings actually go well past 11.

These rankings actually go well past 11.

Edge’s Preseason Top 25
1.) Florida
2.) Texas
3.) Oklahoma
4.) USC
5.) Ohio State
6.) Alabama
7.) Oklahoma St.
8.) Mississippi
9.) Penn St.
10.) Virginia Tech
11.) LSU
12.) Boise St.
13.) Oregon
14.) Georgia Tech
15.) Georgia
16.) California
17.) Florida State
18.) Nebraska
19.) TCU
20.) Iowa
21.) Kansas
22.) Pitt
23.) Utah
24.) North Carolina
25.) Oregon St.

Get ready ladies and gents… we are two weeks away from the day after the first Ball State win and the day before life, as we know it, kicks into fun mode again.

Prelude to a Season: #1

1.) Florida Gators

FloridaWhat You Need to Know
Last year, OTP took a beating by those “in the know” when we called for Florida to go undefeated and lift a BCS title come January. Granted, we missed out on the undefeated part, but we had the title part accurate. Hey… no one’s perfect. We weren’t drinking the Georgia KoolAid, we weren’t star struck by the Trojan mystique, and we weren’t blinded by the Buckeye name. We went with the Gators and the Gators went and proved us right.

This season, Urban Meyer and Florida has every possible component for another BCS Championship. Athletic playmakers, a roster full of returning starters, one of the best coaches in the game, and a returning Heisman Trophy winner all leave the Gators sitting pretty and sitting in the catbird seat of the nation’s most prestigious conference.

Last season was magical in almost every respect, as the Gators beat rivals, won a BCS Bowl Game, and used a one point defeat at the hands of Ole Miss as fuel for their run of 10 straight victories and a national title. That one loss may carry benefits to 2009 as well, as the Gators have never finished a season undefeated in school history, which gives a team without many brass rings left to reach for something to try and grasp. Great for the Gators, potentially terrible news for the 12 teams on the Gators’ schedule.

Offensively, the Gators lose 4 of 2008’s starters (two offensive linemen and two wide receivers) but it is more about the 7 who are returning. Specifically, all the headlines seem to be about 1 of those 7, senior QB Tim Tebow. Tebow returns to Florida with virtually nothing left to prove, just another year to cement his legacy and distance himself from those who have went before and those who will come after. Two national titles, a Heisman trophy, and more celebrity and notoriety than many NFL players possess could have left Tebow anything but hungry. However, #15 continues to dominate opponents, PR landmines, and odd questions at SEC Media Day after leading a unit last season that averaged 43.6 points and 445 yards per game. The players that surround Tebow in the backfield are dominant, fast, and capable at any time of breaking a highlight run. Junior Emmanuel Moody, sophomore Jeffery Demps, and sophomore Chris Rainey all return. The receiving corps and the rushing attack both took a hit when Percy Harvin transitioned to the NFL, along with Louis Murphy, 2008’s top two threats. The receiving unit also lost TE Cornelius Ingram. Filling those losses will largely fall to returning players like senior Riley Cooper or sophomore Deonte Thompson. Senior David Nelson also is an imposing threat at 6’5″. The offensive line lost valuable contributors as well, LT Phil Trautwein and RT Jason Watkins. The losses for any other team would cause reason for concern, but Florida is Florida, and the two deep is loaded with players just waiting for their opportunity to put their remarkable talent on display.

Defensively, the 2008 Gators were simply dominating, giving up only 12.9 points per game along with 285 total yards. The bad news for anyone on Florida’s schedule is all 11 starters return. With a year of experience. That’s bad news for anyone not wearing blue and orange. The defensive line is anchored by two 2nd Team All SEC selections in junior DE Carlos Dunlap and senior DE Jermaine Cunningham, who combined for 15.5 sacks last year. The linebacking unit is paced by 1st Team All American Brandon Spikes, who led the 08 Gators in tackles and also had 4 INTs. The secondary is led by 2nd Team All SEC junior SS Ahmad Black who picked off 7 passes and was the 4th leading tackler on the defense. Perhaps the scariest thing is that only three starters this season are seniors, meaning this sort of dominance may very well continue into the foreseeable future.

Florida is not only in possession of a remarkably dominant defense and an offense led by one of the greatest collegiate players in recent memory, they also have a head coach who has to be in the discussion of best coaches in the game. Urban Meyer is entering his 5th year at Florida, and while certainly his most successful stop, it wasn’t the beginning of that success. Previous stops at both Bowling Green and Utah laid a foundation for Meyer’s philosophy, approach, and talent. At Florida, Meyer has won 2 national titles with the Gators, and led the Utes to the BCS. At 83-17 overall, Meyer clearly is a winner, and may be able to add another bullet point to that resume this year… the coach who led Florida to an undefeated season.

The Gators schedule out of conference is far from challenging, as they host Charleston Southern, Troy, FIU, and Florida State. Three easy wins along with one probable win, all at home, make for a perfect run through their out of conference schedule. In the SEC, Florida’s 3 home games are Tennessee, Arkansas, and Vandy. They have a neutral site game against the Georgia Bulldogs, along with road contests at Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. Alabama, Auburn, and Ole Miss do not appear.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Tim Tebow: 192-298, 2746 yds, 30 TDs, 4 INTs, 176 att, 673 yds, 12 TDs
LB Brandon Spikes: 93 tkls, 2 sacks, 6 TFL, 4 INTs
DE Carlos Dunlap: 39 tkls, 9.5 sacks, 4 TFL

Game to Watch
Selfishly as someone who follows the Kentucky Wildcats and considers Tennessee to be one of our biggest rivals and most hated teams, I have the September 19th Florida-Tennessee game highlighted to watch for the potential fireworks and payback for a mouthy offseason from Lane Kiffin. For the Gators’ title hopes, the biggest roadblocks are their Halloween showdown against Georgia, and their October 10th contest at LSU. Florida has lost to an SEC West team every year since 1999, and LSU stands the greatest shot of continuing that streak.

They’ll Do Well If…
… they stay healthy. The talent level is high, the coaching is impeccable, and the support from the fans unmatched. The only team stopping Florida this year is Florida, either by silly unforced errors or bad luck/fluke injuries.

