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2008 NCAA Football Preview
Ready for double duty
SOUTH FLORIDA TO HOST ORANGE BOWL, BCS TITLE GAME THIS SEASON
SO CLOSE: Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman, left, and coach Jim Tressel lost to LSU 38-24 in the 2007 BCS title game at the Superdome last season. HARRY HOW / GETTY IMAGES

1. OHIO STATE
• Coach: Jim Tressel (8th year, 73-16).
• Last season: 11-2. Lost to LSU 38-24 in BCS Championship.
• Starters returning: 9 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: QB Todd Boeckman, RB Beanie Wells, T Alex Boone, LB Jim Laurinaitis, CB Malcolm Jenkins.
• Void to fill: DE Vernon Gholston. Gholston's school-record 14 sacks are a lot to replace. But Lawrence Wilson also was projected for similar numbers before breaking his leg.
• Key tests: Sept. 13 at USC, Nov. 15 at Illinois.
• Outlook: Not exactly welcome news for those wishing for a different BCS punching bag, but Buckeyes' load of talent and a weak Big Ten year are too much to ignore. That trip to USC figures to weigh plenty on voters' minds.
• Bottom line: Third time a charm?

2. OKLAHOMA
• Coach: Bob Stoops (10th year, 97-22).
• Last season: 11-3. Lost to West Virginia 48-28 in Fiesta Bowl.
• Starters returning: 9 offense, 6 defense.
• Top players: QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray, G Duke Robinson, DE Auston English, SS Nic Harris.
• Void to fill: CBs Reggie Smith and Marcus Walker. In the QB-rich Big 12, new guys won't get much room for error. Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson will be put under the gun.
• Key tests: Oct. 11 vs. Texas, Nov. 22 vs. Texas Tech.
• Outlook: Bradford set an NCAA freshman record with 36 TD passes last year, and the Sooners now will up the ante with a no-huddle scheme. OU might be clear favorites if three starters hadn't jumped to the NFL early.
• Bottom line: Destination South Beach.

3. GEORGIA
• Coach: Mark Richt (8th year, 72-19).
• Last season: 11-2. Beat Hawaii 41-10 in Sugar Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: QB Matthew Stafford, TB Knowshon Moreno, DT Geno Atkins, DT Jeff Owens, CB Asher Allen.
• Void to fill: K Brandon Coutu. When titles are on the line, having a reliable kicker is a comfort. True freshman Blair Walsh has a power leg, but he hasn't kicked in front of 90,000 fans.
• Key tests: Oct. 25 at LSU, Nov. 1 vs. Florida.
• Outlook: No team was hotter over the final two months than UGA, once Moreno became established on the scene. Now all the ingredients appear in place to anoint Dawgs as the SEC's BCS flagbearer -- if they get out of the East.
Bottom line: SEC East favorites.

4. USC
• Coach: Pete Carroll (8th year, 76-14).
• Last season: 11-2. Beat Illinois 49-17 in Rose Bowl.
• Starters returning: 4 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: TB Joe McKnight, WR Patrick Turner, DT Fili Moala, LB Rey Maualuga, LB Brian Cushing.
• Void to fill: NT Sedrick Ellis. All-American disrupted opposing linemen and QBs in equal measure. Averill Spicer tops the depth chart, but DT Fili Moala could shift over.
• Key tests: Sept. 13 vs. Ohio St., Oct. 11 vs. Arizona St.
• Outlook: Things got interesting when QB Mark Sanchez hurt his knee in camp, but Mitch Mustain has 10 starts (at Arkansas) to his name. Carroll always gets talent, leaving his biggest task to identify reliable playmakers.
• Bottom line: Waiting for a stumble above.

5. FLORIDA
• Coach: Urban Meyer (4th year, 31-8; 70-16 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Lost to Michigan 41-35 in Capital One Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: QB Tim Tebow, WR Percy Harvin, OT Phil Trautwein, DE Jermaine Cunningham, LB Brandon Spikes.
• Void to fill: SS Tony Joiner. Five replacement options already have been lost for one reason or another. Now it's down to sophomore Ahmad Black and true freshman Will Hill.
• Key tests: Oct. 11 vs. LSU, Nov. 1 vs. Georgia.
• Outlook: Tebow and Harvin shouldered a lot of the load in '07, and that probably won't change. The offense took a hit when TE Cornelius Ingram went down, and the defense is largely unproven up front. Paging No. 15.
• Bottom line: SEC East challengers.

