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January 25, 2009

Roundtable: Who could crash the top 25?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in the sport.

This week's question: Which team left out of our early preseason top 25 do you think has the best chance to finish the season in the top 25?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
It would come as no surprise to me if Tennessee resurfaces in the top 25 next season. The Volunteers were disappointing this season, but they return several starters on each side of the ball. A new coach can breathe new life into a program, and I think Lane Kiffin will do that in Knoxville. He has also assembled an impressive staff, so I don't think coaching will be an issue. Look for Lennon Creer to emerge as a big-time running threat and for the defense to get even better. Quarterback and offensive line performances have to improve, and I think they will. The Vols closed their season with victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky, teams that won bowl games, and that shows the Vols have some pride. Tennessee's offense produced fewer than 20 points in six games last season, and I think that stat will improve.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
I think N.C. State has a chance to be a top-25 team and is a sleeper to win the ACC. The 2009 season will be the third for Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien, who is one of the nation's best. Count on this being his best squad yet in Raleigh. He finally is getting players to buy into his brand of smart, disciplined, hard-nosed football. The biggest key to big-time success will be quarterback Russell Wilson. The knee injury he suffered in the Papajohns.com Bowl didn't require surgery, so he'll be good to go. He's a special talent and the quintessential difference-maker who can help the Pack overcome shortcomings. The key: Wilson must stay healthy.

David Fox's answer:
It will be tough for the Mountain West to top the 2008 season. That's clear. We ranked TCU 20th and Utah 22nd in our preseason poll, but I'm certain BYU will be a factor in the league. Remember, it was BYU − not Utah − that was the preseason favorite to be a BCS-buster. That wasn't an accident. The Cougars went undefeated in conference play in 2006 and '07. In 2008, the BYU defense was nothing special as the Cougars lost to TCU and Utah during the regular season and Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl. BYU won't go undefeated this year with Oklahoma and Florida State on the schedule, but the Cougars could win the league behind the backfield of Max Hall and Harvey Unga and an improved defense. The winner and runner-up in the Mountain West are safe bets to finish the season ranked. I'm willing to bet BYU is in that company.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
I'm going with Colorado. This will be the fourth season for coach Dan Hawkins. He will be under the gun to produce, and I think his team will come through. The Buffs were ravaged by injuries this season, when they finished 5-7. The 2009 non-conference schedule isn't that tough, and the Buffs get Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska in other words, their main competition in the Big 12 North at home. The biggest concern is at quarterback. Colorado simply has not gotten solid quarterback play the past two seasons. But everything else on offense should be fine, and the defense looks to be good enough for an eight- or nine-win season.

Steve Megargee's answer:
BYU has won at least 10 games each of the past three seasons, and only a tricky non-conference schedule might keep the Cougars from doing it again next season. Austin Collie's decision to enter the NFL draft will hurt, but BYU returns quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga and one of the nation's top tight ends in Dennis Pitta. Hall has thrown for 7,805 yards and 61 touchdowns over the past two seasons, and he will enter '09 with much to prove after struggling in each of the Cougars' three losses last season. Defensive end Jan Jorgensen leads a veteran unit that should fare better this season. BYU's biggest concerns are an inexperienced offensive line and a schedule that includes games with four teams in our preseason top 25: No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 14 Florida State, No. 20 TCU and No. 22 Utah. The good news is that Florida State, TCU and Utah have to go to BYU, where the Cougars own a perfect record over the past three seasons.

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