INsite Magazine’s Top 20

1. Florida State – Loaded. That’s all you need to say about the Seminoles. There is enough talent for two good college teams. The linebacker crew may not perform to the usual Seminole standards, but the defensive line, led by Corey Simon, Roland Seymour and Jamal Reynolds, is probably the nation’s best. On offense, the line returns intact hoping to improve a disappointing ground game (ranked 59th nationally last season with 149.8 ypg). Peter Warrick may be the nation’s best receiver. The big question mark is quarterback. Chris Weinke threw 6 INT’s last year – all in one game! Following the shocking loss at NC State, Weinke attempted 218 consecutive passes without an interception until a season-ending neck injury in mid-November. After some tricky surgery, Weinke was unable to participate in spring drills. If he comes back strong, the ‘Noles will be tough to beat.

Key Stat: The Seminoles have finished in the top four in the AP poll for 12 consecutive years, and have won at least 10 games in each of those seasons.

Key Games: Georgia Tech, Miami, at Florida

2. Texas A&M – The Aggies have played in the last two Big 12 championship games, including the heart-stopping overtime upset of top-ranked Kansas State last year. Look for them in their third consecutive conference showdown. With eight starters back on both sides of the ball, the Aggies will simply pick up where they left off. They do it with defense -- leading the Big 12 last year in total defense. Replacing fiery over-achiever Dat Nguyen at linebacker won’t be easy, but the defensive line of Rocky Bernard, Ronald Flemons and Ron Edwards is excellent. The offense isn’t flashy, but the backfield is solid. QB Randy McCown gets the job done, and takes care of the ball. He threw only five interceptions last year, including just one in his last three games. If they can beat Nebraska in Lincoln, an unbeaten regular season seems likely.

Key Stat: The Aggies beat Kansas State at a neutral site last year in the Big 12 Championship game, but they haven’t beaten a Top 10 team on the road since 1979.

Key Games: at Texas Tech, at Nebraska, Texas

3. Tennessee – QB Tee Martin developed into an effective passer last year on the way to a national championship. This year, Martin might spend more time handing off. TB Jamal Lewis returns from a knee injury, joining capable backs Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. The offensive line is beefy and strong. The departure of Peerless Price leaves a big hole at wide receiver. On defense, Raynoch Thompson is a good linebacker, but Al Wilson’s leadership and intensity will be missed in the middle. After winning it all in ‘98, can the Vols stay hungry in ‘99?

Key Stat: A visit to the Swamp may be the only thing between the Vols and another national title, but they haven’t beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1971.

Key Games: at Florida, Georgia, at Alabama, Notre Dame, at Arkansas

4. Penn State – Last year’s Nittany Lions, loaded with sophomores and juniors, managed to win nine games. With 17 starters back, this team has visions of the Sugar Bowl dancing in their head. QB Kevin Thompson is adequate, but has plenty of talent around him, including tailback Eric McCoo. How’s this for bookends? Penn State’s tackles Karreem McKenzie and John Blick are 6-7, 313 pounds and 6-6, 314 respectively. Defensively, Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington are an awesome pair of linebackers. The front seven returns virtually intact after giving up just 97 ypg rushing last year. The schedule offers many potential roadblocks including the season opener against Arizona and a trip to Miami.

Key Stat: With a young unit last year, the Nittany Lions still managed to finish 8th in the nation in rushing defense, and 8th in pass efficiency defense.

Key Games: Arizona, at Miami, Ohio State, at Purdue, Michigan

5. Florida – The Gator offense sputtered at times in ‘98. Turnover troubles (17 fumbles lost and 15 interceptions) didn’t help things. Wide receiver Travis Taylor appears poised to become the go-to guy, replacing Travis McGriff.. Plenty of veterans return to an O-line that needs to improve its run blocking. Head coach Steve Spurrier has two very capable quarterbacks in Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, with Johnson likely to get the starting nod. The defense must be totally rebuilt under new coordinator Jon Hoke. But many of his youngsters gained valuable experience last year. Even if they are forced to outscore many of their opponents, few teams are as well equipped as Florida to do just that. A favorable schedule brings the toughest opponents to the Swamp, where only the Gators get out alive.