Season Outlook
For the Gators, 2009 looks to be another reason to celebrate. LSU and Georgia will be close games and the former may be one for the ages, but both those will be wins for the Gators. They’ll take a sparkling 12-0 record into the SEC title game, where they’ll face Ole Miss. After a victory, the Gators will haul a 13-0 record to the BCS title game, and Urban Meyer and Tebow will add another impressive bullet on their lengthy resume… an undefeated season and a third national title, scientifically proving that the only key to winning a title is having OTP rank you #1 in the preseason.

Prelude to a Season: #2

2.) Texas Longhorns

TexasWhat You Need to Know
It’s fairly common for college football fans to gripe loudly about the BCS. Having a physical emotional game’s champion essentially determined by a computer leaves some fans feeling a bit unfulfilled. The difference between these curmudgeonly aficionados and the Texas Longhorns is that Texas certainly has a legitimate beef with the high tech problem known as the Bowl Championship Series.

Texas was the poster child in 2008 for major league slights. The Longhorns finished their year 11-1, 7-1 in the Big 12, and watched as Oklahoma, not them, and a team they defeated, moved on to the Big 12 Championship game and the national championship while Texas faced Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. To Texas’ credit, and especially head coach Mack Brown, what could have easily turned into a legitimate gripe or reason for outspoken players and staff, the Longhorns took it all in stride. Brown led the charge with understanding and responsibility and a quiet optimism about 2009. Perhaps that’s because Brown knew exactly what was coming back to Austin.

As 2009 dawns, Brown and the Longhorns are in prime position to get some revenge on the BCS by bringing their championship trophy back to Austin at the conclusion of the season. A challenging conference schedule awaits, but when you return 16 starters from a team that was one play away from an undefeated season, conference championship berth, and probably national title berth there’s certainly reason to look forward rather than back.

Offensively, the Longhorns bring back 9 from a unit that was not only impressive, but remarkably consistent all season long. Texas averaged 42.4 points and 476 yards per game and hung over 50 4 times last year. That’s impressive even in the defense challenged Big 12. The Longhorns are led by senior QB Colt McCoy, who is mentioned alongside Tim Tebow of Florida and Sam Bradford of Oklahoma as one of the best in college. McCoy is the only one of those three without a Heisman Trophy, but 2009 may very well be his year to get his. The lone starting losses for the Longhorns are WR Quan Cosby and RG Cedric Dockery, but are one of the most dominating lines in all of football. Led by juniors and seniors, including 1st Team Big 12 LT Adam Ulatoski and 2nd Team Big 12 C Chris Hall, the unit not only protects McCoy but opens up lanes for the rushing game to succeed, which will make for an improved rushing attack for the Longhorns in 2009.

Defensively, the Longhorns return 7 starters from a unit that allowed 18.8 points and 343 yards per game. The trouble with the Texas defense last season was not their performance, it was their inconsistency. 8 times last season they held a team under 100 yards on the ground, once holding A&M to -24. That’s coupled with three games over 200 on the ground. The defense also created pressure up front, sacking the QB 47 times last season. That is skewed of course by the pass heavy approach in the Big 12, but still an impressive statistical accomplishment. The Longhorns return their top 5 tacklers from 2008, and look to senior LB Sergio Kindle for another impressive 2009 to bolster their defensive prowess. The losses are heavy, as their 4 gone are three from the defensive line all taken in the NFL Draft (Brian Orakpo, Roy Miller, and Henry Melton) and CB Ryan Palmer, a 2nd Team Big 12 selection last season. Up front, the new to the starting line up personnel will need to make their presence known early, often, and loudly, while the secondary led by the safety crew of Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon will need to consistently interrupt the passing attack of the opponent.

The schedule for the Longhorns is hardly challenging out of conference, a fact which may bite the Longhorns should 2009 recreate 2008 and the turn to the BCS to determine the representative to the Big 12 title in the case of a tie. Games against ULM, Wyoming, UTEP, and UCF are hardly noteworthy or point gaining in the computer formulas. In conference, the Longhorns have the disadvantage of only 3 true home games, as they battle 4 road contests and the neutral site game against Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout.

Returning experienced starters, a favorable schedule, a great coach, and a high preseason ranking all add up to a special year in the making in Austin, TX. The defensive front raises some questions about the Longhorns ability to keep others in check, but with the skill players coming back on offense, they can simply outscore whomever they need to. 2008 may always stick in the craw of Texas faithful, but 2009 stands a great chance of making up or that and then some.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Colt McCoy: 332-433, 3859 yds, 34 TDs, 8 INTs, 136 att, 561 yds, 11 TDs
WR Jordan Shipley: 89 rec, 1060 yds, 11 TDs
LB Sergio Kindle: 46 tkls, 10 sacks, 12.5 TFL

Game to Watch
Texas, much like Oklahoma, is pinning the hopes and dreams of 2009 on the Red River Shootout on October 17th. Two weeks later on Halloween weekend, the Longhorns travel to Stillwater, OK to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys. A win in both is a sure fire trip to the Big 12 title game, where a win propels the Longhorns to the BCS title game.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the new to the starting line up defensive players step up to the challenge. If the Longhorns can mitigate the loss of Orakpo, Miller, and Melton, then they just might have the missing pieces to make a run at the title. It’s ironic that a league known predominantly for offensive attacks may be won by the team with the most impressive defense.

Season Outlook
For the Longhorns, their season will come down to one game. 60 minutes on October 17th determine their standing within the college football landscape and their ability to control their own destiny in terms of the Big 12. Expect a contest that is truly worthy of the superlatives it will receive both before and after, and expect a close and exciting Longhorn win. The Longhorns make up half of our national title picture, as they finish the regular season 12-0, win the Big 12 title, and try their best to right the wrongs from 2008.

Prelude to a Season: #3

3.) Oklahoma Sooners

OklahomaWhat You Need to Know
It’s rare in the modern college football universe that a player passes on the glitz, glamour, and fame of an NFL life to return to college. Of course, the way Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford passed all over everyone last season, his passing on the Draft shouldn’t surprise anyone. What had the potential for a gloomy offseason after their national championship defeat against Florida, certainly got a significant boost in the spring when Bradford, along with a whole host of others, announced they were returning to Norman to finish what they started, and hopefully finish it with a large crystal football.

