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January 22, 2008

Top 25 questions for 2008 season

Although looking ahead to next season requires a telescope, it's still not too early to wonder whether the 2008 season will be as crazy and unpredictable as the '07 season.

Will another Division I-AA team knock off a top-10 team? Can a national championship again be won by a team with two losses? Will Ohio State reach the BCS title game for a third consecutive season?

Good questions, all, but there are so many more. So, here's a preseason Top 25 questions for 2008.

1. Who will be No. 1 in the nation?
Shouldn't that be what team is No. 1 in the SEC? Florida won it all in 2006, LSU in 2007, and Georgia could finish the hat trick in 2008. The Bulldogs, who closed last season with seven consecutive victories, were arguably the nation's best team in the second half of the year. Four of those wins were over ranked opponents, including a 41-10 trashing of No. 10 Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs are set to return eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters. That list includes junior-to-be Matthew Stafford at quarterback and dangerous tailback Knowshon Moreno. A word of caution, though: The schedule is treacherous.

2. Will LSU repeat as national champion?
That's certainly not out of the realm of possibility, but recent trends say no. No team has won back-to-back BCS national championships in the system's 10-year history. (USC's 2003 championship was voted by the AP). The Tigers lose 11 senior starters, including quarterback Matt Flynn, wide receiver Early Doucet, running back Jacob Hester and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. They also lose three-fourths of their starting secondary. True, LSU has recruited well and talented players will fill those roles. However, a certain degree of decline should be expected. Look at it this way: LSU lost twice with Dorsey, Doucet, Flynn and the others. Is it crazy to suggest the Tigers could lose once more without them?

3. What will be the strongest conference?
The Southeastern Conference re-established its dominance in 2007 and that shouldn't change. The SEC has produced three of the past five national champions and an undefeated runner-up (Auburn in 2004). Georgia, LSU and Florida should be national contenders. Auburn could get in the discussion if its quarterback situation solidifies and its defensive line can be adequately rebuilt. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Alabama should be top-20 worthy. No other conference figures to have that many teams capable of reaching and staying in the top 20.

4. Will Florida quarterback Tim Tebow join Ohio State's Archie Griffin as a two-time Heisman winner?
That's doubtful. There are reasons only one guy has won it twice. First, it's hard to win it once. Second, some voters appear reluctant to vote for the same guy two years in a row, which is the only way to explain why Oklahoma's Billy Sims didn't win it twice. Besides, Tebow's great productivity as a runner and passer is the reason he won the Heisman. The addition of tailback Emmanuel Moody, a transfer from USC, figures to decrease Tebow's rushing attempts.

5. If not Tebow, who is the Heisman favorite?
The bet here is Ohio State tailback Chris Wells, who rushed for 1,609 yards on the season - including 967 in the Buckeyes' last six games. He had 146 yards against LSU in the championship game. Wells also will be running behind four proven linemen.

6. Why not Knowshon Moreno?
Moreno certainly has the ability to challenge for the Heisman, and he'll also run behind a proven line. Historically, though, Georgia coach Mark Richt has been hesitant to rely on one running back. Before Moreno in 2007, Georgia had just one 1,000-yard rusher in the Richt era Musa Smith in 2002.

7. What inter-conference game most qualifies as 'must-see' TV?
That's like trying to pick out the prettiest girl in Oxford, Miss. there's a lot from which to choose. Among the games that have to be considered are Missouri vs. Illinois, Clemson vs. Alabama, Auburn at West Virginia, Georgia at Arizona State, Kansas at USF, Tennessee at UCLA and Arkansas at Texas. Obviously, regional bias and school loyalties will spark debate, but from here the game that must be seen will be Ohio State at USC on Sept. 13. One of those teams has been involved in the past four BCS championship games, and this season's winner will have a good shot at making it again.

8. What streak is most likely to be extended in 2008?
Michigan has lost four in a row to Ohio State, and the streak figures to reach five. The Wolverines lose seniors Mike Hart, Chad Henne, Adam Kraus, Jake Long and Shawn Crable, and receivers Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham left early for the NFL draft. In addition, backup quarterback Ryan Mallett transferred and defensive coordinator Ron English went to Louisville. New coach Rich Rodriguez certainly faces a major rebuilding project, and Ohio State figures to be solid again. And by the way: Next season's game is in Columbus.

