Thursday, July 26

My Preseason Top 25, plus a few

1. LSU
At the end of last season, there was some hypothesizing about whether LSU would defeat Florida in a rematch, and whether they were playing like the #1 team in the nation. I personally had them below both Florida and Ohio State, but the point remains that they were an elite team who returns most of their starting cast. Matt Flynn won't replace Jamarcus Russell, but he can be a solid quarterback. Early Doucet should fill in nicely as the go-to receiver, a mere 6 catches from being #1 on the team last season. The primary concern seems to be at safety, where LaRon Landry will be replaced by Craig Steltz who has significant experience, but Jessie Daniels' replacement is more questionable. The Tigers however have been one of the top 5-10 teams against the pass pretty much each of the last five seasons, and they have two outstanding cornerbacks who form the toughest coverage duo in the nation. The schedule features games against Va Tech, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, and possibly the SEC Championship... fortunately, the first four of those are all home games. While that part of the schedule is brutal, there are also a lot of creampuffs. South Carolina and Alabama could be sleepers, or could be overhyped. In the event that they are in the BCS championship game, this is a Sugar Bowl year, so it would essentially be a home game.
Keys to Victory:
* Gain 100 yards rushing. In two losses (Auburn, Florida) and one close win (Mississippi) in 2006, the Tigers failed to top 100 yards on the ground. The rest of their games seemed a cakewalk in comparison.
* Keep the pass attempts down. Against Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi, LSU attempted over 35 passes. (although, against Tennessee they also ran the ball 45 times) Typically LSU runs 55-60% of the time, but in three of those games they passed more often than they ran. Those were all losses or close games.

2. USC
You know it's going to be a good year for the Trojans when their major concern is at wide receiver... because, really, does anybody out there think USC isn't going to wind up with one of the best WR corps in the NCAA? The defense returns ten starters from a unit that finished just outside the top 10 ppg last season, so expect a stout defensive team. Going unbeaten will depend upon strong production from the RB position, as defenses won't be focusing on Jarrett and Smith, and upon Booty making better decisions. In 2006, the Trojans finished just +4 in turnovers, compared to an average of +19 over 2001-2005. While USC's schedule is overall one of the most difficult, they play a lot of good to mediocre teams - nobody who stands out as particularly menacing, but only Idaho and Stanford are really bad - so they really have a strong chance of finishing 12-0 with a NC game berth.
Keys to Victory:
* Gain 100 yards rushing. In two losses (Oregon State, UCLA) and their bowl game which was close for 3 quarters, USC failed to gain 100 yards rushing.
* Win the turnover battle. USC has always seemed to have more of an opportunistic than a 3-and-out defense. I can remember games like Cal 2004, when USC was badly outgained but +4 or better in turnovers to win. Whereas against Texas, USC left 6-14 points on the field due to two critical turnovers and was -1 for the game. When USC lost to Oregon State last year, they were -4 TO. Against UCLA they were even. The games they had a positive turnover differential - Arkansas, Nebraska, Stanford, Cal, and Michigan - they won by comfortable margins every time.

3. Texas
Texas is two players away from being the #1 team in the nation - a good cornerback, and another good cornerback. Unfortunately, Texas may be relying on a freshman and a sophomore to grow up fast, as their CB heirs from last season performed atrociously. Finishing #99 in passing ypg allowed last season, their secondary was really middle of the pack in terms of per play averages - the defensive line shut down rushing offenses to the extent that teams would just abandon the ground game - but mediocre doesn't lead to a national title. The defensive line is beastly, the linebackers could have a legit 6-man rotation, and the safeties should be very strong. Offensively, Colt McCoy is a great QB, Jamaal Charles could blossom into a premiere RB as he is finally showcased this year, and they have a trio of proven WRs lead by Limas Sweed. Offensive line is the only question on this side of the ball, making Texas yet another team who should be able to solve one of their biggest questions given the way Texas recruits that position. The schedule is embarrassingly easy, with OU, Nebraska, and the possible conference championship game being the only real worries.
Keys to Victory:
* Hold the opposition under 250 yards passing. In the 2006 season, 250+ yards passing against Texas meant 20+ points. Anything less than 250, and your offense was looking at 14 points or less. The more things teams have to try to make happen against last year's #2 rushing defense, the better things will go for the Longhorns.
* Win the turnover battle. Texas lost the turnover battle four times last season - Ohio State (-3. loss), Rice (-1, win), Texas Tech (-2, comeback win), and Texas A&M (-3, loss). Turnovers were the key to their victory over Oklahoma (+5).