Bradford isn’t the only star returning to the Sooners’ BCS Championship universe. TE Jermaine Gresham, DT Gerald McCoy, and LT Trent Williams all return for a repeat chance at greatness. The Sooners clearly have losses, and significant ones at that, but their returning players are the story, not those who aren’t. Cynics will point to the losses as a reason why the Sooners are not a realistic contender for the national title, but anyone who thinks that clearly isn’t paying attention.

Offensively, clearly the Sooners have tons of well known weapons. A Heisman winner in QB Sam Bradford, a two-headed rushing attack in junior DeMarco Murray and senior Chris Brown, a freshman record setter WR in Ryan Broyles, and a 1st Team Big 12 and all around impressive tight end in Jermaine Gresham all make the Sooner offense something special. They averaged over 51 points per game, nearly 550 yards of offense, and dominated the competition. They scored over sixty 5 times last season, and their season low (35 twice) was higher than many teams’ season high. Last season the unit had virtually no questions, but this year, they must replace 5 starters, 4 of whom were starting offensive linemen last season. The lone returnee in Williams is highly skilled and plays the most valuable position on the field, but it is a reason to pause a bit when evaluating OU.

Defensively, the Sooners unit may very well be the unit responsible for making the difference between contender and champion. Last season, the defense was the question mark as they were replacing seasoned veterans with newcomers and no matter what their performance was they were bound to be overshadowed by the high octane offense. This season, OU is replacing their 2 safeties (both strong and free) who were both All Big 12 team selections, but those are the only losses from a defensive unit that was not dominating, but certainly serviceable. Their play in the Big 12 skews their stats, since the conference is loaded with dynamic pass heavy teams, but the Sooners averaged 24.5 points allowed and 368 yards per game. Hoping to put a lower number on the board this season are returning stalwarts up front in DT Gerald McCoy and DE Austin English. Junior DE Jeremy Beal benefits from his dominant neighbors on the D line and uses the single teams he receives to his advantage. The unit sacked the opposition 42 times last season, an impressive feat considering their competition. The linebacking crew is paced by senior Ryan Reynolds who only had 6 starts last year because of injury and sophomore Travis Lewis, last season’s leading tackler and the Big 12 Defensive Frosh of the Year.

When it comes to coaching, the Sooners are in possession of one of the best in the business in head coach Bob Stoops. The knock on Stoops, despite his nickname of Big Game Bob, is his record in BCS Bowl Games, losing three of four title games he’s appeared in and his last 5 BCS Bowls. That stat is somewhat misleading, though, since most coaches would give their first born to even make an appearance. Stoops has shown up on the big stage 4 more times than most, and won one. Stoops is 109-24 in his 10 seasons at Oklahoma, has won three straight Big 12 titles, and played in 7 of the last 10 Big 12 title games. If that’s mediocrity or disappointment, then I must not grasp the definition of either of those words.

The Sooners schedule is challenging but not impossible, and they certainly get credit for not simply resting on their laurels. The Sooners open their season against BYU in the Cowboys new stadium in Arlington, TX and also match up at home against Idaho State and Tulsa before traveling to Miami to take on the Hurricanes. In conference, their home matchups are Baylor, Kansas St., Texas A&M, and Oklahoma St., while Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas Tech are all on the road. They face the Texas Longhorns in Dallas in the Red River Shootout, annually one of the most built up and exciting games in all of college football.

Last year, the Sooners had depth, talent, a favorable schedule, and they used all of that to their advantage to win a computer battle against the Longhorns for the right to play for the conference and the subsequent national title berth. This season, the Sooners have more of the same with an even tougher and more impressive schedule. When the rubber hits the road, should the Sooners simply execute and show up every Saturday, they’re staring undefeated and a national title berth square in the face.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Sam Bradford: 328-483, 4720 yds, 50 TDs, 8 INTs
TE Jermaine Gresham: 66 rec, 950 yds, 14 TDs
RBs Chris Brown/DeMarco Murray: 369 att, 2222 yds, 34 TDs

Game to Watch
This one is remarkably simple. Every game on the schedule pales in comparison to the next installment of the Red River Shootout against Texas on October 17. The winning squad is the front runner for the Big 12 South and the national title, despite the fact that Oklahoma demonstrated last season that a loss here is not a death knell for title hopes.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the offensive line gives Bradford enough time cut apart opposing defenses like he’s done the last two seasons. When you’re pinning your hopes on a returning Heisman Trophy winner you’re in a much better place than most every other team out there.

Season Outlook
For the Sooners, 2009 has the makings of another exceptional year. Whether it lives up to last year’s national title berth and conference championship will rest on the Red River Shootout. A win and the Sooners are looking at yet another chance to redeem the reputation in the national mind for Bob Stoops. The UT-OU game looks to be an instant classic, and one certainly deserving of the preseason hype and hoopla surrounding it already. I expect a close Texas victory, and if last year taught us anything it’s that a loss here is not the end of the road. OU finishes the regular season 11-1 with a BCS Bowl berth.

Prelude to a Season: #4

4.) Southern California Trojans

Southern CaliforniaWhat You Need to Know
In the conversation of teams of the last decade, clearly USC has a death grip on that title. No matter how you evaluate that honor, chances are head coach Pete Carroll and the Trojans have a resume bullet that exhibits their dominance. Under Carroll the Trojans have racked up not only the hardware (two AP National Championships, 1 BCS Championship) but also the finer points of success. 7 straight 11+ win seasons, 7 consecutive PAC 10 championships, 53 players selected in the NFL Draft, three Heisman Trophy winners, and 25 All American First Teamers all are impressive, not to mention the fact that the Trojans became the only team in history to win three consecutive Rose Bowls.

Through this decade, USC has made their living recruiting the best athletes in the country to easily transition between personnel changes for graduation or early entry to the NFL Draft. This year, the ability to seamlessly transition will be put to the test as USC loses valuable skill players on offense as well as an unbelievable number of defensive starters. Luckily for Carroll and the Trojans, there are a host of players on the roster ready to step in and be the next All-Stars.

