Like last year, we start our preview with the Texas schools outside the Big 12, plus a quick take on the Texas I-AA teams that show up on other people's schedules.
This year, we've made a change to the rankings. Rather than rank each unit 1-5 relative to conference, we're just going to give them letter grades based on how good they are overall.
The Skinny: UTEP should be the best team in Conference USA this year. The reason why we emphasize should is because they lost to 3 straight teams that they were superior to on paper: UAB, lowly SMU, and Toledo in the (Car Financing) Bowl. This year, the last three weeks could be equally brutal as they include a 2-timezone road trip to UAB, a 3-timezone road trip to Marshall, and Memphis, which forced 6 turnovers their game against UTEP last year. Still, UTEP has 9 of 11 defensive starters back plus key offensive weapons Jordan Palmer and Johnnie Lee Higgins, and will fight it out with Houston for the best in the West. And they have Mike Price, who doesn't get nearly enough credit for the job he does.
Easy W's: at San Diego State, New Mexico State, SMU, Tulane, at Tulsa, Rice
Close, but probably a win: at Houston, at UAB
Close, but probably a loss: Texas Tech, at Marshall
Definite L's: at New Mexico
QB: A- - If you haven't gotten to know Jordan Palmer by now, order a few UTEP games on PPV to get a good look. He's got the tools to play on Sunday next year. He's already UTEP's all time leader in passing yards and passing TDs.
RB: C- - Marcus Thomas was part of a committee last year, now the ball is his full time. Jury's still out as to whether he can handle the load.
WR: B+ - Johnnie Lee Higgins gets a complimentary part in Florida State transfer Lorne Sam
TE: C - if you could put Jake Sears' blocking together with 6-7 Jamar Hunt's receiving, you might have a heck of a tight end
OL: B- - Graduations have hurt this unit, but it's should hold together.
DL: C+ - Alex Obomese is the star of this defensive unit, recording 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year, but the rest of the line is a question mark
LB: B+ - This unit returns the defense's top 2 tacklers, Jeremy Jones and Troy Collavo. All 3 starters are seniors
CB: C - Fast, but undersized.
S: B - Returning starters Joe Flesoski and Quintin Demps should provide great help over the top.
Kicking Game: A+ - Reagan Schneider should be a candidate for the Groza Award, except he's in C-USA, Punter Ryan Hotchkiss averaged 38.6 yards/punt.
Return Game: A - Higgins was an all-C-USA returner.
What the Miners need to do to win:
1. Play well late in the season - Teams as good as UTEP should not be dropping games late in the season
2. Limit Turnovers - Turnovers were key to some of UTEP's losses.
3. Protect Palmer - Yes, this means the offensive line has to pass block well, but it also means Marcus Thomas has to provide a solid running compliment.
Projection: 9-3 and bowling
The Skinny: As good as UTEP is, Houston will probably overtake them this year. Every unit improved last year, and they still have Kevin Kolb running the show
Easy W's: at Rice, Tulane, Grambling, Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulsa, at SMU, at Memphis
Close, but probably a win: Oklahoma St., Central Florida
Close, but probably a loss: at Southern Miss
Definite L's: at Miami (FL)
QB: A - Kevin Kolb probably will have to work to play on Sunday, but he's a senior and a good college QB.
RB: D+ - Houston is a spread team, but they still need to get better recieving and running production from whomever wins this position battle.
WR: B+ - Vincent Marshall is back and anchors this unit
IR/TE: C- - Inside recievers generally run the same routes as Tight Ends in conventional offenses. This unit needs to get first downs on a consistent basis.
OL: C - Improved a lot last year.
DL: B+ - A switch to the 3-4 made this unit a lot better in '05
LB: A- - The Cougars can roll 4 athletic linebackers, led by Wade Koehl, who has 26 career tackles for loss.
CB: B+ - 3 deep at the corner position again this year, but we'll see i
S: B- - Will depend on if senior FS Will Gulley is healthy or not.
Kicking Game: B - Sophomore K Ben Bell (8-12 FG, longest from 36 yards, 37-39 XP) is a "C", and Senior Punter Justin Laird is an "A", so I took the average.
Return Game: D - This unit is in flux because their leading returners from last year graduated.
What the Cougars need to do to win:
1. Find an RB and use him effectively - Even Steve Spurrier, Mike Leach, and Bobby Petrino have used the RB effectively in a pass-happy offense. Houston will be held back if their starter is a dud.
