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Prelude to a Season: #10

10.) Virginia Tech Hokies

Virginia TechWhat You Should Know
For Virginia Tech, it has been an amazing decade of success. After playing for a national title in 1999, Tech has continued its run of success and prosperity, even if the extra large hardware has eluded them. Five straight years of 10 wins or more, a conference that is ripe for the taking, and 16 returning starters all make for more continued success for Virginia Tech.

Entering his 23rd season, Frank Beamer sits at 177-89-2, and with a reputation of hard-nosed defensive teams that do just well enough on offense to win games, and plenty of them. This season, the Hokies are gunning for their 3rd consecutive ACC title and their 4th BCS Bowl game in 6 years. The Hokies joined the ACC in 2004, and have not finished below #19 in the final poll since moving. That’s an impressive feat, and one the Hokies are in a great position to add to this season.

Last year, the Hokie offense was a two-headed attack with senior Sean Glennon and sophomore Tyrod Taylor splitting time and largely proving somewhat ineffective. The lone stability was freshman Darren Evans, who ran roughshod over the ACC on his way to an exceptionally impressive first season, including a Bowl record 158 yards for the Hokies in an upset of Big East champ Cincinnati. This season, nearly everyone returns on the offensive side for the Hokies, with the exception of two offensive linemen (C Ryan Shuman and LG Nick Marshman). Replacing those two will be easy for the Hokies as they are a deep and talented roster of agile, athletic offensive linemen capable of playing whatever position is needed. At quarterback, Taylor gets the reins of the offense, and with it, the ability to lead the team for the entirety of drives and games. No longer splitting time with Glennon, though, Taylor must prove accurate and capable in the passing game, an aspect he has struggled with in his first two seasons. Evans returns with a season under his belt and very capable of setting himself up to be the leading rusher in school history his junior season of 2010 with a season like last year. The receiving corp for the Hokies is deep and talented, with no player a clear cut stand out, but all capable of excellent route running and pass catching.

Virginia Tech has long been known for their defense, and the 2009 version of the Hokies will be no different. They return 7 starters, but need to replace 2nd Team All American Macho Harris and 2nd Team All ACC DE Orion Martin. Also gone for the Hokies are two key inside linebackers in Purnell Sturdivant and Brett Warren, Virgina Tech’s top two tacklers from 2008. Despite the losses, this is still a defensive force to be reckoned with, as the Hokies start 9 seniors or juniors. Additionally, the Virginia Tech hallmark through the years has been a frenetic defense capable or replacing losses easily and never missing a beat. For this defense, they play in a conference where there are no overpowering offenses, and they should be even better than last year’s unit which gave up 16.7 points per game, as well as allowed over 100 yards rushing for the first time since 2004.

For the Hokies, their schedule is surprisingly challenging. Their 4 non-conference games are Marshall and Nebraska at home as well as a late season road contest against East Carolina along with a season opening battle against Alabama in Atlanta. For the Hokies, a loss to Bama drops them out of national title contention essentially in week 1, while a large win propels them as a very realistic darkhorse for the national title. In ACC play, Virginia Tech’s Atlantic Division opponents are Maryland, NC State, and Boston College, with only the Terps on the road. Their Coastal Division foes shake out unfavorably for the home schedule, with Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia all on the road and Miami and North Carolina at home in Lane Stadium. No game is totally unwinnable, and the Hokies have a good chance at something special because of their challenging schedule and resulting computer love given victories.

Who You Need Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Darren Evans: 287 att, 1265 yds, 11 TDs
QB Tyrod Taylor: 147 att, 738 yds, 7 TDs, 99-173, 1036 yds, 2 TDs, 7 INTs
DE Jason Worilds: 62 tkls, 8 sacks, 10.5 TFL

Game to Watch
The two most challenging games for Virginia Tech are their season opener against Alabama (9/5) and their late season showdown with Georgia Tech (10/17). Both those contests take the Hokies away from a tremendous home field, and both will prove the key matchups to achieving their goals of national excellence and ACC dominance.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Taylor figures out how to pass the ball accurately without turning it over. The defense has far more losses, but the system in place ensures a competitive unit with little to no learning curve. Offensively, Taylor now finds himself the man in charge of a team in need of leadership and offensive skill to make life easier for Darren Evans.

Season Outlook
For the Hokies, anything short of an ACC Championship and subsequent BCS appearance would have to be let down. Luckily for them, they have the schedule, the talent, and the coaching to do just that. In toss up games against Georgia Tech and Alabama, the Hokies will go 1-1, and will stumble at least once in the parity-laden ACC. Regardless of those losses, 10-2 puts the Hokies in control of the ACC Coastal and given victories against both Alabama and Georgia Tech, and outside contender for the national title.

Prelude to a Season: #11

11.) California Golden Bears

CaliforniaWhat You Need to Know
For the Cal Golden Bears, it’s tough being them. In-state rival and conference rival USC consistently grabs the headlines, the attention, and the titles, while Cal perennially is good but always seems a step behind the Trojans for the Pac 10 and the national championships. Last season it was a frustrating time for the Golden Bears as each time they appeared in the national polls, they lost the following week. They did close the season with an Emerald Bowl win against the Miami Hurricanes, but a 9-4 season left much to be desired. This year, though, Cal figures to have all the pieces needed for a Pac 10 title run but also potentially a national championship chance.

