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June 26, 2010

Preseason Top 120 Countdown: Nos. 70-66

Here is the 11th part of Rivals.com's 1-120 countdown; today, we look at the teams ranked 66th through 70th.

We started at the bottom, and the first two weeks of rankings have been in groups of five. Then we'll do a daily countdown from 50th to first, with our No. 1 team to be unveiled Aug. 19 -- which is two weeks from the beginning of the season.

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

Top 120 countdown
70. Middle Tennessee
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Dwight Dasher (5-10/202, Sr.)
RB Phillip Tanner (6-0/208, Sr.)
WR Garrett Andrews (6-3/206, Sr.)
WR Shane Blissard (6-5/212, Jr.)
WR Tavarres Jefferson (5-9/194, Soph.)
WR Sancho McDonald (6-3/200, Jr.)
T Mark Fisher (6-3/272, Sr.)
T Mike Williams (6-2/260, Jr.)
G Brandon McLeroy (6-3/305, Jr.)
G Alex Stuart (6-3/281, Jr.)
C Chris Hawkins (6-3/285, Sr.)
DEFENSE
E Jamari Lattimore (6-3/231, Sr.)
T Kendall Dangerfield (6-2/272, Soph.)
T Gary Tucker (6-2/250, Sr.)
E Emmanuel Perez (6-1/226, Sr.)
LB Antwan Davis (6-1/218, Sr.)
LB Justin Jones (5-11/216, Soph.)
LB Stephen Roberts (6-3/229, R-Fr.)
CB Marquise Dixon (5-10/172, R-Fr.)
CB Rod Issac (5-11/186, Sr.)
FS Jeremy Kellem (5-10/188, Sr.)
SS Kevin Brown (6-1/205, Sr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Alan Gendreau (5-10/175, Jr.)
P Nathaniel Toulson (6-1/229, Jr.)
KR Phillip Tanner (6-0/208, Sr.)
PR Tyler Mason (5-7/160, Jr.)
COACH: Rick Stockstill (27-23, fifth season)
LAST SEASON: 10-3, 7-1 (2nd in Sun Belt); beat Southern Miss in New Orleans Bowl
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 54th
KEEP AN EYE ON: Dual-threat QB Dwight Dasher ran for 1,154 yards and passed for 2,789 yards last season, when he played beyond expectations. He pouted and lost his starting job in 2008, but he bounced back with a vengeance in '09. He had three 100-yard rushing games -- including a 201-yard performance in a New Orleans Bowl win over Southern Miss -- and two 300-yard passing games. How he works with new coordinator Mike Schultz, who had a disastrous one-season run at Illinois, bears watching. Dasher will be working with his third coordinator in as many seasons. Schultz did have a nice run at TCU before going to Illinois, overseeing some powerful rushing attacks.
STRENGTHS: The offense should be extremely productive, assuming Dasher and Schultz work well together. Four starting offensive linemen are back, with T Mark Fisher the standout. There are two good tailbacks, too, in D.D. Kyles and Phillip Tanner. Kyles emerged from obscurity to rush for 857 yards when Tanner was injured early last season. MTSU ran for 2,418 yards as a team last season and 2,700 should be the goal this season. Senior DE Jamari Lattimore was a big-play guy last season (9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries) and has a chance to earn All-Sun Belt honors this season. Senior FS Jeremy Kellem should be one of the best defensive backs in the league; he and SS Kevin Brown form a productive safety duo. CB Rod Issac is another who has all-league potential. K Alan Gendreau was 18-of-22 last season and has range to 50 yards.
WEAKNESSES: The receiving corps has something to prove. The top two receivers are gone, and somebody needs to emerge as the go-to guy. Some spring injuries have left MTSU perilously thin in the interior of the defensive line, and that really looks to be the only trouble spot on defense. While Gendreau is solid, the rest of the special teams are questionable. There will be a new punter and two new return men, and MTSU's coverage teams were mediocre last season.
BUZZ: Middle Tennessee is coming off its first 10-win season since moving to FBS (then known as Division I-A) in 1999, and the talent is on hand for another 10-win season. Other than a game at Georgia Tech on Oct. 16, the schedule is navigable. The Blue Raiders open at home against Minnesota, and it wouldn't be that big a surprise if the Sun Belt team beats the Big Ten team. Key conference games against Troy and Florida Atlantic also are at home.

