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June 10, 2008

Rivals.com is in the midst of its 2008 countdown, releasing our preseason ranking of the Division I-A teams from No. 120 to No. 1.

We're starting at the bottom, and the first week of rankings will be in groups of 10. Then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled July 31.

After that, you won't see any rankings from Rivals until early October. The reason: We will wait until enough games have been played so we can legitimately rank the teams.

The rankings were compiled by football writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee. They look forward to your e-mails and your comments on the message boards.

Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: Nos. 61-70
61. SOUTHERN MISS
COACH: Larry Fedora (first season).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 5-3 in Conference USA (fourth in C-USA East).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 62nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior Gerald McRath may be the best linebacker who doesn't play in one of the "Big Six" conferences. He has good size (6-3/220) and can move. McRath had 139 tackles last season, which included 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Senior tight end Shawn Nelson is supremely talented but lacks consistency. He had 33 catches last season, the fewest in his three seasons as the starter and frankly about 17 fewer than what his goal should be this season. He has a great combination of size (6-5/240) and speed and needs to finally live up to vast promise this season.
STAR POWER: Junior tailback Damion Fletcher has rushed for 2,974 yards and 26 TDs in his first two seasons with the Golden Eagles. He's also a solid receiver, which should make him even more of a big-play threat in Fedora's version of the spread offense.
STRENGTHS: Fedora, who had been offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State (and at Florida and Middle Tennessee before that), should rev up the Golden Eagles' attack assuming he can find a quarterback. Three starters return on what should be a good offensive line. The defensive back seven looks good. Free safety Eddie Hicks has all-league potential, McRath is a beast and each of the Golden Eagles' linebackers can run. Punter Britt Barefoot is solid and has a great name for a punter. Other than a trip to UCF, the conference road games are eminently winnable.
WEAKNESSES: Do the Golden Eagles have a quarterback who can win some games? If they find one, they could win the league. If they don't get consistent quarterback play, they could finish third or fourth in the division. The main candidates are sophomore Martevious Young, who attempted one pass last season, and redshirt freshman Austin Davis. Southern Miss' defensive line generally is one of the best in C-USA, but it's an all-new front four this season.
THE BUZZ: Fedora and his staff did a great job on the recruiting trail, including reeling in five-star WR DeAndre Brown - who will play a lot if he is eligible. Quarterback is a huge question, as is the play of the revamped defensive line. Other than a trip to Auburn, the early schedule is such that a new quarterback can grow into the job - which should pay off later in the season.
MIKE HUGUENIN
62. ARIZONA
COACH: Mike Stoops (17-31 in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 4-5 in the Pac-10 (sixth in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 59th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior offensive tackle Eben Britton was a second-team all-league selection last season and should be the Wildcats' best lineman this season. He has started each game in the past two seasons. Senior wide receiver Mike Thomas led the Pac-10 in receptions (83) and touchdown catches (11) last season. With Arizona set to enter its second season in the spread offense, school career records in catches and receiving yards are in Thomas' sights.
STAR POWER: Senior quarterback Willie Tuitama flourished in his first season in coordinator Sonny Dykes' pass-first offense. He set school records with 3,683 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. With all but one starter returning on offense, Tuitama could top those numbers as a senior.
STRENGTHS: Scoring should be no problem for the Wildcats. Tuitama has a number of receivers at his disposal, starting with Thomas. Sophomore tight end Rob Gronkowski brings toughness as well as great hands to the offense. Britton leads what should be a solid line. Punter Keenyn Crier (first team) and kicker Jason Bondzio (second team) were Rivals.com all-league selections.
WEAKNESSES: The defense returns only two full-time starters. Strong safety Cam Nelson and free safety Nate Ness should make for a nice last-line-of-defense. Linebacker Ronnie Palmer is the lone starter back among the front seven. The defensive line is in particularly bad shape. The unit is unproven and depth is thin. The rush offense was awful last season (76.8 ypg) and must improve.
THE BUZZ: This is a critical season for Stoops, who hasn't taken Arizona to a bowl in his tenure. Arizona has the offensive personnel to compete, but the defense has to grow up in a hurry. The potential exists for a 3-0 start.
