Previewing the Top Teams for the 2006-07 Season

May 1, 2006

Rob Rang, Senior Analyst,
Special to


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 Glendale, Ariz. playing for the national title on Jan. 8, 2007 -- what they do with it between now and then is up to them.




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, Texas features a talented offensive line and speed at the skill positions to take pressure off the young quarterbacks.


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 Texas is able to hold off the Buckeyes, they should be able to over-match every other team they meet -- with the possible exception of Oklahoma.




Louisville listed ahead of perennial powerhouses USC, Miami, and Ohio State? Well, in terms of talent and their ability to be a title contender, the Cardinals certainly deserve high praise -- especially on offense.


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, Louisville has sent its share of defensive players on to the pros as well. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil was a one-man wrecking crew last year, and tackle Montavious Stanley and linebacker Brandon Johnson will move on to the NFL along with him. The defensive talent isn't quite as good this year, but watch out for breakout campaigns from linebacker Nate Harris and cornerback William Gay.


Louisville is a legitimate dark horse contender for the national championship, though a weak non-conference schedule (with one notable exception) won't do the Cardinals any favors. Louisville will almost certainly be favored in every game, with the possible exception being fellow Big East opponent West Virginia and key ACC non-conference opponent Miami. Fortunately for the Cardinals, both games are at home.




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 (Nebraska, Cal, Arizona State, Notre Dame) and all are in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum.




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 Columbus. Though the team lost wide receiver Santonio Holmes to the NFL, Ted Ginn, Jr. returns, as does fellow wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, the next Buckeye speedster. Tailback Antonio Pittman gives the Buckeyes their best running option since Maurice Clarett.


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 Columbus. Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan are spread throughout the schedule evenly, allowing the team some breather. The Buckeyes will certainly have their hands full in the second game of the season at Texas, and could be in for a battle when visiting Michigan State Oct. 14th.




Larry Coker made a bit of a statement with his firing of several long-time assistant coaches following Miami's embarrassing 40-3 loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Coker let defensive line coach Greg Mark go at midseason and then axed long-time offensive line coach Art Kehoe, offensive coordinator Dan Werner, running backs coach Don Soldinger and linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves.


Expectations are always high at Miami, and the Hurricanes have a fine collection of talent once again, but Coker's job could become tenuous with a disappointing 2006.


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.


Defensively, Miami will certainly miss the consistency brought by cornerback Kelly Jennings, but with another potential All-American in Brandon Meriweather returning at safety and the versatile Baraka Atkins manning the defensive line, the expectation is Miami will continue to be among the top defenses in the country. It might be hard to match last year's accomplishments, considering the loss of five starters and the fact Miami finished fourth in the nation in average yards allowed, but young star, Willie Williams (OLB) and Randy Phillips (CB) appear ready to make a name for themselves.


Miami is fortunate in that while it has the always difficult ACC schedule to contend with, many of its toughest games -- Florida State, Boston College, Virginia Tech -- are at home. Watch out for the Louisville contest Sept. 16th. The winner of that contest could be in prime position for a BCS berth.




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 Miami in the Peach Bowl, and also waiting in the wings is Ryan Perrilloux, a talented redshirt freshman who was widely considered the nation's top prep quarterback prospect in 2004. Also expected to carry the offense are wide receivers Craig Davis, Dwayne Bowe and Early Doucet, as well as running backs Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard. Though the defense lost arguably the top defensive tackle duo in the country in Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams, standouts LaRon Landry (free safety) and Chase Pittman (defensive end) return.


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, Florida and Tennessee all on the road.




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 Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue is enough to dent any team's title chances.




The Sooners have the potential to return to the national title picture if an offensive line replacing four starters can hold up. Oklahoma returns quarterback Rhett Bomar, who with a season of experience under his belt and a 6-1 record down the stretch last season cannot be ignored.


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 Oregon and Washington.




The hope in Morgantown is that the players are young enough to not take too seriously the pressure that comes with being a media darling. With 51 lettermen returning to a young team that went 11-1 last year and beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Mountaineers are worthy of the praise.


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 Mississippi State could present some problems, though the main threat is the Nov. 2 contest at Louisville, which likely will decide the conference champion and the Big East's representative in the BCS. 




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 Nebraska finished 5-6 in 2004, its first losing season since 1961. However, the 'Huskers improved to 8-4 last year and are trying to ride the momentum of a season-ending three-game winning streak into 2006.


The team certainly has talent to work with. Long gone are the days when the Nebraska offense was built around an I-back and a powerful offensive line. The loss of Cory Ross, the Offensive MVP each of the past two seasons, opens the door for Marlon Lucky and Cody Glenn.


Even more important, however, is Nebraska's emerging passing attack. Senior Zac Taylor threw for a single-season school record 2,653 yards last season, and will again have wide receivers Terrence Nunn and Nate Swift (combined 88 receptions in 2005) to throw to.


The Nebraska defense also returns some standouts, including defensive end Adam Carriker and linebacker Corey McKeon. Carriker led the 'Huskers with 9.5 sacks, while McKeon led the team with 98 tackles and 22 tackles for loss.


Early games against Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State and Troy should help the 'Huskers start off hot, but later games against Southern California and Texas will be considerable tests if Nebraska aims to stay in the national title hunt.


Others to keep an eye on:


Georgia: Only Miami and Ohio State have sent more players to the NFL over the past five years than Georgia, so this is clearly a talented program. This could be a down year, however, with inexperience at quarterback and several other key positions. In fact, the Bulldogs only return 11 of 26 starters.


California: Whether the starting quarterback ends up being Joe Ayoob, Nate Longshore or even redshirt freshman Kyle Reed, one can expect any passer in Cal's wide open offense to post impressive numbers. It shouldn't be too tough, especially with star running back Marshawn Lynch forcing most defenses to commit to stopping the run. On defense, tackle Brandon Mebane, cornerback Daymeion Hughes and linebacker Desmond Bishop are returning standouts.


Michigan: Michigan could quickly re-emerge as a Big Ten power if the offensive versatility returns. Quarterback Chad Henne, running backs Mike Hart and Kevin Grady, and the experience of Steve Breaston as well as the upside of sophomore Mario Manningham could make the Michigan offense the most feared in the Big Ten. In addition to the potent offense, the Wolverines boast two defensive playmakers in potential All-Americans LaMarr Woodley and Leon Hall.


Tennessee: Coming off a 5-6 season and a year that featured more violations than victories, the Vols return with more talent than many are giving them credit for. The re-hiring of David Cutcliffe, previously an offensive coach with Tennessee for 17 years and generally credited with the development of both Peyton (at Tennessee) and Eli (at Mississippi) Manning, will help the team get the most out of Erik Ainge.


Auburn: The Tigers have a lot of work to do, as they will be replacing two offensive tackles and three defensive line starters, as well as three experienced receivers, a playmaking tight end, two linebackers, a starting fullback and must solidify the safety positions after moving starting free safety Will Herring to linebacker. However, with Kenny Irons and Courtney Taylor on offense, and Montavis Pitts and Herring on defense, the talent is there to surprise in 2006.


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.


Florida State: Though he was rarely recognized outside of Florida for his accomplishments, Drew Weatherford finished last season with the most prolific numbers of any freshman quarterback in ACC history, passing former N.C. State star Philip Rivers. Weatherford is the brightest star on a team that features two electrifying runners in Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith, and an emerging receiver in Greg Carr. The team has to answer questions about a defense that struggled this spring and is looking to replace several standouts, including tackle Brodrick Bunkley, linebacker Ernie Sims and cornerback Antonio Cromartie. 



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