Key Stat: The Gators own the nation’s longest home win streak – posting 27 straight victories in the Swamp.

Key Games: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia (at Jacksonville), Florida State

6. Nebraska – In the first season of the post-Osborne era, a total of nine projected starters missed significant playing time because of injuries. First year coach Frank Solich lost starting quarterback Bobby Newcombe to a knee injury, and his backup, Eric Crouch had hip troubles. If the backfield stays healthy, the Huskers will should win the Big 12’s North division title. The defense is a bit weaker in the trenches than past teams, but the secondary, led by Ralph Brown and Mike Brown (no relation), is very good. Nebraska is no longer the dominant team they were four or five years ago, but they’re still pretty darn good.

Key Stat: Nebraska finished 8-4 last season – the first time since 1968 that they’ve lost four games in one season.

Key Games: at Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas State, at Colorado

7. Michigan – In the late stages of a post-national championship hangover, the Wolverines lost their first two games last season, but went on to win nine of their next ten, including a 45-31 Citrus Bowl win over Arkansas. QB Tom Brady developed, slowly but surely, into a consistent presence, completing 61% of his passes (200 of 323). Sophomore backup Drew Henson has a major league arm, and could see some serious action this year. An injury to tailback Anthony Thomas could spell disaster, as there is little depth behind him. As usual, the offensive line is big and strong. The defense proved porous at times last year. Head coach Lloyd Carr hopes that slightly smaller, faster linebackers will help defend the vulnerable corners.

Key Stat: Michigan has more football wins in its history (786) than any other program in the nation, except Yale (791).

Key Games: Notre Dame, at Syracuse, at Wisconsin, Purdue, at Penn State, Ohio State

8. Georgia Tech – The Tech defense lived dangerously last year, giving up yardage in chunks, but coming up with big plays at critical moments. With your defense yielding almost 400 yard per game (a figure which ranked 82nd in the nation), it would be tough to win if the offense wasn’t so good. QB Joe Hamilton is an exciting playmaker, and first team All-ACC selection. All but one of the offensive linemen return, including Jon Carman – a 6-8, 335 pound monster. Joe Burns is likely to be the key ball carrier. Any improvement on defense may mean another 10-2 season for the Ramblin’ Wreck, but they will still be a distant second to FSU in the ACC.

Key Stat: The Yellowjacket defense established an NCAA record last season by returning 7 recovered fumbles for touchdowns.

Key Games: at Florida State, at Virginia, Georgia

9. Arizona – The Wildcats, very quietly, went 12-1 in ’98, including a 23-20 win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Their only loss came in a 52-28 shootout with UCLA. With 16 starters back from last year’s squad, there are high hopes for another history-making season in Tucson. The quarterback combination of Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins has been successful, and tailback Trung Canidate is an explosive threat. In a conference where defense is an afterthought, this one is legit. LB Marcus Bell is likely to be a Butkus Award candidate. A season opener at Penn State (Pigskin Classic) looks tough, but the Wildcats should be favored in the rest of their games.

Key Stat: Canidate averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per carry last year on the way to gaining 1,321 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns.

Key Games: at Penn State, USC, at UCLA, at Arizona State

10. Wisconsin – It will be tough to improve upon last year’s 11-1 season capped by a Rose Bowl win over UCLA. With an offensive line that averages nearly 6-6, and 300 pounds per man, the Badgers’ game plan this fall will be simple – give the ball to Ron Dayne and watch him follow the beef. With an inexperienced quarterback stepping in, Wisconsin will live or die by the run. A solid nucleus returns on both sides of the ball, and the non-conference schedule is a cakewalk. The Badgers only loss last year was a 27-10 setback at Michigan. Road trips to Ohio State and Purdue could decide the Big 10 since Penn State is not on the Badgers’ slate for ’99.