DAVID FOX
63. KANSAS STATE
COACH: Ron Prince (12-13 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big 12 (fourth in the Big 12 North).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 75th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior defensive end Ian Campbell is a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, but there's no question he didn't play as well in 2007 as he did in '06. He had 11.5 sacks in '06 playing at end. That number dropped to 4.5 last season, when he played end and linebacker. Sophomore cornerback Joshua Moore missed last season because of a suspension. He's back this season, which adds a potential All-Big 12 performer to a secondary in need of a big-play guy.
STAR POWER: After enduring a turnover-prone year as a freshman starter in 2006, quarterback Josh Freeman made dramatic improvement as a sophomore. Freeman, a 6-6, 250-pounder, passed for 3,353 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing more than 63 percent of his attempts last season. He reduced his interceptions total from 15 to 11 despite throwing 229 more passes than he did in '06.
STRENGTHS: The Wildcats were among the nation's top 20 in scoring offense in 2007. Although there are significant losses on offense, they still figure to be productive. Freeman's improvement should ensure that, but there also is the return of receiver Deon Murphy, who had 57 receptions a year ago. The loss of 1,000-yard running back James Johnson will hurt, but Leon Patton should be a solid replacement. An experienced line also returns.
WEAKNESSES: K-State struggled on pass defense, allowing an average of 259 passing yards per game last season. With three starters gone from the secondary, that could be a problem again. It would help if Campbell and his linemates can apply more pressure. While there is talent at wide receiver, there is no established go-to guy.
THE BUZZ: Pressure is building on Prince, who appears to be pulling every string possible to make it easier for the Wildcats return to a bowl in '08. First, Prince assembled a recruiting class that featured a whopping 19 junior college transfers. The Wildcats also bought their way out of a home game against Fresno State, which defeated Kansas State in '07, and replaced that contest with one against Division I-AA Montana State. Missing another bowl would further miff K-State fans, who are grousing about Prince's 0-6 record against Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.
OLIN BUCHANAN
64. KENTUCKY
COACH: Rich Brooks (25-35 in five seasons; 116-144-4 in 23 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 3-5 in the SEC (tied for fourth in SEC East).
FINAL RIVALS.COM 2007 RANKING: 34th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Kentucky is seeking playmakers at wide receiver following the departures of Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson. There is just one established receiver on the roster, Dicky Lyons Jr.. True freshman Aaron Boyd, a four-star signee, needs to make an immediate impact. Junior Jeremy Jarmon quietly has become one of the best defensive ends in the SEC. He had 62 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks last season.
STAR POWER: A Rivals.com Freshman All-American in 2006, cornerback Trevard Lindley has made it tough for SEC quarterbacks for two seasons. He has five career interceptions, but nearly all have been game-changers. He was second on the team in tackles last season.
STRENGTHS: Despite ranking at or near the bottom is several defensive categories last season, Kentucky is counting on the defense to carry the team this season. The Wildcats will need a leap similar to the one they had in 2007, when they allowed 56 fewer yards per game than the previous season. Jarmon leads a line that also returns starting tackles Myron Pryor and Corey Peters. Three starting offensive linemen return, including Garry Williams - an All-SEC candidate at left tackle.
WEAKNESSES: Aside from the line, the rest of the offense is a jumble. Curtis Pulley and Matt Hartline will compete for the quarterback job. Pulley has more experience but redshirted last season. Tony Dixon, Alphonso Smith and Derrick Locke lead a deep group of running backs, but is any a breakaway threat? Tight end has been a big part of the passing game, but Jacob Tamme is gone. The safeties are nothing special.
THE BUZZ: Brooks will try to do something that hasn't been done at Kentucky since Bear Bryant coached in Lexington lead the Wildcats to three consecutive bowls. Bryant did that in 1949-51. Brooks will have to count on an improved defense and sort out offensive questions for the Wildcats to play in the postseason.
DAVID FOX
65. TEXAS A&M
COACH: Mike Sherman (first season).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big 12 (tied for third in Big 12 South).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 48th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Fans always love the backup quarterback, and the A&M faithful might get him this season. Sophomore Jerrod Johnson, a speedy and powerful 6-foot-6, 230-pounder, may challenge senior Stephen McGee for the starting job. Last season, Johnson attempted just seven passes, but rushed for 113 yards on 11 carries and scored three touchdowns. Senior defensive end Cyril Obiozor was steady last season but needs to elevate his game this season. He led the Aggies with 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
STAR POWER: Junior tailback Mike Goodson averaged 4.6 yards per carry and rushed for 711 yards in 2007 and that was considered a disappointing season. Goodson has great speed, which he showed as a freshman when averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He rarely has had 20 carries in a game, but figures to be used more by Sherman.
