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August 24, 2009

'Fatal flaws' could be costly for contenders

We're less than two weeks away from the start of the season, which means fans everywhere are expecting big things from their teams this season. After all, dreaming big is easy to do before the season begins.

Alas, we're here to throw a wet rug on all those expectations. We look at the top 12 teams in our preseason poll - the only ones that truly appear to have a chance at the national title - and we'll point out the main reason your team won't win the championship. We'll mention the biggest reason for fans to be optimistic, but we'll also delve into why fans should be at least a little pessimistic, too.

1. Florida
Biggest Strengths: Offensive backfield, defense as a whole
Potential Fatal Flaw: Lack of proven playmakers at wide receiver
Buzz: Florida has talent at wide receiver, but it wouldn't be a shock if tight end Aaron Hernandez ended up leading the team in receptions. Still, the Gators need a few guys on the outside to emerge with the departures of Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. Sophomore Deonte Thompson has the best mixture of speed and size, and has the potential to be a star. But someone else needs to step up, too, whether it's seniors Riley Cooper and David Nelson, a plethora of redshirt freshmen who seem likely to get a shot or true freshman Andre Debose. The Gators need to have established a clear pecking order at wide receiver by the time they visit LSU for a night game on Oct. 10.

2. Texas
Biggest Strengths: Offensive line, passing game
Potential Fatal Flaw: Rebuilt defensive line
Buzz: Quarterback Colt McCoy and the offense are going to be highly productive, even if the Longhorns once again can't find a feature back. Thing is, if three new starters on the defensive line struggle, that offense had better be highly productive because the Longhorns will be involved in some shootouts. Sergio Kindle will play end full time after also playing some linebacker last season. Kindle is a pass-rusher deluxe, but he has to prove he consistently can hold up against the run. He also needs someone opposite him to come through. If that doesn't happen, Kindle will see a lot of double-teams plus have to deal with running backs chipping him on their way out of the backfield. Tackle Lamarr Houston is the only returning starter up front, but he will be without running mate Roy Miller, who by far was Texas' best interior lineman last season. If the new guy next to Houston doesn't play well, a solid linebacker corps is going to find it more difficult to make plays. And if the pass rush suffers without departed end Brian Orakpo, a secondary expected to be a team strength will be under siege.

3. USC
Biggest Strengths: Offensive line, offensive skill-position players
Potential Fatal Flaw: Eight new starters on defense
Buzz: OK, a team loses eight defensive starters (all of whom were taken in the NFL draft), its quarterback (the No. 5 pick in the draft) and a starting wide receiver who caught a team-leading 10 touchdown passes. That team is in for a big fall, right? Well, not if it's USC. The Trojans have what could be the most productive offense in the Pac-10 - as long as a quarterback comes through. Of more concern, though, should be that rebuilt defense. Three-fourths of the defensive line is new, as are two spots in the secondary and all three linebackers. Yes, USC reloads rather than rebuilds, but the reason the eight new starters were backups last season was that they weren't as good as the guys who were starting. There is going to be a learning curve, but Game 2 is a monster - a trip to Ohio State. There also are visits to California and Oregon, the teams that look most prepared to end USC's string of outright or shared league titles at seven. The defense obviously needs to grow up fast. And if the new quarterback struggles - even with all that talent surrounding him - that rebuilt defense will face even more pressure.

4. Oklahoma
Biggest Strengths: Passing game, defensive front four
Potential Fatal Flaw: Rebuilt offensive line
Buzz: Oklahoma set an NCAA record for points in a season in 2008. It had a Heisman-winning quarterback who threw 50 touchdown passes. It had two guys rush for 1,000 yards. It had two wide receivers catch at least nine TD passes. And it had four seniors starting on the offensive line. All the skill-position talent is back except the two productive receivers, but, in truth, it's doubtful they will be missed. But those four senior starters on the line? Adequately replacing them could be the difference between getting to Pasadena or finishing third in the Big 12 South. The one returning starting lineman is tackle Trent Williams, who might be the best offensive lineman in the nation. But he is changing positions, moving to the left side from the right side. That means that all five guys in front of quarterback Sam Bradford when he trots out to take the first snap against BYU on Sept. 5 technically will be new starters. The new line isn't likely to get tested in the first three games. But then comes a stretch in which the Sooners play four of six away from home, and each of those four opponents - Miami, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska - will pose a test. Getting high marks in those games for the line is essential.

5. Alabama
Biggest Strengths: Defense as a whole, WR Julio Jones
Potential Fatal Flaw: Rushing attack
Buzz: Alabama won 12 games last season with John Parker Wilson throwing 10 touchdown passes. The Tide won because of a strong rushing attack and a stifling defense. The stifling defense returns. But the offensive line has three new starters, a 1,000-yard running back has to be replaced and Wilson is gone. The new quarterback is junior Greg McElroy, who in high school in Texas played for the aerial circus known as Southlake Carroll High. But don't expect him to be slinging the ball around this season. Alabama's modus operandi isn't going to change, even with star Julio Jones at wide receiver. Sophomore Mark Ingram should have success at running back, and there is some talent along the offensive line. But that talent still has to prove it can move people the way last season's line did. If the rushing attack struggles, Alabama is looking at a third-place finish in the SEC West.