Last season the Trojans had one minor blip which cost them a chance for a national title when they were upset at Oregon State. Their only loss dropped them from the #1 ranking and overshadowed their victory against #5 Ohio State the week prior. After that loss, the Trojans were simply dominant and ended their season with a 38-24 decimation of Penn State in the Rose Bowl. This season, the Trojans are gunning for their 8th consecutive season with a PAC 10 title and their 8th straight appearance in a BCS Bowl Game, both goals well within reach for this talented group of players and coaches.

Offensively, the Trojans lose only 2 starters in QB Mark Sanchez and WR Patrick Turner, but those 2 starters were integral parts of USC’s offensive attack last season. This year in fall camp a QB battle has begun between sophomore Aaron Corp and freshman Matt Barkley, with junior and former Arkansas Razorback Mitch Mustain waiting in the wings. Regardless of who wins the position battle, they will have an offense capable of great things and big plays. Last season the Trojans averaged 37.5 points per game, along with 455 yards. They return 4 of their best 5 rushing options from 2008, as well as 8 of their top 9 receivers. On the offensive line, the Trojans return all of last year’s starters, as well as all of their backups, making the Trojan offensive line one of the deepest and most talented in all of college football. Also mixed in with the transitional issues is the replacement of former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian with John Morton when Sarkisian left for the head coaching job at Washington.

Defensively is where many of the losses will be felt for the Trojans, as 8 starters are lost from a unit that was dominant throughout 2008. The Trojans held opponents to 9 points per game with 222 total yards, and only 134 through the air. Of the three returning starters, 2 of them are in the secondary with senior CB Josh Pinkard and senior FS Taylor Mays. The only other returning starter is junior NT Christian Tupou, meaning of the Trojans’ front 7, 6 of them will be new full time starters. The most notable departures are the exceptional linebacking crew of Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Kaluka Maiava who are all on NFL rosters now. The majority of the USC defense’s new folks has playing experience, but hasn’t started consistently. How quickly those players develop into consistent playmakers in a starting role will determine how good this season is for USC. With Carroll and defensive coordinator Nick Holt at the helm and the talent these players possess, that should be an easy transition.

The Trojans have a schedule which features a remarkably challenging non-conference games in their road trips to Ohio State and Notre Dame as well as road games against some of their toughest in conference matchups. At home this season, the Trojans get San Jose State in their season opener for their only non-conference home games. In conference the Trojans host Washington St., Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, and Arizona. They must travel to Washington, Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State.

For the Trojans, they are facing a season in which many pundits and college football experts are consumed with Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. However, with the schedule they have, should the Trojans win out, they are a virtual certainty to play for a national title.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Stafon Johnson: 138 att, 705 yds, 9 TDs
WR Damian Williams: 58 rec, 869 yds, 9 TDs
FS Taylor Mays: 53 tkls, 2 TFL

Game to Watch
All eyes will be on the Trojans September 12th for their contest in Columbus against Ohio State. A win puts the Trojans in great position to challenge for a national championship. After that, their road contests against Cal (10/3) and Oregon (10/31) will be their biggest roadblocks to winning their 8th consecutive conference crown.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the players new to the starter slots live up to their lofty expectations and their prior performances. It’s not like USC is replacing NFL caliber talent with people that wouldn’t starters at any other program in the country. Additionally, most of the folks, aside from the QB position, have significant playing experience.

Season Outlook
USC comes into this year’s season a consensus top 5 pick for most every major writer, coach, and preseason publication. Ironically enough, despite that lofty ranking, very few people are giving the Trojans much of a shot to push their way into the title conversation, reserving those sorts of talks for Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida. For USC, their out of conference schedule is simply brutal, road contest at Ohio State and Notre Dame are long travels and great teams in impressive home environments. In conference, trips to Cal and Oregon will be challenging. Look for a loss against either Ohio State or Notre Dame, which will knock the Trojans out of national title contention, but I expect the Trojans to run the table in the PAC 10. 11-1 overall, 9-0 in conference, and USC will be making a return trip to a BCS Bowl, their 8th straight.

Prelude to a Season: #5

5.) Mississippi Rebels

MississippiWhat You Need to Know
It’s certainly been an interesting couple years for the Ole Miss Rebels, and this offseason has been an exercise in optimism for those closest to the program while an equally stringent exercise in cynicism has begun with those who feel Ole Miss is getting a little too much celebration.

For the optimists, there is certainly valid reasons to be positive. 16 returning starters, an impressive close to 08 with a demolition of Texas Tech, a post-season #14 ranking, and most importantly, a 2009 schedule which is far from exceptionally difficult. Those looking for reasons to not believe in Ole Miss will point to their weakened schedule as a negative. They’ll say it can’t prepare them and certainly won’t help them in their computer numbers. Those pessimists will point to the three years before Houston Nutt arrived and their 3 total SEC wins as the norm and not the 9-4 exception they believe last season was. Those pessimists will also point to the games lost season without paying attention to the fact that it was by a combined 19 points. Losses against Wake Forest, Vandy, and South Carolina overshadow the close loss to Bama and the mighty upset of Florida in the minds of those looking for a reason to pass on Ole Miss.

It’s certainly an interesting argument to watch unfold. One thing that is without question is that Houston Nutt found himself in possession of an impressive cupboard stocked full of highly touted recruits brought in under the regime of former coach Ed Orgeron. Nutt’s 75-48 record at Arkansas wasn’t terrible, but Nutt and the fans never seemed happy with each other. His 10 seasons with the Razorbacks were an up and down back and forth sort of experience. Making fans ecstatic with upsets they delivered and frustrated beyond belief with the times they themselves were upset. His first season at Ole Miss could be characterized the same way in terms of who they beat and lost to, but so far so good with the fans, the administration, and the players.

