May 1, 2006
Rob Rang, Senior Analyst, NFLDraftScout.com
Special to CSTV.com
We've covered the nation's top quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defensive players. But the burning question remains, which teams will compete for spots in the national championship game next January?
Winning the title requires not only quality players and coaches, but also necessitates a favorable schedule, the ability to avoid and overcome injuries, and a little bit of luck.
Below is a breakdown of the best collections of talent and coaching heading into the 2006 season. These teams have the basic elements to land in
Even with the loss of Vince Young and of several other NFL-caliber players, the Longhorns will enter the 2006 season as a top contender once again.
Certainly, some of the rationale serves as respect for last season's accomplishments. However, the Longhorns appear to be as prepared to reload as any top team in the country.
While two freshmen, Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead, are the top contenders to take over for Young,
The loss of defensive backs Michael Huff, the Thorpe Award winner last year, and Cedric Griffin, won't affect the Longhorns as much as some might think. Senior Michael Griffin (unrelated) is the next in line to become a first-round draft pick, and the team could feature an even stronger pass rush with Tim Crowder another year along in his development.
The Longhorns are certainly in position to repeat with a formidable, but winnable schedule. They get a tune-up game against North Texas to start the season and then play host to Ohio State in a rematch of last year's dramatic clash. If
Of course, much of the success rests on the surgically repaired ACL of star quarterback Brian Brohm. Brohm, who ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency, went down late last year, but is expected to be ready by the fall. Running back Michael Bush, the nation's top scorer with 23 rushing touchdowns, is back. Wide receiver Mario Urrutia, who led the Big East in yards per catch (21.5), also returns. Add two blue-chip transfers, wide receiver Chris Vaughn from Notre Dame and wide receiver Pat Carter from Georgia Tech to an offense that averaged 43.4 points per game last season and one can see why the Oakland Raiders were so interested in stealing Bobby Petrino away as their own head coach.
While the offense gets all of the attention,
What kind of statement does it make about the Trojans when they can lose the past two Heisman Trophy winners (Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart), the Pac-10's career leader in touchdowns scored (LenDale White), and two other high-level draft picks (Winston Justice, Darnell Bing) and still be considered among the nation's most talented teams?
The Trojans clearly do deserve high praise for their ability to annually reload. Quarterback is one of the main concerns with John David Booty sidelined most of the spring following back surgery, and backup Mark Sanchez suspended indefinitely following his arrest Wednesday for investigation of sexually assaulting a female student, according to police.
The Trojans hope one or both will be ready for the fall, and neither one has to be great with wide receivers like Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith to throw to.
USC also boasts an exciting young defense. Oscar Lua and Keith Rivers look like two of the stronger elements of one of the top young linebacking corps in the country, and defensive lineman Lawrence Jackson appears on the verge of stardom.
The Trojans should be able to sweep through the Pac-10 again in 2006, though they'll face increasing resistance from Cal and Arizona State. With that said, improved play from the Pac-10 might only help the Trojans' chances at returning to the title game. There appear to be only a handful of contests the Trojans might struggle with (
Troy Smith emerged during the second half of last season to become the most dangerous quarterback not named Vince Young. His performance against Michigan and Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to close out the season has expectations sky high in
The offense will have to be explosive because the defense is losing more talent than any other in the country. All three linebackers (A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel) and all four defensive backs (Donte Whitner, Ashton Youboty, Nate Salley and Tyler Everett) are gone. The Buckeyes led the country against the rush and paced the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense. That won't happen again in 2006.
The Buckeyes are fortunate in that most of their toughest conference games will be played in
Larry Coker made a bit of a statement with his firing of several long-time assistant coaches following
Expectations are always high at
The season likely will boom or bust with the offense. Young quarterback Kyle Wright has shown flashes in the past, and the hope is enigmatic receivers Ryan Moore and Lance Leggett can step up. They should have a chance to produce early with defenses likely to focus on running backs Tyrone Moss and Charlie Jones, and the underneath routes of potential All-American tight end Greg Olsen.
However, Wright struggled against pressure in the pocket last season, and once again will be playing behind an inexperienced offensive line.
LSU lost key members on the offensive and defensive lines, but has the talent at the skill positions to rank high on the list of the nation's most talented teams. While the coaching staff is focused on replacing a total of six starters from the lines, most fans' eyes will be on the developments at quarterback and running back.
JaMarcus Russell is considered one of the more intriguing talents at the quarterback position by NFL scouts, but backup Matt Flynn led LSU to a dominating 40-3 victory over
LSU has enough holes to fill that the Tigers won't be considered a strong BCS competitor, even with their great talent and Les Miles proving he can win big games in the SEC. The Tigers have a particularly tough schedule ahead of them with key SEC matchups against Auburn,
If the defense is able to make any kind of improvement, the Irish will prove to be legitimate title contenders. The offense is certainly in good hands with Heisman hopeful quarterback Brady Quinn, along with receiver Jeff Samardzija and running back Darius Walker.
Though the defense struggled as a whole last season, there is reason for optimism. Safety Tom Zbikowski is among the best at his position in the country, and emerging defensive linemen Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri have also impressed. The line must provide a consistent pass rush to help a secondary that allowed far too many big plays in 2005.
What will likely keep the Irish from truly rising to the top in 2006 is a typically horrific schedule. Opening up against Georgia Tech and then carrying through September with the likes of
The Sooners have the potential to return to the national title picture if an offensive line replacing four starters can hold up.
The catalyst for the Sooners remains Adrian Peterson, quite possibly the heir apparent to Reggie Bush as the nation's most dynamic player. With or without a great line, Peterson figures to be among the nation's top rushers if he can stay healthy.
The defense once again appears to be very athletic, and should keep the Sooners in games even when the offense sputters. The biggest bonus is a much more manageable schedule than recent seasons, with the non-conference schedule including very winnable games against Pac-10 opponents
The hope in
The most well known feature of the program is the fabulous one-two punch of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, the Sugar Bowl MVP last year as a true freshman after running for a bowl-record 204 yards.
Coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense gets all of the attention, but the defense deserves some mention as well. Linebackers Kevin McLee and Jay Henry established themselves as two of the better performers at the position in the Big East conference, and defensive linemen Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle aren't far behind.
ACC and SEC opponents Maryland and
The selection of West Coast Offense proponent Bill Callahan to overhaul the Cornhusker attack after the 2003 season was met with plenty of skepticism. It certainly didn't help when
The team certainly has talent to work with. Long gone are the days when the
Even more important, however, is
Early games against Louisiana Tech,
Others to keep an eye on:
Florida: The loss of receiver Chad Jackson, considered by many to be the best receiver entering the 2006 NFL Draft, could register barely a blip on the radar if Urban Meyer's offense is fully mastered by senior quarterback Chris Leak. Running back DeShawn Wynn and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas have significant pro potential, as well, but for the Gators to improve in 2006 they'll need to play more consistently.