STRENGTHS: A&M's rushing offense ranked second in the Big 12 and 13th in the nation last season, and figures to be solid again. Goodson is a breakaway threat, and bulldozer Jorvorskie Lane - who will play fullback - has rushed for 44 touchdowns in his career. In addition, former high school All-American Bradley Stephens is expected to make a significant contribution after sitting out a redshirt season. There is an experienced secondary. Three of the first four games are at home, two of the league road games are against Baylor and Iowa State, and neither Kansas nor Missouri is on the schedule.
WEAKNESSES: The Aggies were last in the Big 12 in passing offense last season and none of their returning receivers had more than 19 catches. In fact, all the receivers on the roster have combined for fewer than 70 career college receptions. Incoming four-star prospect Jeff Fuller could make an immediate impact. Only two part-time starters return on the offensive line. Three-fourths of the defensive line will be new, as will all three starting linebackers.
THE BUZZ: The brewing quarterback competition between McGee and Johnson will be a hot topic of conversation. But after five up-and-down years under former coach Dennis Franchione, Aggies are just hoping former NFL head coach Sherman - who was an A&M assistant to R.C. Slocum in the early '90s - can restore order in College Station. Aggies fans are counting on him to improve a woeful passing game. They're also hoping new defensive coordinator Joe Kines can rebuild the defense back to its "Wrecking Crew" status, which it hasn't reached in at least six seasons.
OLIN BUCHANAN
66. BOWLING GREEN
COACH: Gregg Brandon (38-24 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 in MAC (tied for first in MAC East).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 72nd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior wide receiver Freddie Barnes performed ably last season, with 82 catches for 962 yards and nine TDs. He had at least six catches in eight games and at least 70 yards in seven games. Senior defensive end Diyral Briggs was a first-team all-league pick. He had five sacks, seven tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and 54 tackles.
STAR POWER: Few players in the nation are as versatile as senior tailback Anthony Turner, the closest thing the MAC has to Percy Harvin. The former quarterback also lines up at wide receiver and under center. He led the Falcons with 519 yards rushing in 2007, with nine rushing TDs. Turner also had 22 receptions for 185 yards and a score, and threw three TD passes.
STRENGTHS: It's all about the offense. Tyler Sheehan is the best quarterback you've never heard of. At 6-4, 225, Sheehan looks like a pro. He'll have a bevy of veteran targets, including Barnes and Corey Partridge. Want more? The top three rushers from last season's GMAC Bowl team are back. While many holes were punched in a defense that ranked 94th in the nation, there are playmakers in Briggs and linebacker Erique Dozier. The secondary should be one of the MAC's best, led by strong safety P.J. Mahone (MAC-high seven picks) and cornerbacks Antonio Smith and Kenny Lewis.
WEAKNESSES: All of that skill talent could be short-circuited if a line that's replacing three fifth-year seniors flops and if defense remains a dirty word. The Falcons allowed 207 yards rushing per game en route to giving up 32 points per game. The good news is that nine defensive starters are back. The bad news, of course, is that nine defensive starters are back.
THE BUZZ: With an offense that looks unstoppable (even with the loss of coordinator Mick McCall to Northwestern) and a defense that has the potential to go from bad to decent, Bowling Green looks to be in good shape to defend its division crown. Even better, the Falcons could win their first league title since 1992 for Brandon, who is one of the best coaches in the non-BCS ranks. The MAC schedule is forgiving, as there are no dates with Central Michigan or Ball State. In fact, don't be shocked if the Falcons topple one of the "bigger" schools on their schedule: Minnesota, Boise State or Pitt.
TOM DIENHART
67. OLE MISS
COACH: Houston Nutt (first season; 111-70 in 15 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 0-8 in the SEC (sixth in SEC West).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 83rd.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Quarterback Jevan Snead was on campus last season. Unfortunately, he was ineligible after transferring from Texas. But he's ready now and will be a huge upgrade at quarterback for an offense desperately needing a jolt after failing to reach 20 points in five games last season all losses. Junior defensive end Greg Hardy earned All-SEC honors and some All-American acclaim after leading the conference with 10 sacks despite starting just four games. He also forced three fumbles. He'll contend for more recognition this season.