4. Michigan
The Wolverines are in a similar position to Texas offensively. They have a strong QB, and a senior leader at that. Hart will be one of the nation's top RBs. Manningham and Arrington should be a great duo of WRs. Unfortunately, their defense which finished #8 in scoring last season has lost most of their starters - and arguably the five best defensive players they had. Harris had twice as many tackles as any other Wolverine last season; he along with Burgess, Branch, Hall, and Woodley will be almost impossible to replace. Nonetheless, the offense will be extremely potent, and a rush-heavy philosophy will be just what a potentially depleted defense needs to gel together. Despite a likely fall, Michigan should be one of the top 25 defensive teams in the country without a doubt, which will allow the offense to carry them. September provides three challenging but very winnable home games, then it's smooth sailing until a trip to Wisconsin and a visit from Ohio State in November.
Keys to Victory:
* Protect Henne. Michigan gave up 24 sacks total last season. 10 of those came in losses to Ohio State and USC.
* Shore up the secondary. In losses to OSU and USC, Michigan gave up over 300 yards passing, close to 400 against USC - also, the only two times all season the Wolverines surrendered over 30 points in a game. Only two other teams topped 250 yds passing against UM - one of whom was Ball State who gave the Wolverines a surprisingly good game.

5. Louisville
Last season, Louisville suffered great misfortune to not wind up unbeaten and in the BCS title game. They lost star RB Michael Bush to injury, and even then it was only a re-kicked FG by Rutgers that gave them their sole loss. Essentially the entire offense returns, and Bush's replacement(s) at RB has almost an entire season's worth of experience. The defense finished #19 in ppg allowed last season, but the secondary was so suspect that they have moved two WRs to play both safety spots! While defensive improvement is a possibility, this unit will probably not mature into one of the top ten squads that seems to be a necessity for winning a national title... although, with their Big East schedule, an unbeaten season is certainly a possibility. With Rutgers at home, Louisville's main concern will be a road game against West Virginia.
Keys to Victory:
* Protect Brohm. Only once last season did Louisville allow more than two sacks. That was five, in their sole loss to Rutgers.
* Be efficient. The loss to Rutgers was the only game last season in which Louisville completed under 50% of their passes. In three games where the offense failed to score 30, the Cardinals failed to top 200 yards passing (okay, 203 against Syracuse but if sacks counted against that it'd be under 200) and in the other poor offensive outing, against Cincinnati, they had their worst net turnover game of the season at -2.

6. Virginia Tech
Last season the Hokies finished with the #1 scoring defense in the nation, and there's no reason to think they won't at least be in the top ten in 2007. (I have them fighting for #2 toughest defensive unit along with USC) The group is very experienced as well with eight returning starters including seven seniors. An equal number of starters return on offense, and the backfield and receiving corps are both experienced as well. The major concern is the play of Sean Glennon, who last season threw as many INTs as TDs (11). Indeed, it was turnovers that cost them a bowl loss to Georgia, as the defense gave up a mere 200 yards total in that game. Establishing Ore's running game may be the key to their season, as in each of their three losses last season the Hokies finished with under 50 yards rushing. On the schedule, Boston College, Miami, and Florida State are all home games, and they do not face Wake Forest. However, they do travel to LSU.
Keys to Victory:
* Break 50 yards rushing. It sounds so easy! But they were 0-3 with less than 50 yards on the ground, 10-0 with 50+. Even 53 yards on 40 attempts was good enough for a 17-10 win over Miami, as the power game takes the ball out of Glennon's INT-prone hands as much as anything else.
* Win the turnover battle. Amazingly, VT had just two games in 2006 where they had a negative net TO. Minus 4 in a 22-3 loss to BC, and -3 in a 31-24 loss to Georgia. In their loss to Georgia Tech, they were even in the TO department.

