August 27, 2011

Preseason primer: Quick look at each league

We're five days from the start of the season and a week from the first Saturday that has mattered in more than nine months.

Here's a quickie primer on each of the 11 leagues to further stoke your interest.

ACC

LEAGUE WINNER: Florida State
BEST PLAYER: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
STRONGEST POSITION: Linebacker
WEAKEST POSITION: Wide receiver
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: One, Florida State

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Virginia Tech. Maybe it's better if we call them the team that might surprise. The Hokies are getting plenty of respect as a contender for the conference title, but they aren't getting the attention they received in the past as a potential threat for the national title. Maybe people should take at their schedule. Virginia Tech doesn't face Alabama, Boise State or any of the other non-conference heavyweights that have ended their national championship hopes in the past. If the defense rebounds from a disappointing season and QB Logan Thomas and TB David Wilson are as good as advertised, this team could head into the ACC championship game undefeated. Virginia Tech isn't as talented or experienced as Florida State, but the Hokies' softer schedule might make them the more realistic national title contender. After all, the Hokies don't have to worry about playing host to Oklahoma or playing at Florida.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: N.C. State. The Wolfpack head into the season with plenty of momentum after going 9-4 and winning the Champs Sports Bowl last season. But they lose their best offensive player (QB Russell Wilson) and their best defensive player (LB Nate Irving), and they also are breaking in a new kicker and punter, which might not be a good thing for a team that played six games decided by seven or fewer points last season. FSU is the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division, but not much separates the next four teams (Clemson, Boston College, Maryland and N.C. State). One of those teams has to finish fifth in the division. We're guessing the Wolfpack draw the short straw.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth ACC Breakdown

BIG EAST

LEAGUE WINNER: West Virginia
BEST PLAYER: Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey
STRONGEST POSITION: Defensive tackle
WEAKEST POSITION: Linebacker
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: One, West Virginia

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were simply awful last season, especially in the second half of the season. Opponents outscored Rutgers by more than 17 points per game during a six-game losing streak to end the season. Rutgers may not get to eight or nine wins, but the Scarlet Knights can't be as bad as they were last season. First, the Tom Savage-Chas Dodd quarterback quandary has been settled. The heavy use of the "Wildcat" formation is gone, meaning players such as Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering can be used to their full potential. Schiano hired Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator to return Rutgers to its power-running roots. Schiano believes a functional offense will boost the defense, too, which was just as ineffective as the offense late last season.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Louisville. Normally, a team that loses a handful of close games looks as if it's nearing a turnaround. For all the optimism surrounding Louisville, though, this season could be a transitional one. The Cardinals return just one starter on the offensive line, and their backfield presents questions. Running back Victor Anderson has battled injuries the past two seasons, and the quarterback will be a walk-on (Will Stein) or a true freshman (Teddy Bridgewater). No one would be shocked to see Louisville back in a bowl, but the Cardinals remain a season or two away from seriously contending for a BCS bid.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth Big East Breakdown

BIG TEN

LEAGUE WINNER: Wisconsin
BEST PLAYER: Nebraska DT Jared Crick
STRONGEST POSITION: Center
WEAKEST POSITION: Defensive end
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: Two, Nebraska and Wisconsin

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Michigan. Rich Rodriguez was inching closer to a breakthrough. Brady Hoke will do it. The roster has talent, especially on offense, and the defensive personnel is young and maturing. There's a standout coaching staff led by Al Borges (offensive coordinator) and Greg Mattison (defensive coordinator) to put everyone in place to succeed.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Penn State. It's really this simple: The Nittany Lions need to get better at running the ball and stopping the run. The offensive line and defensive front seven need to step up. Penn State also needs get the quarterback spot settled. If not, this could be a second-division club.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth Big Ten Breakdown

BIG 12

LEAGUE WINNER: Oklahoma
BEST PLAYER: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon
STRONGEST POSITION: Wide receiver
WEAKEST POSITION: Defensive end
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: Two, Oklahoma and Texas A&M