Most of those pieces for a title run are located on the offensive side of the ball for the Golden Bears. Junior RB Jahvid Best clearly is the most valuable weapon, as he led the Pac 10 in rushing last season while setting a Cal single-game record in the season finale with 311 yards. Best is clearly a front-runner for the Doak Walker award, and looks to give Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, and Colt McCoy some company at the Heisman Ceremony. Handing Best the ball will be junior Q B Kevin Riley, who no longer has to battle with Nate Longshore. Riley was far from epic last season, but looks to improve on his 50.7% accuracy. On the offensive line, the Golden Bears lose All American center Alex Mack, as well as 2nd Team Pac 10 RG Noris Malele but the Cal offensive line is experienced, talented, and deep. It will be hard to eclipse last year’s 32.6 points per game, but this unit is talented enough to do it.

Defensively, Cal returns 8 starters from a unit that allowed only 315 yards per game and 19.9 points. They do lose their top 2 tacklers, but return experience and talent all over the field. The most felt losses are LB Zack Follett, whose 10.5 sacks last season accounted for one-third of Cal’s total sacks and Worrell Williams. Anthony Felder also departs, as does Shea McIntyre, leaving the linebacking unit depleted and virtually the only area of concern for the entire Cal team despite highly touted young bucks chomping at the bit. The entire secondary returns, most notably Syd’Quan Thompson who excels not only as a corner but also as a punt returner.

Cal’s schedule is challenging but not impossible, as their lone out of conference road game is against Minnesota in a definite winnable game. Their most challenging out of conference game is their season opener against Maryland, at home. In conference, the Golden Bears play 5 of their 9 Pac 10 games on the road, but do get Oregon State and USC at home.

Since taking over in 2002, Jeff Tedford has built Cal into a consistent winner, perennial contender, and a team that no one can take lightly. When your “down year” is 9-4 with a Bowl win, that’s doing things the right way. This year, Tedford looks to take the Bears to the next level and challenge USC for the conference crown and the accompanying BCS berth.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Jahvid Best: 194 att, 1580 yds, 15 TDs
QB Kevin Riley: 112-221, 1360 yds, 14 TDs, 6 INTs
CB Syd’Quan Thompson: 70 tkls, 2 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 14 PBU, 4 INTs

Game to Watch
For the Golden Bears, they look to be undefeated, highly ranked, and able to make a gigantic statement about the rest of the season on October 3rd when USC rolls into Berkeley. Should they win, their next contest (after a bye week) on October 17th against UCLA could be their toughest remaining challenge for Pac 10 supremacy and a win there puts an undefeated season well within their sights.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Kevin Riley steps into the starter’s role with confidence and swagger. Many will point to the defensive losses as a reason Cal won’t succeed, but with enough success from Riley, that’s a burden easily overcome.

Season Outlook
For Cal, this season may not be historic, but it will be a good year to be a Golden  Bears fan. After running through their non-conference schedule at 3-0, Cal will put USC and UCLA to the test, defeating one of the two and losing a heartbreaker to the other. They’ll be favored in the rest of the conference matchups and close the year 11-1, with an outside shot at a Pac 10 championship depending on who the “1” was. A great year for Cal and another outstanding performance from Jahvid Best will make 2009 a year to remember.

Prelude to a Season: #12

12.) Georgia Bulldogs

GeorgiaWhat You Need to Know
For the Bulldogs, 2009 shapes up nothing like 2008. 08 began with monumental expectations, numerous #1 rankings and show stoppers in the backfield and under center. There were question marks surrounding their schedule and the offensive line, and those may very well have been the undoing of a potential Cinderella 2008 for the Bulldogs. After losses in conference to Alabama and Florida as well as a season finale heartbreaker against Georgia Tech in Athens, the Bulldogs were relegated to the Capital One Bowl, where they promptly dispatched Michigan State. 10-3, a Bowl win, and another good season for a head coach with an 82-22 would be reason for celebration for most teams, but not this one. This one who was expected to contend for a national title, and watched the hardware instead go to conference rival Florida.

Unlike 2008 where the Bulldogs were long on talent at the skill positions but short on experience in the trenches, 2009 sees Georgia return 7 starters on the offensive side, none of whom play QB or RB. Everyone knows Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford departed but lost amidst those two was WR Mohamed Massaqoui who was lost in the shadow of other receivers but a talented threat for Stafford. Among the returners is standout sophomore WR A.J. Green, who led the team in receiving yards last season. Also returning is every starter along the offensive line, who have a year of experience together under their collective belt. The heavy burden of replacing Moreno and Stafford fall to senior QB Joe Cox and sophomore RB Caleb King, who have the benefit of a veteran offensive line protecting them as they learn the ropes of the toughest conference in football.

