2007 Spring Questions - Ranking the Leagues

Posted Feb 19, 2007

Spring football is just around the corner. Here are the 20 big questions continuing with No. 11 to 15 including the conference you should pay attention to, five teams likely to tumble, coaches on the hot seat, five who'll bounce back, and the ranking of the leagues led by SEC thanks to Florida and LSU.

- 2006 Spring Questions 14-20 | 7-13 | 4-6 | 1-3
2007 Spring Questions No. 20 to No. 16 

15. What conference other than your own should you care about this year?
The WAC. If the Fiesta Bowl didn't wake the nation up about how good and how exciting Boise State is, then nothing will. While BSU might be the WAC's marquee team, Hawaii will be the weekly must-see with Colt Brennan and the boys lighting up the NCAA record book like a Christmas tree. New Mexico State might not be all that great, but its offense, with Chase Holbrook returning at the helm, will be one of the five most productive in America. San Jose State has gone from near-extinction to dangerous under Dick Tomey, Fresno State will rebound, and Nevada is good enough to finish in the top three. Basically, you're going to want to stay up late watching these games.

For those of you who mostly care about the bigger leagues, here are the games you'll have to watch out for from the WAC.

Sept. 1 - Nevada at Nebraska
Sept. 1 - San Jose State at Arizona State
Sept. 8 - Fresno State at Texas A&M
Sept. 8 - Boise State at Washington
Sept. 8 - Nevada at Northwestern
Sept. 8 - San Jose State at Kansas State
Sept. 15 - Fresno State at Oregon
Sept, 15 - San Jose State at Stanford
Sept. 22 - New Mexico State at Aubun
Nov. 24 - Kansas State at Fresno State
Dec. 1 - Washington at Hawaii

14. Which conference will be the best in 2006?
11. Sun Belt - It showed last year that it's not a total pushover with UL Monroe giving Kentucky a serious run and Troy almost shocking Florida State, but it's still on the low end of the nation's totem pole. Even so, it should be among the most exciting conference races with everyone, everyone, improved from last year.
The best team should be ... Middle Tennessee
10. MAC - The league has taken a bit of a step back overall after spending last year reloading. Miami, Toledo and Bowling Green, three MAC powers struggled way too much through the youth and inconsistencies and have to be back to previous form for the conference to be any better. Central Michigan, even without head coach Brian Kelly, should still be the class of the conference, but Toledo is due for a big rebound and Ohio, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan should all be excellent. Even so, don't expect the MAC to scare the big boys too much.
The best team should be ... Central Michigan
9. Mountain West - After being on the verge of challenging the Big East for a spot in the top six, the Mountain West took an overall step back with average seasons from Utah, Colorado State, and Wyoming. BYU might take a little while to reload while TCU is going to be BCS worthy and Utah will be much better. However, the rest of the league has to show up to provide more than just an easy target for the big three. 
The best team should be ...
8. WAC - It might be the most fun conference in America loaded with big time offenses and plenty of intrigue. Boise State and Hawaii will get the national press, but San Jose State, Fresno State and Nevada are all going to be good enough to win the conference. New Mexico State will average 35 points and 400 passing yards per game.
The best team should be ... Hawaii

7. Conference USA - The league simply hasn't recovered from the loss of Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. It's good enough from top to bottom to barely get the nod ahead of the WAC, but the expected top teams, Houston, Tulsa and Southern Miss, would all have major problems with the WAC's best.
The best team should be ... Southern Miss