6. Virginia Tech
Biggest Strengths: Defensive front four, secondary
Potential Fatal Flaw: Passing offense
Buzz: The Hokies threw six touchdown passes last season. Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw two - and seven picks. Virginia Tech has the defense to be a national title contender. But until Taylor and the passing attack develop a pulse, the Hokies will be on the outside looking in. The Hokies already have lost 1,000-yard rusher Darren Evans to a season-ending injury, but that is one of the deepest positions on the team and there look to be adequate replacements. Those guys would have it easier if the passing game picks up. The Hokies were 112th in the nation in passing offense last season, at 129.1 yards per game. They still won the ACC title, which says something about their defense and rushing attack - and about the rest of the ACC, frankly. But the ACC is stronger this season. If the Hokies can't put the ball in the air with better results, they are going to lose three or four times this season.

7. Ohio State
Biggest Strengths: Defensive line, potentially explosive quarterback
Potential Fatal Flaw: Wide receivers
Buzz: You figure Buckeyes coaches will loosen the reins on sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor this season. Pryor is a unique mix of size, speed, strength and playmaking ability. One reason the Buckeyes need him to make plays this season is that there is no established feature back nor is there any wide receiver who really has done anything. The receiving corps is the biggest concern. The leading returning receiver is Dane Sanzenbacher, who would be a good No. 4 receiver for a team with a high-powered passing attack. The Buckeyes need sophomore speedster DeVier Posey to at least triple his 11 catches from last season. They also need Pryor to be turned loose.

8. Ole Miss
Biggest Strengths: Offensive skill-position players, defensive line
Potential Fatal Flaw: The mental state of the team
Buzz: We also could talk about Ole Miss' linebackers as a problem area. None of these guys is going to be mistaken for Patrick Willis anytime soon. The leading returning tackler among the bunch is Jonathan Cornell, who made 45. Coaches are counting on senior Patrick Trahan to live up to his potential. A bigger concern, though, is the mind-set. I know there are some of you shaking your head and saying that doesn't matter. It does. Ole Miss is in the preseason top 10 for the first time since 1970. Ole Miss has lost 21 games in the past three seasons, and other than a trip to the Cotton Bowl last season and in 2003, this program basically has been mediocre for most of the past two decades. That's a lot of history to overcome. And remember you're dealing with 18-, 19- and 20-year olds. Yes, Ole Miss beat Florida last season, but the Rebels also lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt - at home. Ole Miss is expected to win a lot this season. Whether the Rebels can handle expectations will be one of the bigger stories of the season.

9. Boise State
Biggest Strengths: Passing attack, too much talent for WAC
Potential Fatal Flaw: The schedule
Buzz: After the Sept. 3 season-opener against Oregon, it's extremely doubtful the Broncos will play another top-25 team for the rest of the season. If Boise wins the opener, it would be a surprise if it doesn't go 13-0. But that schedule won't get the Broncos into the national title game unless each of the other legitimate challengers has two losses.

10. Oklahoma State
Biggest Strengths: Explosive offense, great skill-position talent
Potential Fatal Flaw: Defense as a whole
Buzz: It's going to be hard to outscore the Cowboys. But unless the defense shows vast improvement from last season, four or five teams still could do so. Oklahoma State has a lot of solid defensive players, but there is no standout that opposing offenses have to game-plan around each week. The pass rush scares no one, and the secondary has been rebuilt. New coordinator Bill Young has a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it. The first two games, while at home, are against Georgia and Houston. Georgia has a big, physical offensive line capable of taking over a game. Houston ranked second in the nation in total offense last season, has the majority of its skill-position talent returning. The Cougars easily could lead the nation in total offense again this season.

11. LSU
Biggest Strengths: Stars at wide receiver, running back and offensive tackle, secondary
Potential Fatal Flaw: Quarterback play
Buzz: Sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson had a strong performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But he played in just seven games last season, saw extensive time in just three and his completion percentage for the season was less than 50 percent. LSU has a strong receiving corps, but unless Jefferson shows he's a consistent passing threat, star running back Charles Scott will see a lot of eight-man fronts. LSU couldn't throw the ball effectively last season and finished 8-5, including 3-5 in the SEC. There's a lot of pressure on Jefferson to get it done this season.

