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June 11, 2008

Rivals.com is in the midst of its 2008 countdown, releasing our preseason ranking of the Division I-A teams from No. 120 to No. 1.

We're starting at the bottom, and the first week of rankings will be in groups of 10. Then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled July 31.

After that, you won't see any rankings from Rivals until early October. The reason: We will wait until enough games have been played so we can legitimately rank the teams.

The rankings were compiled by football writers Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee. They look forward to your e-mails and your comments on the message boards.

Rivals.com Preseason Countdown: Nos. 51-60
COACH: Tyrone Willingham (11-25 in three seasons; 76-76-1 overall in 13 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 4-9 overall, 2-7 in the Pac-10 (last in the conference).
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Huskies need some playmakers in the passing game after losing their top four receivers. Sophomore D'Andre Goodwin emerged as a go-to threat during the spring. Hopes are high for true freshman Chris Polk, who was once committed to USC before enrolling early at Washington. Senior cornerback Mesphin Forrester is one of three returning starters in the secondary, though he was the strong safety last season. He had 93 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups and a forced fumble last season.
STAR POWER: Jake Locker is a tough dual-threat quarterback who is the centerpiece of the offense. Locker passed for 2,062 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 986 yards (a Pac-10 record for a quarterback) and 13 TDs. But he must cut down on his 15 interceptions and improve his 47.3 percent completion percentage.
STRENGTHS: Quarterback will be a strength as a long as Locker is here. The wide receiver corps has potential but not experience. Washington returns three starters on the offensive line, but must deal with the absence of senior center Juan Garcia. He sustained a major foot injury during the spring and coaches are hopeful he can return by midseason. Five of the first seven games are at home.
WEAKNESSES: Washington's defense was historically bad in 2007. The Huskies allowed 446.4 yards per game, more than 27 yards more than the previous worst mark in school history. The 2008 defense is largely untested. End Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is the only proven member of Washington's line. The starting corners are Forrester and redshirt freshman Quinton Richardson. If Garcia can't come back, the offensive line is a big concern. Other than Locker, who else is going to run the ball? Finally, the early season schedule is brutal: Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma are the first three games.
THE BUZZ: Willingham has done a lot to repair the program, including cleaning up off-field issues and upgrading the talent level. Yet he hasn't had a winning record with the Huskies. He will remain under fire until he does so. Washington will be improved in 2008, but the schedule is daunting with non-conference games against Oklahoma, BYU and Notre Dame.
COACH: Todd Graham (10-4 in one season; 17-10 overall in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 10-4, 6-2 in Conference USA (first in C-USA West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior tailback Tarrion Adams makes the Golden Hurricane's ground attack go. He ran for 1,225 yards and eight TDs, and he's also an effective receiver out of the backfield. Senior defensive end Moton Hopkins is the best returning player on defense which actually is faint praise. Hopkins had 71 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and two pass breakups last season. He was a second-team all-conference performer.
STAR POWER: Wide receivers Trae Johnson and Brennan Marion were a devastating 1-2 punch last season. Both burst on the scene in a big way. Johnson, a sophomore, had 70 catches for 1,088 yards and 13 TDs. Marion, a senior who was an unheralded junior college transfer, had 39 catches for 1,244 yards an incredible 31.9 yards per reception and 11 TDs.
STRENGTHS: Tulsa led the nation in total offense last season and all the components are in place for another big season assuming coaches can find a quarterback to replace Paul Smith. The new guy should be senior David Johnson, another guy with a plain name who coaches hope can provide big numbers. The receiving corps is excellent, there is good depth at tailback and the line should be fine. Other than a Sept. 20 game with New Mexico, the first six games are dare we say it? mighty easy.
WEAKNESSES: Notice how none of the strengths are on defense? Tulsa gave up 451.3 yards per game last season. The linebackers were the heart of the defense last season, and all three starters are gone. Tulsa runs a 3-3-5 set, and three starters do return in the secondary but that secondary was torched weekly last season (266.6 ypg, with 28 TD passes allowed). Offensively, the only question is a big one: Can Johnson adequately replace Smith?
THE BUZZ: Last season, because of a porous defense, the Golden Hurricane essentially had to win shootouts each week. That will be the case this season, too. There is a ton of skill-position talent on offense, and as long as Johnson plays well, Tulsa will be in the thick of the C-USA race. But any kind of offensive drop-off could mean a sub-.500 season because the defense looks mighty iffy again.
COACH: Ralph Friedgen (56-31 in seven seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the ACC (tied for fifth in ACC Atlantic).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sophomore tailback Da'Rel Scott showed big-play ability in a limited role last season. He scored on a 57-yard reception in a victory over Boston College and rushed for 91 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries in the regular-season finale against North Carolina State. Now that Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore have departed, Scott needs to be the guy who picks up the slack. Senior linebacker Dave Philistin had 121 tackles last season and will be expected to be the defensive leader this season. He had offseason shoulder surgery but should be good to go by the season-opener.
