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April 30, 2007

Mailbag: New beginnings, happier endings?

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He will be on the road throughout the spring bringing you scoop from campuses across the nation.
A new football coach means a new beginning.

That's fine, but fans in East Lansing, Mich., would prefer new endings.

Michigan State is 5-22 in November since 2000, and in the last three seasons under previous head coach [/db]John L. Williams[/db] the Spartans were 1-8 in the 11th month.

New coach Mark Dantonio gives the Spartans' faithful reason to hope. His teams at Cincinnati typically closed strong, having won five of their last six in 2004 and 2006.

Perhaps his hiring signals the beginning of the end Michigan State's late-season collapses. Spartans every where certainly hope so.

Olin's Mailbag
Looking to the future

Do you think the Spartans, under Mark Dantonio, have a shot of being better than 6-6 this season? Can will they actually beat who they're supposed to and hold off teams like Notre Dame?

-- Scott in Grand Rapids, Mich.
I cannot see the future, so let's look at the past.

Sparty finished 4-8 last season, but four losses were by four or fewer points. Better game management especially in that meltdown against Notre Dame might have resulted in three or four more victories.

With that in mind, Michigan State fans can be encouraged that Dantonio's Cincinnati team only lost a second half lead twice season. It happened in a loss to Virginia Tech and in a victory over Western Michigan.

Also, Cincinnati ranked 31st in total defense last season, which was significantly better than No. 88 Michigan State. The Spartans allowed more than 30 points in five games. Expect the Spartans to be better defensively.

One final blast from the past to consider is that Cincinnati won five of its last six games last season. Michigan State has won five games after September in the last three seasons combined.

The Spartans can also be encouraged by the return of six offensive and defensive starters, but the loss of quarterback Drew Stanton could be an issue. Although he threw too many interceptions, Stanton was very talented. Any time a new quarterback takes over, there is a certain amount of apprehension.

Still, I don't think it's unrealistic to believe the Spartans can manage at least seven victories. Under Dantonio, they're not as likely to beat themselves.

Instant impact?

What do you think the Alabama Crimson Tide can do this year? They have a strong nucleus of players on offense like DJ Hall, Keith Brown, John Parker Wilson, Andre Smith, Jimmy Johns and more. How long will it take Nick Saban to win a national championship at Alabama?

-- Doug in Berry, Ala
How long? Let's see the season starts in September and the championship game is in January. That's about five months.

OK, that's might be stretching things a bit, but Alabama's SEC brethren should be concerned. I don't think it will take long before the High Tide rolls in again.

As you mentioned, Alabama has a lot of offensive talent returning. Under Saban's demanding eye, I'd anticipate the Tide will shore up the running back spot which was so painfully inconsistent in 2006. Also, Saban's background as a defensive coach makes me believe the Alabama defense will be respectable, if not better.

Anyone who doubts how much and how quickly a new coach can change a program should look at Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Florida's Urban Meyer, who all won national championships in their second seasons.

That's not to say that Alabama will win a national championship in 2008, though. After all, it took Saban four years to win it all at LSU.

But I do anticipate the Tide to be significantly improved in 2007.

And in the East ...

Are the South Carolina Gamecocks real contenders to win the SEC East?

-- Craig in Augusta, Ga
Why not? Steve Spurrier is still their coach, and that's good enough for me.

Besides, the SEC East looks wide open from here. Yeah, Florida has recruited like gangbusters, but the Gators lost a load of defensive talent and a very good passing quarterback. Don't forget, South Carolina almost won in Gainesville last season and returns six offensive and 10 defensive starters from a team which went 8-5 and won its bowl game.

The Gamecocks will have to adequately replace receiver Sidney Rice, and quarterback Blake Mitchell will have to be more consistent. Also, their first two SEC games are on the road against Georgia and LSU. that could put them in a hole early.

Still, I wouldn't be surprised if South Carolina made a serious challenge in the SEC East. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if they finished fifth, either.

Holes to fill in Columbus

How do you think the Ohio State football team will rebound this year from the devastating loss to Florida? Also, how do you think the offense will look with the losses of (Antonio) Pittman, (Anthony) Gonzalez, (Ted) Ginn and (Troy) Smith?

-- CZ in Girard, Ohio
Expect the Buckeyes to rebound like Greg Oden.

Oden averaged a little more than nine rebounds, and it's not unrealistic that the Buckeyes would post at least nine victories.

Of course, losing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith and receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez both projected high draft choices will leave a void.

Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback among Todd Boeckman, Rob Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton the bet here is Boeckman must prove he can at least manage the game and avoid turnovers. Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline have to show they can be effective against opponents' top cover cornerbacks, who last season would have been following Ginn.

But look at the positive side. The offensive line is experienced with three returning starters. Chris Wells will be in the backfield, too. That's a perfect setting for a new quarterback.

The Buckeyes will likely be favored in every game until they go to Penn State on Oct. 27 and they could be the pick in that game, too. That gives a new quarterback plenty of time to get established.

Also, the defense should be excellent again, provided the Buckeyes find adequate replacements for defensive tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson.

Mizzou's year?

Is Missouri's offense strong enough to carry the Tigers to a Big 12 North title?

-- Jake in Columbia, Mo.
The Tigers haven't won a championship since 1969, but 2007 could be the year.


Missouri is loaded on offense with quarterback Chase Daniel, tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, receiver Will Franklin and running back Tony Temple all back. That's a quarterback who threw for more than 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns, three receivers with at least 48 catches and a 1,000-yard running back.

With all that offensive firepower the Tigers figure to at least match the 30 points per game they averaged last season.

They'd better.