9. What streak is most likely to end?
Texas has posted double-digit victory totals in each of the past seven seasons, but the Longhorns figure to have a hard time making it eight. They lose seven starters from a defense that already was questionable, and the offense took several hits with the loss of senior offensive tackle Tony Hills and wide receivers Limas Sweed and Nate Jones. Junior tailback Jamaal Charles and tight end Jermichael Finley also left early for the NFL. Furthermore, the Longhorns must play Arkansas, Missouri, at Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech in Lubbock and Texas A&M, which has a two-game winning streak against Texas.

10. What 'mid-major'' will make the greatest challenge for a BCS bowl?
Although Fresno State and Ball State could be interesting choices, we'll go with BYU. The Cougars are coming off a 10-2 showing and bowl victory over UCLA in 2007. The Cougars return quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga as well as eight other starters from an offense that averaged a bit more than 30 points. They face Pac-10 underachievers Washington and UCLA in the first two weeks of September, so they could get all-important wins over BCS teams on their resume to start the season. Then, if they duplicate 2007's unbeaten run through the Mountain West Conference, the Cougars will have a compelling argument to get into a BCS bowl maybe even the national championship game. BYU has won a national championship before.

11. What non-BCS league player will make the biggest splash in 2008?
SMU junior quarterback Justin Willis passed for 2,944 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2007, and he did it for a team that finished 1-11. Imagine how his stats could spike in new coach June Jones's offense. Every quarterback who started full-time in Jones' nine seasons at Hawaii passed for more than 3,000 yards, and they threw for more than 4,000 yards and at least 25 touchdowns in each of the past six seasons. Willis already has thrown 51 touchdown passes in his career. In Jones' offense, it might not be unreasonable to suggest he could throw that many next season.

12. What team that was successful in 2007 is most likely to fade in 2008?
After back-to-back 8-5 finishes, Kentucky figures to take a step back in 2008. The Wildcats scored at least 35 points in seven of their eight victories last season, but that offense was boosted by quarterback Andre' Woodson, tailback Rafael Little, wide receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson and tight end Jacob Tamme all seniors. Replacing their production won't be easy, especially in the unforgiving SEC.

13. Which of the 10 teams that played in BCS bowls aren't likely to return to BCS games next year?
Hawaii is an obvious answer. Not only do the Warriors lose quarterback Colt Brennan, but wide receivers Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullins have opted to enter the NFL Draft. Coach June Jones left to become coach at SMU. Kansas also will enter '08 with major questions. The Jayhawks, who defeated Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, return quarterback Todd Reesing. However, leading rusher Brandon McAnderson, leading receiver Marcus Henry and All-Big 12 defensive tackle James McClinton were seniors. Also, All-American offensive tackle Anthony Collins, an Outland Trophy finalist, and All-American cornerback Aqib Talib opted to enter the NFL Draft. Furthermore, Kansas faces a far more difficult schedule in 2008. This past season, the Jayhawks did not face Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech from the Big 12 South. In 2008, they face all three.

14. What coach will be feeling the most heat?
Flip a coin between Notre Dame's Charlie Weis and Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe, whose teams are coming off terribly disappointing 2007 seasons. Weis is trying to avoid becoming the first coach in Notre Dame history to endure consecutive losing seasons. Louisville was expecting to contend for a national championship but flopped to a 6-6 finish and no bowl appearance. Perhaps preceding Louisville coach Bobby Petrino left Kragthorpe an overrated team with issues on defense. But if significant improvement isn't shown in 2008, the Louisville fan base may not have much patience.

15. Will Notre Dame avoid another losing season?
Unless there is an unforeseen rash of injuries, Weis isn't likely to make dubious history. The Irish return most of their starters - including quarterback Jimmy Clausen, whose freshman season was hindered by an elbow injury. Notre Dame did win its final two games. Even though those wins were against Duke and Stanford, that's still progress. The 2008 schedule should be significantly easier, with San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Pitt and Syracuse (who were a combined 19-42 in '07) replacing Georgia Tech, Penn State, UCLA, Air Force and Duke.

16. What new coach will make the biggest immediate difference?
Rick Neuheisel's energetic personality is much different than predecessor Karl Dorrell's. Maybe his luck will be, too. Though there are holes to fill in the secondary and the offensive line, the Bruins will get a boost if quarterback Ben Olson and tailback Kahlil Bell come back effectively from injuries. Neuheisel comes with baggage, but also with a reputation of having quick success as coach at Colorado and Washington. He doesn't have to win a conference championship in his first year to be considered a success, unlike West Virginia's Bill Stewart - who inherits a better team and greater expectations.