-- MIKE HUGUENIN

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Top 120 countdown
69. Arizona State
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Steven Threet (6-5/237, Jr.)
TB Cameron Marshall (5-11/220, Soph.)
WR George Bell (6-3/198, Jr.)
WR Aaron Pflugrad (5-10/180, Jr.)
WR Kerry Taylor (6-0/197, Sr.)
TE Trevor Kohl (6-1/248, Jr.)
T Evan Finkenberg (6-6/290, R-Fr.)
T Brice Schwab (6-7/345, Jr.)
G Matt Hustad (6-5/292, Jr.)
G Zach Schlink (6-4/311, Soph.)
C Garth Gerhart (6-1/305, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E James Brooks (6-5/280, Jr.)
T Saia Falahola (6-1/300, Sr.)
T Lawrence Guy (6-5/300, Jr.)
E Gregory Smith (6-3/255, Soph.)
LB Vontaze Burfict (6-3/245, Soph.)
LB Shelly Lyons (6-2/230, Jr.)
LB Brandon Magee (5-11/230, Jr.)
CB Omar Bolden (5-10, 195, Jr.)
CB Deveron Carr (5-11/184, Soph.)
FS Keelan Johnson (6-0/201, Soph.)
SS Clint Floyd (5-10/198, Jr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Thomas Weber (6-1/207, Sr.)
P Trevor Hankins (6-3/239, Soph.)
KR Jamal Miles (5-10/180, Soph.)
PR Jamal Miles (5-10/180, Soph.)
COACH: Dennis Erickson (19-18, fourth season; 167-83-1, 22nd season overall)
LAST SEASON: 4-8, 2-7 (9th in Pac-10)
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 70th
KEEP AN EYE ON: All eyes in the desert are on the Sun Devils' offense, which struggled in nearly all facets in '09. Quarterback play was inconsistent, the running game was unproductive, the offensive line lagged. Add it all up and ASU was among the lowest-scoring teams in the Pac-10. But there is hope. New coordinator Noel Mazzone brings a system that seems to suit QB Steven Threet, a transfer from Michigan. And junior college transfers are counted on to boost the line and receiving corps.
STRENGTHS: Beware of RB Cameron Marshall, who can add a big-play element to a running game that desperately needs it. The Sun Devils' defense has been one of the stingiest in the Pac-10 in recent seasons, and that doesn't figure to change. T Lawrence Guy anchors a solid defensive line, while rising sophomore star Vontaze Burfict, a big-hitter with a nasty attitude, highlights a capable trio of linebackers. There is some uncertainty in the secondary, which needs four new starters. But potential shutdown CB Omar Bolden is coming back from injury, and Ss Keelan Johnson and Clint Floyd are athletic. The Sun Devils' kicking game is in good shape with K Thomas Weber recovered from a groin injury that plagued him a year ago. Trevor Hankins, a former walk-on, is coming off an excellent year in which he ranked 10th among FBS punters with a 44.2 average.
WEAKNESSES: Just how bad is Arizona State's quarterback situation? Look at it this way: Threet, who passed for just 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns with seven interceptions at Michigan in '08, is looked upon as a significant upgrade. To be fair, he's a dropback passer who was ill-suited for Rich Rodriguez's spread, but he still hasn't shown much on the field. But neither have holdovers Samson Szakacsy and Brock Osweiler. Of course, they might have fared better with more help from the line. Dogged by injuries up front, the Sun Devils have allowed at least 27 sacks in each of the past five seasons. Fingers are crossed that JC transfers Brice Schwab and Aderious Simmons can provide an immediate upgrade. The punt coverage needs vast improvement.
BUZZ: Dennis Erickson has endured back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in his college coaching career. Now, the Sun Devils are striving to avoid a three-year absence from postseason play. The defense should be strong enough to keep the Sun Devils in contention, but can the offense take advantage? Last season, Arizona State averaged just 15.8 points in a six-game losing streak to close the season. Mazzone, Threet and Marshall should provide enough boost for the Sun Devils to turn some close losses (four by five or fewer points last season) into some victories. But nothing can be taken for granted.

