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January 16, 2009

Mailbag: Fans' focus turns to next season

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The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has passed. Now fans of various teams can appraise how much their championship hopes for 2009 have been damaged.

Some will have been damaged much more than others. Some may not be as damaged as much as one would think.

Early entries into the NFL draft can obviously compromise next season's outlook. The more returning starters the better, especially when said starters have NFL ability. But some teams have highly regarded prospects and/or experienced backups ready to step into the starting lineup.

That can ease the loss of star players and the minds of fans, as we'll see in this week's mailbag.

Georgia will be solid

From: Jeff in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.: With the losses of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, how is Georgia shaping up for next season and how well do you suspect they will do? I know they have a strong set of running backs coming back and A.J. Green returning, but what about the rest of the offense and defense? Also, though the SEC showed some disappointments, how do you rate the conference as a whole in comparison to the other "Big Six?" How does the conference look to stand next season?

Losing Stafford, Moreno and cornerback Asher Allen early to the NFL surely will cause some decline at those positions, but Georgia should still field a solid team in '09.

Joe Cox will be a fifth-year senior at quarterback, and at least he's had some playing experience. He isn't as good as Stafford, but at least Georgia won't be in a situation like LSU – with little to no experience at quarterback – went through this season.

Moreno was one of the premier running backs in the country. But Caleb King is fast and elusive and Richard Samuel is a powerful between-the-tackles runner. As a tandem, they will ease the loss of Moreno.

Georgia also is counting on the law of averages. After an injury-ravaged season in '08, the Bulldogs can expect – or at least hope for – better luck in '09. The return of Trinton Sturdivant will be a huge boost for the offensive line, just as Jeff Owens' return will upgrade the defensive line.

In addition, glowing reports on redshirt freshmen defensive ends Cornelius Washington andNeland Ball provide added optimism that the Bulldogs' defense will be … well, very Georgia-like.

Personally, I wouldn't take Georgia over Florida in the SEC East next season. But the Bulldogs could finish No. 2. Coach Mark Richt surely feels different and won't concede anything to the Gators. He's another reason – perhaps the best one – to expect the Bulldogs to have another strong season in '09.

Texas is loaded

From: Andrew in Houston: Every Longhorns fan can practically smell the national championship in 2009. Although basically every starter is returning, I know other teams, such as Oklahoma, have the same situation. How good is the probability of a national championship invitation for Texas ?

Heading into this season, most observers thought 2009 would be the year the Longhorns again would contend for the national championship. Obviously, they were ahead of schedule.

The decisions of quarterback Colt McCoy, linebacker/defensive end Sergio Kindle, defensive tackle Lamarr Houston and linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy to return next season ensures the Longhorns will be in the national championship discussion in '09. Rivals.com has them No. 2 in our early top 25 rankings.

Of course, nothing is ever assured. Injuries can become a factor (ask Georgia), a player coming off a great year might not be as sharp the next season (see Missouri's Chase Daniel) and sometimes team chemistry just isn't the same.

On paper, you have to love the Longhorns. Nine offensive starters, six defensive starters and the kicker and punter return from a team that went 12-1 and finished in the top five.

And several Big 12 teams have significant losses. Missouri loses Daniel and receiver Jeremy Maclin, Texas Tech loses quarterback Graham Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree, Oklahoma loses four starters from its offensive line. And don't underestimate the importance of Texas in '09 not having to travel to Texas Tech, which is a different team in Lubbock.

On the other hand, the Longhorns need to restock their defensive line, which will lose tackle Roy Miller and All-American end Brian Orakpo. They also need more productivity at running back and obviously need to overcome the recent tendency to suffer an upset late in the season.

Texas never is lacking for heralded prospects to step into the starting lineup. I wouldn't be surprised if Kindle shows up at defensive end, and reports on redshirt freshman running back Tré Newton – Nate's son – have been positive.

With just a mere 7 1/2 months before the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Texas looks like a definite national championship contender.

Is Nebraska on the rise?

From: Eric in Des Moines, Iowa: After Bo Pelini's first season at the helm, optimism abounds among Nebraska faithful. What is your outlook for the 2009 season?

That optimism is justified.

In one season under Pelini, Nebraska's defense improved dramatically. The Huskers allowed an average of 37.9 points per game in 2007 but reduced that total to 28.5 in '08. Not coincidentally, the Huskers increased their victory total from five in '07 to nine in '08.

That defense figures to get even better next season as Pelini starts working players that he recruited for his system into the starting lineup. And the decision by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to return for his senior season certainly helps.

But my concern about Nebraska is on offense. Quarterback Joe Ganz, who had a good season, and receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson – who both exceeded 60 catches – are gone. I think replacing the receivers won't be too problematic. Swift and Peterson were productive, but it's not like they were all-conference talents. Ganz wasn't, either, but he was a good leader and replacing him won't be as easy.

If a reliable quarterback surfaces – perhaps either Patrick Witt, Zac Lee or Cody Green – the Huskers will be in good shape. The running backs are solid, the offensive line figures to be a strong point, the defense will continue to get better and kicker Alex Henery is a weapon.

Don't forget that Nebraska redshirted almost its entire 2008 recruiting class, so the Huskers should have better depth.

Nebraska finished tied with Missouri for first in the Big 12 North, and I'd project the Huskers to contend with Kansas for the division title next season.

Can Buckeyes recover?

From: Jamie in Marion, Ohio: With Chris Wells leaving for the NFL and maybe others, where do you see Ohio State next season? Do you see Ohio State beating USC?

Losing Wells is a setback. He's a tremendous running back, and guys like him don't come along often.

Ohio State averaged 342.7 yards and 27.6 points per game this season. But in the three games Wells missed because of injury, the Buckeyes averaged 216.3 yards and 16 points. One of those games was against USC, but the other two were against Ohio University and Troy.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, Wells isn't the only significant loss. Tackle Alex Boone, receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will have to be replaced.

Still, with quarterback Terrelle Pryor expected to be better in his sophomore season and with what should be a very good defense, the Buckeyes will be strong contenders to win the Big Ten.

As far as beating USC? Well, the Trojans also have significant losses, especially on defense, so that will be a tough call. But if you insist – as of today I'd take USC.

How much patience in Louisville?

From: Taft in Washington: Will it take more than one more bad season for Louisville to sack coach Steve Kragthorpe?

Now that coaches are getting seven-figure salaries, programs have more demands and less patience.

Louisville is 11-13 and hasn't appeared in a bowl in two seasons under Kragthorpe. That's never good, but when your predecessor had the team in the national championship picture, it's even worse.

Kragthorpe was a good coach when he was at Tulsa, but that doesn't matter now. If the Cardinals fail to reach a bowl in '09, a change probably will be in order. Most programs won't accept three consecutive disappointing seasons.

Hope for the Hawgs

From: Andrew in Washington: What do you think about Arkansas next season? Despite all the media [criticizing] coach Bobby Petrino for jumping ship, he actually didn't do so bad in his first season at Arkansas, finishing 5-7 and playing close in most of the games. Could they be the surprise team in the SEC next season?

With or without Petrino, Arkansas figured to have a down season in 2008. But there was no doubt the Razorbacks got better as the season progressed. Although they went 2-4 in the second half of the season, three of those losses were by a field goal or less and two were against teams that won their bowl games (Ole Miss and Kentucky).

The Razorbacks have a ton of returning starters, they will be more comfortable in Petrino's system and Ryan Mallett should be an upgrade at quarterback. Arkansas should continue to improve. It would come as no surprise if the Hogs emerge as a legitimate challenger in the SEC West next season.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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