Defensively, Georgia returns 7 starters to a unit that was ranked 10th in the SEC in terms of scoring defense and 6th in the conference for total defense. They lose Jeremy Lomax and Corvey Irvin on the defensive line, as well as CB Asher Allen. Leading the defense this year falls to two juniors, LB Rennie Curran and SS Reshad Jones. Curran will get nods on All-American ballots given another outstanding season, and Jones is an outstanding athlete with remarkable field presence, just as likely to make a jarring hit as a highlight reel INT. Georgia needs to markedly amp up their pressure and pursuit of opposing QBs, as they were only 72nd in the country in sacks last season.

The schedule for the Bulldogs is tough but not nearly as tough as the murderers’ row in conference like 2008. Their out of conference schedule opens and closes with significant tests, against Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech, both on the road. In conference, their road tests are Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vandy, while their home contests are South Carolina, LSU, Auburn, and Kentucky. Their annual rivalry with Florida is contested in “neutral” Jacksonville.

For Richt and the Bulldogs, 2009 is a season about restoring the glory of a program that definitely did not live up to lofty preseason aspirations last year. The Bulldogs may be a year away from contending for a conference title, but this is a team capable of beating anyone on their schedule.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
WR A.J. Green: 56 rec, 963 yds, 8 TDs
LB Rennie Curran: 115 tkls, 3 sacks, 10 TFL, 2 FF
SS Reshad Jones: 76 tkls, 2.5 TFL, 5 INTs

Game to Watch
For Georgia to entertain dreams of playing in the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship they must first win the East division, and their ability to do that will rest on their performance in their Halloween showdown with Florida. A win not only shocks the SEC and the nation, but puts the Bulldogs in the driver’s seat for the conference championship berth.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Joe Cox steps into the starting quarterback role and succeeds from the get go. Cox and company get a stout challenge to open the season, where a win means added confidence and the chance to do something unexpected. A loss knocks Georgia down a peg in the national polls, as well as creates a sense of urgency amongst the fans and players.

Season Outlook
Georgia in any other conference would be a championship contender. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they play in the toughest division of the toughest conference around. Out of conference, Oklahoma State would be a tough test any time, but opening the season against them on the road with an unproven batch of skill players doesn’t bode well for the Bulldogs. However, in a game where defense figures to be key, give me the Bulldogs. In conference, a loss against Florida is the only “given” in our mind, as the Bulldogs will be favored in every other contest. The season-finale against Georgia Tech is a toss-up, with the advantage going to the home team. When the dust settles on 09, Georgia will be on the outside looking in for the SEC Championship, but at 10-2 and 7-1 in the SEC, that’s a fine season and worthy of a major Bowl game.

Welcome OTP to Respectability

blogpoll logoIf you’ve followed OTP for the last year or so, you know we posted our weekly Top 25 poll as if it mattered to the rest of the college football world. Beginning this fall, it actually will. Gone will be the disclaimer up top that “We’re not an official voting member of the MGoBlog/CBS Sports Blogpoll” since today, we were invited and have accepted a spot in the national Blogpoll.

Landing in the Blogpoll for a college football blog is akin to a movie being invited to Cannes. Only the best, year in and year out, are invited to be a part of this. It’s hosted by MGoBlog and CBS Sports, and relies on the people that actually watch college football rather than the folks who coach it or cover it to pick the teams worthy of inclusion in a poll. You can read about the poll and the changes right here.

For the readers, it also means a significant increase in participation and chit chat, as frankly, this poll, and our ballots, will be a hybrid of site leadership and the site readership. Drafts go up by Monday for conversation and (dis)agreement, and the final draft goes live Wednesdays. It’s definitely a great way to have something representative of Ball State fans since we had to choose our “favorite” team for bias tracking purposes.

SECPOWERPOLL2008

Never one to shy away from our Kentucky fandom either, OTP has been offered and accepted a spot in the SEC Power Poll hosted by Garnet and Black Attack. It’s the blogosphere equivalent of the adult Thanksgiving table and quite the honor for us as well.

It’s composed of representation of the best and brightest stars in the SEC landscape, and frankly, we’re proud as can be to included with the blogs and sites who we sort of looked to as beacons when we started this thing.

So, readers, get yourselves ready for a fall of calling out our poll votes and watching RV lobby for Notre Dame. It’s going to be legendary.

Prelude to a Season: #13

13.) Louisiana State Tigers

LSUWhat You Should Know
To call the 2008 version of the LSU Tigers a change from the recent past would be the understatement of the offseason. Miles and the Tigers, national title winners in 2007, saw a streak of 94 consecutive weeks of being ranked come to a close, their final record clock in at 8-5, and only won 3 SEC games last season. There was a lack of star power at the QB position after Ryan Perrilloux was dismissed, and Jarrett Lee struggled. Defensively, the Tigers had one of the worst seasons in recent memory, allowing two opponents to top 50 points. For a defense that in recent years was known for its dominance and power, they certainly struck fear in the hearts of no one, as 5 opponents in 2008 scored 30 or more points. Quite the change compared to the defenses of the last decade.