6. WEST VIRGINIA
• Coach: Bill Stewart (1st year, 1-0).
• Last season: 11-2. Beat Oklahoma 48-28 in Fiesta Bowl.
• Starters returning: 8 offense, 4 defense.
• Top players: QB Patrick White, OT Ryan Stanchek, DT Scooter Berry, LB Reed Williams.
• Void to fill: DL Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle. In WVU's 3-3-5, their ability to take on blocks freed teammates. DE Tevita Finau arrives from juco; NT Chris Neild is a redshirt freshman.
• Key tests: Oct. 23 vs. Auburn, Dec. 6 vs. South Florida.
• Outlook: Stewart is keeping the spread option that hummed under Rich Rodriguez, though he would like to trim White's carries. RB Noel Devine steps in for the departed Steve Slaton, but iffy defense might require winning shootouts.
• Bottom line: Big East favorites.

7. CLEMSON
• Coach: Tommy Bowden (10th year, 69-42; 87-46 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Lost to Auburn 23-20 (OT) in Chick-fil-A Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 8 defense.
• Top players: QB Cullen Harper, RB James Davis, DE Ricky Sapp, SS Michael Hamlin.
• Void to fill: MLB Cortney Vincent. Tigers lost their top four LBs, including Vincent's spring dismissal. Redshirt freshman Brandon Maye will see his learning accelerated.
• Key tests: Oct. 9 at Wake Forest, Nov. 8 at Florida St.
• Outlook: Davis and C.J. Spiller combined for 1,832 rushing hards and Harper was a record-setter in his first season as starter. Now the Tigers must find a way to avoid the annual inexplicable banana-peel slip.
• Bottom line: Clear ACC frontrunners.

8. MISSOURI
• Coach: Gary Pinkel (8th year, 49-36; 122-73-3 overall).
• Last season: 12-2. Beat Arkansas 38-7 in Cotton Bowl.
• Starters returning: 6 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin, LB Sean Witherspoon, FS William Moore.
• Void to fill: RB Tony Temple. Diminutive scatback provided perfect complement to Daniel's aerial magic. Senior Jimmy Jackson heads what could become a committee approach.
• Key tests: Oct. 18 at Texas, Nov. 29 vs. Kansas.
• Outlook: Not since the late 1960s have expectations been this high for Missouri football. Maclin (1,435 all-purpose yards) only scratches the surface of a deep, explosive receiving corps. And don't overlook MU's defense.
• Bottom line: Big 12 North favorites.

9. WISCONSIN
• Coach: Brent Bielema (3rd year, 21-5).
• Last season: 9-4. Lost to Tennessee 21-17 in Outback Bowl.
• Starters returning: 8 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB Jonathan Casillas.
• Void to fill: QB Tyler Donovan. Badgers will have a new guy under center for the third consecutive season. Allan Evridge is the only experienced hand, but saw little action last year.
• Key tests: Oct. 4 vs. Ohio St., Oct. 11 vs. Penn St.
• Outlook: Badgers need workhorse efforts from Hill and backup Zach Brown to help ease the QB uncertainty. They have three games to iron things out before opening the Big Ten slate with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
• Bottom line: Best of Big Ten's rest.

10. AUBURN
• Coach: Tommy Tuberville (10th year, 80-33; 105-53 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat Clemson 23-20 (OT) in Chick-fil-A Bowl.
• Starters returning: 9 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: RB Brad Lester, G Tyronne Green, DT Den'Derrick Marks, LB Tray Blackmon.
• Void to fill: Receivers. After decades of building around a power running game, Tigers now employ a pass-happy spread with new offensive boss Tony Franklin. Sticky mitts apply here.
• Key tests: Sept. 20 vs. LSU, Oct. 23 at West Virginia.
• Outlook: A bare-bones spread was good enough to earn Auburn its bowl win, but the full package needs time. Tigers also have a new defensive boss in Paul Rhoads, but catch a break with all their tough SEC opponents at home.
• Bottom line: SEC West co-favorites.

