Sunday, August 24, 2008

From The Horse’s Mouth: Week 1 Spotlight games

The long grueling wait is finally over, and instead of asking questions, debating futures, and embarking on conference war discussions, we can finally receive some answers on the field. Typical of the opening week, there’s a plethora of wood-shed whackings scheduled. But if you sift through those games played for a program’s monetary gains, you’ll find a couple of intriguing matches that can quickly rattle the preseason rankings and affect the title chase.

(24) Alabama at (9) Clemson

The Horse’s must see rating: 10

Quickie: Nick Saban has won his share of big games, and finds himself opening as an underdog on the road. Tommy Bowden’s Tigers now have a top 10 ranking, but can he strip his title of “choke” artist?

Tigers: Cullen Harper returns to build on his national notoriety. The Clemson QB led the team to a 9-4 record in 2007, completing 65% of his passes, while throwing for 2,991, 27 TDs, and only 10 picks. He’s joined by his thunder and lightning backfield of C.J. Spiller and James Davis, which combined for 1,832 yards and 13 scores. Davis nearly entered April’s draft, but his decision brings his 5 yard per carry average back to school. Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham will be the receiving targets of Harper, with the speedster Jacoby Ford rejoining the group after suffering a broken ankle last November. If there’s an offensive weakness, it would be a line that only returns Thomas Austin at center.

Seven Starters return on the Clemson defense, but the unit lost all 3 starting linebackers, which are the key pieces to any defense. Another blow is on the defensive line, in losing the senior leadership of Rashaad Jackson for at least half the season.

Tide: Alabama’s bowl victory over Colorado pushed the program over .500 (7-6) in 2007. Now ready to begin his second year, Nick Saban brings back John Parker Wilson, the Tide’s single season passing leader in yards (2,707) and touchdowns (17). But despite the 2007 achievement, Wilson still ranked 92nd in the nation in passing efficiency. If the tide is looking to build on Saban’s first year, the first step will be reducing the number of mistakes made by Wilson. Legging it out will be returning starter Terry Grant, who ran for 891 and 8 TDs last year. They’ve lost some depth at receiver, including D.J. Hall, but Bama welcomes highly touted freshman Julio Jones. The Tide shows strength up front, with top NFL draft prospect Andre Smith, and the return of Antoine Caldwell, who decided against early entry into the 2008 draft.

On the defensive side, Rashard Johnson led the team with 6 interceptions a year ago, but the secondary remains questionable. Javier Arenas will try to establish himself as a true cornerback and strip the label of being a primary special teams player. At 5’9, expect him to be picked on in matchups against Clemson’s bigger receivers.

Xtra Points: Tommy Bowden is in a position to prove his worth. On the other hand, Saban can improve on his football genius by pulling a victory, despite using an “average at best defense” against one of the nation’s top offenses. The Tide should look to control the tempo early, which could leave them positioned for a fantastic finish.

All Time Series: Bama leads 11-2
Streak: Bama has won 11 straight

(20) Illinois at (6) Missouri

The Horse’s must see rating: 10

Quickie: If you’re Mizzou, you’re proud of your past year’s achievements, but also angry. Finishing 12-2, and beating Kansas and Illinois, the Tigers were BCS bowl snubs, with the defeated Jayhawks and Illini receiving the BCS prizes. If you’re Illinois, you’re probably not feeling like you claimed any reward, after being rocked by USC in the Rose Bowl. Both teams enter 2008 with more to prove.

Tigers: Heisman finalist Chase Daniel leads his squad into 2008, after appearing out of nowhere in ’07. Daniel threw for over 300 yards in 8 games last season, and recorded a season total of 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His favorite target, WR Jeremy Maclin is the Tigers’ do-it-all version of Florida’s Percy Harvin, with 2,800 all purpose yards and 16 TDs in 2007. The only question for the offense would be the replacement of running back Tony Temple, but Temple was often injured and didn’t get much significant play last season. Carrying the load will be Jimmy Jackson and Derrick Washington, who should get good looks with the Tigers spreading defenses.

Mizzou's defense isn't spectacular, but manage to get the job done. Defensive stars would include LB Sean Witherspoon and CB William Moore, but this is a unit that failed to put the clamps on the Sooners twice last year, amounting to the Tigers’ only two losses, and costing them the Big 12 title and a BCS bowl bid.

Illini: Juice Williams became a household name, and he’ll have to play bigger than ever in 2008. Lost from the Illini production is running back Rashard Mendenhall and his nearly 1700 rushing yards and 17 TDs. He’s being replaced (if there is such a thing) by Daniel Dufrane (6.7 yard average on 43 carries in ’07), but there isn’t much optimism. In the Spring game, Illini runners rushed for -11 yards, and they remain a work in progress. Illinois led the Big 10 in rushing last year, with QB Juice Williams chipping in 755 yards of that total. If they plan on making any noise, they’ll have to improve on his 1,743 passing yards, which is easier said than done, if you have no running attack.

The Defensive line is the strength of the Illini, returning 3 starters and 8 players rotated into those positions last year. The ends alone accounted for 21.5 sacks, with Will Davis providing 12.5 tackles for loss. A capable secondary adds support, featuring Thorpe award semifinalist Vontae Davis. Combined with Dere Hicks and Miami Thomas, the trio collected 7 interceptions in 2007.

Xtra Points: This year’s venue changes in Missouri’s favor, and unfavorable changes appear on the Illinois roster. The entire outlook appears as “different year, same result”, with a more experienced and fine tuned Tigers team again staring at victory.

All Time Series: Mizzou leads 14-7
Streak: Mizzou has won 3 straight


Applachian State at (7) LSU: Can lightning strike twice? Division I-aa champions meet Division I champions in Baton Rouge. After the shocker in Ann Arbor last year, the Mountaineers will enter with confidence. Appy State QB Armanti Edwards begins his campaign for the Heisman Trophy.

(18) Tennessee at UCLA: For the Vols, a return to California is a return to the scene of the crime, after the opening debacle against Cal last year. UCLA may have a coaching dream team, but don’t have a roster to do much with them. They’ll start a QB with little preparation, and this one can get ugly in a hurry. Many early projections show UCLA as a 5-7 team at best, and if Fulmer manages to somehow lose to these unprepared early season Bruins, he should be forced to walk back to Knoxville.

Washington at (21) Oregon: Psst! For all of you outside of the Western time zone, this is a rivalry game. The two programs hate each other.

Kentucky at Louisville: Speaking of hate…state bragging rights are on the line. Need I say more?

Utah at Michigan: Your first glance at the Rodriguez Wolverines. Don’t sleep on the Utes. They have a nice squad. I wonder who the people in West Virginia will be rooting for?

(3) USC at Virginia: The Trojans have played in 34 states, and also played in Japan. This will be their first game ever in the State of Virginia. Preview Here

UC Davis at San Jose State: Yes, I’m kidding!

I wish you all a happy and Safe Labor Day weekend. Enjoy the games.

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