STAR POWER: Senior offensive tackle Michael Oher flirted with turning pro early, but decided to return to school. He has All-America potential and will be one of the best linemen in the SEC.
STRENGTHS: The defensive line projects to be good with Hardy and defensive tackle Peria Jerry both among the SEC's best at their positions. Defensive tackle Ted Laurent has tremendous potential and defensive end Marcus Tillman is solid. If touted defensive tackle Jerrell Powe ever gets eligible, it could be great group. The wide receivers aren't bad, either. Shay Hodge and Mike Wallace were productive last season despite issues at quarterback. Dexter McCluster has big-play ability and sophomores Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers had strong showings in the spring. Three of the first four games are at home.
WEAKNESSES: The defensive back seven is a huge concern. There isn't much depth at linebacker. As for the lack of depth in the secondary, junior Marshay Green moved from wide receiver to cornerback and immediately won a starting job. Sophomore Jeremy McGee moved to cornerback from running back and already is second on the depth chart. The running game hasn't scared anyone in a while, but true freshman Enrique Davis hopes to change that. Outside of Oher, the offensive linemen have not played with consistency. All five road games are against bowl teams from '07.
THE BUZZ: Newcomers on the sideline, at quarterback and at running back have given new hope to the faithful in Oxford. Having a proven coach in Nutt on the sideline is a bonus, and Snead is a significant upgrade at quarterback. Davis, a five-star prospect who originally signed out of high school with Auburn, potentially adds a breakaway threat to the Rebels' running game. If the defense holds up, Ole Miss could make a legitimate run at a bowl bid.
OLIN BUCHANAN
68. NC STATE
COACH: Tom O'Brien (5-7 in one season; 80-52 overall in 10 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference (tied for fifth in ACC Atlantic).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 76th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior tailback Jamelle Eugene could be headed for a 1,000-yard season if he plays all year the way he performed after moving into the starting lineup midway through the '07 campaign. After injuries to Toney Baker and Andre Brown forced Eugene into the lineup, he responded with 100-yard games against Florida State, Virginia and North Carolina. Sophomore linebacker Nate Irving also responded well after moving into the starting lineup. Irving had 33 tackles five for loss in the final five games of the season.
STAR POWER: No returning ACC player averaged more tackles for loss per game than junior defensive end Willie Young, who had 16. Young will try to pick up where he left off after delivering 14 tackles for loss in the final seven games of the 2007 season. Young recorded three sacks in a victory over Virginia and had eight quarterback pressures against North Carolina. Young also had six sacks and six pass breakups last season.
STRENGTHS: North Carolina State ranked 11th in the ACC in rushing offense, but the Wolfpack should be able to run the ball more effectively this season with Eugene working behind a line that features three returning starter (tackles Meares Green and Julian Williams and guard Curtis Crouch). Starting cornerbacks DeAndre Morgan and Jeremy Gray return from a secondary that helped the Wolfpack rank 25th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense.
WEAKNESSES: Who's the quarterback? Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck combined to throw 22 interceptions and only 14 touchdown passes last season. No wonder redshirt freshman Russell Wilson has a decent chance of winning the job at some point this season. The Wolfpack must shore up a defense that was the worst in the ACC against the run. North Carolina State's penchant for throwing interceptions and its inability to create big plays on defense caused the Wolfpack to rank 117th in turnover margin.
THE BUZZ: O'Brien already proved he could win in the ACC during his Boston College tenure. By winning five of their final six games last season, the Wolfpack showed that O'Brien already had corrected the discipline problems that had developed during predecessor Chuck Amato's ill-fated final season. That season-ending 37-0 humiliation against Maryland that cost NCSU a bowl bid also should give the Wolfpack plenty of motivation as they head into 2008. North Carolina State won't contend for a division title until it gets improved play at quarterback, but a bowl is a legit goal.
STEVE MEGARGEE
69. UCF
COACH: George O'Leary (22-28 in four seasons; 74-61 in 11 seasons overall).