-- OLIN BUCHANAN

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Top 120 countdown
68. Wake Forest
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Skylar Jones (6-1/185, Jr.)
RB Josh Adams (6-0/185, Sr.)
WR Devon Brown (5-9/185, Jr.)
WR Chris Givens (6-0/200, Soph.)
WR Marshall Williams (6-1/185, Sr.)
TE Andrew Parker (6-5/225, Jr.)
T Steven Chase (6-7/285, Soph.)
T Doug Weaver (6-8/295, Jr.)
G Gabe Irby (6-3/315, Soph.)
G Joe Looney (6-3/295, Jr.)
C Russell Nenon (6-4/295, Sr.)
DEFENSE
E Tristan Dorty (6-2/250, Jr.)
NG Ramon Booi (6-6/300, Soph.)
T Frank Souza (6-4/285, Soph.)
E Kyle Wilber (6-5/230, Jr.)
LB Joey Ehrmann (6-4/210, Soph.)
LB Hunter Haynes (6-2/240, Sr.)
LB Riley Haynes (6-1/225, Soph.)
CB Josh Bush (5-11/195, Jr.)
CB Michael Williams (6-1/170, Jr.)
FS Alex Frye (6-3/195, Sr.)
SS Cyhl Quarles (6-3/205, Jr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Jimmy Newman (6-2/195, Soph.)
P Shane Popham (5-11/190, Jr.)
KR Lovell Jackson (5-10/170, Soph.)
PR Michael Campanaro (5-10/175, Soph.)
COACH: Jim Grobe (59-51, 10th season; 92-84-1, 16th season overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 3-5 ACC (4th in ACC Atlantic)
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 67th
KEEP AN EYE ON: The most interesting element of Wake Forest's preseason is the battle to replace four-year starting QB Riley Skinner. Junior Skylar Jones performed well enough in spring practice to emerge as the front-runner, but he still faces competition from sophomore Ted Stachitas and redshirt freshman Brendan Cross. Stachitas succeeded Tim Tebow as the quarterback at Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease, while Cross is the son of former NFL lineman Randy Cross.
STRENGTHS: Devon Brown (61 catches, 671 yards, six TDs) and Marshall Williams (60-867-6) lead a solid receiving corps that also features Chris Givens (60-867-6). Although Wake doesn't have a standout running back, Josh Adams (113 carries, 541 yards, four TDs) and Brandon Pendergrass (83-3991) give the Demon Deacons two proven rushers. CB Kenny Okoro and SS Cyhl Quarles anchor a quality secondary that should get even stronger if Josh Bush makes a successful transition from free safety to cornerback. If Kyle Wilber stays healthy all year after missing seven games with a broken leg last season, Wake Forest should be in good shape at defensive end. Tristan Dorty and Gelo Orange should team with Wilber to offer plenty of depth at that spot.
WEAKNESSES: One of Wake's biggest strengths the past few seasons was its stability at quarterback. That position now is a major cause for concern. Jones played well in spring practice, and Stachitas and Cross could have nice futures. But it's hard to imagine any of these guys stepping in right away and playing as well as Skinner did last season. Wake also has plenty of question marks regarding its front seven on defense once you get past the ends. Wake was 10th in the ACC in run defense last season and now must replace departed Ts John Russell and Boo Williams. The Deacons also need a better season from K Jimmy Newman, who went 5-of-11 on field-goal attempts from at least 30 yards out last season. Newman didn't make a field goal longer than 44 yards.
BUZZ: Wake Forest's string of three consecutive bowl appearances ended last season, and the Deacons now might be starting the wrong kind of streak. If Wake couldn't finish above .500 with a good quarterback and two experienced defensive tackles last season, it's tough to imagine the Deacons having a winning season now that they're in much worse shape at each of those positions. Grobe is too good a coach for Wake Forest to fall all the way to the bottom of the ACC, but it may be a few years before the Deacons are contending for conference titles again.