11. LSU
• Coach: Les Miles (4th year, 34-6; 62-27 overall).
• Last season: 12-2. Beat Ohio St. 38-24 in BCS Championship.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 5 defense.
• Top players: WR Demetrius Byrd, OT Ciron Black, DE Tyson Jackson, DT Ricky-Jean Francois.
• Void to fill: QB Matt Flynn. Ryan Perrilloux was supposed to make the transition easy, but couldn't stay out of trouble. Now it's up to redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee or former walk-on Andrew Hatch.
• Key tests: Sept. 20 at Auburn, Oct. 25 vs. Georgia.
• Outlook: Despite the turnover in numbers, quarterback is the only thing standing in the way of another title challenge. There are playmakers at RB and WR, and the defense simply reloaded. Francois can be dominant up front.
• Bottom line: SEC West co-favorites.

12. KANSAS
• Coach: Mark Mangino (7th year, 37-36).
• Last season: 12-1. Beat Virginia Tech 24-21 in Orange Bowl.
• Starters returning: 6 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: QB Todd Reesing, C Ryan Cantrell, LB Joe Mortensen, CB Chris Harris.
• Void to fill: LT Anthony Collins. All-American was one of several Jayhawks who found another level last year. Redshirt freshman Jeff Spikes now must protect Reesing's blind side.
• Key tests: Oct. 18 at Oklahoma, Nov. 29 vs. Missouri.
• Outlook: It'll be tough for the Jayhawks to top last year's magic, losing several impact players from last year's Orange Bowl champs. Defensive coordinator Bill Young also left for UM, and KU's schedule gets tougher.
• Bottom line: A falloff, but still dangerous.

13. SOUTH FLORIDA
• Coach: Jim Leavitt (12th year, 79-47).
• Last season: 9-4. Lost to Oregon 56-21 in Sun Bowl.
• Starters returning: 10 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: QB Matt Grothe, WR Carlton Mitchell, DE George Selvie, LB Tyrone McKenzie.
• Void to fill: CBs Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. Together, they might have been nation's top tandem last year. Jerome Murphy has the speed for USF's man coverage; the other spot's a battle.
• Key tests: Sept. 12 vs. Kansas, Dec. 6 at West Virginia.
• Outlook: No more sneaking up on folks. Grothe and a veteran offensive cast should help bring along the defense. If they can get past Kansas, the Bulls have a schedule that might get them to the West Virginia finale unbeaten.
• Bottom line: Next step requires a trophy.

14. PENN STATE
• Coach: Joe Paterno (43rd year, 372-125-3).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat Texas A&M 24-17 in Alamo Bowl.
• Starters returning: 9 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: WR Deon Butler, C A.Q. Shipley, DE Maurice Evans, FS Anthony Scirrotto.
• Void to fill: LB Sean Lee. Plans to move him to MLB in the mold of Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny were dashed when Lee tore his ACL in the spring. Sophomore Chris Colasanti must break in quickly.
• Key tests: Sept. 27 vs. Illinois, Oct. 25 at Ohio St.
• Outlook: Happy Valley buzz is about a ''spread HD'' playbook akin to the 2005 attack led by Michael Robinson. There's a veteran line and quality targets, but Paterno much choose a QB between Pat Devlin and Daryll Clark.
• Bottom line: Big Ten's dark horse.

15. TEXAS TECH
• Coach: Mike Leach (9th year, 65-37).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat Virginia 31-28 in Gator Bowl.
• Starters returning: 10 offense, 8 defense.
• Top players: QB Graham Harrell, WR Michael Crabtree, G Louis Vasquez, DE Brandon Williams.
• Void to fill: SS Joe Garcia. Took key role in Red Raiders' midseason defensive turnaround, leading team with 79 tackles. Anthony Hines is a senior, but relatively inexperienced.
• Key tests: Oct. 25 at Kansas, Nov. 1 vs. Texas.
• Outlook: Harrell, in his third year as a starter, might be the most polished QB Leach has produced. It also helps to have Crabtree show up with such flair. Defense has meshed since Ruffin McNeill become coordinator.
• Bottom line: Peaking for a Big 12 South run.