ACC - Call this a prove-it year for the ACC after a disastrous 2006. Miami and Florida State still aren't quite up to past snuff making the league look a little more down than it actually is. Georgia Tech, Boston College, Clemson, Maryland, and yes, Wake Forest, are going to be fantastic, while Virginia Tech should be good enough to be in the mix for the national title. If Virginia and North Carolina can improve, the league will move up the overall conference rankings. So why is the league sixth? The others got better, too.
The best team should be ... Virginia Tech
5. Big Ten - After one of the league's worst years in a long, long time, with Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, and a bunch of garbage, things should bounce back. Wisconsin is loaded with one of its best teams since the Rose Bowl years, Michigan's offense will be unstoppable, and Ohio State's defense should be phenomenal. Penn State will be in the mix for the Big Ten title if all the holes can be filled and if QB Anthony Morelli can improve. Just about everyone else should be improved with Iowa certain to bounce back, Purdue, Michigan State and Minnesota good enough to go to bowls, and the projected also-rans, Illinois, Indiana and Northwestern, all appearing to be far, far better.
The best team should be ... Wisconsin
4. Pac 10 - It's not just USC and a bunch of other teams. While the Trojans will likely be the preseason No. 1, Cal has its best team yet under Jeff Tedford, UCLA is loaded and has the potential to be a top-ten team, Oregon should be more consistent, Oregon State has its best team since the Fiesta Bowl winner of 2000, Arizona State should be better under Dennis Erickson, and the rest of the league is full of improving, pesky teams, most notably Arizona.
The best team should be ... USC
Big East - While the Big East might not be the best conference in the country, it's loaded with more good teams than ever. West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers will all be in the national title chase, Pitt, after a few years of great recruiting, should finally be the team Dave Wannstedt wants, South Florida is good enough to shock the top teams and win the conference title, Cincinnati will be more than fine with Brian Kelly at the helm, Connecticut is older and better, and Syracuse, well, Syracuse should be a little better. This should be a fascinating race.
The best team should be ... West Virginia
2. Big 12 - Yes, the conference is back as long as the North holds up its end of the bargain. Kansas State, Kansas and Iowa State should be better, and Colorado can't be any worse, but the real stars will be Missouri and Nebraska with the Huskers possibly in the national title chase. The South should be a killer with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M each standing a puncher's chance of knocking off Texas or Oklahoma for the title.
The best team should be ... Texas
1. SEC - And it's not even close. You could flip around the other five BCS conferences in any way and it'd be hard to argue against the order, but there's no way anyone but the SEC can be named on top. Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Auburn would be among the favorites to win any other conference in the country, while South Carolina isn't far behind. Kentucky is good enough to go back to a bowl, while Vanderbilt has the experience to finally get back to the post-season. Alabama will be a nasty out with Nick Saban coaching. You could do a lot worse than Ole Miss and Mississippi State for the bottom feeders.
The best team should be ...

13. Five teams likely to take a bit of a tumble ...

- Florida
It won't be a long fall, if there is one, but the SEC has a way of picking off teams that would normally be national title contenders. Just ask LSU and Auburn. The Gator defense has to replace several key NFL players while the loss of steady hand Chris Leak, even though Tim Tebow should be ready to shine, will hurt during the long SEC season. While the team might be a tad worse (before it becomes an unstoppable monster in 2008), the schedule is far, far more manageable than last year. Get by road dates at LSU and South Carolina, beat Georgia, hold serve at home, and its off to the SEC title with a shot at defending for the national championship. However, that's far easier said than done with games against Tennessee, Auburn, at LSU, at Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt (who's given the Gators a nightmare of a time over the last two years), at South Carolina and Florida State.

- Ohio State
Last year everyone wondered about how the Buckeyes would replace all the defensive stars. Now it's all about who'll make plays on offense, especially at quarterback. The program is more than good enough to reload, but with road games at Penn State and Michigan, along with dates with Wisconsin, at Minnesota and at Purdue, there are bound to be just enough slips to prevent another trip to the BCS.

- Notre Dame
While you might think the program would be ready to rock in year three of the Charlie Weis era, but you don't get better by losing Brady Quinn, Darius Walker, Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight. It'll take a year for Jimmy Clausen to get his feet wet, and then watch out. By then, the secondary will finally have a few players who can cover. How's this to start the season? Georgia Tech, at Penn State, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue, at UCLA, Boston College, USC. Anything better than 5-3 will be a miracle.

- Boise State
Last year's team was loaded with experience on both sides of the ball and the best defense the program had ever trotted out. The offense will miss QB Jared Zabransky, while the defense will miss Korey Hall along with the other starting linebackers. The WAC is far better, and sooner or later, those close calls like the ones last year against Hawaii and San Jose State will go the other way. That might be this year as the team rebuilds.

It appears to be TCU's year in the Mountain West. 2006 was a magical season thanks to John Beck and all the offensive playmakers, and while the Cougars won't fall back into mediocrity, they might be third in the conference pecking order behind the Horned Frogs and Utah. Playing Arizona, at UCLA and at Tulsa in the first three weeks will show what kind of team this is.