-- STEVE MEGARGEE

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Top 120 countdown
67. Northern Illinois
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Chandler Harnish (6-2/219, Jr.)
TB Chad Spann (5-9/198, Sr.)
WR Willie Clark (6-1/206, Jr.)
WR Landon Cox (6-3/220, Sr.)
WR Nate Palmer (5-11/197, Jr.)
TE Jason Schepler (6-3/265, Jr.)
T Adam Kiel (6-5/308, Jr.)
T Trevor Olson (6-6/306, Jr.)
G Ed Jackson (6-3/314, Sr.)
G Joe Pawlak (6-5/301, Jr.)
C Scott Wedige (6-4/300, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Alan Baxter (6-0/259, Soph.)
T Mike Krause (6-4/266, Sr.)
T D.J. Pirkle (6-0/283, Sr.)
E Sean Progar (6-3/255, Soph.)
LB Devon Butler (5-11/224, Soph.)
LB Jordan Delegal (6-1/209, Jr.)
LB Alex Kube (6-0/228, Sr.)
CB Patrick George (5-11/196, Sr.)
CB Chris Smith (5-10/186, Sr.)
FS Tommy Davis (5-11/201, Soph.)
SS Tracy Wilson (6-2/203, Jr.) SPECIAL TEAMS
K Alex Faust (6-5/217, Soph.)
P Josh Wilber (5-11/235, Jr.)
KR Tommy Davis (5-11/201, Soph.)
PR Tommy Davis (5-11/201, Soph.)
COACH: Jerry Kill (13-12, third season; 111-63, 17th season overall)
LAST SEASON: 7-6, 5-3 (2nd in MAC West); lost to USF in International Bowl
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 73rd
KEEP AN EYE ON: Expect some tweaks to the offense, which has been rather conservative of late. Third-year coach Jerry Kill brought in Jim Zebrowski from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater as quarterback coach. Zebrowski was coordinator for two national championship teams (and a national runner-up team) in the past three seasons at Whitewater.
STRENGTHS: There is a strong group of running backs. NIU returns Chad Spann, a 1,000-yard rusher from a year ago. The Huskies also have Jasmin Hopkins, who gained more yards than any junior college running back in the country last season, and Iowa State transfer Cameron Bell. Bell (6-2/242) was a linebacker at Iowa State but has moved to the other side of the ball. Kill compares him to the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs, who played for Kill at Southern Illinois. NIU has had the No. 1 defense in the MAC in each of the past two seasons, and this season's unit should be every bit as strong with nine starters returning. Kill believes CB Chris Smith, CB Patrick George and FS Tracy Wilson are as good a secondary trio as there is in the MAC. The Huskies rotated eight or nine defensive linemen last season while also redshirting several players who are ready to move into the rotation in 2010. In addition, NT Mike Krause, a starter in 2008 who sat out last season with an illness, is back. Sophomore E Sean Progar looks like a star in the making. Backup CB Tommy Davis is a good return man, averaging 24.1 yards on kickoff returns (with a touchdown) and 8.0 yards on punt returns.
WEAKNESSES: The quarterback situation may not be resolved until August. Starter Chandler Harnish missed part of spring drills because of a knee injury. Backup DeMarcus Grady returns, and NIU also welcomes junior college transfer Casey Weston. The receiving corps is pedestrian, but is that because the players aren't that good or because the quarterbacks haven't been all that good the past few seasons? Whatever the answer, the passing attack needs an upgrade. Work must be done on the offensive line. The Huskies had just 10 linemen available in the spring and the two best linemen are gone from last season. NIU will miss K Mike Salerno. The punt coverage must improve.
BUZZ: Kill is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, leading the Huskies to back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history and to only the second victory over a Big Ten team (beating Purdue). Last season could have been even better, as three losses came by seven or fewer points. Look for a run at the MAC title, but the Huskies must survive an early-season schedule that features games at Iowa State, Illinois and Minnesota. In all, Huskies play four of their first five and seven overall on the road.