STAR POWER: Junior wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey has caught 96 passes for 1,480 yards in his first two seasons. Heyward-Bey's combination of height (6-2) and speed (he has posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.23 seconds) makes him a prime NFL prospect. His production hasn't been what it should be because the Terps' passing attack hasn't been as good as it should be.
STRENGTHS: Heyward-Bey, Isaiah Williams, Danny Oquendo and LaQuan Williams give Maryland four talented receivers who combined to catch 110 passes for 1,571 yards last season a pitifully low number for a quartet that talented. The offensive line features four senior returning starters in tackles Scott Burley and Dane Randolph, guard Jaimie Thomas and center Edwin Williams. The Terps have enough depth at linebacker that they should be able to absorb the loss of Erin Henderson, who had 247 tackles in the past two seasons.
WEAKNESSES: Maryland has plenty of uncertainty at quarterback with Chris Turner, Jordan Steffy and Florida transfer Josh Portis competing for the starting job. Turner and Steffy shared the job last year, but they combined to throw 11 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes. Scott and Morgan Green have shown plenty of promise at running back, but the Terps still could miss Ball and Lattimore, who combined to rush for 1,573 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. The defensive line is a concern with the loss of both starting tackles. The secondary will have three new starters.
THE BUZZ: Maryland returns nine starters on offense and should score plenty of points if it can sort out its quarterback situation. That's a big "if." The Terps need to be productive on offense because they lost six starters off their defense. Inconsistency at quarterback and a rash of injuries caused Maryland to slip below .500 last season. As long as the Terps stay healthy, they should fare a little better this season. A middle-of-the-pack finish in the Atlantic Division and a minor bowl appearance seem likely.
COACH: Bobby Petrino (first season; 41-9 overall in four seasons).
LAST SEASON: Overall 8-5; 4-4 in the SEC (tied for third in SEC West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Though sophomore tight end D.J. Williams had only four catches a year ago, he had a strong spring and could be in for a big year. Petrino's offense historically involves the tight end. Senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard moved from defensive end, where he started last season. Sheppard is a little on the light side (277 pounds), but his quickness could cause problems on the interior. The spring performance of redshirt freshman defensive end Jake Bequette meant coaches could move Sheppard inside.
STAR POWER: Offensive linemen usually aren't stars, but there is little doubt center Jonathan Luigs is the Razorbacks' top player. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center last season and earned All-America recognition. Luigs opted against entering the NFL Draft, and his return gives Arkansas a force in the middle of its offensive line.
STRENGTHS: Luigs heads an experienced line that also has fulltime returning starters Mitch Petrus and Jose Valdez as well as DeMarcus Love, who has starting experience. The line should be the top unit on defense as well. There are eight home games overall, including two in Little Rock, and six of the first eight games are at home.
WEAKNESSES: The defensive back seven is a huge area of concern. All four starters in the secondary are gone, and all three linebackers may be: Freddie Fairchild was suspended for the spring and his status remains uncertain. Is quarterback Casey Dick a good fit for Petrino's offense? Dick wasn't asked to throw that much for former coach Houston Nutt, but that will change. Two 1,000-yard rushers are gone. Can 5-7 junior tailback Michael Smith stand up to the pounding he will take? There is no established go-to receiver on the roster.
THE BUZZ: Over the past three seasons Arkansas has ranked 112th, 109th and 109th nationally in pass offense, so there's excitement in the Ozarks because the Razorbacks are expected to take to the air under Petrino. Of course, that excitement is tempered by the realization that Dick struggled as a passer even with defenses focused on the running game the past two seasons. In recent years, there has been frustration that Arkansas hasn't won more. This season, a bowl appearance should be enough to appease the masses.
COACH: Skip Holtz (20-17 in three seasons; 54-40 overall in eight seasons).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 in Conference USA (tied for second in C-USA East).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior Jamar Bryant became the Pirates' go-to receiver last season, but he finished with just 48 receptions for 704 yards and six TDs. That receptions total needs to increase by about 12 if ECU's passing attack is to truly scare anyone this season. Senior defensive end Zack Slate was a second-team all-league pick last season. Slate, who has started a team-high 18 games in a row, had 47 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in '07.
STAR POWER: Junior strong safety Van Eskridge emerged as a solid player last season, his first as the full-time starter. He led the Pirates with 104 tackles and added three pass breakups and an interception. He's the best player in a secondary that returns three starters.
STRENGTHS: The defense has the potential to be the best in Conference USA. Nine starters return, including six of the front seven. Slate and linebackers Pierre Bell and Quentin Cotton are the standouts, though the tackle rotation could end up being the strength of the defense. Quarterbacks Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney shared time last season, and each brings a different skill set to the position. The offensive line should be good.