12. Five teams likely to bounce back ...

- Colorado
Lost in the disastrous 2-10 season was a defense that made the team's overall play respectable. As long as Bernard Jackson starts to throw with a little bit of consistency, the potential is there for a major turnaround and a bowl game. Florida State, Oklahoma, Missouri and Nebraska all have to come to Boulder, while the road games aren't that bad going to Arizona State, Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State.

- Alabama
2006 was supposed to be a transition year to a strong 2007. Not only is the team loaded with experience, and a passing game that should be fantastic, but it has Nick Saban at the helm. Schedule-wise, the only tough road game is at Auburn, and that doesn't come until the end of the year, while getting Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU at home.

- Virginia
After spending a year dealing with major youth issues, especially on offense,
Jameel Sewell and the attack should be far better and far more explosive. The schedule works out well with the toughest road games, at Maryland and Miami, not until the second half of the year. Seven wins and a bowl game are musts.

- Washington State
It's the second straight year the Cougars are "likely to bounce back," but this season it should actually happen with an offense as unstoppable as any in the WAC. Most of the tough games are on the road (Wisconsin, USC, Oregon and Cal), but on the plus side, that makes for a manageable home slate.

- North Carolina
New head man Butch Davis should be a difference maker right off the bat. He might not have the talent to be a major player in the ACC race, but the defense should be far stronger while the offense can't be any less productive than last year. Call this a stepping stone to 2008.

11. The coaches who have to win this year are ...
Call it a hot seat, a make-or-break year, or anything else you'd like to, but there might not be a 2008 for these ten coaches if they don't have big seasons. 
10. Mike Stoops, Arizona
After three years of being the program that's about to break through, and a 12-24 record, Stoops actually has to start winning. The team has tantalized with occasional big wins, and then comes up with losses from out of nowhere to ruin the fun. Consistency is vital.
9. Houston Nutt, Arkansas
Nutt was on a major hot seat going into last season before winning the SEC West, but with the Mitch Mustain/Gus Malzahn fiasco and the new athletic director coming in, the support given to Nutt with a pay raise won't matter if the team doesn't have a winning season.
8. Greg Robinson, Syracuse 
Everyone's better in the Big East but Syracuse. After going 5-19 in two years, and with home crowds sparse, there at least has to be a sign that things are pointed in the right direction.
7. Tommy Bowden, Clemson
Not winning ACC titles is one thing, but if Clemson loses to South Carolina for a second straight year and ends up with a second straight mediocre record, Bowden might be in big trouble. Losing four of the last five games of last season will make things testy without a big season.
6. Bill Doba, Washington State
A program can only be hard-luck for so long. After the bizarre 2005 season when the Cougars lost every close game possible, they collapsed last season missing out on a bowl game by losing the final three games of the year including home dates against Arizona and Washington teams that stayed at home for bowl season. Anything less than a bowl game might mean a coaching change.
5. Joe Tiller, Purdue
The proverbial time-for-a-new-direction cliché might be in order if Purdue doesn't make more of an impact. While it was fine last year going 8-6 and to the Champs Sports Bowl, the defense was lifeless for the second straight season and the schedule only gets worse with Michigan and Ohio State back after a two year absence.
4. Tommy West, Memphis
He might have taken the program to a few bowl games, but after last year's 2-10 disaster, West had better get off to a hot start and Memphis had better be a factor in the East.
3. Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State
The team plays hard, but being in one of the nastiest divisions in America, and in the toughest conference, has made it impossible for Croom to turn things around going 9-25 in three years. Losing to the LSUs and Auburns of the world is fine, but there can't be any more gaffes to teams like Tulane.
2. Sonny Lubick, Colorado State
Once one of college football's hottest coaches, Lubick hasn't had a winning season in three years as the program has turned into a Mountain West also ran. Losing seven straight to end last year made a bowl bid a must for 2007.
1. Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss
Is Orgeron really head coaching material? The ultimate assistant, and a phenomenal recruiter, he has to start getting more wins after coming up with just seven, and only five against D-I teams, in two years. The best win so far came against 4-8 Vanderbilt last season.

Others on the hot seat: Jeff Genyk, Eastern Michigan; Brent Guy, Utah State; Mike Sanford, UNLV; Ted Roof, Duke