Miles now finds himself hopefully optimistic about the future, most notably because of sophomore QB Jordan Jefferson, who decimated Georgia Tech in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. Additionally, the defensive side of the football loses 5 starters, but fills those holes with exceptionally talented though inexperienced young players as well as new defensive coordinator John Chavis formerly of Tennessee.

Offensively, regardless of who lines up under center, the attack routes through standout running back Charles Scott. Scott’s junior campaign in 2008 saw him lead the conference in touchdowns and place 3rd in yardage. With 3 of 5 starters on the offensive line returning as well as an increased productivity in the passing game, Scott looks to surpass last year’s stellar numbers. The receiving corps will be led by senior Brandon LaFell, but look for them all to be productive and game breaking. 11 of the top 12 pass catchers return for LSU, along with Rueben Randle, one of the most highly touted recruits in the conference.

Defensively, Chavis is hoping for a return to Tigers past, and for the Tigers to have any chance at success beyond middle of the pack, they’ll need it. 7 starters return, and 8 of their top 9 tacklers last season are all back. The losses are felt most notably along the defensive line, where they must replace 3 starters, but the secondary returns in tact and with another year of experience save for the free safety position. Senior CB Chris Hawkins returns as the team’s leading interceptor from last season, with his 3 picks.

The Tigers’ out of conference schedule is far from challenging, as they play at Washington to open the season as well as home dates throughout with Louisiana, Tulane, and Louisiana Tech. In conference, like most every other SEC team, is where LSU finds their toughest challenges, as their East opponents this year are Vandy, Georgia, and Florida, with Georgia on the road. Their West opponents are 3 road games to 2 home games, and Bama, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State are all away from the friendly confines of Death Valley.

For Miles and the Tigers, improvement on 2008 is certainly expected and needed. With an increased production on the offensive side of the football as well as a staunch defensive unit, this is a team which will surprise many folks who are prematurely calling the SEC West a two-team race between Alabama and Ole Miss.

Who You Should Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Charles Scott: 217 att, 1174 yds, 18 TDs
QB Jarrett Lee: 143-269, 1873 yds, 14 TDs, 16 INTs
WR Brandon LaFell: 63 rec, 929 yds, 8 TDs

Game to Watch
The Tigers’ toughest contests will easily come in conference. Their three most challenging games encompass two from their own division against Ole Miss (11/21) and Alabama (11/7), both on the road. In terms of national attention, most point to the October 10th game against Florida at home. It is the Gators’ biggest chance for a loss this season, as well as the opportunity for the Tigers to shock the college football world.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Les Miles picks the right QB from moment one and the defensive line stops opponents from scoring at will. It seems intuitive to have a productive offense and a shut down defense, but for LSU to remain competitive in the SEC race, that is what has to happen.

Season Outlook
For Tiger fans who simply want an improvement on last season’s 8-5 record, they are in for a treat. That mission will be easily accomplished. For the Tiger fans wanting a shot at an SEC title, that will be a difficult task. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility for the Tigers to upset either Alabama or Ole Miss, but upsetting both is a tall order, and since both are on the road, nearly impossible. Instead the Tigers drop one of those games, lose a close contest against Florida, and go undefeated in their nonconference season, making their final 2009 record 10-2, with an outside shot at a West Division title pending the records of their divisional foes.

Prelude to a Season: #14

14.) Boise State Broncos

Boise StateWhat You Need to Know
Ask a college football fan who they would dub the Team of the Last Decade, and you’ll receive a plethora of answers from USC to Florida to Oklahoma to LSU. But the knowledgeable fan and the stat-mongers will point to the Boise State Broncos as the model of success and excellence over the last decade. 2001 marked the first season of Dan Hawkins, and also the lowest total of wins in his 5-year career with 8. His 53-11 record was instrumental in landing him a job as Head Coach at Colorado, and his recruiting was instrumental in ensuring current head coach Chris Petersen would be successful when taking over in 2006.

Petersen certainly announced his presence with authority, leading the Broncos to a 13-0 record and an epic upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, a game that many fans and players at non-BCS Conference programs will point to as the reason why smaller schools and programs deserve a seat at the table. Petersen’s three-year record? 35-4. Impressive.

As 2009 dawns, Petersen finds himself in one of the most enviable positions a non-BCS coach could. His team is ranked highly to start the year, they have marquee non-conference games on the schedule, and the buzz around Boise State is certainly noticeable. Plus, having a 44-game regular season home winning streak certainly makes life in Boise enjoyable.

Offensively for the Broncos, they return 6 full-time starters from the 2008 squad, including their sophomore QB Kellen Moore, an unbelievably accurate passer, capable of putting up gigantic numbers and leading a team to victory after victory. The Broncos also return 3 of 5 offensive line starters. Where the Broncos will feel their losses is at the skill positions. Ian Johnson, the second most productive rusher in school history, is no longer around, but junior Jeremy Avery saw plenty of action last season. The wide receiver position has the most losses, as they lose 4 of their top 6 pass catchers, including Jeremy Childs and Vinny Perretta, who combined for nearly 1600 yards and 9 TDs last season. Junior WR Austin Pettis and sophomore TE Kyle Efaw are the most experienced returning starters, but the BSU receiving corps is certainly talented, despite their inexperience.