16. TEXAS
• Coach: Mack Brown (11th year, 103-25; 189-99-1 overall).
• Last season: 10-3. Beat Arizona St. 52-34 in Holiday Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 5 defense.
• Top players: QB Colt McCoy, G Cedric Dockery, DE Brian Orakpo, LB Rashad Bobino.
• Void to fill: RB Jamaal Charles. Workhorse back led Big 12 in rushing yards and TDs last year. Vondrell McGee doesn't have the same speed, but is a more powerful runner.
• Key tests: Oct. 11 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 18 vs. Missouri.
• Outlook: McCoy provides a steady hand, but Longhorns must replace their top rusher, wideout and tight end. The defense also is retooling under new coordinator Will Muschamp after six games of giving up 30 points or more.
• Bottom line: Taking a step back to rebuild.

17. WAKE FOREST
• Coach: Jim Grobe (8th year, 46-39; 79-72-1 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat Connecticut 24-10 in Meineke Bowl.
• Starters returning: 5 offense, 9 defense.
• Top players: QB Riley Skinner, RB Josh Adams, LB Aaron Curry, CB Alphonso Smith.
• Void to fill: WR Kenneth Moore. Versatile speedster gave opposing coaches fits with end-arounds and by lining up at RB. Jordan Williams came on fast as a true freshman last year.
• Key tests: Sept. 20 at Florida St., Oct. 9 vs. Clemson.
• Outlook: No longer an ACC doormat, Deacons will rely on a big-play defense in which both Curry and Smith returned three INTs for scores last year. Skinner led nation with a 72.4 completion rate last season.
• Bottom line: Deacons won't go away soon.

18. ARIZONA STATE
• Coach: Dennis Erickson (2nd year, 10-3; 158-68-1 overall).
• Last season: 10-3. Lost to Texas 52-34 in Holiday Bowl.
• Starters returning: 6 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: QB Rudy Carpenter, TB Keegan Herring, DE Dexter Davis, K Thomas Weber.
• Void to fill: C Mike Pollack. Sun Devils allowed 55 sacks even with Pollack earning all-league honors. Ouch. Thomas Altieri spearheads the retooling effort up front.
• Key tests: Sept. 20 vs. Georgia, Oct. 11 at USC.
• Outlook: Carpenter is the Pac-10's most experienced QB, which counts for a lot in that league. Erickson hopes to keep him upright with shorter drops. Expect more blitz schemes from the defense, covering holes in back.
• Bottom line: Not enough to push USC.

19. VIRGINIA TECH
• Coach: Frank Beamer (22nd year, 167-85-2; 209-108-4 overall).
• Last season: 11-3. Lost to Kansas 24-21 in Orange Bowl.
• Starters returning: 6 offense, 4 defense.
• Top players: QB Sean Glennon, G Sergio Render, CB Macho Harris, FS Kam Chancellor.
• Void to fill: WRs Eddie Royal and Josh Morgan. In fact, Hokies saw all four of their top wideouts complete eligibility. It's up to former QB Ike Whitaker (3 catches) and six freshman.
• Key tests: Oct. 25 at Florida St., Nov. 13 at Miami.
• Outlook: Talk about a bare cupboard at the skill spots. Tech's wideout woes are compounded by question marks at RB with Brandon Ore kicked off the team. QB Tyrod Taylor can improvise and might prove the better option.
• Bottom line: Class of a weak ACC Coastal.

20. ILLINOIS
• Coach: Ron Zook (4th year, 13-23; 36-37 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Lost to USC 49-17 in Rose Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 6 defense.
• Top players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, DE Will Davis, CB Vontae Davis.
• Void to fill: RB Rashard Mendenhall. Reliable ground option made it easier for Zook to juggle QBs Williams and Eddie McGee. Junior Daniel Dufrene heads a committee approach.
• Key tests: Aug. 30 vs. Missouri, Sept. 27 at Penn St.
• Outlook: Big Ten wild card could be dangerous sleeper or take a step back, depending on how the QB/RB combo unfolds. A deep defense will help ease matters. A tough early slate sends Illini to both Penn State and Michigan.
• Bottom line: Still needs seasoning.