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders, who were picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll, could be much better than most folks think. Look for the Red Raiders to be tougher defensively in their second season under coach Tommy Tuberville, especially once DE Scott Smith comes back from suspension in October. Junior college transfer DE Leon Mackey will help, too. QB Seth Doege takes over as the starter and may be an upgrade. The entire offensive line returns intact, too.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Oklahoma State. Coming off an 11-win season, the talk in Stillwater is this could be the year Oklahoma State finally captures a Big 12 championship. Perhaps, but the Cowboys still appear to have defensive issues, lost 1,500-yard rusher Kendall Hunter and had to replace offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left for West Virginia. The schedule is quite demanding, too.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth Big 12 Breakdown

CONFERENCE USA

LEAGUE WINNER: SMU
BEST PLAYER: Houston QB Case Keenum
STRONGEST POSITION: Quarterback
WEAKEST POSITION: Cornerback
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: None

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: UCF. Forget all those key guys lost on defense. Focus on the offense instead. Yes, we're talking about a George O'Leary-coached team's offense. Sophomore QB Jeff Godfrey is a star on the rise, and the tailback depth is exceptional. Plus, with O'Leary in charge, you can be sure the defense is going to be fine. More than a few analysts think UCF will finish second in the East. We're saying not to be surprised if UCF wins the overall league title for the third time in five seasons.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Marshall. The Herd finished strong in 2010, winning four of their final five games. But the offensive backfield is undergoing a makeover, the defense lost tackle machine/LB Mario Harvey and the secondary could be shaky. Plus, the early-season schedule is a bear; each of the first six games against a bowl team from 2010, with four of those on the road. And the Herd have to play at Houston and Tulsa. It's too tough a schedule to expect a winning record.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth C-USA Breakdown

MID-AMERICAN

LEAGUE WINNER: Northern Illinois
BEST PLAYER: Toledo WR Eric Page
STRONGEST POSITION: Linebacker
WEAKEST POSITION: Running back
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: None

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Central Michigan. The Chips flopped across the finish line with eight losses in their last nine games in Dan Enos' debut season in 2010. But there is some talent, headed by QB Ryan Radcliff and a promising passing game. The big key is amping up the ground game and replacing three linebackers.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Temple. Al Golden made the Owls into one of the top programs in the MAC, but he is gone, to Miami. Temple has turned to Steve Addazio, who had been offensive coordinator at Florida. He has built a strong staff and inherits a solid roster, but is switching schemes and it's tough to imagine the Owls winning the East in a transition season.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth MAC Breakdown

MOUNTAIN WEST

LEAGUE WINNER: Boise State
BEST PLAYER: Boise State QB Kellen Moore
STRONGEST POSITION: Linebacker
WEAKEST POSITION: Wide receiver
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: One, Boise State

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Colorado State. It's easy to understand why the Rams went 3-9 and got blown out so many times (only one of their losses was decided by fewer than 21 points) last season. True freshman Pete Thomas started at quarterback and suffered growing pains while getting sacked 44 times, and the defense couldn't stop anyone. But Thomas hung tough and improved over the course of the season. The former four-star recruit should be much better as a sophomore while working behind an improved line that returns four starters. The Rams also should improve a turnover margin that ranked 105th nationally last season. And the defense couldn't get any worse. Colorado State won't finish in the top half of the MWC standings, but the Rams should win a couple more games and might even be bowl-eligible.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: San Diego State. There are two ways to classify disappointments. We don't expect UNLV, New Mexico or Wyoming to be that good this season; those three teams might not even combine for six wins. But how can a team be disappointing if nobody expected it to be any good in the first place? That brings us to San Diego State, which went 9-4 last season and earned its first bowl win since 1969. The Aztecs should get back to a bowl this season, but they could take a small step backward in the process. San Diego State lost the architect of its reconstruction when Michigan hired away Brady Hoke. The Aztecs also must replace all-conference receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. SDSU still should finish no lower than fourth in the conference, but anyone expecting the Aztecs to make a serious run for the MWC championship will be disappointed.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth MWC Breakdown

PAC-12

LEAGUE WINNER: Oregon
BEST PLAYER: Stanford QB Andrew Luck
STRONGEST POSITION: Quarterback
WEAKEST POSITION: Defensive end
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: One, Oregon