2. Protect Kolb - Obviously, Kolb is the engine of this offense, and needs to stay upright.
3. Continue to improve - Houston made great strides to go from 3-8 to 6-6, but if they want to get where they are projected, they need to make more strides.
Projection: 10-2 and Conference USA champs.
The Skinny: Surprisingly, SMU managed to finish 1 game below 500 last year, handing TCU it's only loss, and upsetting Houston and UTEP in conference. Still, don't expect the same results this year. SMU is once again searching for a QB after Jerad Romo's departure and the starting unit is dotted with freshmen and sophomores.
Easy W's: Sam Houston State, at Rice
Close, but probably a win: at North Texas, at Tulane
Close, but probably a loss: at Arkansas State, at East Carolina, Tulsa
Definite L's: at Texas Tech, UTEP, Marshall, UAB, Houston.
QB: F Redshirt freshman Justin Willis takes over, and there's no decent backups if he gets hurt
RB: C+ - Surprise starter DeMyron Martin had 854 yards last year
WR: F - None of the projected starters really scares anyone
TE: D+ - Again, Ryan Kennedy is the best of a bad bunch
OL: F - Will allow too many sacks.
DL: D+ - While Adrian Haywood was a star JUCO transfer, the rest of the players need to provide a consistent pass rush
LB: D- - Too small and inexperienced.
CB: D - Way too little experience
S: C- - Senior Joe Sturdivant must provide a safety net for his inexperienced CBs
Kicking Game: INC - position battles make this hard to grade
Return Game: C+ - the returners are decent, but can they get blocking?
What the Mustangs need to do to win:
1. Pass effectively - In order to get teams out of an 8 man front and help Martin, SMU's passing game must get better in a hurry
2. Grow up in a hurry - The defense and starting QB need to limit the mistakes of inexperience
3. Win close ballgames - of the 6 losses last year, only the Texas A&M game and Tulane games were blowouts.
The Skinny: It's always a sad day when another old-school triple option attack goes by the wayside, but pro offenses attract recruits, and Rice, even though it doesn't offer scholarships, becomes the latest to switch to a more pro-style system. New coach Todd Graham brought in former Texas QB Major Applewhite to revamp the offense, though they may be going through some growing pains this year.
Easy W's: none
Close, but probably a win: at Army
Close, but probably a loss: at Tulane
Definite L's: Houston, at UCLA, Texas, at Florida State, UAB, at Central Florida
QB: F - Chase Clement is the only real passing QB on the roster, but he's backed up by freshmen.
RB: D- - A lot of the depth moved to other positions
TE: F - No talent, no experience in a pro system
WR: F - See above
OL: F - Will have to learn to pass block
(Note: Rice runs a 3-3-5 Stack, with 2 CBs, 2 Rovers, and a Free Safety)
DL: D - Experienced, but too slow.
LB: F - Too little talent
CB: F - See above
ROV: F - See above
FS: F - See above
Kicking Game: F - Kicker's leg not strong enough for I-A ball
Return Game: F - Well, when you don't have athletes or depth, kick returning becomes an adventure.
What the Owls need to do to win:
1. Play full out every game - Hey, you never know, you might win one you didn't expect to win if you play hard for 60 minutes.
2. Grow up in a hurry - Rice is very inexperienced at key positions
3. Defense and field position - The only way this team can win: Keep it close and win the field position battle.
The Skinny: Last year, TCU was one SMU loss away from being the Mountain West's second straight BCS buster. They opened with a huge win against Oklahoma and rolled through the Mountain West.
Easy W's: Baylor, UC Davis, BYU, at Army, at UNLV, San Diego State, Air Force
Close, but probably a win: at Utah, at New Mexico, at Colorado State
Close, but probably a loss: none
Definite L's: Texas Tech
QB: C+ - Jeff Ballard starts after backing up Tye Gun the last 2 years. But then TCU's quarterback traditionally has to be a game manager and leader rather than a gunslinger.
RB: A+ - One of the few teams in College Football as Robert Merrill and Lonta Hobbs have both put up 1,000 yard seasons in the past, and Sophomore Aaron Brown had 163 yards in his only start.
WR: B - 3 of the top 5 WRs are back, including 2 starters
TE: B - Both of the tight ends are back
OL: B- - Solid starting 5 led by RT Herbert Taylor, though a tad undersized.