Defensively, the Broncos return only 5 starters from a unit that was simply dominating last season. Giving up only 12.6 points per game in 08 placed the Broncos #3 in the nation. Their 308 yards per game given up places them 19th in the country for total yardage. The Broncos lost key components of that unit, like 1st Team All WAC free safety Ellis Powers, LBs Kyle Gingg and Tim Brady, but their most important losses come along the defensive line where they lose 3 of 4 full-time starters. The lone returner for the front 4 is junior DE Ryan Winterswyk, a 1st Team All WAC selection. The secondary is veteran and exceptionally talented, returning 3 of 4 starters including All-WAC selections junior SS Jeron Johnson and senior CB Kyle Wilson, whom also is an electrifying punt returner. Boise is clearly a cut above not only the WAC but also every team on their schedule.

When it comes to that schedule, Boise State has a challenging season opener against the Ducks of Oregon, but gets them at Bronco Stadium, where road teams simply do not win. With road contests against Tulsa and Fresno State as well as home contests against Nevada and Miami (Ohio), the Broncos find themselves with no games on the schedule that they won’t be favored in.

Simply put, this has been a fantastic decade to be a Boise State fan. From the Cinderella 2006 season to the unbelievable home winning streak, to a conference that is easily winnable, Boise State has had quite a run. 2009 looks to add more hardware to that trophy case and more bullet points to that impressive resume.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Kellen Moore: 281-405, 3486 yds, 25 TDs, 10 INTs
WR Austin Pettis: 49 rec, 567 yds, 9 TDs
SS Jeron Johnson: 98 tkls, 4.5 TFL, 3 INTs

Game to Watch
Out of conference, the biggest game by name will be the season opener against Oregon (9/3). The toughest game out of conference may be their October 14th matchup at Tulsa. Mid-week, national audience, and mid-season means quite a bit is on the line for the Broncos. In conference, the toughest tests for Boise State will be their September 18th battle at Fresno State and their November 27th game at home against Nevada.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the young and relatively inexperienced receiving corps steps up and fills in the multiple gaps. Defensively they have concerns along the front 4, but are so experienced elsewhere that it won’t be a legitimate concern.

Season Outlook
The Broncos find themselves poised to be the next big thing coming from the non-BCS automatic qualifying conferences. Throw in an epic home winning streak, a talented young QB, a manageable schedule, and a conference slate that is far from tough, and Boise looks to run through 09 unblemished. Our last non-automatic qualifier is our first undefeated for 09, as the Broncos go 13-0, and receive a BCS berth. Their ability to play for national title is well out of their hands, but they will do all they can to make that an argument worth having.

Prelude to a Season: #15

15.) Nebraska Cornhuskers

NebraskaWhat You Need to Know
Bo Pelini found himself in a curious position to open 2008. Coming off the heels of Bill Callahan’s highly unsuccessful experiment in Lincoln, Pelini found himself in possession of a program that had unbelievable tradition, but a lack of recent success. Pelini, the former defensive coordinator at LSU, certainly changed that in his first season, ringing up a 10-4 record and a Gator Bowl win over Clemson.

Fortunately for the Huskers, they find themselves in the Big 12’s North Division, meaning they are not competing year in and year out with Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech for the ability to represent their division in the conference title game. This year, Nebraska finds themselves not only in a favorable division, but with returning skill players, a marquee non-conference game, and with plenty of skill players returning to the roster.

Offensively, the Huskers return 6 starters, but did lose an extremely important one in QB Joe Ganz, second all-time in passing yardage at Nebraska. Behind his arm and leadership, Nebraska rang up the conference’s 6th best scoring offense, 6th best passing offense, and 4th best rushing offense. Junior RB Ray Helu will start the fall #1 on the depth chart, but expect a multi-faceted approach with junior Quentin Castille, since each had over 500 yards on the ground last season. The downside of Nebraska’s 08 attack was leading the conference in turnovers, including 17 fumbles lost, a stat which must improve for the Huskers to have any chance to compete for the conference crown.

Defensively, the Huskers return 7 starters, including their 4 highest tacklers from last season. Ndamukong Suh, a senior and an All Big 12 selection last season, leads the charge for the Nebraska defense. At 6’4″, 300 lbs, and exceptionally skilled, Suh may very well find himself on All American ballots at the conclusion of 09. The Huskers lose two of three linebackers from 08, but have a deep and talented roster as well as senior Phillip Dillard. In the secondary, they lose CB Armando Murrillo, but return a group that is exceptionally experienced, talented, and deep. As a unit, the Huskers were 2nd in the Big 12 last season for total defense, giving up only 349 yards per game, along with their 28.5 points per game (6th in conference). Those numbers look to improve as a talented and deep roster goes into their 2nd full season in Pelini’s scheme.