Offensively for the Rebels in 2009, they return 8 starters from a unit that averaged 32.1 points per game, their best total since 2003 and a 12 point jump from 2007. 2003 was also the last time they averaged over 400 yards per game before last season’s 408. The QB of that 03 squad? Eli Manning. Leading the Rebels now is junior Jevan Snead, a consensus 2nd Team All SEC Preseason pick. After transferring from Texas and sitting out 2007, Snead certainly made the most of his first of three remaining seasons of eligibility. The leading returning rusher for the Rebels is senior Dexter McCluster, a wide out who runs mostly from the Wildcat, or Wild Rebel as it’s called in Oxford. When the Rebels do run a conventional running play, senior RB Cordera Eason returns, as does sophomores Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis. Returning besides McCluster in the receiving unit is senior Shay Hodge, the team’s leading TD catcher in 2008. The unit has lost their top yardage gainer in 08 when Mike Wallace was drafted by the Steelers, but 7 of their best 8 from 2008 all return. The impressive group of wideouts benefits from not only a strong QB, but also a large collection of talent and skill. On the line, the Rebels lose LT Michael Oher, a 1st Team All American drafted by the Ravens and RG Maurice Miller. It’s a collective unit that is talented, deep, and stockpiling even more exceptionally talented highly touted recruits.

Defensively, the Rebels were an impressive unit last season and got stronger as the year went on. Their final 4 games of the regular season? 20 total points given up. They do lose 3 starters, all of whom were integral to the success of this unit in DT Peria Jerry, LBs Ashlee Palmer and Tony Fein, along with SS Jamarca Sanford. They lose 4 of the top 5 tacklers from the 2008 team, as well as their outstanding DL coach Tracy Rocker. Despite those losses, you’ll see an Ole Miss defense that may not be as dominant early this season but will be impressive by season’s end. They litter the field with either starting experience or high accolades out of high school. There is a rotation of sorts up front, where multiple players will rotate in and out of the game. That means by conclusions of games you’ll see an Ole Miss defense that is relatively fresh. Great news for them, terrible news for opponents.

The schedule for the Rebels is as good as it could be. Out of conference, it’s exceptionally weak, with two FCS schools on the schedule in SE Louisiana and Northern Arizona. Their other non conference battles are @ Memphis and against UAB at home. In SEC play, the Rebels get road contests against South Carolina, Vandy, Auburn, and Mississippi State along with home dates against Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU. Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky do not appear.

As 09 dawns, the Rebels find themselves in a very precarious position. Certainly receiving a ton of exaltation but also not receiving anything remotely similar to conference foe Florida as well as a large group of detractors invalidating their highly ranked position in the polls. How these Rebels manage not only the detractors but also the pressure and expectations of their fans and supporters will prove one of those two groups absolutely correct.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Jevan Snead: 184-327, 2762 yds, 26 TDs, 13 INTs
WR Dexter McCluster: 44 rec, 625 yds, 1 TD, 109 att, 655 yds, 6 TDs
FS Kendrick Lewis: 85 tkls, 1 sack, 1.5 TFL, 4 INTs

Game to Watch
For the Ole Miss Rebels to be considered a success this season, they must make it to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. Their biggest roadblocks to winning the West division are their contests against Alabama (10/10) and LSU (11/21), both at home. On the road, their toughest contest may be South Carolina (9/24), but with the Gamecocks and Rebels playing on a Thursday night and it being the SEC Opener for Ole Miss, that won’t be much of a game.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the Rebels don’t get caught up in believing or listening to either side of the Ole Miss preseason argument. Ultimately, the only thing hindering Ole Miss’ ability to succeed this season is Ole Miss and their ability to live up to their talent.

Season Outlook
For the Rebels, 2009 looks to be an unbelievably special season and one that I believe will culminate in an undefeated regular season and their first ever berth in the SEC Championship game. Unfortunately for the Rebels, they won’t be carting home an SEC title, and their weakened strength of schedule won’t make them a sure-fire at-large BCS selection, but the Rebels will be an integral part of the discussion.

Prelude to a Season: #6

6.) Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn StateWhat You Need to Know
We certainly missed the mark on the Nittany Lions last season. Blame our prediction of an 8-win season and only a Top 5 finish in the Big 10 on the litany of arrests, the ESPN hack jobs, the injuries, etc. On paper, Penn State seemed destined for more letdown and disappointment and the quiet rumblings about Joe Pa as their coach seemed imminent to reach fever pitch by season’s end. Needless to say, after an 11-2 season and a split Big 10 title, we clearly have some egg on our collective faces. This season may just be the polar opposite for the Nittany Lions, as they begin the year with high expectations and a presumed driver’s seat position for the Big 10 title, yet have some pretty significant losses to graduation that they must find a way to fill.

Offensively, the Nittany Lions suffer losses all over the field, but most notably in the receiving corps.Their three leading receivers in Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, and Derrick Williams all depart, and take with them their combined 132 catches, 1900+ yards, and 17 TDs. Filling their shoes will fall largely on junior Brett Brackett, whose 6’6″ frame should worry opposing secondaries. At the skill positions, PSU returns senior QB Darryl Clark and junior RB Evan Royster, 1st and 2nd Team All Big 10 selections respectively. Protecting Clark and opening holes for Royster will be new faces and old faces in new positions up front for the Nittany Lions. Gone are 1st Team All American center AQ Shipley, 1st Team All Big 10 LT Gerald Cadogan, and 3rd Team All American LG Rich Ohrnberger. Former G Stefen Wisniewski moves to center, and new starters appear at RG, LG, and LT. Right tackle is anchored by senior Dennis Landolt and at TE, senior Andrew Quarless returns. The offensive line as a whole averages 6’4″ 303 lbs, so while they are inexperienced they are certainly capable of moving opposing defenses wherever they want to. Last season, Penn State averaged 38.9 points per game and 206 yards on the ground per game. They also protected Clark quite well, along with his mobiliti, allowing only 13 sacks. Clark’s ability to dodge defenders and avoid pressure may be put to the test early as the offensive line gets used to playing together. The Penn State offense is led by the running back crew, who return in tact, and is one of the best running back units in the country.

Defensively, Penn State returns only 4 starters to a unit that was dominating last season. They allowed only 280 yards and 14.4 points per game, and only gave up 20 points or more twice all season. Their losses include both of their DEs who left early for the NFL, Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans. Their linebacking crew is amazingly young and exceptionally talented. Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee return and anchor this unit which will cause chaos for the Big 10 offensive units they face and rekindle the former dubbing “Linebacker U” for Penn State. The secondary for PSU is without question the largest question for the Nittany Lions. Gone are all 4 starters, all of whom were Honorable Mention All Big 10 or better. The playing opportunity is there for anyone who exhibits a willingness and want to succeed. Luckily, this defense has no dominating offense on the schedule, and by the time they face their toughest test in Ohio State, they’ll be well seasoned and experienced.