(Note: TCU runs a 4-2-5 Defense with 2 CBs, 2 Rovers, and a FS)
DL: A- - Bookend DEs return, and DTs are surprisingly big
LB: A - Robert Henson and Jason Phillips had solid years as freshmen, and should be better as sophomores.
ROV: A - Talented and versatile. Sometimes they're in coverage, sometimes they're near the line of scrimmage, and they excel in both roles
CB: B- - Former LSU recruit Vernon Russell helps solidify this unit.
FS: C+ - Elvis Gallegos provides senior leadership.
Kicking Game: A - Chris Manfredi was perfect on 13 kicks last year, and
Return Game: C+ - They are auditioning all new returners, but the blocking was solid last year.
What the Horned Frogs need to do to win:
1. Balance the offense - Yes, TCU relies on ball control, which eats up "3-3-5 Stack" defenses, but non-MWC teams will stack the line.
2. Pass Rush is key - TCU will once again need to rush the passer to help the corners.
3. Don't expect to sneak up on anyone - The rest of the MWC has had all offseason to make adjustments to TCU's offense and defense.
Projection: 11-1, Mountain West Champion
The Skinny: North Texas used to dominate this league, then they completely fell off the wagon last year, finishing 2-9 as teams like "Ooh-La-Laf" (UL-Lafayette), Florida International, Arkansas State, and Middle Tennessee St. all improved dramatically. North Texas may be in the mix, but clinching the league's one bowl berth is a longshot at best.
Easy W's: La. Tech.
Close, but probably a win: Middle Tennessee St., FIU, at Troy, at FAU
Close, but probably a loss: at SMU, at Arkansas St., at Louisiana Monroe
Definite L's: Texas, at Tulsa, at Akron. at Louisiana-Lafayette
QB: C- - Joey Byerly has the physical tools, but not the experience.
RB: A - Lest we forget, Jamario Thomas was the NCAA's leading rusher his freshman year
WR: D+ - Johnny Quinn is this team's most consistent receiver, but there's no telling what to expect from the other recievers
TE: C - Good blockers, not a factor in the passing game
OL: C - Good enough line for the Sun Belt, but will wilt against tougher competition
(Note: North Texas employs a "Bandit", a hybrid DE/LB that usually rushes the passer. Think Jevon Kearse's role with the Eagles. Because of it's function, I lump them in with the DLs)
DL: D- - This unit needs to get more heat on the passer
LB: C- - Good enough for the Sun Belt
CB: F - A serious weakness on this team...
S: F - ...as are the safeties
Kicking game: F - Replacing the kicker specialists. In the Sun Belt, good kickers are hard to find.
Return game: C- - Johnny Quinn will handle the return duties.
What the Mean Green need to do to win:
1. Rush the passer - ... or the secondary will get torched
2. Throw the ball better - Good teams will stack the line against Jamario Thomas, and UNT needs to get them out of it with good passes
3. Block well on running plays - blocking is crucial given the run-oriented defenses UNT will face.
Next: Big 12 North
In Other News....
Cowboys fine TO for missing rehab sessions: I've said before that one of the things separating Terrell Owens from certain other wayward recievers is that he's a hard worker. Problem is, if "the player" is injured and is late for rehab sessions, this is pushing him towards Randy Moss territory in the sense that many people are revising their opinions of his work ethic.
I keep hoping Terrell Owens realizes that he's never going to win a PR battle with Bill Parcells, but he just can't get out of his own way.
Tiger Woods wins the Bridgestone Invitational: For those who don't know, the Bridgestone Invitational is one of the World Golf Championships (along with the Match Play Championship), and the only way to get an invitation is by winning a full-field PGA or European tournament. So basically, within a week of winning his 12th major, Tiger Woods won against a pretty decent field despite his 71 in the third round. The way he won against this elite field, however, has renewed the questions about if he's that great or his competitors can't hack it.
Look, it's Tiger freaking Woods! It's not that the field is that bad, it's just that Tiger has that combination of mental toughness, focus, and killer instinct that Michael Jordan and others who completely dominated their sport had. The rest of the field is fine.
The only real issue golf has is that it's no longer a big deal to drive the ball offline. Course fairways are too wide nowdays, and if you do manage to miss these huge targets, the rough is way to short and pro golfers are hitting out of it too easily. If every tournament would just take a page from the U.S. Open by letting the rough grow and narrowing the fairways, we might actually see decent scores.
Naturally, tournament directors and course superindendents don't want to change it because they have to baby the top players to get them to come to their tournaments.