Key Stat: The Great Dayne needs 1,717 yards rushing this season (156 per game) to break Ricky Williams’ record as the NCAA’s all-time leading ground gainer.

Key Games: Michigan, at Ohio State, at Purdue

11.Virginia Tech – The Hokies are known for defense and special teams. They finished fourth in the nation in scoring defense last year and lead the nation in blocked kicks this decade. Under coach Frank Beamer, they have a streak of six straight bowl appearances and have a 53-19 record in that six year span. They are for real. The defense, with eight starters returning, should continue to be good. Corey Moore led the league in sacks last year (with 13½), and was the Big East defensive player of the year. The offense has been rather ordinary in the past, but redshirt freshman QB Michael Vick may be just what the doctor ordered.

Key Stat: The November 13 showdown against Miami could decide the Big East title. That’s good news for the Hokies – they have beaten Miami four years in a row.

Key Games: at Virginia, Miami

12. Ohio State – A home loss to unranked Michigan State last year cost the Buckeyes a shot at the national championship. Coach John Cooper has recruited extremely well, and there is an abundance of talent, but many key contributors from last year’s squad are gone. The most critical need is at quarterback where Steve Bellisari and Austin Moherman have combined for a grand total of three completed passes in their young careers. Michael Wiley is a good ball carrier (1,235 yards and 6.2 ypc last year). Big, experienced lines on both sides of the ball should help. Linebacker Na’il Diggs was first team All-Big Ten last year. The schedule offers more than the usual challenges. A fifth consecutive 10-win season seems unlikely.

Key Stat: Last season, the Buckeyes were 5-0 against top 25 teams, posting wins against #11 West Virginia, #21 Missouri, #7 Penn State, #11 Michigan and #8 Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl.

Key Games: Miami (Kickoff Classic at Meadowlands), UCLA, Wisconsin, Purdue, at Penn State, at Michigan

 

13. Texas – Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams is gone, but the Longhorns still have sophomore sensation Major Applewhite at quarterback. Operating behind a rebuilt offensive line, his passing arm and scrambling skills may be more important than ever. Wide receiver Kwame Cavil (51 catches in ’98) will be the primary target while the running game finds its legs. The Longhorns became a tough defensive team last season, eventually holding Texas A&M to –7 yards rushing in a 26-24 Texas victory. The defensive line returns intact, and should help keep opposing offenses in check. A friendly schedule help – only five of this year’s opponents had winning records last year.

Key Stat: Applewhite amassed more than 200 yards passing in 10 consecutive games last year – setting a Longhorn record in the process.

Key Games: Kansas State, at Oklahoma, Nebraska, at Texas A&M

14.Alabama – Could there be a quarterback controversy brewing in Tuscaloosa? Andrew Zow had a surprising freshman year in ’98 (162 of 291 for 2193 passing yards). But freshman Tyler Watts was a prized recruit who should challenge for playing time under center. Seventeen starters return from a rebuilding squad that put together a respectable 7-5 season last year. The offensive line returns intact to pave the way for Heisman hopeful tailback Shaun Alexander. With continued improvement on defense, the Tide should be the best in the SEC’s West division.

Key Stat: Alabama should benefit from a schedule that includes seven home games this season.

Key Games: at Florida, Tennessee

 

15. Miami – The ‘Canes have seventeen starters back from a unit that finished 9-3 last year, including a surprisingly easy bowl win over NC State. This time around, Najeh Davenport and James Jackson must fill the shoes of departed running back Edgerrin James. Sophomore Kenny Kelly will step in at quarterback and throw to a talented bunch of receivers including Reggie Wayne (42 catches in ’98) and Santana Moss (30 catches). The defense is small but fast. The Big East’s top two tacklers last year were both Hurricanes – linebackers Nate Webster (134 tackles) and Dan Morgan (150 tackles). The schedule is brutal.

Key Stat: Miami’s schedule includes six bowl teams from last year, and five teams that finished in the top 25.