LAST SEASON: 10-4 overall, 7-1 in Conference USA (first in C-USA East; won conference title game).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 41st.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior offensive tackle Patrick Brown has started 38 consecutive games and was a first-team all-league selection last season. He has started more games than any left tackle in the nation. Senior strong safety Sha'reff Rashad is one of nine starters back on defense, including all four in the secondary. Rashad led the Knights with 103 tackles last season and added four interceptions.
STAR POWER: Senior cornerback Joe Burnett was a first-team all-league pick as a corner and as a punt returner last season. Burnett's play last season finally matched his physical ability. He had six picks in '07, giving him 12 for his career. That total is tied for second among active players in Division I-A.
STRENGTHS: The secondary should be the best in C-USA; all four starters return and all four are seniors. Rashad and Burnett are all-league types. All three starters return at linebacker. Brown is one of the league's best offensive linemen. Both starting wide receivers, Kamar Aiken and Rocky Ross, return.
WEAKNESSES: UCF's success last season was predicated on an ultra-productive ground attack headed by Kevin Smith, who led the nation in rushing. Smith is gone, as are three starting offensive lineman. Phillip Smith no relation is expected to be the starting tailback this season, but the drop-off is going to be noticeable. There also will be a new quarterback, either Michael Greco or Joe Weatherford. Last season's passing game was pedestrian, but it didn't matter because Kevin Smith was in the backfield. The passing attack needs to be a lot better this season, but neither quarterback is proven. The linebackers are experienced but lack speed and play-making ability. The defensive front four is being retooled. The early season schedule is a tough one.
THE BUZZ: The Knights surprised last season thanks to a wondrous season from Kevin Smith. Now that he's gone, UCF needs a bunch of players to step up offensively. There's no way UCF is going to run the ball as effectively, putting a lot more pressure on a passing attack that remains a work in progress. The controversy surrounding the offseason death of redshirt freshman WR Ereck Plancher and how the school handled it initially likely will linger, too. UCF's three-game stretch against Tulsa, East Carolina and Southern Miss will determine how the C-USA East races shapes up.
MIKE HUGUENIN
70. NEVADA
COACH: Chris Ault (191-85-1 in 23 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 4-4 in the WAC (tied for fourth in league).
FINAL 2007 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 80th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior center Dominic Green was a first-team All-WAC pick last season. He has started at every position on the line in his career and should be the best center in the league this season. Sophomore quarterback Colin Kaepernick was elevated into the starting role after an injury, and he responded brilliantly. In nine games, he threw for 2,175 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for 593 yards and six scores. STAR POWER: Senior tailback Luke Lippincott led the WAC in rushing with 1,420 yards. His 15 rushing touchdowns were second in the league. He's also an effective receiver in the Wolf Pack's "pistol" offense, an off-shoot of the shotgun.
STAR POWER: Senior tailback Luke Lippincott led the WAC in rushing with 1,420 yards. His 15 rushing touchdowns were second in the league. He's also an effective receiver in the Wolf Pack's "pistol" offense, an off-shoot of the shotgun.
STRENGTHS: Nevada has the system and the personnel to keep up with the top offenses in the WAC. The Wolf Pack has plenty of depth at the skill positions to go with four returning starting linemen. Kaepernick and Lippincott are a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield. Wide receiver Marko Mitchell (53 catches, 1,129 yards, eight touchdowns) is a big-play guy who should be one of the best at his position on the West Coast. Senior kicker Brett Jaekle has a good leg.
WEAKNESSES: Nevada was involved in its share of shootouts (notably a 69-67 four-overtime loss to Boise State). The porous defense led to the demotion of coordinator Ken Wilson and the addition of Nigel Burton from Oregon State. He brings with him a 4-3 defense. A full season from senior linebacker Joshua Mauga will also help. He had 82 tackles despite missing five games. The secondary needs to find some depth in a hurry; it also needs to find two new starting corners. Nevada needs to improve a punt-return team that ranked last in the WAC.
THE BUZZ: Nevada finished with a losing record last season but was a thorn in the side of the top teams in the league, losing to Hawaii, Boise State and Fresno State by a total of 12 points. The offense should be productive again. If the defense catches up with the offense, Nevada will compete for the league title.
DAVID FOX

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 60-51

THE RANKINGS: 71-80 | 81-90 | 91-100 | 101-110 | 111-120



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