7. West Virginia
Pat White and Steve Slaton are enough to strike fear in the heart of any defense. Adding Noel Devine to the mix? Yikes. The Mounties finished last season tied for the nation's #3 scoring offense along with Louisville, co-best of any BCS-conference team. So why only #7? They were 48th in ppg allowed. West Virginia gave up 44 points in a loss to Louisville and 39 points in a close win over Rutgers - yes, Rutgers scored 39 against them. While the schedule says Louisville is the only team with a good chance of beating them, if the defense does not make drastic improvements they could fall to USF once again or to Rutgers - both road games in 2007, and two run-oriented teams that might have big days against the 3-3-5 stack scheme.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. West Virginia is the type of team to score on nearly every possession while at the same time getting shredded on defense. Having more possessions is crucial to their success or failure. Four times last season, WVU was on the wrong side of the turnover battle - Syracuse (-2, win), Louisville (-2, loss), USF (-2, loss), and Rutgers (-1, 3OT win).
* Break 250 yards rushing. Three times last season, the Mounties were held under 250 yards rushing - actually, under 200 each time. A win over East Carolina where they scored just 27 points, a loss to USF where they scored just 19 points, and a win over Rutgers that went to three overtimes. Offense cannot be blamed for their loss to Louisville, as they gained 540 yards and scored 34 points.

8. Florida
Despite returning just six offensive starters, most of the firepower returns, and Tim Tebow fits more into the mold of an Urban Meyer QB than Chris Leak did anyway. But they'll need to make strong use of Rivals' #1 recruiting class, as the defense loses NINE starters. The unit is littered with freshmen and sophomore starters with little or no game experience, and that's going to haunt them a few times during the season. The cornerbacks are seriously tiny, which means they'll have problems against team with physical WRs like LSU and FSU. Meanwhile the schedule is about as enviable as last season's, with visits from Tennessee and Auburn in September, a trip to LSU and a visit from Georgia in October, and a visit to South Carolina (improved or overhyped?) and a match with Florida State in November. Make it through all that and there's the SEC Championship. Brutal.
Keys to Victory:
* Protect the defense. Only two defensive starters return in 2007. The offense MUST ensure that the opposing team has a long field to work with - say, starting from within their own 35. Last year, Ohio State was in a similar situation defensively, but thanks to an efficient offense their defense ranked far better in points allowed than in yards allowed.
* Fear the sleepers. Florida has lost to South Carolina and Alabama once each in the last two seasons, and only barely squeaked by South Carolina last year. How they play against their former coach's team and against Nick Saban's new team could be the difference between an at-large BCS bid or not needing UT to spell the Outback.

9. Wisconsin
Coming off of consecutive 10-win, bowl win seasons, the Badgers have both confidence and experience. PJ Hill was a breakout freshman who could become the next Ron Dayne. Though Stocco is lost at QB, his replacement (Tyler Donovan) is a senior who comes in with a 63% completion percentage, good enough for what he'll be asked to do with this offense. His protection should be excellent, and the receivers and TEs are solid and experienced. Their top two tacklers are gone, but seven defensive starters return and the only real holes will be at safety. While the opener with Washington State presents an interesting style contrast, it's a home game that they should win and should be unbeaten going into a October trip to Penn State. Unlike 2006, they will play Ohio State this season and it is a road game. The Nov 10 showdown with Michigan could be especially important - the Badgers have two one-loss (1998, 2006) and one two-loss (1999) seasons in the BCS era, and each of those years they have lost to the Wolverines. Without question, this team will live and die by its running game. In 11 of their 12 wins, they gained 99 or more yards rushing, often flirting with or exceeding 200. In a loss to Michigan, they gained a mere 12, and in a fortunate win over Arkansas (outgained and outplayed, but penalties kept Hogs points off the board) they actually had negative 5 net yards rushing.
Keys to Victory:
* Run for 100 yards. In 11 regular season wins, the Badgers averaged 190 rushing ypg. In a loss to Michigan and an offensive stall against Arkansas, they totalled 7. Above all else, they must establish PJ Hill.
* Run for 150 yards. :wink: That's really the key to success for Wisconsin. But for what it's worth, Michigan was the only team to pass for 200 yards against them last season, and that was their only loss.