In the coaching ranks, the legendary Joe Paterno enters his 44th year at Penn State, with a record 383 wins. He’s been to a record 35 Bowls, winning 23 of them, and in search of his third national title and 6th undefeated season. His staff is consistent and loyal, as both offensive coordinator Galen Hall and Tom Bradley have been with Paterno for years, in Bradley’s case, 31 of them. Paterno has coached from the booth, battled through injuries, and endured constant rumors and rumblings about his health, his job security, or his passion for coaching. Year after year, he comes back and leads a program he has built. This year is no different.

Helping that leadership and sure to pile up those wins is Penn State’s schedule. Out of conference it’s one of the weakest in FBS, as they play host to Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and Eastern Illinois. In conference, their 4 road games are Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, and Michigan State. At home, they get Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Indiana. Penn State doesn’t play Wisconsin or Purdue.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Daryll Clark: 192-321, 2592 yds, 19 TDs, 6 INTs, 79 att, 282 yds, 10 TDs
RB Evan Royster: 191 att, 1236 yds, 12 TDs
LB Navorro Bowman: 106 tkls, 4 sacks, 12.5 TFL, 1 INT

Game to Watch
Penn State’s goals must first include winning their conference. Their largest roadblock for that will come in their November 7th home game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are the two teams favored to be in the running for the conference crown, both split the title last season, and the winner finds themselves in prime position for the BCS berth.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the defensive secondary and offensive line plays up to their potential despite their (lack of) experience. They certainly aren’t sexy positions or glamor jobs like linebackers, quarterbacks, or running backs, but these two units hold the keys to PSU’s success or failure this season. Expect both to do just fine.

Season Outlook
For the Nittany Lions, 2009 comes on the heels of a much celebrated and much needed successful season last year. While it didn’t end on a high note, as they were defeated by the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl, any year that starts with a low-20’s ranking and ends with 11 wins and a Top 10 finish is clearly something for fans to be proud of. This season looks to be very different from the get go, as PSU finds themselves ranked highly, expected much of, and primed and ready for a conference title run and potential national championship. Non-conference, the Nittany Lions will not only be 4-0, they will punish their opponents. In the Big 10, Penn State’s toughest challenge will be against Ohio State, but expect a close game against Illinois. When the dust settles in 2009, Penn State will find themselves at 12-0, but may very well find themselves on the outside looking in for the BCS title game.

Prelude to a Season: #7

7.) Alabama Crimson Tide

AlabamaWhat You Need to Know
Many in the know for college football looked at Alabama’s hiring of Nick Saban in 2007 as a sign that the Crimson Tide would once again be back on top of the college football universe. No one in the know that Saban would return Bama to prominence quite so soon or quite so impressively. After an 07 season where the Tide finished 7-6, 2008 started off with a bang as the Crimson Tide dismantled #9 Clemson in the Georgia Dome in front of a national audience left breathless, speechless, and in awe of Alabama. The rest of 2008 saw Alabama climb through the polls and into the national title conversation as they went undefeated through the regular season, finished undefeated, and awaited a date with Florida for a right to play for the BCS title. The last two games of the year certainly left a bitter taste in many Tide fans’ mouths as they lost to the Gators and the Utah Utes in the Sugar Bowl, but no one, not the media, not the rivals, not the anti-Bama folks, can take away the fact that Alabama is back.

No one can dispute the fact that this was bound to happen. Nick Saban has certainly proven his ability as a head coach, having never had a losing season in his entire career. With stops at Toledo, Michigan St., and LSU, Saban has a career record of 110-50-1, along with a national title in 2003. Saban is hoping to add another crystal football to his trophy case this year as he takes the Crimson Tide on a journey with a much better starting point than last season.

Offensively, the Tide returns only 4 starters from a unit that averaged 30.1 points 356 yards per game last season. The most notable missing piece this year is NFL draft choice Glen Coffee. He was a large part of the Tide’s dominant rushing attack, racking up nearly 1400 yards along with 10 TDs. The Tide averaged 185 yards per game on the ground, their best total since 2004, and cracked the 200 yard mark 6 times last season including 328 against Arkansas. Filling his shoes will be sophomore Mark Ingram, who rushed for 728 yards and 12 TDs in 08. Alabama also must replace a starting QB (John Parker Wilson), a tight end (Nick Walker), and a wide receiver (Nikita Stover). Back in the receiving corps is sophomore Julio Jones, a 2nd Team All SEC selection who has his eyes on All America nods this season. On the offensive line, the Tide loses All Americans Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell as well as Marlon Davis. This year, Bama looks to redshirt freshman Tyler Love to begin a new legacy at left tackle much the same way Andre Smith did as a 4-year starter. At 6’7″ 290 lbs, Love certainly has the size to do just that. The fate of the offensive skill positions rests in junior QB Greg McElroy’s hands, as the school’s all time passing leader in Wilson moves on. McElroy will either succeed or yield way to numerous talented players who lack experience but have a wide range of ability and skills.

On the defensive side of the football, Alabama hopes to maintain its recent dominance, and returning 9 starters certainly makes that a probable outcome. On the defensive line they lose DE Bobby Greenwood, but keep senior NG Terrance Cody, who many thought would declare for the NFL. The 1st Team All American last season was one of the many reasons why the Tide gave up only 74 yards per game on the ground, and dropped their total yardage to 264. Replacing Greenwood will be senior Lorenzo Washington, who has playing experience and should certainly fill the gap well. The only other loss for the Tide comes at free safety, where they must replace Rashad Johnson, a 2nd Team All American drafted by the Airzona Cardinals. Their secondary looks to not skip a beat though, as they return senior CB Javier Arenas, a 2nd Team All SEC player and stellar pass defender, who is also deadly at punt returns, averaging 16 yards per return with 3 scores last season. They return their linebacking unit in its entirety, and that’s where you’ll find Rolando McClain, last season’s leading tackler.

