Filling In The Blanks
Top 10 Countdown -- the top 2
For the past several weeks I've been counting down my top 10 preseason Division 1 college football teams. It began with number 10 Wisconsin, followed in ascending order by Louisville, Virginia Tech, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Michigan. This week I am unveiling my top two teams in this unofficial poll.
Coming in at number two is West Virginia. The Mountaineers, who have one of the most explosive and dynamic offenses in all of college football, are primed for a run at a national championship.
In quarterback Patrick White, last year's Big East Player of the Year and preseason All-American tailback Steve Slaton, WVU has one of the most dangerous backfields in college football. And, don't discount fullback Owen Schmitt who averaged 5.4 yards per carry a year ago. Make no mistake this talented trio gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, especially Slaton and White.
Slaton had a sensational sophomore season rushing for 1,744 yards and 16 touchdowns, while averaging seven yards per carry. White had an even better per carry average (7.4) and scored 18 touchdowns, while accumulating 1,219 yards on the ground. That is nearly 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns from the junior teammates. This year it looks as though WVU may have insurance policy if Slaton goes down in highly touted freshman running back Noel Devine. Devine is fast, talented and the perfect fit in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense.
Of course, WVU already has a proven backup for White. Jarrett Brown filled in admirably when White was injured last year and guided WVU to a triple-overtime victory against Rutgers. He provides the Mountaineers with a solid number two quarterback who has a proven track record on the big stage.
Make no mistake, White and Slaton must stay healthy in order for the Mountaineers to compete for all the marbles, but Brown and Devine will provide WVU the opportunity to compete for the Big East crown should we have a repeat of last year.
Should the powerful running game get bogged down, White will have shifty senior wide receiver Darius Reynaud as his go-to guy. Reynaud, a second-team All Big East performer in 2006, led the Mountaineers in receptions with 39, two of those for touchdowns. Reynaud is also a threat in the kick return game and averaged 15.8 yards per carry running the ball, as well. The multi-talented Reynaud will likely draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses which should give first-year starters Nate Sowers and Tito Gonzalez an opportunity to show off their receiving skills.
WVU also returns three starters on the offensive line, although they lost Rimington Award winner Dan Mozes and three year starter Jeremy Sheffey, both first-team All Big East standouts, to graduation. Ryan Stancheck, a junior, returns at left tackle as does junior right tackle Jake Figner and sophomore left guard Gred Isdaner. They will be joined by new starters Mike Dent (Jr.) at center and junior right guard John Bradshaw. The line should once again be a strength of the Mountaineer team.
If West Virginia has a weakness, it is on defense and in particular in the defensive secondary. Though they struggled at times last year, they return four starters in senior cornerbacks Antonio Lewis and Vaughn Rivers along with senior strong safety Eric Wicks and sophomore free safety Quinton Andrews. Andrews led the team in tackles a year ago with 80, broke up two passes, with five interceptions. Wicks finished third on the team in tackles with 73, including three sacks, while breaking up seven passes and intercepting three. Lewis had 55 stops, eight pass breakups and a pair of interceptions, with Rivers totaling 38 tackles two pass breakups and two interceptions. Filling the final spot in the Mountaineer 3-3-5 defense looks to be transfer Ryan Mundy. Mundy was a starter at Michigan during his sophomore season before a neck injury sidelined the talented safety. He came back last year and started six games as a "redshirt" junior, but was playing at less than 100%. He opted to transfer to WVU, since he had completed his undergraduate degree at Michigan, and enrolled in a graduate program at West Virginia University that was not offered at the University of Michigan. A now defunct NCAA rule allowed Mundy to complete his fourth year of eligibility at WVU since Michigan did not offer a Masters Degree in Sports Management. So, even though the secondary didn't perform the way WVU fans would have liked at times in 2006, they should be improved this year.
Keilen Dykes, who had 32 tackles, three sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss from his defensive tackle position, will anchor the defensive line that also features senior defensive end Johnny Dingle and sophomore nose tackle Thor Merrow. Dingle was a starter a year ago, recording 18 tackles, three sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss, while Merrow gets his first shot in the starting lineup.
Jay Henry and Boo McLee's departure will leave the linebacking corps a little thin, but with Reed Williams, Marc Magro and Bobby Hathaway returning along with talented "redshirt" freshman JT Thomas, West Virginia's linebacking unit should be solid, if not spectacular.
There are no worries with special teams, because Pat McFee, who made 17 of 22 field goal attempts, returns, along with punter Scott Kozlowski and kick return specialist Reynaud.
WVU opens the season against Western Michigan, followed by a road contest against instate rival Marshall. West Virginia will be prohibitive favorites in those two games, and will likely get their first real test of the year on Thursday, September 13, when they travel to College Park to take on the Maryland Terrapins. A little more than two weeks later WVU will have revenge on its mind when South Florida comes to Morgantown. Though the Mountaineers will likely be favored, the Bulls of South Florida should offer a stern test. Wins at Rutgers on October 27 and against Louisville on November 8 would likely put WVU in the Big East drivers seat, with the annual "Backyard Brawl" against Pittsburgh being the only obstacle between West Virginia competing in a BCS Bowl game and a possible national title.
Sound a little farfetched? Not really. This is a talented and experienced offensive team that will score points on anyone. If the defense does its part and the injury bug doesn't strike, this could be the year.
This brings us to the number one team in the land, USC. There really isn't much to say about the Trojans from Southern California. They have been a dominant force in college football over the past five years, winning two national titles during that time and playing for a third. Last year they were upset in the regular season finale by crosstown rival UCLA, which denied the Trojans an opportunity to win their third national championship in five years. Though disappointed, USC bounced back to upset Michigan in the Rose Bowl. With 10 starters returning to a defense that head coach Pete Carroll described as his best ever a year ago and seven starters returning on offense including starting quarterback John David Booty, you can see why the Trojans are everyone's preseason pick to win the national championship. Carroll is a great coach and an even better recruiter, whose teams play with passion and skill. USC is on one of the most dominant rolls in the history of college football. There is not much more to add.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. You can rest assured that there will be upsets and that this preseason top 10 and others will be flawed. Polls generate interest and everyone has an opinion. But in the end the game is won or lost on the field, as it should be. Now it is time to sit back and enjoy the season. I know I will, regardless of the outcome.