10. Ohio State
After exploding in mid-2005 and dominating all of 2006, the Buckeye offense is a major question in 2007. So much is gone that they return just 800 yards of rushing, basically 0 yards passing, and about 1000 yards receiving IN TOTAL. To put that in perspective, Antonio Pittman rushed for 1275 yards last season, Ginn and Gonzalez hauled in a little over 1500 yards receiving, and I personally threw for 0 yards at Ohio State. Now while Boeckman or Schoenhoft are better QBs than me, they won't have players who can live up to the roles their starters had last season. It will be up to Chris Wells and the offensive line to grind out enough games for the defense to win. Speaking of defense, the unit that finished #2 in ppg for the regular season does return six starters including a fearsome LB corps and what should be a strong secondary. As long as the offense doesn't give this group a short field to defend, they should be holding most opponents to under 14 points - enough for the ground and kicking games to win it. The schedule is pretty easy until late October through the finale, when the team visits Penn State and Michigan and hosts Wisconsin.
Keys to Victory:
* Keep the score down. It's no secret that Ohio State lost nearly all of their offensive production from 2006. They're not going to beat Michigan 42-39 this year, so they'd better be able to win a lot of games with 21 points.
* Play Tressell-ball. Tressell ball means playing the field position game and not leaving points on the field. Ohio State has made it to two national championships - in 2002, opponents had to go 24 yards to score 1 point against OSU, and in 2006 they had to go 22 yards per point. In 2001, 03, 04, and 05 that average has been between 16 and 18 - ie, the other team was having to go shorter distances to score.

11. Oklahoma
Solid everywhere except QB, as has been the recent tale of the Sooners.
Keys to Victory:
* Be ready in September. The last two seasons, the Sooners have lost seven games total. Five of those came before or including the Red River Shootout the first weekend in October. A lot of these struggles have to do with new quarterbacks and the secondary not being in sync. This year they will have a new QB but an experienced secondary returning four starters.
* No excuses! OU has tried to get their Orange Bowl loss to USC, their 2005 loss to Texas Tech, and their 2006 loss to Oregon thrown out. Maybe they're right, maybe not. But two of those games (you guess which ones) they were winning late in the 4th quarter and let the lead slip away. Win the game now rather than whining later.

12. Arkansas
With the departure of (overrated) Mitch Mustain, the offense will rely entirely on the best RB duo in the nation. Breaking through that 11-15 group will probably require McFadden to really master that Wildcat package.
Keys to Victory
* Don't rack disciprine! Arkansas was one of the most penalized teams in 2006. It cost them their bowl game at least, possibly the LSU game as well.
* You don't have to air it out, but try to be less than pathetic throwing it. Against USC, Arkansas as a team was 16-32 for 157 yards and -5 net turnovers. In a 2OT win over Alabama, they were 7-22 for 97 yards and -2 net TO. 5-20 for 62 yards against LSU, 12-26 for 179 but -2 net TO against Florida, and 15-32 for 136 against Wisconsin. On the season, their three QBs threw 17 interceptions and just 19 touchdowns. Terrible.

13. Florida State
Strong defense, no more Jeff Bowden. The pounding of UCLA in the Emerald Bowl could have been a statement for this season.
Keys to Victory:
* Don't throw into triple coverage. I don't have fancy statistics on this, but my co-bloggers will know what I'm talking about. In games where the Noles surpassed 300 yards passing, they were 3-1. In games where they were held under 150, they were 0-2.
* Less QB draws and Toss Sweeps. Five times last season, FSU failed to break 50 yards rushing. Losses to Boston College, Wake Forest, and Florida, and wins over Miami (1 yard rushing!) and Troy. Scoring 13 points against Miami and 24 against Troy aren't exactly bragable statistics, but the defense was able to bail them out.
* Fire Jeff Bowden. Check.