2008 saw the Tide play a brutal schedule, and 2009 certainly looks no different. Kudos to Alabama for not taking the easy way out and scheduling FCS or Sun Belt cannon fodder for the non-conference games, as the Crimson Tide open the season in Atlanta against Virginia Tech. The other non-conference games (FIU, North Texas, and Chattanooga) are far from legendary, but opening the season at a neutral site against a fellow Top 10 program earns credibility points. In conference play, Bama’s road contests are certainly manageable, traveling to Kentucky, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Auburn. Their home games are Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU. Missing from the schedule are Florida and Georgia (as well as Vanderbilt), which bodes well for the Tide’s potential shot at undefeated as they try to make their 6th straight Bowl and their 57th Bowl all time.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
WR Julio Jones: 58 rec, 924 yds, 4 TDs
LB Rolando McClain: 95 tkls, 3 sacks, 9 TFL, 1 INT
DE Brandon Deaderick: 36 tkls, 4 sacks, 1.5 TFL

Game to Watch
For the Crimson Tide, the season can start off with a bang similar to last year with a season opening win against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Georgia Dome on September 5th. After that, their largest roadblocks to SEC dominance and the Western division’s berth in the SEC title game are their contests @ Ole Miss (10/10) and against LSU (11/7). A win at both clinches their title shot, and sets up a probable rematch against the Gators. One loss keeps them alive pending to who and how the three fare against each other, while two losses virtually eliminates the Tide from the SEC Championship conversation.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Greg McElroy performs just good enough to win games and not lose games. Replacing Wilson’s performance and stats will be challenging, but with the exceptional skill coming back on defense, McElroy doesn’t have to be a world beater.

Season Outlook
For the Crimson Tide, 2009 is shaping up to be just as impressive as the first 12 games of 2008. Best case scenario has them running the table to 12-0 and earning a spot in the SEC Championship game. Worst case has a two-loss in conference season, finishing 10-2, and earning a major Bowl, but not a BCS berth. Realistically, we’ll split the difference at 11-1, with the Tide’s loss coming to Ole Miss on the road. 11-1 overall, 7-1 in conference… another impressive season, another impressive Bowl, another bullet point on Saban’s resume making him at least a part of the subject matter in a conversation about the best coaches in the game.

Prelude to a Season: #8

8.) Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio StateWhat You Need to Know
For the Ohio State Buckeyes, 2009 is a world away from 2008. Last season, OSU came into the year a presumptive favorite to challenge for the national title, and ride their 19 returning starters from a BCS Championship game team into the promised land. The Buckeyes certainly had a year that most schools would consider a tremendous success, but in Columbus it was viewed as a bit of a disappointment. Nevermind the fact that OSU finished the year 10-3, their fourth straight 10+ win season. Nevermind the fact that OSU finished the season ranked #9, their 4th consecutive season concluding in a Top 10 ranking. Nevermind the fact that OSU split their 4th consecutive Big 10 title. Many football pundits and fans alike simply point to their inability to live up to high expectations as some sort of failure.

Failure is a bit extreme to describe OSU recently under the direction of Jim Tressel. Tressel sports a career 83-19 record and a national championship in 2002. Tressel has dominated the Big 10, struggled at times against the nation’s best, but on the whole, has made OSU a perennial contender for the national championship. This year, with the right breaks, is no different.

On the offensive side of the football, the Buckeyes return only 5 starters from a unit that averaged 27.6 points per game and 343 yards per game, both down from the two years prior. The key returner on this offense is Terrelle Pryor, one of the most highly celebrated recruits in the Tressel era, and one of the most explosive and dangerous players in the conference, having been named the Big 10 Freshman Player of the Year. Pryor excelled in his freshman season and now finds himself in sole possession of the QB position, where his stats and impact will only grow. The largest loss for the Buckeyes is RB Chris “Beanie” Wells, who is now playing on Sundays in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. Wells’ 1197 yards and 8 TDs certainly made the defense key on the running game, thus opening up Pryor’s options. Having a running back capable of defensive attention will be critical for OSU to continue their offensive success. Junior Brandon Saine looks to be that attention grabber. Opening holes for Saine and protecting Pryor will be 3 returning full-time starters on the offensive line, though there have been numerous position shifts and relocating along the offensive front. The Buckeyes are attempting to have quick, agile, athletic bodies in the tackle roles. The receiving corps has lost Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline but do return 4 of their top 7 pass catchers.

Defensively, the Buckeyes 2009 season is certainly notable for the people they are replacing rather than the stars coming back like 2008. A unit that gave up 13.9 points per game and 294 total yards loses 4 full-time starters, all of them tremendously important. 1st Team All American CB Malcolm Jenkins as well as Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in LB James Laurinaitis and 2nd Team All Big 10 LB Marcus Freeman all are missing off the 2009 squad. Replacing those three and their production will be nearly impossible. Leading the charge for the Buckeyes will be senior SS Kurt Coleman, the leading returning tackler and pass interceptor. 7 of the top 8 return along the defensive front, and must improve their sack numbers and rush defense if OSU is to be a contender for the conference or the national titles. Tressel has brought in a very highly touted linebacking group which will make that defense solid for years to come.

The schedule for OSU shapes up as favorably as possible considering the teams on it. Out of conference, the Buckeyes get all their games in Columbus save for a matchup against Toledo in the Cleveland Brown’s stadium. Coming to Ohio Stadium is Navy, New Mexico State, and the largest and most intimidating opponent, USC. Last year saw the Buckeyes dominated by the Trojans at USC, and payback is on the minds of everyone associated with OSU. In Big 10 play, the Buckeyes play 4 road games with the roughest task being Penn State. Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan also all host the Wolverines. At home, Ohio State gets Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Northwestern and Michigan State are not on the schedule.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Terrelle Pryor: 100-165, 1311 yds, 12 TDs, 4 INTs, 139 att, 631 yds, 6 TDs
SS Kurt Coleman: 78 tkls, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 4 INTs
DE Thaddeus Gibson: 26 tkls, 5 sacks, 4 TFL

Game to Watch
For the Ohio State Buckeyes, there are two key games on the schedule each impacting a much different goal for the 09 squad. To win the Big 10, the Buckeyes look to their matchup November 7th against Penn State in Happy Valley where the Buckeyes must endure a challenging opponent, a challenging environment, and a team that beat OSU last year in Columbus. When it comes to the national title goal, the Buckeyes need to defeat USC on September 12th. A win and OSU is in the hunt for a national championship, but with a loss, OSU may be out of the title picture even if they win out.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the rushing attack for OSU is adequate enough to open the offense up for Terrelle Pryor. A lack of rushing means a defensive gameplan by opponents that keys on Pryor, making life difficult for the sophomore, regardless of his talent.

