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August 24, 2008
Getting to the top isn't as tough as staying on top, or so the saying goes.
These 10 teams will find out the hard way this season. For instance, LSU has several challenges it must face if it is to repeat as national champions.
Here are the 10 teams with the toughest acts to follow in 2008 (listed alphabetically):
In his first year as coach, Troy Calhoun installed a new offense and led the Falcons to their first bowl since 2002 and their highest win total since 2000. Temper your expectations for Year Two, though. The Falcons field one of the youngest teams in school history, returning only eight starters. Gone are Chad Hall, who accounted for more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and four-year starting quarterback Shaun Carney. Plus, the Mountain West will better than it was last season, with BYU and Utah vying for BCS bids. With Navy undergoing a coaching change and Army facing its own struggles, perhaps Air Force can end the Midshipmen's five-year hold on the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
Like Calhoun, Jeff Jagodzinski was an NFL assistant-turned-college head coach who made a major splash in his first season. "Jags" and offensive coordinator Steve Logan helped turn Matt Ryan into the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft and led the Eagles to the ACC title game. Ryan's departure leaves a huge void in the backfield. Losing Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Jamie Silva and DeJuan Tribble also leaves holes in the defense. The offensive backfield is completely new with true freshman Josh Haden likely to be the starting tailback. The ACC Atlantic could be a dogfight this season, meaning Boston College could win the division again ? or completely miss the postseason.
Even if quarterback Ben Mauk receives a sixth year of eligibility (hey, the process could drag on until Christmas), reaching double-digit wins will be difficult. Consider that Cincinnati hadn't won 10 games since 1951 and never had finished a season ranked. Then there's the schedule: seven road games, including trips to Oklahoma, Connecticut, West Virginia and Hawaii. It appears coach Brian Kelly isn't enthused about his options at quarterback. Tony Pike and Dustin Grutza are continuing to compete for the starting job, and reports indicate Kelly will tone down the offense. The Bearcats have a veteran defense, though, meaning the same conference record is an achievable goal.
It's hard to believe Connecticut started 8-1 last season and won a share of the Big East title. This season, the Huskies have been predicted to finish sixth in the league and aren't ranked in either major media preseason poll. The Huskies got to nine victories last season thanks to a soft non-conference schedule that included wins over Duke, Maine and Temple. Plus, UConn received an assist from the refs in a 21-17 win over Louisville when Larry Taylor illegally feigned a fair catch on a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. In the de facto Big East title game, Connecticut didn't put up a fight in a 66-21 loss to West Virginia. This season's non-conference schedule isn't that tough ? Hofstra, Temple, Virginia, Baylor and North Carolina. While eight or nine wins is possible, national recognition isn't a given.
No June Jones. No Colt Brennan. No Dread Heads. Hey, at least three starting offensive linemen return ? though after watching that line get abused by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, maybe that's not a good thing. It's safe to say Hawaii won't make another run at a BCS game. The offense is in the hands of junior college transfer Brent Rausch, who won the job after three weeks of fall camp. The defense, led by linebackers Adam Leonard and Solomon Elimimian, will have to lead the team early. After Hawaii played only one "Big Six" conference team last season, the Warriors must go to Florida and Oregon State and finish at home against Washington State and Cincinnati this season. And the WAC schedule includes road trips to conference favorites Fresno State and Boise State.
Here's a good indication that circumstances in Champaign have changed over the past year: When the Illini opened against Missouri last season, the game was an afterthought on a national scale. This season, all eyes will be on a game whose teams combined to go 21-6 in '07. Certainly, the expectations are higher for Illinois after reaching its first Rose Bowl since 1984. Ron Zook has upped the Illini's overall talent and speed, but 1,681-yard tailback Rashard Mendenhall and All-Big Ten linebacker J Leman are gone. Quarterback Juice Williams must improve his 13-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and all that young talent must continue to mature for Illinois to be a regular Big Ten contender.
Anyone wanting to find out if Kansas has any staying power will find out this season. Last season, the Jayhawks' schedule wasn't that tough, ranking 72nd by the NCAA's reckoning. There will be few complaints of a light schedule this season. Kansas traded Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State for the Big 12 South's top three contenders: Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. There's also a road trip to USF. The Jayhawks face the tougher schedule without defensive coordinator Bill Young and All-Americas Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins. We'll find out how many under-the-radar recruits Mark Mangino has turned into big-time players once again.
Congratulations, LSU, you have your second national championship of the BCS era and you don't have to share this one with USC. A third title is too much to expect, though. When LSU loses defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and no one flinches because Ricky Jean-Francois is waiting in the wings, you know the Tigers return a ton of talent. But the biggest void is at quarterback, where the dismissal of Ryan Perrilloux leaves LSU deciding between Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee. Decisions like that don't happen on national championship teams. The SEC West continues to improve with the addition of Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, and LSU must play Georgia and Florida in interdivision games.
The reigning Conference USA champions are no locks to repeat. UCF hasn't had consecutive winning seasons since 2001-02, when the Knights went 6-5 and 7-5, respectively. And after initially saying he would stay in school, star tailback Kevin Smith (2,567 yards, 29 TDs) declared for the NFL Draft. There is no tailback on the roster with a college carry. The Knights also are replacing three starting linemen and the starting quarterback. They also have to continue to deal with the offseason death of wide receiver Ereck Plancher, who died during a team workout.
The Cavaliers eased some of the heat on coach Al Groh last season. Virginia wasn't eliminated from ACC title contention until it lost to eventual conference champ Virginia Tech 33-21 on the last day of the regular season. The Cavs played with fire all year, winning an NCAA-record nine games by two or fewer points. The margin for error will be much slimmer this season with defensive end Chris Long, a unanimous All-American, gone. The Cavs also lost three other key players: Quarterback Jameel Sewell (2,176 passing yards), defensive end Jeffery Fitzgerald (seven sacks) and cornerback Chris Cook (six pass breakups in nine games).
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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