14. Nebraska
Keller brings a true west coast offense style QB, but the defense lost a lot of talent.
Keys to Victory:
* Rush for 123 yards. That specific, eh? Against USC, Texas, and Oklahoma - three losses - Nebraska failed to reach the century mark on the ground. In a 116 yard performance against Kansas they won in OT, and in a 104 yard performance against Aubun they lost by 3. 123 yards got them a 1 point win over Texas A&M, so I assume it's the magic number.

15. Hawaii
Crazy offense, soft schedule.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. Hawaii was on the minus side of net TOs four times last season, including all three of their losses. They were still able to destroy UNLV thanks to nearly 600 yards total offense.
* Run the ball for 100 yards OR go absolutely crazy passing. In three losses, Hawaii was held to 22, 88, and 103 yards rushing. They did win three games while rushing for under 100 yards - passing for 529, 497, 486 yards in those games.

16. Cal
Longshore's solid, the WRs are great, and Forsett will be a good runningback. Until the defense learns to tackle, they aren't cracking the top 15.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. Cal's another team who seems like they score a lot and get scored on a lot. They were +6 turnovers for the year, but -6 in the three games they lost.
* Tackle, tackle, tackle. Tennessee turned at least two short passes into long touchdowns, as well as breaking off a long TD run. This is a known weakness of Cal's, and it's a weakness that no team in the top ten has.

17. Rutgers
Despite losing Brian Leonard, the offense might be better in 2007 with Teel supposedly having found his passing game. The defense loses five starters though - 3 of their leading 5 tacklers - and you wonder how deep a program like Rutgers is.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. Rutgers was +11 for the season in turnovers, having a negative net in just two games (win over Navy, loss to Cincinnati).
* Don't make the offense win the game. Rutgers scored nearly 30 ppg last season, and was held under 20 only once. But in their two losses, they gave up 30 and 41 points. Ray Rice isn't going to be carrying the team to 35+ points against quality opposition, so the defense needs to just keep the scoring reasonable enough that the offense can win with 24-28 points.

18. Tennessee
Loss of the entire WR corps will put this offense in a shell. QB, RB, and most of the defense are good.
Keys to Victory:
* Open up the passing game. In the 2002 and 2005 seasons, Tennessee's passing totals hovered around 200 ypg, seasons with 5 and 6 losses apiece. They had better results in 2001 and 2006, with about 260 passing ypg.
* Stop the opponent's running game. In three of their four losses, the Vols gave up 231, 259, and 183 yards rushing.

19. Penn State
Strong defense but lacking any offensive punch.
Keys to Victory:
* Allow less than 100 rushing yards. Penn State was 1-4 in games where they allowed over 100 yards rushing (202 by Illinois wtf?) and 8-0 when they didn't.
* Protect the QB. Penn State allowed 23 sacks in 13 games which isn't bad, but 16 of those came in their four losses including 7 vs Michigan.

20. Missouri
If they hadn't choked away their bowl game, they'd be getting more hype. This offense will be terrifying if everybody performs.
Keys to Victory:
* Stop the opponent's ground game. The numbers don't always align, but in four of their five losses they gave up over 180 yards on the ground. The fifth loss (Oregon State, 101 yards rush) should have been a victory were it not for a late-game collapse.
* So on that note, don't sit on a lead with almost an entire quarter to play! Three of their five losses were by 6 points or less, while every victory was by 10 or more. If you're not a clutch team, then you need to blow them out. On the plus side, it would be hard to do any worse in close games... even the law of averages says they should win at least one this season.

21. Auburn
Despite an experienced QB and what should be a solid defense, the rest of the support simply is not there.
Keys to Victory:
* Put up more than token resistance against the run. In Auburn's only two losses of 2006, they gave up 279 and 227 yards rushing. Against Florida they gave up 171 but were +2 turnovers in a game that came down to the final play.
* 100/100? LSU, Arkansas, Georgia, and Nebraska all held Auburn to under 20 points - games in which the Tigers were 2-2. These were the only four games in which the Tigers did not gain both 100 yards rushing and 100 yards passing.