Season Outlook
The Buckeyes have 10 very winnable games on the schedule, with their contests against USC and Penn State hard fought battles for the Buckeyes. Best case scenario is an upset of both and a 12-0 finish, which still may not be good enough to play for a national title given the teams above them in the preseason that may also go undefeated. Realistically, the Buckeyes are looking at 10-2 with losses to both Penn State and USC, leaving them right in the hunt for a share of the Big 10 should Penn State stumble.

Prelude to a Season: #9

9.) Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma StateWhat You Need to Know
It’s hard work for the Oklahoma State Cowboys overcoming the national attention paid to divisional conference foes Texas and Oklahoma. National pundits, preseason polls, magazines of note, along with countless blogs and sports sites essentially have chosen Texas and Oklahoma as the potential challengers of Florida for a national title, forgetting all about this impressive team in Stillwater. While the Sooners and Longhorns continue to jockey for supremacy in what many believe to be a two team race, Oklahoma State is quietly and impressively demanding attention.

Last season, Oklahoma State used their potent high octane offense to become one of the nation’s most balanced attacks. The hamstring for the Cowboys was a defense that simply couldn’t compete with similar high powered attacks. Two of their final three games, against Texas Tech and Oklahoma, the Cowboys allowed 117 points. For the season as a whole, the OSU defense allowed 28.1 points per game and just a shade over 400 yards per game. Hardly the stalwart defensive unit that is needed to compete for the conference crown, a BCS berth, and a shot at a national title.

This season, head coach Mike Gundy will look for not only a much improved defensive effort, but also continuation of success by one of the most balanced and dominating offensive units in the country. They return 7 starters, among them their leading QB, RB, WR, and 3 of 5 offensive linemen. Senior QB Zac Robinson is among the best in the nation, despite the fact that many in the Big 12 point to Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford as “prototypical” quarterbacks. Robinson will rely on fellow skill players, both juniors, WR Dez Bryant and RB Kendall Hunter, to continue proving he belongs in those top tier quarterback conversations. Hunter and his 1500+ yard season and Bryant with 19 TDs last season make this skill trio the most talented in the country. The biggest loss for this offensive unit is TE Brandon Pettigrew, an NFL Draft selection whose presence and impact will be felt. Filling his shoes will be sophomore Wilson Youman. On the line, the Cowboys lose C David Washington and RG Steve Denning but return LT Russell Okung, a first team All Big 12 selection and the anchor of an offensive line with the task of protecting Robinson and opening up holes for Hunter. If they’re successful at that, then Robinson will become the school’s all-time leading passer by season’s end as he sits only 1700 yards behind his coach for the top passer honor.

Defensively the Cowboys return six starters from a unit that will largely be responsible for slowing down the opponents on the schedule long enough for the OSU offense to explode. 10 of the 12 leading tacklers from last season all return, but the defensive secondary may very well be the queston mark for this unit. Having lost 3 of 4 starters, including both safeties Ricky Price and Quenton Moore as well as 2nd Team All Big 12 corner Jacob Lacey, OSU finds itself breaking in new personnel in a conference and against opponents that are pass heavy and will exploit any weaknesses in this particular area. When it comes to the run game, the Cowboys also lose 2 of 4 starters on the defensive line, needing to replace Tonga Tea, but having numerous subs with game experience. The linebacking crew for the Cowboys returns in tact, led by senior Andre Sexton, a converted safety. For Oklahoma State, the losses are noticeable but nothing that isn’t able to be overcome. They must force pressure up front and create pocket pressure for opposing passers, as this unit only sacked the opposition 15 times in 08… a stat which must improve for the Cowboys to have a shot at Big 12 South supremacy.

Helping to make that defensive unit stand out is new Defensive Coordinator Bill Young, the most recent addition to Mike Gundy’s staff. Gundy has proven himself to be an exceptionally talented coach, and much better than his 27-23 record at OSU indicates. Each year in Stillwater has gotten better than the year prior, and should Gundy have a successful 2009, it will be his first double-digit win season ever, and the first for OSU since 1988.

Helping Gundy achieve that goal is a schedule that is daunting and challenging but certainly not impossible. Two of their three most challenging games are at home when Georgia and Texas comes to Stillwater, and their season finale against Oklahoma in Norman may very well be the difference between Cinderella and status quo for OSU.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Zac Robinson: 204-314, 3064 yds, 25 TDs, 10 INTs, 146 att, 562 yds, 8 TDs
RB Kendall Hunter: 241 att, 1555 yds, 16 TDs
WR Dez Bryant: 87 rec, 1480 yds, 19 TDs

Game to Watch
The season opener against Georgia on September 5th will either set the Cowboys up with additional momentum and the national spotlight or give the critics ample fuel to say Oklahoma State is far from ready for the big stage. A win against the Bulldogs sets OSU up for a run through the Big 12 and the possibility of an undefeated season. Standing in their way are their two higher ranked divisional foes: Texas (10/31) and @ Oklahoma (11/28).

They’ll Do Well If…
… the defense improves even remotely from last season, especially against their marquee opponents. Last season saw them put up an impressive effort against Texas but implode against Oklahoma. Any game the defense doesn’t excel, it puts added pressure on the offense to simply outscore the opposition, a hard pressed task against OU and UT.

Season Outlook
Oklahoma State enters this season with increased expectations for them, but expectations that pale in comparison to their conference brethren. It’s difficult for a Top 10 ranked team to be considered under the radar, but that is the precise position that Oklahoma State finds themselves. Should the Cowboys land a season-opening defeat of the Georgia Bulldogs in a game that could go either way, OSU will cruise until their showdowns with Texas and Oklahoma, where a 1-1 record may set them up for relying on their standings within the BCS for a berth in the Big 12 title game should UT and OU each have one loss as well. Regardless of where the computers rank them, 11-1 is an incredible year and one Gundy and the rest of the Cowboys should, and will, be proud of.