17. What player who has left his team will be missed most?
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan arguably meant more to his team than any other individual, including UCF tailback Kevin Smith. Behind Ryan, the Eagles climbed as high as No. 2 in national rankings, won the ACC Atlantic Division, posted 11 victories and triumphed in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Eagles lose Ryan, who is a projected top-five pick in the NFL Draft. BC likely will replace him with Chris Crane, who is more mobile but threw just four passes in 2007.

18. What team will follow Wake Forest of 2006 and Illinois of 2007 as the "surprise" team of '08?
Pittsburgh hasn't posted a winning record since 2004, but that could change unless injuries take a devastating toll again. The Panthers could even challenge for the Big East championship. Why not? They beat Big East champion West Virginia in Morgantown this past season, and the Panthers return eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters. That includes tailback LeSean McCoy, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards. The defense ranked among the nation's top 10, and leading tackler Scott McKillop returns. Also, the Panthers will play Big East rivals West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers in Pittsburgh.

19. What "surprise" team of 2007 is most likely to continue its momentum and have another strong year in 2008?
Illinois surprised everyone by posting nine victories after consecutive two-win seasons, but it won't be a surprise if the Illini are contenders in the Big Ten in 2008. Thirteen regulars return in '08, led by quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn. The loss of tailback Rashard Mendenhall - who left early for the NFL - will hurt, but Daniel Dufrene should ease that loss. Dufrene had 106 rushing yards in an upset of Ohio State. The Illini go to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, so that's cause for apprehension. But Illinois won at Ohio State last season, so that schedule might not seem as intimidating as in the past.

20. What player returning from injury will give his team the greatest boost?
Pittsburgh receiver Derek Kinder. McCoy was extremely productive as a freshman tailback, and that was without a solid passing game to ease some of the pressure. Pittsburgh averaged fewer than 180 passing yards and ranked 104th nationally in passing offense in 2007. At least part of the reason for that futility was the loss of Kinder, who suffered a knee injury in August and missed the entire season. Kinder led the team with 57 receptions for 847 yards and six touchdowns in 2006, but last year no Pittsburgh receiver had more than 37 catches. Kinder's return will give the Panthers a legitimate receiving threat, which in turn should enhance the running game.

21. What transfer will have the greatest impact?
Even though Ole Miss scored fewer than 20 points in five games last season, the Rebels lost three contests by six or fewer points - and that was with a former walk-on at quarterback. Jevan Snead, a four-star recruit in 2006 who last year transferred from Texas, should move under center right away and prove to be a significant upgrade. Snead may be the difference in turning some closes losses into close wins.

22. Who will start at quarterback at USC?
If Mitch Mustain, who sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas, wins the job, then he not Snead becomes the answer to No. 21. But the guess here is junior Mark Sanchez, who threw for 695 yards and seven touchdowns and started three games in 2007, will be Pete Carroll's choice.

23. Who will play quarterback at Michigan?
Henne is off for the NFL and Mallett is off to Arkansas, wisely surmising that a 6-foot-7, 252-pound passer better-suited for a pro-style offense isn't likely to play much in Rich Rodriguez's version of the spread offense. That leaves Steve Threet, a 6-6, 225-pound former four-star prospect, as the most likely starter. Threet signed early with Georgia Tech and went through spring practice in 2007, then transferred to Michigan and sat out the season as a redshirt. But Threet may not inherit the starting job if the Wolverines are fortunate enough to sign quarterback Terrelle Pryor, rated the nation's top high school football prospect by Rivals.com. Pryor visited Michigan last week and reportedly has the Wolverines among his top two choices. The other? Ohio State.

24. Who will lead the nation in rushing?
Nine of the top 10 leading rushers from the 2007 season are gone. The one who is scheduled to return is Kent State's 5-5, 170-pound Eugene Jarvis, who rushed for 1,669 yards as a sophomore in '07. Jarvis had nine 100-yard games this past season, and also had a respectable 84-yard output against Ohio State. There's no reason to doubt Jarvis won't again ravage MAC defenses. With a load of other returning starters, he could be even more productive next season. Don't doubt that he can hold up despite his small stature, either. Northern Illinois' 5-7, 185-pound Garrett Wolfe led the nation in rushing in 2006.

25. Will 2008 be the final season for Joe Paterno and/or Bobby Bowden?
Only they know for sure. Personally, I hope not. They're both icons and are great for college football even if their programs aren't reaching the lofty standards for which they are primarily responsible. Both have earned the opportunity to coach as long as they want.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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