The Tigers defense wasn't great last season, and projects to be even more vulnerable in 2007. Missouri will probably have to win high-scoring games.

But they will have that ability. The Tigers will play host Nebraska on Oct. 6 in a game that figures to be as entertaining and it is important.

For now, I'm still leaning toward Nebraska as the Big 12 North favorite, especially if cornerback Zack Bowman can recover from yet another knee injury. If he can't play the Huskers defense will be vulnerable, and Missouri has the offense can take full advantage.

Title game in the Cards?

Will we be seeing Louisville in the national championship anytime soon? If not, how many more times will they have to prove themselves in bowl games against inter-conference opponents? They showed they were better than the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl. They also have arguably the best returning quarterback. I think regardless of strength of schedule that the best team should play for the BCS title.

-- JW in Dallas
We might see Louisville in the national championship game this season if the Cardinals can win at Kentucky on Sept. 15 and survive November, which includes road trips to West Virginia and South Florida and a home against Rutgers.

I agree that the best teams should play in the BCS championship game, but in the current system I think scheduling has to be considered. Without settling the matter on the field, the question of which is the best team is subject to opinion. There has to be some way to separate the teams involved and decide who will play in the national championship game.

Southern California, Auburn and Utah were all unbeaten in 2004. Shouldn't Utah have had a chance to play for the national championship? If you say no, then why not? Could it be because Utah's schedule wasn't viewed strong enough?

Anyway, Louisville's schedule should be strong enough that no one would doubt the Cardinals' credibility if they were unbeaten. Kentucky is no longer a pushover, West Virginia is a national championship contender and Rutgers might be.

No argument here that Brian Brohm is one of the best returning quarterbacks, though folks in Southern California, Hawaii and Michigan might debate that.

Secondary concerns at LSU

I feel my LSU Tigers could have a great season if we can replace (LaRon) Landry and (Jessie) Daniels. Who do you see replacing them and what kind of impact do you see them having? Also, do you think Trindon Holliday will be used more? I feel like his speed isn't used enough.

-- Sam in Houston
New offensive coordinator Gary Crowton loves Holliday's speed, but at 5-foot-5, 155 pounds there is just so much he can be counted on to do.

Crowton reportedly is using him in the slot more often and scheming ways to get him the football on reverses and ends around. Also, look for Holliday to be more involved in returning kickoffs and punts.

Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor, who will replace Landry and Daniels in the LSU secondary, come with solid credentials.

Steltz, rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com in 2004, posted 42 tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions.

Taylor, rated a three-star prospect in 2004, didn't see as much action last season and posted 12 tackles.

Landry, who figures to be among the top 10 selections in Saturday's NFL draft, and Daniels will be missed. However, the Tigers' pass defense shouldn't suffer too much. LSU has recruited so well there are many talented options for the secondary.

Besides, with defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and defensive end Tyson Jackson providing pressure up front, an average defensive back can look good and a good DB could look great.

TCU's time?

Can TCU be this season's BCS Cinderella team, and what are their chances of winning against Texas?

-- Mike in Burleson, Texas
The feeling here is that the Horned Frogs will NOT be the BCS Cinderella team for two reasons:

No. 1, TCU is too good to be a Cinderella team. The Frogs, who return five offensive and nine defensive starters from an 11-2 team in 2006, will likely be ranked among the preseason top 25. Teams expected to be good don't really fit the Cinderella profile.

No. 2, I doubt TCU will defeat Texas on Sept. 8 in Austin. History shows teams from "mid-major" conferences must go unbeaten to play in a BCS bowl (Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006).

Actually, non-BCS conference teams get in by finishing in the top 12 of the BCS standings or in the top 16 and being ranked ahead of a champion from a BCS conference. But the "mid-major" teams are under close scrutiny, and one loss means a lower-tier bowl game.

That said, the Frogs will have a shot to beat Texas. Defensive ends Chase Ortiz and Tommy Blake are a dominant pair and could give the TCU the edge up front against Texas' offensive line. The Longhorns lost their top three players on the 2006 line including All-American guard Justin Blalock.

However, TCU sophomore quarterback Marcus Jackson played sparingly as a backup to Jeff Ballard and threw only 44 passes last season. Having a quarterback making his second start isn't conducive to winning in Austin.

TCU, Boise State and Hawaii are the most likely teams from a non-BCS conference to play in a BCS bowl game, and I'd guess Hawaii is the best bet.

Or Boise State again?

What do you think of the (Boise State) Broncos this year? BCS again?

-- Joe in West Chester, Pa.
That's certainly a possibility, although as mentioned in the above response I'd lean toward Hawaii as the most likely team from a non-BCS conference to play in a BCS game.

That opinion is based on Hawaii returning QB Colt Brennan, its stable of receivers, an advantageous schedule and the fact that Boise State travels to Honolulu.

I'm impressed with RB Ian Johnson, four starters return on the offensive line and seven defensive regulars are back as well. However, the loss of QB Jared Zabransky has to be a concern.

Still, I'd expect the Broncos to post double-digit victories for the fifth time in six seasons.

Vegas betting on Hinds

Do you think QB Rocky Hinds will have a monster season, and will that lead to a bowl game for UNLV?

-- Shish in Vegas
I wouldn't be surprised if Hinds improves on last season's statistics in which he completed 194 of 359 passes for 2,148 yards and eight touchdowns. The downside of his numbers - 13 interceptions.

A quarterback is usually better the second season in a program, and that should be no different for Hinds. It's not climbing out on a limb to suggest they will be more successful than they were during their 2-9 campaign of 2006.

However, I'm not ready to project them for a bowl game. A schedule that includes Wisconsin, Hawaii, Utah, BYU and TCU doesn't leave much margin for error.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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