Have you checked out our "Pre-Spring Top 10"? This week we are going to look at the next 5 teams or as we'll call it "Five Teams To Watch". So here we go...
West Virginia Mountaineers
We've already talked a little bit about West Virginia here. We love the Dana Holgerson hire and despite the loss of Noel Devine and Jock Sanders he is going to have a lot of new toys to play with. Junior Geno Smith had a really good season last year in his first year as a starter (2763 yards passing, 24 TD vs 7 interceptions) and we look for him to blossom under Holgerson's leadership. Devine is gone but West Virginia returns a host of very capable players in Ryan Clarke (8 rushing TDs), Shawne Alston, Tavon Austin (58 rec for 787 yds) and Stedman Bailey (24 rec for 317 yds). WVU also returns 4 of their starting 5 offensive linemen and overall return 8 offensive starters.
West Virginia was surprisingly dynamic defensive team last year as they held opponents to only 13 points per game. Unforunately, only 4 starters return from that defense. The good news is that the starters that return are very talented- Keith Tandy (6 interceptions), Terence Gavin (led the team with 76 tackles) and Julian Miller (9 sacks). Mark September 24th down on your calendar. That's when West Virginia hosts LSU and we find out if the Mountaineers are for real.
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South Carolina Gamecocks
The Head Ball Coach finally broke through with the Gamecocks last year and won the SEC East. Was it Carolina stepping up or the function of the rest of the SEC East being down? Maybe it was a little bit of both. South Carolina played great at times, like when they upset then #1 Alabama, but they also lost to Kentucky and got overwhelmed by the Fighting Petrinos. Here's what we know about this years Gamecocks team...they return the best RB and best WR in the SEC. The tandem of Marcus Lattimore (1197 yds rushing, 19 total TD, 29 receptions) and Alshon Jeffrey (led the SEC in receptions and receiving yards in a league that included A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Randall Cobb) make Carolina the favorite to take the East again in my book. Stephen Garcia remains a questionmark. At times he's a fully capable QB and at other times he can't complete a pass to save his life or Spurrier's visor from the ground. Garcia threw for over 3,000 yards last year but also led the SEC in interceptions. South Carolina had a middle of the pack defense last year that cost them in their losses as they gave up 30+ points in 4 of their 5 losses (granted two of those came at the hands of Cam Newton and Auburn). The Gamecocks return their four leading tacklers but what does it say about their defense that all of these guys are defensive backs? If Shaq Wilson can come back this year it will help the LB corps a lot. The Gamecocks schedule plays in their favor as they have a relatively easy non-conference slate (East Carolina, Navy, The Citadel and Clemson) and don't play Alabama or LSU from the West. Once again their litmus test will be against Georgia on Sept 10th. This Georgia team should be a lot better and more physical than the team Carolina beat by 11 points last year.
Wisconsin loses a lot of talent off of a team that scored the 5th most points in college football last year but I just have a feeling that they are ready to reload rather than rebuild. The performance of RBs James White and Montee Ball down the stretch was big for the Badgers last year and should help keep them among the elite of the Big Ten this year. Wisconsin had 3 of the top 8 rushers in the Big Ten last year (White rushed for 1052 yards on 6.7 ypc with 14 TD and Ball rushed for 996 yds on 6.1 ypc and 18 TD). The Badgers will have to replace Scott Tolzien and Jon Budmayr should get the first crack. He only threw 10 passes last year but did complete 8 of those for 134 yds and 1 TD. Wisconsin returns 6 starters on a defense that should be stout up front but will need some guys to step up at LB and in the defensive backfield. Their first test will be in their 5th game of the year at home versus Nebraska and the big stretch for them will be back-to-back road games against the Spartans and the Buckeyes in October. The relatively easy start to the schedule should give the Badgers a chance to work things out before they get into conference play.
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TCU Horned Frogs
Fresh off their undefeated season and Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, the Horned Frogs are looking to win the Mountain West for the 3rd straight season and once again contend for a National Title and a BCS Bowl. TCU is losing a bunch of starters, including QB Andy Dalton, 3 receivers that caught over 30 passes each, 2 safeties, a bunch of offensive linemen and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, maybe not that last part but you get the idea. Gary Patterson is going to have to re-load. So why do we like TCU? Despite losing a bunch of starters they return some good talent. On the offensive side of the football they return their 3 leading rushers from last year (1,000 yd rusher Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker- 709 yds and Waymon James- 513 yds) and they also return their leading yardage receiver in rising Sophomore Josh Boyce. TCU will turn over the QB reigns to Sophomore Casey Pachall. According to Rivals, Pacahll was the 9th rated QB in his recruiting class but last year only was able to throw 9 passes (completing 6 for 78 yds and a TD). On defense leading tackler Tanner Brock and his tag-team partner Tank Carder return to lead a group that finished 1st in the Nation in points allowed (12 per game). We don't have TCU's full schedule yet but I think it's fair to say that either the Horned Frogs or the Broncos of Boise State, or possibly both, will be in the Top 10 when bowl season rolls around.
We are counting on that Holiday Bowl lose to Washington lighting a fire under the Cornhuskers. Nebraska has a chance to right that wrong on September 17th when they will again face Washington. Nebraska started off last year 9-1 before losing 3 of their last 4. On the wake of last years late collapse Nebraska is still in the process of finalizing some staff changes. The biggest reason we like the Cornhuskers is their defense. They return 7 starters from a team that finished 9th in the Nation in points allowed at 17.4 per game. The Huskers will be strong up front as they will return Jared Crick (9.5 sacks, 14.5 TFL), Baker Steinkuhler (3.5 sacks) and Cameron Meredith (2 sacks, 5.5 TFL). The big question is if they can hold down the fort while the back seven gains experience and if the offense can catch a spark that was missing down the stretch last year. The big back-to-back for the Huskers will be October 1st and 8th when they travel to Wisconsin and then turn around and host Ohio State. On offense Ray Helu Jr is gone but Taylor Martinez (1631 yds passing, 965 yds rushing), Rex Burkhead (951 yds rushing), Brandon Kinnie (44 receptions) and Kyler Reed (8 TDs) all return. Nebraska joining the Big Ten will be one of the most interesting stories of 2011.