21. BYU
• Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (4th year, 28-10).
• Last season: 11-2. Beat UCLA 17-16 in Las Vegas Bowl.
• Starters returning: 9 offense, 3 defense.
• Top players: QB Max Hall, HB Harvey Unga, OT Dallas Reynolds, DE Jan Jorgensen.
• Void to fill: LB Kelly Poppinga. Centerpiece of a defense that gave up just 97.5 rushing yards per game. None of the potential replacements had more than 38 tackles last year.
• Key tests: Sept. 13 vs. UCLA, Nov. 22 at Utah.
• Outlook: Despite the defensive attrition, there's enough firepower on offense to let the Cougars win shootouts. Hall threw for 3,848 yards last year, and all his top weapons return. Unga topped 1,000 yards as a freshman.
• Bottom line: Potential BCS crasher.

22. ALABAMA
• Coach: Nick Saban (2nd year, 7-6; 98-48-1 overall).
• Last season: 7-6. Beat Colorado 30-24 in Independence Bowl.
• Starters returning: 8 offense, 6 defense.
• Top players: QB John Parker Wilson, OT Andre Smith, LB Rolando McClain, SS Rashad Johnson.
• Void to fill: LB Ezekial Knight. A heart murmur prompted Tide officials to tag him medically ineligible, making a thin group even thinner. Sophomore Chavis Williams gets first call.
• Key tests: Nov. 8 at LSU, Nov. 29 vs. Auburn.
• Outlook: A veteran offense should improve production, but it'll be hard-pressed to offset the problems anticipated on the defensive side. Off-field issues leave the Tide decimated and potentially relying on freshmen.
• Bottom line: No quick fixes in the SEC.

23. FRESNO STATE
• Coach: Pat Hill (12th year, 85-55).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat Georgia Tech 40-28 in Humanitarian Bowl.
• Starters returning: 10 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: QB Tom Brandstater, TE Bear Pascoe, DT Jon Monga, SS Moses Harris.
• Void to fill: LB Marcus Riley. Fierce hitter was heat-seeking catalyst of Bulldogs' defense. Chris Carter, shifted from DE, has moved to the front of an unsettled race.
• Key tests: Sept. 1 at Rutgers, Nov. 28 at Boise St.
• Outlook: Boise State and Hawaii crashed the BCS party, so why not Fresno? Bulldogs are stocked on offense and have enough to get by on defense. But a 1-2 opening punch of Rutgers and Wisconsin might kill BCS hopes right off.
• Bottom line: WAC favorites, but no BCS.

24. OREGON
• Coach: Mike Bellotti (14th year, 106-52; 127-77-2 overall).
• Last season: 9-4. Beat South Florida 56-21 in Sun Bowl.
• Starters returning: 5 offense, 7 defense.
• Top players: RB Jeremiah Johnson, C Max Unger, DE Nick Reed, SS Patrick Chung.
• Void to fill: QB Dennis Dixon. No team went from day to night so quickly as when Dixon got hurt late in the year. Sophomores Nate Costa and Justin Roper figure to compete down to the wire.
• Key tests: Oct. 4 at USC; Nov. 1 at California.
• Outlook: Johnson isn't a sure thing, either, on the road back from last season's ACL tear. RB LaGarrette Blount is more of a bruiser, but that might be the order. CBs Walter Thurmond and Jairus Byrd combined for 12 INTs.
• Bottom line: Temporary firepower shortage.

25. FLORIDA STATE
• Coach: Bobby Bowden (33rd year, 300-87-4; 373-119-4 overall).
• Last season: 7-6. Lost to Kentucky 35-28 in Music City Bowl.
• Starters returning: 7 offense, 8 defense.
• Top players: QB Drew Weatherford, WR Preston Parker, DE Everette Brown, SS Myron Rolle.
• Void to fill: Left tackle. Between Daron Rose (academics) and Evan Bellamy (blood clot), there went any experience. Juco import Joe Tonga, signed on the eve of camp, gets plugged right in.
• Key tests: Sept. 20 vs. Wake Forest, Nov. 8 vs. Clemson.
• Outlook: Bowden's staff overhaul saw glimmers of flash last year, but not enough to meet expectations. Things still hinge on a line in which no one has been in the program more than a year. A favorable schedule helps.
• Bottom line: Still looking for that old gear.

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