WEAKNESSES: There is no difference-maker on offense, and the loss of do-everything tailback Chris Johnson will be felt. The running game is a concern because there is no proven tailback. While the dual-quarterback system worked last season, neither stands out. It would help the passing game if a legit No. 2 receiver comes to the fore. While the secondary has three starters back, that group was burned often last season (289.0 ypg). Three of the first four games are against "Big Six" foes, including matchups with Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Plus, the toughest division games (Southern Miss and UCF) are on the road.
THE BUZZ: While there are issues, ECU still is in good position to win its division. The defensive front seven should be good, especially by C-USA standards. The potential exists for the offense to be solid if a productive tailback most likely Dominique Lindsay emerges. With Johnson in the NFL, Kass and Pinkney need to do more in the passing game.
COACH: Rocky Long (61-61 in 10 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in the Mountain West (tied for third in the league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Junior quarterback Donovan Porterie made big strides as a passer and decision-maker in 2007, showing patience in the pocket instead of running as a first instinct. He'll benefit from the return of coordinator Dave Baldwin, who runs a spread-'em-out scheme. Senior cornerback DeAndre Wright looks to repeat as an all-conference selection. Wright, who has started 26 consecutive games, had four picks and 12 pass breakups last season, and the school says he was thrown at just 11 times in man coverage in the final seven games of 2007. He's also a good return man.
STAR POWER: Senior tailback Rodney Ferguson has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Given the Lobos' emphasis on a punishing ground attack, there's no reason that won't get to three in a row. Ferguson doesn't have top-end speed, but he's tough between the tackles and is a workhorse.
STRENGTHS: With Long as coach, it's always about defense in Albuquerque. There will be a new coordinator with Troy Reffert taking over for Osia Lewis, who left for the same post at UTEP. Still, expect the Lobos to be aggressive, show multiple looks and to blitz then blitz some more. Wright and Glover Quin are a solid duo at cornerback and are two of four returning starters in the secondary (the Lobos run a 3-3-5 set). Ferguson and backup Paul Baker make for a nice tandem at tailback.
WEAKNESSES: Both lines must be rebuilt; just one starting lineman is back on each side of the ball. All three linebackers are new. And who will bring the heat off the edge? At least there is depth and size to choose from to apply pressure at the point of attack. The receiving corps needs reliable targets to step up from a unit that lost its two leaders. No returning player had more than 21 catches last season. And don't underestimate the loss of kicker John Sullivan.
THE BUZZ: Is there a more underappreciated coach than Long? He guided New Mexico to its first bowl victory in 46 years last season and always has a representative program. The Lobos have finished at least .500 in the league in seven consecutive seasons and have gone bowling in five of the past six seasons. You know Long will whip a rebuilt defense into shape, but New Mexico will be taxed by a rough non-conference schedule that includes TCU, Texas A&M and Arizona. Regardless, look for the Lobos to sneak into the postseason, with a good offense covering for a defense that will round into "Rocky Long form" by midseason.
COACH: Pat Fitzgerald (10-14 in two seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (tied for seventh in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior guard Keegan Kennedy could emerge as an All-Big Ten honoree. He impressed in the spring after switching from defense, showing power and athletic ability. At 6-2 and 285 pounds, Kennedy is nimble enough to move in a scheme that features wide splits. And he plays with a nasty streak. Senior defensive tackle John Gill is the headliner on a line that returns all four starters. Gill had 50 tackles last season, with 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three pass breakups.
STAR POWER: When its gets around to discussing the nation's top quarterbacks, rarely is C.J. Bacher mentioned. That's too bad. Bacher is a classic Northwestern quarterback, a guy who won't wow with physical skills but does a little bit of everything well. Don't be shocked if Bacher, who has started 17 games in a row and threw for 3,656 yards and 19 TDs last season, ends up being the All-Big Ten quarterback.
STRENGTHS: Remember the offense NU had in 2005 that averaged more than 500 yards per game? Well, this offense has a chance to be almost as good. New coordinator Mick McCall, who was the offensive coordinator at Bowling Green, has installed a hurry-up/no-huddle concept that former coach Randy Walker used effectively. This was the No. 2 offense in the Big Ten in 2007 but ranked just 10th in scoring. McCall must make those numbers more congruous. He also must hone Bacher's decision-making, hoping to cut down on the 19 picks he tossed last year. When Bacher isn't zinging short strikes, he'll hand off to tailback Tyrell Sutton, who is healthy after being limited to seven games last season. Backup Omar Conteh also can be effective. Fitzgerald thinks the receivers led by Ross Lane, Eric Peterman and Rasheed Ward will be among the best ever in Evanston. And the defense may have bite. The line looks stout, and Sherrick McManis is a steady cornerback and a good return man.
WEAKNESSES: The potential pyrotechnics of the offense could be short-circuited if an overhauled line that's breaking in three new starters including a redshirt freshman at left tackle (Al Netter) flops. The big boys also have to help improve a ground game that struggled in 2007. The back seven on defense needs work. The new defensive coordinator is veteran Mike Hankwitz, who held the same job at Wisconsin last season. One of his top priorities is generating more pressure. There is just one returning starter at linebacker, and half the secondary will be new. Will kicker Amado Villarreal settle down and be consistent after being better from long range than short range?