Nebraska’s out of conference schedule features three easy Ws, along with an exceptionally challenging contest in Blacksburg, VA against Virginia Tech. In conference, the Big 12 South opponents on the schedule are Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and @ Baylor, which means they can avoid a contest against the Texas Longhorns, as well as getting the Sooners at home. With a schedule like that, Pelini and the Huskers are in prime position to continue revitalizing the Cornhusker”s history and legacy as they are the front-runners for their division.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Roy Helu: 125 att, 803 yds, 7 TDs
SS Larry Asante: 67 tkls, 1 sack, 4 PBU, 1 INT
DT Ndamukong Suh: 76 tkls, 7.5 sacks, 11.5 TFL, 2 INTs

Game to Watch
In terms of upset potential, November 7th’s contest against Oklahoma looms large, along with the September 19th contest at Virginia Tech, though both those games are longshots for the Huskers. In terms of conference success and getting a berth for the conference title, the Huskers must defeat divisional foes like Missouri (10/8) and Kansas (11/14), both on the road.

They’ll Do Well If…
… Zac Lee performs up to his talent level. Making Husker fans forget about Joe Ganz will be difficult if not impossible, but this junior is a talented player, with good returning skill players around him, along with talent beneath him on the depth chart pushing him to succeed. Limiting turnovers needs to also be high on his To-Do list.

Season Outlook
Nebraska finds themselves in one of the best positions they could, without Texas from the Big 12 South on the schedule and getting Oklahoma at home makes them the divisional favorite, while three of four pushover non-conference games make the Huskers clear-cut front runners for a great record. Games against the Sooners and at Virginia Tech will be challenging. Look for the Huskers to wrap up their 09 campaign with a 9-3 record and a 6-2 record in the Big 12 with a berth in the Big 12 title game, where they will be 60 minutes of football away from a BCS berth in only Bo Pelini’s second season.

Prelude to a Season: #16

16.) Oregon Ducks

OregonWhat You Need to Know
When it comes to the Pac 10, the media favorite is certainly not the team that plays their home games in Autzen Stadium. New head coach Chip Kelly is going to try his hardest to change that reputation and continue the strong, albeit relatively overlooked, program that former head coach and current athletic director Mike Bellotti built into a consistent winner. Kelly, while new to the head coach role, has been at Oregon as the offensive coordinator since 2007, where his offenses have been impressive to say the least. This year appears to be more of the same with talented skill position players, a darkhorse Heisman candidate, a serviceable defense, and a favorable, albeit tough, schedule.

Offensively, the Ducks return 4 starters, but in the case of senior RB LeGarrette Blount, 2008 backup to Jeremiah Johnson, he had a season most starters dream of. Despite a limited spring due to injury and a winter suspension, Blount looks to improve markedly on last season’s 1002 yards and 17 TDs. The most important position in Kelly’s spread attack is the quarterback , and Oregon has a talented one in junior Jeremiah Masoli. Catching balls from Masoli will be a talented group of inexperienced but very highly touted receivers. Junior Jeff Maehl is the leading returning receiver statistically, and senior TE Ed Dickson leads all pass catchers in returning yardage. The offensive line remains the biggest question mark for the Ducks, as they have lost 6 of their top 10 players on the offensive line including numerous selections to the All Pac 10 Teams with the lone returning starter junior RT Ce Kaiser. Those sorts of heavy losses up front may put a bit of a damper on the offense’s production and will almost certainly see a dip from last year’s record setting season.

Defensively, Chip Kelly returns 5 starters to a unit that gave up 389 yards per game (8th in the Pac 10) along with 28.2 points (7th in the Pac 10). The Ducks were stronger against the rush (2nd in conf.) than the pass (10th in conf.) but those numbers may not be the same this year. Among the losses are 3 of the front 4, including DE Nick Reed to the NFL. The lone returner on the D Line is senior DE Will Tukuafu, who used his 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss to be named to the 2008 2nd Team All Conference team. The secondary also took heavy losses as Patrick Chung and Jairus Byrd no longer suit up. Those two combined for 175 tackles, 2 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 6 interceptions and both received 1st Team All Pac 10 honors. Also of note for the Ducks is the loss of key special teams players like K Matt Evensen, P Josh Syria, and return man Jairus Byrd.

The schedule for the Ducks is daunting but manageable, in addition, their 9 conference games shake out favorably with 5 home games. Out of conference, the Ducks face Boise State, Utah, and Purdue, with BSU on the road to open the season. Despite the challenging schedule, Kelly’s first season as the head man in Autzen looks to be a continuation of success for a proud Oregon program.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Jeremiah Masoli: 136-239, 1744 yds, 13 TDs, 5 INTs, 127 rush, 718 yds, 10 TDs
RB LeGarrette Blount: 137 att, 1002 yds, 17 TDs
TE Ed Dickson: 35 rec, 508 yds, 3 TDs

Game to Watch
For the Ducks, they start 2009 with a bang, traveling to Boise State on September 3rd. Two weeks later on September 19th the Utah Utes make the trip to Eugene. In conference, their most challenging games come against Cal (9/26), USC (10/31), and in-state rival Oregon State for the annual Civil War on December 3rd. All those games are at Autzen Stadium, a tremendous home field advantage for the Ducks.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the Ducks’ offensive and defensive lines overcome a lack of experience to perform at a level that allows the UO offense and defense to succeed. Football is certainly a game won in the trenches, and for the Ducks to be successful this season they’ll need to win more battles than they lose up front.

