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March 1, 2009

Which top-10 team has the biggest holes?

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

Today's question: Of the teams in our early preseason top 10, which one do you think has the biggest hole(s) to fill entering spring practice?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
Last season, Oklahoma averaged 4.8 yards per rush to rank 20th in the country. Even more impressive, the Sooners ranked third in sacks allowed and the teams ahead of them Air Force and Navy attempted less than half as many passes as the Sooners did. Those statistics illustrate the excellence of Oklahoma's offensive line. But four starters from the unit are gone, and three of them Duke Robinson, Phil Loadholt and Jon Cooper received All-Big 12 recognition. Consequently, an area that was perhaps the strongest part of the team last season figures to be substantially weakened. Of course, OU always recruits well and will have talented players ready to step in. Are those newcomers going to be as effective as their predecessors, though? That's a hard standard to match. If the line isn't as effective, how will Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford fare? That's a legitimate question.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
It's easy to gush on about the return of quarterback Sam Bradford, running backs Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray and tight end Jermaine Gresham at Oklahoma. But the Sooners have four massive holes to fill along the offensive line from a unit that helped pave the way for one of the most prolific offenses in college football history. Gone are right guard Brandon Walker, left tackle Phil Loadholt, left guard Duke Robinson and center Jon Cooper. The only starter back will be right tackle Trent Williams. And on top of losing all of that prime beef up front, Oklahoma also will be without receivers Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias. Knowing all of this, it seems difficult to envision the Sooners as a preseason No. 3 pick.

David Fox's answer:
Pete Carroll lost his cool when he criticized Mark Sanchez for leaving early for the NFL draft. But I'm not so sure that quarterback is Carroll's biggest question mark going into next season. USC usually finds a way to reload, but the Trojans will be tested in 2009 when it comes to their defensive front seven. All three starting linebackers, tackle Fili Moala and ends Clay Matthews and Kyle Moore, are gone off a dominating defense. Beyond rising junior Everson Griffen, we haven't seen much of the potential replacements for these departed seniors. The Trojans have held opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards per game in six of the past seven seasons, but that could be a challenge this fall. The conference will be a run-first league with, among others, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, California's Jahvid Best and Oregon's LeGarrette Blount returning. The development of the front seven will determine how good the Trojans will be.

Mike Huguenin's answer:
Oklahoma has a ton of talent returning: a Heisman-winning quarterback, two 1,000-yard rushers, the best tight end in the nation, the makings of a great front seven on defense, two solid cornerbacks. But all that talent won't matter unless the Sooners can adequately replace four starters on the offensive line. Actually, there's a chance all five guys will be "new," as the incumbent right tackle, Trent Williams, is expected to move to the left side. You can bet Sooners coaches will be focused on getting the offensive line fixed this spring.

Steve Megargee's answer:
USC clearly has the biggest hole to fill; actually, we should probably say "holes" instead of "hole." Defensive tackle Christian Tupou is the only Rose Bowl starter from the front seven on defense who will be back, forcing the Trojans to overhaul a defense that ranked among the best in recent college football history. The list of departed players in the front seven features potential first-round draft picks Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Fili Moala. The secondary gets a boost from the return of Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard, but the Trojans still must replace potential draft selections Cary Harris and Kevin Ellison. All that star power helped USC allow just nine points per game last season to lead the nation in scoring defense. USC also led the nation in pass efficiency defense and ranked second in total defense. Of course, if any team is equipped to replace that kind of talent without missing a beat, it's USC. Former five-star prospects such as Everson Griffen and Chris Galippo should help USC have another solid defense this fall. But it's tough to imagine the Trojans being nearly as dominant on that side of the ball as they were last season.

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