THE BUZZ: Fitzgerald slowly is putting his stamp on the program. This looks like the year the Wildcats could break through. They were close last year but blew a few games late. A schedule that doesn't feature a bowl team until Oct. 11 (Michigan State), coupled with a terrific offense and improved defense, means the Wildcats should go bowling for the first time since 2005. And don't be shocked if Northwestern is within striking distance of first place in the Big Ten in November.
COACH: Brady Hoke (22-37 in five seasons).
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 5-2 in Mid-American Conference (second in MAC West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ball State is known for its offense, but the Cardinals can't win the MAC title unless they shore up their defense. One guy who could help in that regard is senior cornerback B.J. Hill, a converted tailback who picked off five passes last season in his first year on defense. Hill also is a special-teams dynamo who averaged 11.1 yards per punt return last season and blocked a field-goal attempt against Navy. Senior wide receiver Dante Love set a MAC record with 2,690 all-purpose yards last season. Love caught 100 passes for 1,398 yards and 10 touchdowns while also setting a MAC record with 1,100 kickoff return yards.
STAR POWER: Junior quarterback Nate Davis already has thrown a school-record 48 career touchdown passes. Davis threw for 3,667 yards and 30 touchdowns with only six interceptions last season. He had five 300-yard games a year ago.
STRENGTHS: Davis, Love and tight end Darius Hill return after helping Ball State lead the MAC in passing offense last season. Offensive tackle Robert Brewster, a first-team all-MAC selection last season, anchors a line that returns all five starters. Brewster, tackle Andre Ramsey, center Dan Gerberry and guard Kyle Cornewell are three-time lettermen. Five starters return in the defensive back seven. Punter Chris Miller may be the best in the nation.
WEAKNESSES: Ball State was gashed on the ground last season (204.3 ypg), and there will be three new starting linemen. As a group, the defensive front seven lacks size and quickness. The Cardinals need to find a feature tailback and improve their ground attack.
THE BUZZ: A poor defense was the Cardinals' downfall last season, and it could be more of the same this season. Ball State has an explosive offense. Davis is overshadowed in the MAC by Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, but Davis is an excellent passer and he has excellent targets. Even with the defensive issues, the non-conference schedule isn't that taxing. If the Cardinals win at Indiana on Sept. 20, a special season could be in store. The Nov. 19 showdown at Central Michigan likely determines the division title.
COACH: Kevin Sumlin (first season).
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 6-2 in Conference USA (tied for first in C-USA West).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Senior free safety Kenneth Fontenette had 69 tackles last season and led the Cougars with four interceptions. He was a second-team all-league pick and will be the leader of a secondary that returns all four starters. Senior offensive tackle SirVincent Rogers missed last season recovering from a severe knee injury suffered during the 2006 season. His return is expected to solidify what should be a strong Houston offensive front.
STAR POWER: Senior defensive end Phillip Hunt has the potential to be the best at his position in the league. He had 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss last season to earn first-team all-league honors. With a big season, he could break the school career record in sacks (he's 13 away from a tie).
STRENGTHS: The front four and the secondary should be just fine, thanks to the presence of Fontenette and Hunt. The offensive line also should be solid, especially if Rogers can regain his form from early 2006. Sophomore quarterback Case Keenum developed more consistency as last season progressed, and he shouldn't have to share the job anymore. With the exception of a game at East Carolina, the league road games are not that tough. Six of the eight conference games are against teams who had losing records last season.
WEAKNESSES: The Cougars lost a ton of offensive firepower with the graduations of running back Anthony Alridge and wide receivers Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey. Do the Cougars have enough playmakers on offense? There are some questions at linebacker, where there will be two new starters. The Cougars have installed a more aggressive defensive scheme, but is the personnel on hand to make it go? Three of the first five games are on the road.
THE BUZZ: Coach Art Briles left for Baylor, so enter Sumlin, who had been co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. His acumen is going to be tested because the Cougars lost so much offensive talent. He needs the defense to lead the way early until some offensive playmakers come to the fore. Despite all the offensive losses, Houston should be in the thick of the C-USA West Division race.
60. IOWA
COACH: Kirk Ferentz (61-49 in nine seasons; 73-70 overall in 12 seasons).
LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten (tied for fifth in league).
KEEP AN EYE ON: Sophomore Paki O'Meara, a walk-on, seized control of an unsettled situation at tailback in the spring and could be a surprise. O'Meara is a punishing back who does a little bit of everything block, catch, run hard. And he's a leader. Tight end Tony Moeaki was touted as a possible all-league guy last season, but got hurt against Wisconsin. He's expected to be 100 percent and should be a consistent target. STAR POWER: Senior defensive tackle Mitch King is the man, a Tasmanian devil who uses speed and quickness to compensate for a lack of height and bulk. King, a 6-3, 264-pounder, has started 32 consecutive games and is coming off an All-Big Ten season. He is Iowa's rock of stability and the current face of the program.