Season Outlook
For the Ducks, the talent is certainly there, even if the experience is not. Were it not for that, this would be a disaster season in Chip Kelly’s first at the helm. The UO attack on offense will not be as potent as last year off the bat, which may lead to early season losses, most notably their season opener at Boise. As the year progresses, Oregon will improve dramatically week to week as the lines gain experience and the schematics begin to click. Look for the Ducks to upset at least one of either USC or Cal. When all is said and done, Oregon will be on the outside looking in for the Pac 10, but a 9-3 record (7-2 in conference) with this schedule and this team is impressive.

Prelude to a Season: #17

17.) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Georgia TechWhat You Need to Know
For many schools, a new coach, a tricky new system, and only 9 returning starters would prove to be a difficult, if not impossible, hurdle to climb. For the Yellow Jackets, 2008 proved to be successful beyond belief as they continued their 14-year record of .500 or better in conference play, finished 9-4 overall, and closed the regular season ranked #14. It was quite the season for new head coach Paul Johnson, as his spread option offense ranked #1 in the ACC and he defeated cross-state rival Georgia for the first time in 7 seasons.

As 2009 dawns, Johnson finds his team primed for greatness, as they have a year under the new system, most of their toughest games at home, and a great chance at a conference title and the BCS payday that comes with it. Offensively, Johnson’s bread and butter, the Jackets return 10 starters, and lose only LT Andrew Gardner who was 1st Team All ACC and RT David Brown. Both were lost to injury mid-year last year, and the 5 offensive linemen who started the last 4 games together all return.

Nearly as important as an offensive line capable of dominating the line of scrimmage and driving the offense down the field are talented skill players capable of taking advantage of the holes opened. GT certainly returns its fair share of skill players, as their leading passer, top 8 receivers, and 95% of their rushing yards from last year all return. Junior QB Josh Nesbitt is the man at the helm of Johnson’s tricky attack, and if he remains healthy and injury-free this season, GT’s attack will improve. Junior RB Jonathon Dwyer, the 2008 ACC Player of the Year, averaged over 7 yards per carry last season and has much improved talent around him with Louisville transfer Anthony Allen waiting in the wings. The receiving corps, though not the featured unit in Johnson’s scheme (averaging 99 yards per game last season), is talented, fast, and capable when called on to burn opponents deep.

Defensively for the Jackets, that’s where the questions begin to creep in. GT returns effectively 8 starters, but their losses are tremendous and entirely on the defensive line. 1st Team All American DE Michael Johnson, 1st Team All ACC DT Vance Walker, and 2nd Team All ACC DT Darryl Richard all graduated, and the players filling those positions are talented, but young and inexperienced. Aside from the front 4, the Yellow Jackets return all their starters from a unit that gave up 20.3 points and 314 yards per game, led by 3rd Team All American junior safety Morgan Burnett. Defensively, Georgia Tech need not be dominating, they simply need to play good enough to not put enormous burdens on an offense that is exceptionally capable of scoring, but not capable of scoring exceptionally quickly.

In terms of the ACC, Georgia Tech finds themselves in a conference where parity is certainly the order of the day. In the Coastal Division, they have road contests against Miami, Virginia, and Duke while North Carolina and Virginia Tech come to Atlanta. Their cross-divisional opponents on the schedule are Clemson, Florida State, and Wake Forest with the Seminoles on the road. Out of conference games against Jacksonville State, @ Mississippi State, and @ Vandy all appear along with their season finale against Georgia at home.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
RB Jonathon Dwyer: 200 att, 1395 yds, 12 TDs
QB Josh Nesbitt: 54-123, 808 yds, 2 TDs, 5 INTs, 172 rush att, 693 yds, 7 TDs
S Morgan Burnett: 93 tkls, 7 TFL, 8 PBU, 7 INTs

Game to Watch
To gain a spot in the ACC Championship, the Jackets must first win the ACC Coastal. Standing in their way for that is Virginia Tech, whom Georgia Tech gets at home on October 17th for Homecoming. Pending the outcome of that game, their games @ Miami (9/17) and against North Carolina (9/26) become gigantic.

They’ll Do Well If…
…the new defensive line starters find a way to succeed. No one expects the front 4 to be as dominating as last season’s talented unit, but penetration, run stopping, and pass pressure are all needed for Georgia Tech to be successful.