-- TOM DIENHART

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Top 120 countdown
66. Fresno State
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Ryan Colburn (6-3/220, Sr.)
TB Robbie Rouse (5-7/185, Soph.)
FB Austin Raphael (6-2/230, Jr.)
WR Jamel Hamler (6-2/205, Jr.)
WR Devon Wylie (5-9/170, Sr.)
TE Vince Pascoe (6-0/230, Sr.)
T Bryce Harris (6-6/295, Jr.)
T Kenny Wiggins (6-7/310, Sr.)
G Devan Cunningham (6-6/350, Sr.)
G Andrew Jackson (6-5/295, Sr.)
C Joe Bernardi (6-2/280, Sr.)
DEFENSE
E Chris Carter (6-2/245, Sr.)
T Cornell Banks (6-3/300, Sr.)
T Logan Harrell (6-2/275, Jr.)
E Chris Lewis (6-3/260, Sr.)
LB Travis Brown (6-2/235, Soph.)
LB Ben Jacobs (6-3/225, Sr.)
LB Shawn Plummer (6-0/200, Jr.)
CB Desia Dunn (5-9/190, Sr.)
CB Isaiah Green (5-10/180, Jr.)
FS Phillip Thomas (6-1/205, Soph.)
SS Lorne Bell (5-10/200, Sr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Kevin Goessling (6-0/190, Jr.)
P Andrew Shapiro (6-1/180, Soph.)
KR Rashad Evans (5-11/190, Soph.)
PR Devon Wylie (5-9/170, Sr.)
COACH: Pat Hill (100-66, 14th season)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 6-2 (T-3rd WAC); lost to Wyoming in New Mexico Bowl
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 63rd
KEEP AN EYE ON: Fresno State lost three of its top four receivers, including go-to guy Seyi Ajirotutu. Still, the position should remain an asset. True freshman Davon Dunn, a four-star recruit out of San Diego, could develop into the No. 1 option in the next two or three seasons. For now, he'll try to crack a rotation that includes Jamel Hamler and Devon Wylie.
STRENGTHS: If Derek Carr had any other last name, Fresno State's quarterback situation wouldn't be quite as intriguing. Carr is the brother of former Fresno State quarterback (and No. 1 draft pick) David Carr. But senior Ryan Colburn is the returning starter. Colburn cut down on turnovers as the season went along (seven interceptions in the first four games, four picks in the last nine). He'll play behind a veteran line led by G Andrew Jackson, one of the nation's best at the position. All five starting linemen are back, including four seniors. As with most WAC defenses, Fresno State's "D" wasn't particularly effective last season. But the Bulldogs do have two legitimate playmakers in LB. Ben Jacobs (130 tackles, three forced fumbles, three blocked kicks) and E Chris Carter (13 tackles for loss, five sacks). Fresno State returns one of the top kickers in the country in Kevin Goessling. He was 15-of-16 last season, including kicks of 50 and 52 yards.
WEAKNESSES: The Bulldogs need to find a replacement for Ryan Mathews, who led the nation in rushing. Robbie Rouse beat out a two accomplished veterans to take over the backup role last season, but Rouse is not a typical Pat Hill running back at 5 feet 7 and 185 pounds. Sophomore Michael Harris and A.J. Ellis are in that "regular" mold, so Fresno State could mix and match its tailbacks. Defensively, Fresno State needs to find run-stuffers. The Bulldogs allowed 214.1 yards per game on the ground, an embarrassingly high total for a team that prides itself on toughness. The front seven's problems could be magnified if the Bulldogs can't find capable replacements for SS Moses Harris and CB A.J. Jefferson.
BUZZ: Fresno State won't be the road warrior it has been in years past, but that doesn't mean the Bulldogs won't challenge themselves. Fresno State plays seven home games for the first time since 1994, but it still has a road trip to Ole Miss. The home schedule includes visits from Cincinnati and Illinois. The Bulldogs should be bowl-bound, but they have some uncertainty in their future: the departure of Boise State from the WAC, Hill's unsigned contract extension and financial questions.

-- DAVID FOX

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