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August 22, 2011

Huguenin: Top 10 teams' fatal flaws

Rivals.com finished its preseason 1-120 countdown last week, and we had nine of the same top-10 teams as the major preseason polls.

We don't think as highly of Oklahoma State as the media voters in The Associated Press or the coaches who vote in the USA Today poll. The main reason: The Cowboys' defense looks extremely shaky.

Still, every team -- even the ones in the top 10 -- has some issues to worry about. Thus, today we'll look at the potential fatal flaw for each team in our preseason top 10.

The issue: Pass rush
The buzz: A&M had 30 sacks last season, but the two leading sack men -- LBs Von Miller and Michael Hodges -- are gone, taking 15 sacks with them. To win the Big 12, A&M is going to have to adequately deal with the passing attacks of Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and the Aggies won't be able to do so unless they have a consistent pass rush. Big things are expected of sophomore LB Damontre Moore, who will play the "joker" position -- a hybrid end/outside linebacker spot -- vacated by Miller. Moore had 4.5 sacks last season in a reserve role and needs to double that total this fall. A&M's secondary should be fine, assuming there is a pass rush. If there isn't a pass rush, the offense had better be extra sharp in the big games.
The issue: Pass offense
The buzz: Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez sure was a good runner last season. Martinez threw the heck out of the ball as a high school senior in the Los Angeles area, but he struggled as a passer last season. He threw for 1,631 yards, with 10 TDs and seven picks. But five of his TDs came against the sieve that masqueraded as Oklahoma State's secondary, and he tossed just two TD passes in the last seven games of the season. In that same span, he threw four interceptions. In addition, the Huskers return just one wide receiver (Brandon Kinnie) who caught more than one pass last season. The Huskers have changed coordinators, promoting running backs coach Tim Beck. He never has been a play-caller, but he was the passing game coordinator for the Kansas team that won the Orange Bowl in the 2007 season. The Huskers aren't going to be a pass-first team, but Beck has to find a way to make Martinez a more productive passer.
The issue: Run defense
The buzz: FSU made great strides defensively last season, allowing 353.7 yards per game a season after surrendering 434.6 per game. The Seminoles made a big jump against the run, too (128.7 yards per game after giving up 204.6 in 2009). But teams that made it a priority to run on the Seminoles were able to do so. Boston College, Florida, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia Tech ran for at least 170 yards on the Seminoles, and Clemson and Maryland ran for at least 150. The good news is that FSU has one of the deepest tackle rotations in the nation, and E Brandon Jenkins is an All-America candidate. There will be two new starters at linebacker. Senior Nigel Bradham is a returning starter, and there are no doubts about him. The same can't be said for his running mates. Still, talent-wise at least, the new starters have more than their predecessors. They just need to show they can be productive.
The issue: Defensive front seven
The buzz: J.J. Watt was one of the best ends in the nation last season, but he turned pro early and took all his production (62 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, seven sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, three blocked kicks, eight pass breakups) with him. The other three starting linemen return, but that trio combined for 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. It's especially incumbent upon senior E Louis Nzegwu to boost his production. There also are some concerns at linebacker. Two starters are gone, and they were the Badgers' top two tacklers. Sophomore Chris Borland has all-league talent, but he is coming off a severe shoulder injury that sidelined him for 10 games last season. Junior Mike Taylor is the one returning starter at linebacker, but he, too, has battled injuries throughout his career. The other likely starter is senior Kevin Claxton, who has made 36 career tackles. If Borland and Taylor remain healthy, the linebackers should be fine. Depth, though, is a big issue.
The issue: Offensive line and coaching
The buzz: The Cardinal have two of the best offensive linemen in the nation in G David DeCastro and T Jonathan Martin; both should vie for All-America honors. But those are the only two returning starters along the line, and considering the line will be protecting QB Andrew Luck -- perhaps the most valuable asset in college football, literally and figuratively -- the group better jell quickly. Perhaps as big an issue is the coaching change. Jim Harbaugh did a phenomenal job turning Stanford from a 1-11 wreck into a 12-1 Orange Bowl winner in four seasons. His personality and intensity permeated the program, and his players were unabashed followers. Now, though, Harbaugh is coach of the San Francisco 49ers; he took his two most important assistants -- play-caller Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio -- with him. New coach David Shaw, who had been the offensive coordinator, faces a huge test, and you wonder if the players will respond to his laid-back personality.
