New year, new hope for 2007's struggling teams
The bowl season was highlighted by a few turnaround programs which found the spotlight (Illinois and Kansas, just to name two). This week's Top 10 list is about the teams I expect to make the biggest jump in wins in 2008.
1. Notre DameThings simply couldn't be any worse in South Bend, Ind., after a 3-9 season. The Irish established a new level for "rock bottom" almost weekly. ND ranked dead last in Division I-A in total offense, 116th in scoring offense and rushing offense and 110th in passing. Worse still, the Irish lost to Navy for the first time in 44 games and lost nine games by more than 21 points per game.
On the bright side, the Irish did play a bunch of true freshmen, 11 in all. Linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith were solid, as was NT Ian Williams and WR Duval Kamara. WR-KR Golden Tate flashed some much-needed big-play potential and QB Jimmy Clausen got a ton of experience. The Irish do lose a handful of key seniors, most notably DE Trevor Laws, their best player, and TE John Carlson. Still, Clausen should be better as Charlie Weis talked about him bulking up. His outside receivers will benefit from the added experience. And if Clausen doesn't get better fast, then incoming freshman Dayne Crist may overtake him. Even though the Irish O-line loses three-year starting center John Sullivan, it should be improved from the dismal showing in 2007, when they looked bewildered every time they faced a blitz. Another big plus: The schedule is lighter. The Irish trade Georgia Tech for San Diego State; UCLA for Washington; Air Force for Syracuse and Penn State for Pitt, meaning they lose four bowl teams and get back none.
2: PittsburghAll hail the 'stache! The Panthers emerged from a four-game losing skid to upset No. 23 Cincinnati and finished off the season by wrecking the title hopes of West Virginia in Morgantown. Pitt will return many of the leaders of the nation's No. 7 defense as well as one of the country's top young running backs in LeSean McCoy. They also hope to get back smooth WR Derek Kinder, an All-Big East pick in 2006, who underwent season-ending knee surgery during training camp. QB Bill Stull, another former starter, also will return from injury, and he will try and beat out Pat Bostick, the talented true freshman who finished the season as Pitt's starter. DT Gus Mustakas, a rugged inside presence, missed the final 10 games of the season after knee surgery and also should be back, as will tackle machine Scott McKillop. I think the Panthers' patience with Dave Wannstedt will pay off with a return to the Top 25 next season and maybe even a Big East title.
3. Ole MissHouston Nutt takes over a pretty ripe situation in Oxford. Texas transfer Jevan Snead, who wowed the Rebels staff with his arm and athleticism while running the scout team, finally becomes eligible. As does UCLA transfer Jeremy McGee, who should provide a needed big-play threat out of the backfield to complement bruising RB Cordera Eason, a 230-pounder expected to take over for BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Snead will have plenty of speedy targets and might also add TB Tig Barksdale, 6-foot-6, 215-pound WR DeAndre Brown and burner Alonzo Lawrence, the state's top three prospects who are expected to end up in Oxford. The Rebels' underachieving O-line, however, needs lots of help. On defense, DT Peria Jerry and DE Greg Hardy have first-round talent and the secondary should improve with more experience. Having LB Jonathan Cornell return to form after being lost to a stinger in the second game of the season should really help at a position where Ole Miss is extremely shaky. Getting former all-world DT recruit Jerrell Powe finally on the field would also make a big impact. The schedule also sets up nicely since the toughest of the first four games -- and the lone road trip -- is to Wake Forest.
It's been a long time since the Huskies have gone bowling (six years) and no coach will be on a hotter seat than Tyrone Willingham. U-Dub has a great piece to build around in QB Jake Locker, a dynamic runner who gave many defensive coordinators headaches in his first season. Locker will have to make big strides as a passer, but he will be bolstered by a veteran O-line. The Huskies won't have any established targets, but Willingham is bringing in an impressive class of receivers. He's even snatched blue-chipper Chris Polk away from USC.
5. MiamiTo open at Florida and then go to A&M won't be easy for what might be first-time starting QB Robert Marve. The good news: Marve will be able to rely on a stable of talented running backs and an experienced group of linemen. The Canes' defense was dismal in 2007, especially by UM standards. Randy Shannon canned defensive coordinator Tim Walton, and his replacement will inherit a gifted secondary aided by the return of safety Anthony Reddick, who missed all of the 2007. UM also should get back savvy underclassmen Romeo Davis and Glenn Cook, a pair of linebackers who seldom are out of position. Better still, Shannon is in the process of landing possibly the top recruiting class in the country.
6. Louisiana TechDerek Dooley has really upgraded the talent level quite a bit. Not only did Dooley land one of the nation's top juco pass-rushers in Kwame Jordan, but he also has a batch of former SEC talent set to take the field. Former Auburn QB Steve Ensminger will battle Michael Mosley for the vacant quarterback job. On defense, Jordan will be joined by one-time Tennessee recruit Rolando Melancon, a cat-quick 270-pound defensive tackle, and Zach Schreiber, a hard-hitting former Alabama linebacker. The secondary returns safety Antonio Baker, the team's best defender.
Butch Davis' rebuilding job is taking shape nicely. The Tar Heels started seven freshmen in their season finale. UNC was extremely young, but the 4-8 Heels lost their games by an average of less than four points per game. Sophomore wideout Hakeem Nicks set school records and freshman QB T.J. Yates had a promising first season. True freshman Greg Little ran for 243 yards in the last two games after shifting from WR to tailback and also seems set to be a good ACC player. DT Marvin Austin started as a true freshman, and flashed the potential to be a dominant force on the defense.
8. MarshallComing off a 3-9 season, the Thundering Herd fan base has grown pretty restless. The defense, which gave over more than 30 points nine times this season, should get a huge boost with the return of DE Albert McClellan, the 2006 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, who was lost for the season on the first day of preseason practice due to a knee injury. DT Monte Glasco missed most of the season too. On offense, Mark Snyder has to find a new QB but he has stockpiled some very impressive skill talent that should make a big impact in '08.
9. NebraskaIt's tough to expect an instant turnaround from a first-time head coach in his first season, but Bill Callahan left behind some pieces for Bo Pelini to work with (start with QB Joe Ganz and TB Marlon Lucky). The Huskers also open with five home games and have eight home dates on the schedule. Pelini's expertise is defense, and he has his work cut out for him with a unit that surrendered 40 or more points six times in 2007. Four years ago, when Pelini worked as Nebraska's defensive coordinator, the Cornhuskers tied a school record by forcing 47 turnovers and ranked second nationally in takeaways. That was 36 more turnovers than the team generated this fall.
10. MinnesotaWhen you only win one game, you're almost guaranteed to improve, especially if you've recruited as well as Tim Brewster has. The Gophers weren't that far from winning a few more games, considering they lost six games by a total of 23 points. Redshirt freshman quarterback Adam Weber needs to cut down on the turnovers and sophomore WR Eric Decker is a keeper. Defensively, the Gophers have major strides to make, but the talent level is improving, and it will be even better thanks to the arrival of DT Jewhan Edwards, Scouts Inc.'s No. 7-rated interior lineman.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.