12. Penn State
Biggest Strengths: Strong offensive backfield, linebackers
Potential Fatal Flaw: Wide receivers and secondary
Buzz: Of the BCS-conference teams on this list, the Nittany Lions have the easiest schedule. The non-conference schedule is a joke, there are eight home games total and the toughest Big Ten games are in Happy Valley. Still, we ranked them 12th. The Nittany Lions lost their top three receivers; the leading returning receiver caught 13 passes. The top three receivers combined for 17 TD receptions last season; the most by a returning wide receiver is two, and just one of those was caught in a Big Ten game. The Nittany Lions don't need just one receiver to step up; they need at least two and maybe even three. The secondary also has to be rebuilt, with four new starters. The good news for Penn State is that the Big Ten isn't exactly filled with high-powered passing offenses, so the secondary should be OK. But can Penn State get to Pasadena with a pop-gun passing offense?

Fast talk
If you've seen video of Usain Bolt's recent world-record runs in the 100 and 200 meters, you have to think there are some college coaches salivating at the thought of the 6-foot-5 Bolt playing wide receiver. You also have to wonder if any of them are now thinking of including a trek to Jamaica for the country's annual junior track meet, where Bolt first came on the scene.

Bolt's incredible 9.58 clocking in the 100 meters should have an affect on how recruitniks now look at 40 times.

A former colleague passed along a "biomechanical analysis" of Bolt's run, which included his times at 20-meter intervals. He ran the first 20 meters in 2.89 seconds, the first 40 in 4.64 seconds, the first 60 in 6.31 seconds and the first 80 in 7.92 seconds before finishing in 9.58.

Forty yards equates to 36.58 meters, which means Bolt's 40-yard dash time in a race in which he ran the fastest 100 meters ever was about 4.28.

Think about that the next time you hear about some 17-year cornerback who supposedly runs a 4.31 40.

Grid bits
Penn State has a nifty linebacker duo in Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee, and the next great one in line at the position for the Nittany Lions was to be sophomore Mike Mauti. Alas, Mauti will miss this season with a torn ACL. Look for him to be the key linebacker for the Nittany Lions next season, assuming his rehab goes as planned.

USF faced some offensive questions going into the season, but they have been magnified of late. Projected starting running back Mike Ford will miss the first two games for violating team rules, and backup Jamar Taylor is out for up to 10 weeks with a knee injury. Running back was a concern, anyway, and this certainly doesn't help new offensive coordinator Mike Canales in his quest to take some pressure off quarterback Matt Grothe. Too often, USF's offense has been "Let's see what kind of play Grothe can make." USF's first two games are against Wofford and Western Kentucky, and the Bulls should cruise in both even if Jim Leavitt's neighbor starts at running back. But missing Ford and Taylor will hurt as the offense tries to gain some continuity.

Weird medical merry-go-round at Oregon State. Early last week, it was thought wide receiver Darrell Catchings - who was considered the Beavers' likely go-to guy this fall - would miss a month with a broken hand. Then, a few days later, it was feared he would miss the season. But later in the week, coaches announced that he might miss just the opener. Coach Mike Riley told the media that "an old fracture that had healed" was what doctors originally saw on Catchings' X-rays and that the latest injury was tendon and ligament damage. That's great news for a Beavers offense that needs a wide receiver or two to step up to take some of the load off running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

What does it say for the recruiting of former coach Greg Robinson that Greg Paulus - who hasn't played football since he was a high school senior in 2005 - can win the starting quarterback job at Syracuse? It's unbelievable. There's no quarterback on the roster who can't beat out a guy who has played basketball for the past four years?

Bad news for Illinois in that cornerback Miami Thomas will miss the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. You feel especially bad for Thomas because he missed last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Thomas was in the mix for a starting job and at worst would've been the Illini's nickelback.

Hoop talk
Former Cincinnati star Paul Hogue, who was the starting center on three consecutive Final Four teams from 1960-62, died last week of heart and kidney disease. He was 68. The Bearcats lost to California in a national semifinal in 1960, then won the national title in 1961 and '62 with victories over Ohio State in both seasons. Oscar Robertson was the Bearcats' star in '60, and Hogue played a bigger role on the back-to-back national titlists. He was named Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four in 1962. He had 36 points and 19 rebounds in a semifinal win over UCLA, then 22 points and 19 boards in the final against All-America Jerry Lucas and Ohio State. Hogue went to high school in Knoxville, Tenn., but SEC schools weren't recruiting black athletes at the time, so he signed with Cincinnati.

Everyone knows about Memphis having to vacate 38 wins and its Final Four appearance in the 2007-08 season. But don't blame Derrick Rose. In a statement released by his attorney Thursday, Rose said "it is satisfying to see that the NCAA could find no wrongdoing on my part in their ruling." Hmmm. In its ruling, the NCAA pointed out that Rose's SAT was fraudulent and thus he was ineligible to play college basketball. To me, a fraudulent SAT - i.e., cheating was involved - means Rose did have a role in some wrongdoing.

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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