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Washington. The Huskies made their first bowl appearance in eight years last season, but without departed QB Jake Locker - a first-round NFL draft choice - some might expect the Huskies to take a step back. Yet don't be surprised if the Huskies are actually better in 2011. They could be contenders in the North Division race. Sophomore QB Keith Price is a first-time starter, which is a concern. But he's surrounded by excellent talent. RB Chris Polk is an All-America candidate, the receivers are good and three starters return along the offensive line. Eight starters are back from a defense that seemed to get better as last season progressed and held Nebraska to seven points in the Holiday Bowl.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Arizona. The Wildcats, who once went an entire decade between bowl appearances, have qualified for postseason play in each of the past three seasons. Making it four in a row will be a tough task. The Wildcats' offensive line had to be rebuilt, there are three new starters along the defensive line and an injury of FS Adam Hall is a significant loss to the secondary. Furthermore, the Wildcats face a treacherous September that could put them in a big hole early.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth Pac-12 Breakdown

SEC

LEAGUE WINNER: Alabama
BEST PLAYER: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
STRONGEST POSITION: Running back
WEAKEST POSITION: Quarterback
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: Two, Alabama and LSU

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Florida. If the Gators get competent quarterback play from John Brantley - and that's a big "if," considering his performance last season - they will finish second in the East and contend for the division title. The defense could be quite good, and there is speed galore on that side of the ball. The offense is the question. We'll find out more about Charlie Weis' coaching acumen this season, considering what he has to work with on offense.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Auburn. "Disappoint" is a relative term. The Tigers won the national title last season, but won't get a sniff of the BCS this season because they lost too much talent. Losing Cam Newton is bad enough. But Auburn also lost the nation's best defensive lineman (Nick Fairley), three of its top four receivers, four-fifths of the offensive line, three-fourths of the defensive line, the two best linebackers, three starting defensive backs and maybe the best clutch kicker in school history. It wouldn't be a surprise if Auburn finished fifth in the West.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth SEC Breakdown

SUN BELT

LEAGUE WINNER: Troy
BEST PLAYER: Florida International WR T.Y. Hilton
STRONGEST POSITION: Tailback
WEAKEST POSITION: Defensive tackle
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: None

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Louisiana-Monroe. The defense is going to be an aggressive one under coordinator Troy Reffett, and the Warhawks have some of the league's best defenders at each level of their defense - Es Troy Evans and Ken Dorsey, LBs Cameron Blakes and Jason Edwards and S Darius Prelow. This season, the offense should do its part, as well. Sophomore QB Kolton Browning is a rising star in this league, and if the running game comes around, ULM should finish third.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Middle Tennessee. This would be the second season in a row MTSU will wear the "disappointing" tag. The Blue Raiders were picked to win the league last season, but an early-season suspension to QB Dwight Dasher got everything off on the wrong foot. When Dasher returned, he was a turnover machine - MTSU committed a nation's-high 38 turnovers last season - and while the Blue Raiders went to a bowl, they finished third in the league and were 6-7 overall. This season, they have issues at quarterback, tailback, along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary. An upper-division finish in the league would be an achievement.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth Sun Belt Breakdown

WESTERN ATHLETIC

LEAGUE WINNER: Hawaii
BEST PLAYER: Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz
STRONGEST POSITION: Linebacker
WEAKEST POSITION: Quarterback
PROJECTED BCS TEAMS: None

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Utah State. Injuries decimated the Aggies' offense last season, with TBs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith and WRs Stanley Morrison and Matt Austin missing all or nearly all of the season with injuries. If each is healthy, Utah State should have the offense to compete. The Aggies will be that much better if junior college transfer Adam Kennedy or redshirt freshman Alex Hart can adequately replace QB Diondre Borel. In addition, coach Gary Andersen is switching the defense to a 3-4 and taking over coordinator duties himself. Andersen is a former coordinator at Utah.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Hawaii. All of the teams in the WAC are flawed, even the Warriors, the team we picked to win the conference. So how can a projected league champ be disappointing? Here's how: Hawaii won 10 games last season, and though they return the league's only established quarterback, the Warriors have enough holes to make another 10-win season a dream. The offense is almost entirely on the shoulders of Moniz, who will work with a rebuilt line, a new tailback and new go-to receivers. The defense should be OK, but it will have trouble replacing S Mana Silva and his eight interceptions. Hawaii should win the WAC, but the Warriors easily could have two league losses. That means the WAC - which is used to having its league champ finish in the top 20 or even top 10 of late - has no shot at having a team in the final poll.

Click here for Rivals.com's in-depth WAC Breakdown

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