22. Texas A&M
Hype, hype, hype. The 2006 offense padded their stats with a ridiculously soft noncoference schedule, and the defense couldn't even do that.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle - by a lot. A&M's two biggest victories were against Missouri and Texas, they were +3 TO in both games. +1 and even games couldn't get the job done in their four losses.
* Be two-dimensional. While A&M is going to be a running team, they can't just run the ball. Texas and Oklahoma held A&M to under 100 yards passing, resulting in a loss to the Sooners and a win in which they scored just 4 FGs against the Longhorns. Texas Tech defeated them while holding them to 103 yards passing, and Army nearly beat the Aggies while holding them to 102 yards passing.

23. UCLA
Returning 20 starters is great. Losing five games by double digit margins (six total) and getting blown out of your bowl game isn't. They'll be a better version of themselves - which, aside from one game in November, wasn't that great.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. I know I'm saying this for every team, but check this out: UCLA was 5-2 in games where they had a positive net TO, and 1-4 in games with a negative net TO (the win was 26-16 over Rice, not exactly a great outing).

24. Miami (FL)
By talent, they should probably be higher. But Wright has yet to have a good year at QB and they have been underachieving for several seasons overall.
Keys to Victory:
* Find the passing game. Miami lost five games in which they scored 13 points or less. They passed for no more than 152 yards in any of those games.
* Shut down the pass. Miami has had one of the best pass defenses in the nation for several seasons. But in the only two games where they gave up over 20 points (31 and 30), they surrendered 294 and 195 yards through the air. Only a +4 TO differential held Duke to 15 points despite passing for 284 yards, but that was with essentially the entire Miami team suspended for fighting the week earlier.

25. South Carolina
In 2002, Phil Steele predicted that a previously mediocre Ohio State team would be a dark horse title contender. AND IT HAPPENED. So why shouldn't we trust him about the other USC?
Keys to Victory:
* Pressure the QB. South Carolina sacked the opposition 31 times in 13 games last season. But in four of their five losses, they had just 3 sacks total. This defense doesn't shut offenses down, so getting the drive-stopping play is going to be important.
* Stay two-dimensional! Three times the Cocks rushed for under 100 yards, two of them losses. The other was a 15-0 win over Mississippi State - a game won by the defense.

On the cusp:

Nine offensive starters, a lockdown corner, and Nick Saban. Can that turn around a 6-7 team?
Keys to Victory:
* Open the field with Prothro. Tyrone Prothro, Alabama's key to offensive success in 2005, has finally returned to the lineup. They were 5-0 when he played that season, 5-2 for the rest of the season, and 6-7 last season without him. If he can push the Tide's offensive average over 28 ppg, they will be tough to beat.
* Win the turnover battle. While not a great team either way, Alabama was 0-4 in games where they lost the TO battle, 1-1 when it was even, and 5-2 when they won it (close losses to Arkansas and Tennessee).

Boston College
Lucky wins vs Clemson and BYU, and struggles against CMU, FSU, and Navy. This team could have just as easily been 6-7 last year.
Keys to Victory:
* Hope everything goes their way in the kicking game. BC won games on a missed extra point, a missed FG in OT, and a last minute FG by a walk-on. Instead of 10-3 they easily could have been 8-5.
* Continue to dominate the turnover game. BC was +15 in turnovers last season, but in two of their three losses they were +0 and -1 for the game. TOs played critical roles in their wins over Va Tech, FSU, and Maryland.

They do have one of the nation's strongest RB duos after Arkansas. Harper's play at QB and the emergence of a WR to replace Stuckey will determine whether this team can crack the top 25.
Keys to Victory:
* Hold the opposition under 200 yards passing. They were 1-4 when they didn't, with a lone win over Florida Atlantic.
* Hold the opposition under 20 points. Clemson was held under 20 points just twice last season - 7 in a shutdown by Va Tech (the only game they didn't gain 100 yards rushing), and 12 in a game where lots of drives stalled out for FGs against Maryland. In three of the four games where they gave up over 20 points, the defense allowed over 200 yards rushing or 300 yards passing! Just don't allow any explosions and they should be fine.