Key Games: Ohio State (Kickoff Classic at Meadowlands), Penn State, at Florida State, at Virginia Tech

16. Colorado – Former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett takes over the helm. The return of all five offensive linemen should help the Buffs build a better ground attack. Mike Moschetti will start the season under center but Adam Bledsoe (Drew’s younger brother) is waiting for his chance to shine. Marcus Stiggers is one of the better receivers in the Big 12. Colorado finished a respectable 13th nationally in total defense (296 ypg) but often appeared vulnerable against the run. Any improvement on defense could keep Colorado in the hunt for the Big 12’s North division title.

Key Stat: The Buffs averaged just 123 yards per game rushing last year – a figure that ranked 88th in the nation.

Key Games: Colorado State, at Washington, at Kansas State, Nebraska

17.Georgia – The problem with Georgia is they play in the same division as Florida and Tennessee. Expectations are high for sophomore quarterback Quincy Carter. A strong-armed scrambler, he provides a potent spark for the offense. A reliable back must emerge – Patrick Pass and Jasper Sanks have been inconsistent. And a new go-to guy must be found to replace Champ Bailey. The defense should be solid, but not spectacular. A quick start for the season is a must for Georgia – their first four games are in friendly Sanford Stadium, but five of the last seven are away from home.

Key Stat: In the 90’s, the Bulldogs are 44-19-1 against everybody else in college football, but 1-15 against Florida and Tennessee.

Key Games: at Tennessee, Florida (at Jacksonville), at Georgia Tech

18. Marshall – This team will fight for national respect, and probably earn it if they can triumph in a season-opening visit to Clemson. Since moving up to Division I-A two years ago, they’ve won 22 games. Only Tennessee has more wins (23) in the same time period. The Thundering Herd returns nineteen starters from a team that finished 12-1 last season, including a win over Louisville in the Motor City Bowl. It all starts with QB Chad Pennington. In his three year playing career, he has passed for over 10,000 yards and 85 touchdowns. Senior tailback Doug Chapman may become the first Marshall player to gain over 1,000 yards rushing every year. The defense is not bad (23rd in the nation in total defense last year), but the offense gets the headlines.

Key Stat: In the 90’s, only one Division I school has more than 100 wins. You guessed it – Marshall, with 101.

Key Games: at Clemson, Bowling Green, at Western Michigan

 

19. Air Force – Head coach Fisher DeBerry isn’t a household name, but his Falcons have won 22 games in the past two years. Only Tennessee (with 23 wins) has more. Last year, Air Force finished 12-1, including a 45-24 pasting of Washington in the Aloha Bowl. Cale Bonds takes over at QB in their multiple option attack. Experience is lacking at wide receiver, but make no mistake, this is a ground-oriented team that finished 3rd in the nation in rushing in ’98. The Falcons play tough, disciplined defense. Leading tackler Craig Thorstenson (96 tackles in ’98) is back along with two other linebacker starters to form the core of this unit. The October visit to BYU will probably decide the first Mountain West Conference championship.

Key Stat: Ohio State is the only team in the nation to yield fewer points than Air Force over the last two years (just under 13 points per game).

Key Games: at Washington, Wyoming, at Brigham Young, Colorado State

20. Purdue – One of the pleasant surprises of ’98 was the emergence of the Boilermakers. Their 9-4 season ended with an exciting Alamo Bowl win over highly-regarded Kansas State. Junior quarterback Drew Brees will, once again, rewrite the Big 10 record books for passing. In last year’s game at Wisconsin, he established NCAA records for pass attempts (83) and completions (55) in a single game. The Boilermakers scored an average of 34 points per game last year. They may need it as the defense strives to improve at the same pace as the offense. A tough schedule may keep them from winning more than seven or eight games, but this is a team that will surprise somebody, somewhere along the way.

Key Stat: Last year, Brees set conference records for passing yards (3,983), touchdown passes (39), pass attempts (569), and completions (361).

Key Games: Notre Dame, at Michigan, at Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin