We are only a week away from kickoff. Seems like a pretty good time to step out of the SEC and ACC and take a quick look at the other Division I-A conferences. I’m picking the conference winners with a possible dark horse for each. If you disagree with my picks, please give me yours.
Winner: Cincinnati. The defending champions lost 10 starters on defense but return quarterback Tony Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, one of the best in the country. I think Brian Kelly is a very good coach. The fact that the Bearcats COULD win tells you how down the league is this year.
Dark Horse: South Florida. I keep waiting on the Bulls to win the Big East. But they have been in the hunt the past two seasons only to fall apart in the second half. A team that has Matt Grothe at quarterback and George Selvie at defensive end should be better than the Bulls have been.
Winner: Penn State. A lot of people like Ohio State because of sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor. But the Nittany Lions have a senior quarterback in Darryl Clark and a really good running back in Evan Royster. They also get Ohio State at home on Nov. 7.
Dark Horse: Iowa. The Hawkeyes lost their great running back, Shonn Greene, but they have a steady quarterback in Ricky Stanzi and a defense that gave up only 13 points per game last season, which was fifth in the nation. If sophomore RB Jewel Hampton can stay healthy Iowa has a shot. But the Hawkeyes must play Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State on the road.
North winner: Kansas. The popular winner is Nebraska because second-year coach Bo Pelini has promised improvement on the defense. But this is a league of quarterbacks. Nebraska will have a new one. Kansas returns senior Todd Reesing.
South winner: Texas. The popular pick is Oklahoma, which returns QB Sam Bradford, the Heisman Trophy winner. But Bradford lost four of his starting five offensive linemen. Texas is playing with a major league chip on its shoulder after getting shut out of the BCS championship game last season. Colt McCoy is going to have a huge senior season that may give him the Heisman Trophy.
Dark Horse: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have all of the offensive firepower they need in QB Zac Robinson, RB Kendall Hunter, and WR Dez Bryant. What they haven’t had lately is a defense to back it up. Last season the Cowboys were 93rd nationally in total defense (405.54 yards per game). Since 2002 Oklahoma State has not been better than 74th in total defense. Bill Young has been brought in as DC to correct that. If the Oklahoma State defense improves just a little bit, the Cowboys could be this season’s Texas Tech and play the role of spoiler.
Winner: For the eighth consecutive year it has to be USC, despite questions at quarterback and a defense that lost eight starters. Four of those defensive starters were picked on the first day of the NFL Draft. Sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley are the quarterbacks. They will work behind a veteran offensive line with an embarrassment of riches at running back. Put it this way: If you don’t get Southern Cal this season, I don’t know when you’re going to get them.
Dark Horse: California has the nation’s leading returning rusher in Jahvid Best, who averaged 8.1 yards per carry last season. The Bears also have a top 25 defense that gave up less than 20 points per game in 2008. Finally, California gets USC at home on Oct. 3. Some folks like Oregon in this role but the Ducks have a new head coach in Chip Kelly.
East winner: East Carolina. The Pirates return Patrick Pinkney at quarterback (2,675 passing, 13 TD) and seven starters from a defense that finished in the top 30 in scoring.
West winner: Houston. QB Case Keenum threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns last season.
Dark Horse: Southern Mississippi. Sixteen starters return from a team that finished the 2008 season with five straight wins.
Winner: Only three starters return on offense and among the missing is quarterback Brian Johnson, who led the Utes to a 13-0 season in 2008. But Kyle Whittingham has continued to build the program after taking the handoff from Urban Meyer in 2005.
Dark Horse: BYU. Quarterback Max Hall returns after averaging 310.4 yards passing per game last season. The defense from last season’s 10-3 team returns eight starters. The Cougars play non-conference road games against Oklahoma and Florida State, but league games against TCU, Air Force, and Utah are at home.
East winner: Buffalo returns 12 starters from the defending MAC champs and gets the nod despite losing all-conference running back James Starks for the season (shoulder). Starks was Buffalo’s all-time leading rusher. Junior Brandon Thermilus will now get a shot at tailback. The Bulls of Turner Gill are going for their third straight MAC East title.
West winner: It’s got to be Central Michigan and quarterback Dan LeFevour, who threw for 2,784 yards last season and led the Chippewas to their third straight bowl. No current MAC member has ever gone to four straight bowls.
Dark Horse: Western Michigan. Tim Hiller is a big-time quarterback who completed 64.9 percent of this passes for 3,725 yards and 36 touchdowns a year ago. The Broncos were 11th nationally in passing (294.7 ypg) last season.
Winner: Troy is pretty much a lock to pick up its fourth straight Sun Belt title. But the big boys on Troy’s schedule had better pay attention because many say this is the best team that that Larry Blakeney has had in his 18 years at the school. The passing combination of senior QB Levi Brown to junior wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan (77 catches in 2008) is lethal.
Dark Horse: A lot of people like Arkansas State as the No. 2 team in the Sun Belt but I like Florida Atlantic and senior quarterback Rusty Smith (3,224 passing, 24 TD in 2008). Cortez Grant (60 catches) is a great target. The Owls get Arkansas State at home.
Winner: There is little doubt that Boise State will win the conference. The Broncos return only nine starters from a 12-1 team, but one of them is sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore (3,486 yards, 26 TD), who completed 69.4 percent of his passes last season. The question is whether or not Boise can upset Oregon at home on Sept. 3. If that happens, the Broncos could go 13-0 and make some of the big dogs in the BCS very nervous.
Dark Horse: Nevada is the most likely challenger to Boise in the WAC as the Wolf Pack returns eight starters from an offense that averaged 37.6 points per game (12th nationally) and 277.8 yards rushing (third nationally) last season. Nevada will give Notre Dame a hard time on Sept. 5 in South Bend. But also keep an eye on Derek Dooley’s Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. This is Dooley’s third year in Ruston and his team returns nine starters from an offense that enabled the Bulldogs to go 8-5 last season.
Programming note: Tonight I will be speaking to the Touchdown Club of Atlanta for their 2009 kickoff meeting at the Fox Sports Grill at Atlantic Station. At 5 p.m. we will have the first Atlanta signing of my new book on Georgia radio legend Larry Munson. The title is: “From Herschel to a Hobnail Boot-The Life and Times of Larry Munson.” Hope you can join us.
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