The issue: Wide receivers
The buzz: Senior QB Kellen Moore is extremely accurate and knows the offense inside and out. He leads all active FBS quarterbacks in career passing efficiency (166.74) and wins by a starter (38). Over the past two seasons, Moore has 74 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions. But he lost his top two receivers in Austin Pettis and Titus Young, who combined for 142 receptions for 2,166 yards and 19 TDs last season. Both now are in the NFL, and Tyler Shoemaker is the only returning wide receiver who caught more than 11 passes last season. Can he make the jump from No. 3 option to go-to guy? And can Dutch sophomore Geraldo Boldewijn -- known as Geraldo Hiwat last season -- become the needed deep threat? TE Kyle Efaw is a good receiver, as is TB Doug Martin. But Boise isn't going to beat the tough teams on its schedule throwing to its tight end and tailback. The wide receivers have to make their presence felt.
4. LSU
The issue: Quarterback
The buzz: Senior QB Jordan Jefferson is LSU's key player. Forget the rushing attack, the underutilized wide receivers, the line play, the linebackers, the talented secondary. It all rests on Jefferson, who last season did his best impression of a mediocre Conference USA quarterback. Jefferson is athletic, can hurt opponents with his running ability and has a nice arm; still, he never has been more than a middling passer. Jefferson doesn't have to be a star; if he merely becomes a competent SEC quarterback, the Tigers will be in New Orleans playing for the national title. They'll still be in New Orleans if he makes just a slight improvement -- but for the Sugar Bowl and not the national title game.
The issue: Line play
The buzz: Oregon is revamping its lines on both sides of the ball. No matter how talented the Ducks are at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary, unless the linemen come through, the Ducks are looking at a nine- or 10-win season instead of potentially playing for the national title again. Two full-time starters and one part-time starter are back on the offensive line, and given line coach Steve Greatwood's track record, it seems likely that group will be fine. Still, the new center is going to be untested, and that should give pause. The defensive line is the bigger issue. Lost in the flood of points scored by Oregon last season was that the front seven did a solid job. But five of the front seven are gone, including three linemen. Chances are the Ducks will be fine at linebacker. But there are questions along the defensive line. E Terrell Turner is the only returning starter, and no tackle on the roster made more than 18 tackles last season. Indeed, the top four tackles heading into this season combined for 45 tackles last season. JC transfer Jared Ebert is being counted on to make his presence felt in the interior. Given that the first game is against LSU, which should have a strong rushing attack, we'll know quickly if the Ducks' defensive line is up to the task.
The issue: Quarterback
The buzz: Five of the past nine national titlists have had a first-year starting quarterback, including the Tide in 2009. This Tide team sure looks a lot like that Tide team -- strong defense, with new starters at tailback and quarterback. That season, new QB Greg McElroy avoided mistakes and gladly handed the ball off to TB Mark Ingram, a former reserve who ended up winning the Heisman. Could history repeat? Former reserve Trent Richardson looks like a star at tailback, but who will be handing him the ball? Sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims are the candidates. Coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain don't want to throw the ball 35 times a game; they would prefer a ball-control offense with the quarterback throwing it maybe 20 times per game. As always with Alabama's quarterbacks, the new guy won't be asked to win games; rather, he will be told to make sure he doesn't lose them.
The issue: Run defense
The buzz: OU's run defense was rather mediocre last season. The Sooners allowed 148.9 yards per game, which ranked 58th in the nation. That was the worst performance against the run in coach Bob Stoops' OU tenure; the previous low mark had been 125.2 yards per game in 1999, his first season as coach. The next-worst had been in 2003, when OU allowed 113.2 per game. Last season, the Sooners gave up 351 rushing yards to Air Force and its triple-option. But there also were mediocre to poor outings against Cincinnati (156), Missouri (178), Texas A&M (157), Texas Tech (182) and Baylor (237). OU held just three of its 14 opponents to less than 100 yards. The Sooners are not going to win a national title allowing 148.9 rushing yards per game. A lot is riding on sophomore T Jamarkus McFarland, who must develop into a dominant run-stuffer. Linebacker is a huge question, as well, because of the injury to Travis Lewis and the death of Austin Box. MLB Tom Wort, especially, needs to ramp up his game. Each of OU's first three opponents -- Tulsa, Florida State and Missouri -- has a potent offense, but only Tulsa was in the top 35 in rushing offense last season, so there is some time for OU to get acclimated with its rebuilt front seven. The Sooners must get acclimated quickly, though.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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