STRENGTHS: The defense will give Hawkeye fans reason to scream and shout at least a little. Coordinator Norm Parker plays a bend-but-don't break style that refuses to yield big plays. The tackle tandem of King and Matt Kroul is formidable, but they will be flanked by two new ends. The loss of both corners is buffeted by the return of safeties Brett Greenwood and Harold Dalton. Linebacker A.J. Edds looks primed to be an All-Big Ten-type. Ryan Donahue is one of the Big Ten's top punters, but the kicking remains uneven.
WEAKNESSES: Two ugly facts: No Big Ten offense scored fewer points or gained fewer yards in 2007. The finger of blame jabs quarterback Jake Christensen in the chest. There's no other way to say it: He was bad in his debut as a starter. That's why he's being pushed by Rick Stanzi. Christensen lacked accuracy, poise and savvy en route to posting the worst passer rating among Big Ten quarterbacks. Maybe he was shell-shocked working behind a patchwork line ravaged by injury. The return of all five starters offers hope that the unit is more mature, stronger and tougher. Iowa gave up 46 sacks and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2007. More offensive misery: The receiving corps is a work-in-progress. Andy Brodell is the lone proven vet, but he doesn't scare defenses and is coming off a hamstring injury that cost him the last eight games of 2007.
THE BUZZ: The talk is all about tumult in Iowa City, where off-field issues have dominated the headlines and created scuttlebutt. Has Ferentz lost control of the team? Even more pertinent: What happened to the program that went 31-7, including 20-4 in the Big Ten, from 2002-04, winning two conference titles? Since then, Iowa has gone 19-18 overall and 11-13 in the league. Despite the ugly issues with players and descent into mediocrity, Ferentz remains a popular figure. But his charm may wear off if the Hawkeyes continue a south-bound pattern. Iowa played a school-record 31 true or redshirt freshmen last season, and it's hoped a more experienced roster will translate to Iowa getting back to a bowl after missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2000. A schedule that features seven home games and the absence of Michigan and Ohio State helps. What's it all mean? Expect a minor bowl. But if the Hawkeyes flop again, the torch-carrying mob finally may be at Ferentz's door.

Coming Tomorrow: Nos. 60-51

THE COUNTDOWN: 61-70 | 71-80 | 81-90 | 91-100 | 101-110 | 111-120

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