Season Outlook
For the Yellow Jackets, their biggest challenge for greatness is simply getting through the ACC season relatively unscathed which in recent years has proven difficult for many teams. For the Yellow Jackets, their out of conference schedule at worst will put them at 3-1, with the Georgia game a toss-up and far from a certain loss. In conference, games against VT, UNC, and Miami will be challenging, but winnable. The Jackets will stumble once amongst those teams, and potentially one other conference opponent, putting their final record for 2009 no worse than 9-3. Realistically, the Jackets are looking at 10-2, with a great chance at an ACC Coastal crown and a great shot at a BCS berth.

Prelude to a Season: #18

18.) Cincinnati Bearcats

CincinnatiWhat You Need to Know
2008 was quite a successful season for the Bearcats, as head coach Brian Kelly had his best season on the BCS stage, racking up an 11-3 record, a Big East title, and an Orange Bowl berth. The offseason saw his second contract extension in as many years, as the Bearcats administration has hitched their football wagon to Kelly’s fast-rising star. As 2009 dawns, Kelly finds himself with a veteran offense, untested defense, a brutal schedule, and a conference that is primed for the taking for the second consecutive season.

Offensively, the Bearcats return 8 starters to a unit that was 4th in the conference with just a shade over 370 yards per game. They were 2nd in the conference in passing, dead last in rushing, and 4th in scoring offense with 25.9 points per game. Leading the charge this year will be senior QB Tony Pike, who battled a broken arm last season, yet still managed to throw for over 2400 yards and 19 TDs. He was one of 4 players to play the QB position for Kelly, but looks to have a firm grip on the starter’s job. Also returning is senior WR Mardy Gilyard who will shoulder much of the burden of increasing production to help offset the loss of Dominick Goodman, whose 1028 yards and 7 TDs were second only to Gilyard. On the ground the Bearcats will look to a three-pronged attack in senior Jacob Ramsey, junior John Goebel, and Isaiah Pead who all combined for 315 carries, 1465 yards, and 9 TDs last season. The offensive line is the biggest question for UC, as two starters have been lost, one to the Arizona Cardinals in OG Trevor Canfield.

Defensively is where the predominant worries and questions are for UC as 09 begins. Losing 10 of their unit’s starters as well as Defensive Coordinator Joe Tresey, the Bearcats and Coach Kelly must essentially start over. In a perfect storm of sorts, new Coordinator Bob Diaco saw this as a perfect time to change schemes, and the Bearcats will transition from their former 4-3 defense to a newly installed 3-4. The only returning full-time starter is senior FS Aaron Webster. And while UC is losing 8 of their top 10 tacklers from last season, they do return a bit of experience, as 6 players besides Webster have at least 1 start last year including senior LB Andre Revels who started 7. Last year’s UC defense led by players like Terrill Byrd, Adam Hoppel, Connor Barwin and Lamonte Nelms racked up impressive statistics, finishing the season #25 nationally in total defense and leading the Big East in sacks and tackles for loss. For those sorts of numbers to remain steady or even improve, the newly installed defense with their fresh crop of talented young athletes will need to play beyond their actual experience.

The scheduler at Cincy certainly did the 09 squad no favors, as their non-conference schedule may be one of the toughest in the country. 2008 saw them travel to Norman for a game against the Sooners and 2009 shapes up to be just as challenging. Games against Oregon State, Illinois, and Fresno State with OSU on the road makes their non-conference schedule one of the best.

For Cincinnati, 2009 could easily be a rebuilding year with so many questions on the defensive side of the football. But fans of UC certainly expect no drop off in results, expecting Brian Kelly and company to continue dominating. The conference is void of any clear-cut power teams, so earning a second consecutive Big East title along with the BCS payday that comes with it is well within reach for 2009.

Who You Need to Know & Their 08 Stats
QB Tony Pike: 199-324, 2407 yds, 19 TDs, 11 INTs
WR Mardy Gilyard: 81 rec, 1276 yds, 11 TDs
RBs John Goebel & Jacob Ramsey: 255 att, 1271 yds, 9 TDs

Game to Watch
Three games essentially stand in the way for Cincinnati to repeat as Big East Champions, a task that may be derailed after game 1. A season-opening loss at Rutgers (9/7) would put Cincy behind the 8 ball in terms of the Big East. If that’s a win, then their October 15th contest against South Florida and their November 7th showdown with UConn will determine the conference champion.

They’ll Do Well If…
… the defense adapts to a new scheme with few big play mistakes and continued intensity and pressure up front. Simply put, the defense is the key to 2009’s success or failure for the Bearcats. A serviceable effort puts them in the driver’s seat for a Big East title.

Season Outlook
Replacing nearly your entire defensive roster, your defensive coordinator, and losing a 1000-yard receiver is often a recipe for disaster in major college football. Thankfully for Cincinnati they are members of the Big East, where there is no clear cut favorite, and there are several teams that will not require maximum effort to defeat. Out of conference, the Bearcats will finish no worse than 4-1, and have a legitimate possibility at 5-0. In the Big East, despite the fact that parity abounds, I look for UC to drop their season opener at Rutgers but rebound nicely with no other losses. They’ll finish the season 10-2 with a Big East title, a BCS berth, and many folks looking in Brian Kelly’s direction for national coach of the year honors.