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July 13, 2009

Monday with Mike: Units that must step up

Here's a look at the biggest unit question in each league heading into the 2009 college football season.

These teams have the talent needed to win their leagues and, in some cases, challenge for the national title but they won't unless these questionable units come through.

Atlantic Coast: Virginia Tech's wide receivers. The Hokies' passing attack last season was, to be kind, pitiful. They threw for 129.1 yards per game (112th nationally), with six TD passes and 12 interceptions. Tyrod Taylor, who tossed two TD passes and seven picks, has the quarterback job to himself this season. Some of the poor passing numbers can be attributed to Taylor, a great athlete who still is developing as a passer. Some also can be attributed to the wide receivers. The top three wide receivers last season were either true or redshirt freshmen, and the Hokies' offense sure needs those guys to have grown up. Tech's running game should be potent, but unless the receivers and the passing attack as a whole make big strides, way too much pressure again will be placed on the running backs and on the defense.

Big East: West Virginia's offensive line. There are questions everywhere in this league, which is wide open. The one we'll spotlight is West Virginia's offensive line. Just one full-time starter is back, tackle Selvish Capers, who has lacked consistency. But there are two part-time starters returning in center Eric Jobe and guard Josh Jenkins. Line play will be more closely watched this season with the departure of quarterback Pat White, who could use his legs to get away from trouble. New quarterback Jarrett Brown is mobile but can't run like White (then again, few can). Tailback Noel Devine is a small guy, and the Mountaineers don't need him taking more punishment than necessary, either. WVU has the defense to win the league; if the Mountaineers can run effectively, they will win it. Games two and three are against East Carolina and Auburn, respectively, and their defensive front sevens will be stern tests for WVU.

Big Ten: Penn State's offensive line. The Nittany Lions lost their top three receivers and all four starters in the secondary. That should lead to same hand-wringing. But given the importance of the rushing attack to the offense, a rebuilt offensive line with three new starters truly bears watching this season. Plus, one of the returning starters Stefen Wisniewski is moving from guard to center. Given the departure of all that talent at wide receiver, the rebuilt line and the depth at tight end, look for the Nittany Lions to use more two-tight end sets than usual. There is good depth at tailback, so the running game again will be the offensive priority. The good news is that the schedule is such that the line has a ton of time to jell before the first true test of the season Nov. 7 at home against Ohio State.

Big 12: Texas' defensive line. Lost amid all the hoopla surrounding Colt McCoy and the Longhorns' offense last season was that the defensive front was tremendous against the run and racked up a nation-leading 47 sacks. But three starters are gone, including All-Americas at end (Brian Orakpo) and tackle (Roy Miller). The only returning starter is senior tackle Lamarr Houston, who was productive in 2007 at end but slipped last season when he moved to tackle. The other projected starting tackle is senior Ben Alexander, who has made eight tackles in 19 career games. Others who figure to be in the mix at tackle are sophomores Kheeston Randall and Michael Wilcoxon and probably true freshman Calvin Howell. At end, the hope is that Sergio Kindle who blossomed in 2008 in coordinator Will Muschamp's first season can continue to be a big-time pass rusher. The schedule is such that the defensive line won't really be tested until Oct. 17 against Oklahoma which has four new starters on the offensive line.

C-USA: Houston's defensive line. The Cougars have the best offense in the league and one of the best in the nation. It will be a rare day when Houston doesn't score at least 30. Stopping other teams, though, could be a problem. The Cougars struggled to stop the run and mount a consistent pass rush last season and that was with end Phillip Hunt, who had 14 sacks and was the league's defensive player of the year in some circles. The Cougars will have three new starters on the line this season, and they must be better against the run. The tackles have some size, but the ends are undersized (one projected starter weighs 235, the other 225). There will be no adjustment period: Games two, three and four are against offense-minded Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and UTEP, respectively. Houston's offense will do its part against that trio, so it'll be up to the defense to play well.