When the QBs learn to throw and the WRs learn to catch, this team will be pretty tough. Defensively and at the RB position they are solid.
Keys to Victory:
* Establish the running game. Four times UGA was held under 100 yards last season - a 14 point day against Colorado, a 14 point day (and loss) to Florida, a 15 point day against Georgia Tech, and a bowl win over Va Tech in which the defense set up almost all of the scoring. While they went 3-1 in these games, without absolutely outstanding defensive play it would have been 0-4.
* Improved QB and WR play. Losses to Tennessee and Florida both featured numerous interceptions and low completion percentages.

Annoying to hear about. Blindingly awful unis. If Dixon figures out how to tell which players are his teammates, they could be an 8-9 win team.
Keys to Victory:
* Hold onto the ball. UO threw 18 interceptions last season and finished -10 net turnovers. It won't get much better than 7-6 with that kind of ball control.
* Pay off the officials in close games.
* Blind your opponents with your uniforms. Check.

Oregon State
They return 16 starters (8/8) from a team that won ten games, conference co-champions, beat USC, and won their bowl game last season. However, their three biggest victories were all by a FG or less, so repeating that will be difficult. Replacing Matt Moore will be difficult, too, as Gunderson and Canfield both have inferior stats.
Keys to Victory:
* Protect the QB. 21 of their 35 sacks given up came in their four losses. (another 6 came against USC, a close win)
* Pass efficiently. In their victories over USC, rival Oregon, and bowl foe Missouri, Oregon State completed nearly 2/3 of their passes. This made up for the fact that in two of those games, they didn't break 100 yards rushing. The burden of moving this offense will be on the shoulders of a new QB this year, so he must step up.

South Florida
Last season they beat West Virginia and came up just two points short against Rutgers. They return 16 starters and have a dual-threat QB who has gained experience after starting as a freshman.
Keys to Victory:
* Win the turnover battle. South Florida took a very up and down route to being -4 TOs overall. They lost two very winnable games to Rutgers and Cincinnati by being -5 net TO total. They also upset West Virginia by being +2 net TO.
* The offense must show up! USF averaged 23 ppg last season, and the defense only allowed 22 or more points in three games - all losses. In the three games the offense scored less than 20, though, it was a complete disaster - try 21 points total.

Texas Tech
Harrell may be the most talented QB Mike Leach has ever had, but four new starters on the o-line? One thing's for sure, though... this is a team that will *never* quit! I'm still shocked at what occurred in the Insight Bowl.
Keys to Victory:
* Protect the QB. Amazingly for a pass-happy team, Texas Tech gave up just 19 sacks last season. But every game they gave up more than two sacks in, they either lost or made the biggest comeback in div I history. This season they will have four new starters on the o-line, so that could be a problem.
* Win the turnover battle. TT was 1-3 in games where they had a negative net TO, with that win once again the thriller over Minnesota.

Wake Forest
This team actually allowed more ypg than they gained, but won three games by 3 or less and two more by a TD. The offense stalled out in their losses, and this season the defense returns just five starters.
Keys to Victory:
* Amazingly, Wake Forest was 1-1 in games where they scored 10 points or less, 2-2 when scoring 14 or less, and 3-3 when scoring 20 or less. The defense rose to the occasion when they had to, but WF can't bank on a repeat of that. In four of the five games where they scored under 20 points, they ran for under 100 yards, and in each game where they scored 20 or more points they ran for at least 99 yards.
* On the season, Wake Forest was +13 in turnovers, which directly contributed to their defensive ppg falling from the 23-28 range over 2001-05 down to 15 ppg last season, and yards per point increasing from the 13-17 range up to 21. If Wake even wants to think of a 9-win season, they'll probably need to be +10 TO for the year because their talent will not let them compete with a lot of the teams they face otherwise.