Friday, January 18, 2008

Bayou Bliss in ‘07, Bulldog Blitz in ‘08?

By Brian Cox

As the confetti fell and the fans in purple and gold celebrated wildly with LSU's 38-24 dominance of Ohio State in the Allstate BCS Championship Game, there was still a feeling of uncertainty as associated with this time of year. Once again, the Bowl Championship Series put two teams together in the championship game where there was much doubt if they belonged. The whispers of support for a playoff system became even louder when Georgia school president Michael Adams proposed an eight-team playoff to determine the FBS's national champion.

Adams does have a dog in the fight (no pun intended) as Georgia closed out its 2007 season as the hottest team in the nation, winning its last seven games, including a 41-10 thrashing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Be that as it may, Georgia, USC, Oklahoma, Missouri, and perhaps Kansas all sat on Monday and watched the Bayou Tigers take down the Buckeyes for the national title. Each of these teams provides intrigue heading into recruiting and next season. Here's a look at the early favorites to compete for heralded crystal football in 2008.

1. Georgia

The only thing more promising for the Bulldogs than their seven-game winning streak to end 2007 is that 17 starters that will be back in 2008. Mark Richt has brought Georgia back to the elite and had his team playing better than anyone in the last half of the season. Some can argue that it was the 'Dawgs, and not the Tigers, that were the SEC's best.

On offense, Matthew Stafford returns as a third year starter with Mohomed Massaquoi as his top target. Rising sophomore sensation Knowshon Moreno brings 1,334 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns to the backfield to give Georgia balance on offense. There is a road game at Arizona State on Sept. 20 that will be difficult and midseason games against LSU and Florida, but if the Bulldogs maintain their momentum from last season, it should be no surprise to see them in Miami on the second week of January.

2. USC

The Trojans did it again. This time, Illinois was the victim in the Rose Bowl. For the third time in five years the Trojans wowed the country with a dominating performance over a Big Ten opponent. The talent at USC is evident, but there are a few questions. John David Booty and tight end Fred Davis are among the notables leaving on offense. On defense, DL Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, and possibly LB Rey Maualaga leave as the heart of the defense.

However, the Trojans are loaded and will have talent and depth at each position soon to be open. Junior Mark Sanchez, who filled in for Booty this year, is the odds-on favorite to take over as the Trojans' signal-caller, but Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain will challenge for the job in the spring. Talented sophomore Joe McKnight and backfield mate C.J. Gable will head up a stacked core of running backs, while Patrick Turner returns to lead the receiving corps and an additional Razorback transfer, Damien Williams, will be opposite Turner on the field. Tough non-conference games wait at Virginia to start the season, and the mighty Buckeyes head to the Coliseum for what will be a highly anticipated matchup. Arizona State, Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame head to L.A. this season in a favorable home schedule.

3. Oklahoma

Sam Bradford hopes to avoid the sophomore slump in leading the Sooners to be the favorite in the Big 12 in '08. After setting the FBS record for touchdown passes by a freshman in a season, Bradford will not have his big-play target Malcolm Kelly, who opted for the NFL draft. He will have leading receiver Juaquin Iglesias returning to Norman. Allen Patrick leaves at running back, but promising freshman Demarco Murray may carry the load after 764 yards and 13 TDs in his rookie season. The defense will need to improve, but with Bob Stoops as head coach, that unit will look to bounce back from their embarrassment against West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Now if only Stoops can get his team to win a bowl game in January again.

4. Florida

The Gators' offense showed the full potential of the spread offensive Urban Meyer envisioned when he first came to Gainesville. The defense, however, let them down in games against LSU, Georgia and Michigan. The unit is talented and full of youth that will learn from their miscues in '07, despite losing DE Derrick Harvey to the NFL. Markihe Anderson and Joe Haden should improve as the starting CBs. On offense, Tim Tebow should have USC transfer Emmanuel Moody to give him the threat at running back the Gators so desperately needed last season. Andre Caldwell departs the receiving corps, but back are Cornelius Ingram (if he does not declare for the draft) and virtuoso Percy Harvin to give the returning Heisman winner plenty of options in the passing game. Also in their favor: Florida plays nine of its 12 regular season games in the Sunshine State.

5. Missouri

Forget that Missouri blew a chance to play in New Orleans for the national championship against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. The Tigers were 11-0 against all teams not in crimson and white and had an impressive showing in a 38-7 demolishing of Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. Chase Daniel returns as an early Heisman favorite, and freshman All-American Jeremy Maclin is sure to continue to turn heads as one of college football's premier playmakers.

Losing leading rusher Tony Temple, who had a huge game in the Cotton Bowl, and All-American Center Adam Spieker, will be tough. However, the Tigers will not play Oklahoma, Texas A&M, or Texas Tech next year, and if they can get past an improved Illinois team in St. Louis to begin the season, they could begin a fast start to the season to make a claim in the top 3 of the rankings.

***

Missing from the list most notably are defending champion LSU Tigers and the runner-up Ohio State. Gone from this years championship team is All-Americans Glenn Dorsey and Craig Steltz, WR Early Doucet, and most importantly the reliable Jacob Hester and steady Matt Flynn. With Keiland Williams taking over at running back and Ryan Perrilloux the choice to take the snaps, the Tigers' offense should not suffer. If their defense can replace the playmakers in Dorsey and Steltz, the SEC race will be fun to watch.

Ohio State will have both starting receivers back in Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie. Todd Boeckman will look to improve on his solid season in '07 and Chris "Beanie'" Wells may be the best running back in the country. The defense will lose pass rush specialist Vernon Gholston, but will be boosted by the return of DB Malcolm Jenkins and All-American LB James Laurinaitis. Add to the equation a projected monster recruiting class and the Buckeyes could keep the Big Ten trophy in Columbus for '08.

Of course, if 2008 is anything like 2007, this list could be shaken up. Here's to a great 2007 and preparation for recruiting and Signing Day 2008.

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