Pac-10: California's wide receivers. Running back Jahvid Best ran for almost 1,600 yards last season despite a mediocre passing offense. The hope this season is that the passing attack is much more effective, thereby loosening up opposing defenses and opening up more running lanes for Best and talented backup Shane Vereen. Truthfully, though, Cal's wide receivers scare no one. The most productive pass catcher last season was tight end Cameron Morrah, who turned pro early. The holdover starters at wide receiver Nyan Boateng and Verran Tucker combined for 50 catches and eight touchdowns. Combined. Boateng, Tucker, sophomore Marvin Jones and junior Jeremy Ross have to provide more production. Jones had a good spring and could emerge as the go-to guy. It's obvious Cal needs a ton more production on the outside. If the Bears get it, they could win the Pac-10. If it's more of the same, a third- or fourth-place finish in the league beckons.

Mid-American: Western Michigan's secondary. The Broncos are coming off just their third nine-win season ever, and the offense is good enough to reach that plateau again. But the defense has to be rebuilt, starting with a secondary that lost all four starters from last season, including two who were drafted. The new free safety is Doug Wiggins, who began his career at Miami before transferring north, and strong safety Mario Armstrong was a part-time starter last season, so the back line should be OK. It's the corners where there are true concerns.

Mountain West: BYU's offensive line. The Cougars return just one starter in the unit, sophomore left tackle Matt Reynolds. The new center is R.J. Willing, and he's the only senior projected to start across the front. BYU has the skill-position talent and the defense to win the league. The Cougars' fate ultimately will be determined by whether talented quarterback Max Hall has time to find his receivers.

Southeastern: Alabama's offensive backfield. Florida is a prohibitive favorite in the SEC East, though the Gators have some questions on the offensive line and at wide receiver, especially if senior Riley Cooper signs a baseball contract. The SEC West is wide open, with Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss legit contenders for the title. The biggest question among those teams looks to be Alabama's offensive backfield. Quarterback John Parker Wilson wasn't necessarily physically gifted, but he didn't make many mistakes last season, when the Tide finished 12-2. Can new starter Greg McElroy also play steady, mistake-free football? The Tide also will have a new starting running back after Glen Coffee left early for the NFL. Mark Ingram was solid as a true freshman last season, and he's a nice blend of speed and power; touted true freshman Trent Richardson also should be in the hunt for carries. Alabama needs Ingram, Richardson and the other running backs to be productive; all it needs from McElroy is to be a game manager. If he can, well, manage that, Alabama likely repeats as division champ.

Sun Belt: Arkansas State's offensive line. The Red Wolves love to run the ball, and with tailbacks Reggie Arnold and Derek Lawson, they have the best 1-2 backfield punch in the league. One problem: The line has to be rebuilt, with just two returning starters. Both starting tackles are new. One positive: All five projected starters are upperclassmen. The rebuilt unit has two huge tests early: at Nebraska on Sept. 12 and against Troy on Sept. 26. The contest against Troy could be a de facto league title game, and the Trojans have a deep and talented defensive front.

Western Athletic: Boise State's linebackers. The Broncos are a prohibitive favorite in their conference, and the only way they don't win the league is if they play poorly. Boise's only truly questionable unit is their linebackers. Middle 'backer Derrell Acrey is the only returning starter, but he's not assured of keeping his job. Sophomore Hunter White (5-11/215) is small but quick, and he had a good spring. He needs to play well for the unit to achieve its potential. Again, though, the linebackers could be horrible all season, and Boise still is going to win the league unless there is a rash of injuries and/or other units implode.

Grid bits
There had to be some bad memories for Georgia coaches, players and fans cropping up last week when it was announced that guard Tanner Strickland will miss the season with a shoulder injury; he sustained the injury during a workout. Four offensive linemen missed extensive time last season, and the depth that was gained because of last season's injuries now will be tested by Strickland's injury.

Former Miami and NFL quarterback Steve Walsh is the new coach at West Palm Beach (Fla.) Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman is the alma mater of former UM quarterback Craig Erickson.

Feel like getting some bets down before the season starts? The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas has released some early season lines, and here are some: Boise State minus-4 against Oregon on Sept. 3, Oklahoma State minus-3 against Georgia on Sept. 5, Alabama minus-4 against Virginia Tech on Sept. 5, Florida State minus-3 against Miami on Labor Day night, USC minus-6 at Ohio State on Sept. 12, Florida minus-27 against Tennessee on Sept. 19, BYU minus-3 against Florida State on Sept. 19, USC minus-8 at California on Oct. 3 and Texas minus-3 against Oklahoma on Oct. 17.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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