Five Teams Whose Bandwagons I am Firmly Aboard for 2008: The Final Three

I know this whole "five teams..." business was supposed to be the final countdown (duh DA DA duh, DA DA DA duh duh) before the season started but, like most of my bloggy plans, that got sidetracked with real life issues and other assorted factors (the hour I'm using to do the Radio Hour is, generally, the hour I typically would get some blogging done that evening so look for Thursdays to be kind of slow). If I've said it once, I've said it a million times, if this blog is ever going to be done right one of us is going to have to hit the lottery and then agree to pay the other two a competitive salary so we can all blog as our day jobs and then not worry about the kind of BS nonsense that generally sidetracks us in the evenings like personal lives, grad school, or just generally being too tired and ornery from working all day to even think about doing anything beyond sitting in front of the TV and drowning our sorrows in a gigantic bag of Doritos (that would be me). But I digress. So since I know you've all been waiting with baited breathe, here are the final three teams whose bandwagons I am firmly aboard for 2008.

#3 - Connecticut

What I like: The Huskies came out of nowhere last year to reach 9 wins and a share of the Big East title with some stingy defense and special teams play which, if you read this blog regularly, you know I think means they will regress this year, but I'm going to overlook that in their case because of the returning talent. 8 starters return on defense with 9 coming back on offense, and it's the ticket selling side of the ball that has me intrigued. Four of five on the o-line are back, QB Tyler Lorenzen returns, and RB tandem Andre Dixon (828 yards last season) and Donald Brown (821) are still in the backfield. The Huskies are still sans a big play threat at receiver, but the offense greatly aided the defense by grinding away with the running game and not giving up a lot of turnovers (only 15 in 13 games).

What I don't: You know how I mentioned they didn't have a big play threat at wideout? Yeah, they are sorely lacking in big play threats in the passing game. Though Lorenzen played pretty good football last season (197 of 347 for 2367, with a 13/6 TD/INT ratio), the Huskies finished 97th in the nation in passing last year. Leading receiver Terrence Jeffers (44 catches for 582) is gone, but the next two receivers (who combined for 837 yds and 3 TDs) are back as well as pass catching TE Steve Brouse (26 for 286 with 4 TDs), so the production shouldn't be much of a drop off, though improvement isn't likely.

Where will they land?: Of the three regular season losses last season, the only real shellackings the Huskies took were a 3-27 loss at Cincinnati and a 21-66 pantsing at the hands of West Virginia, but both of those teams are on the Huskies home schedule this season while the road schedule nominally improves despite the addition of an extra road tilt. At Rutgers on 10/18 and at South Florida on 11/23 could be tough, though the Huskies handled each last year despite being presumed underdogs (38-19 and 22-15, respectively), and as far as OOC competition goes only North Carolina poses a real challenge (1AA Hofstra, Temple, and Baylor round out the slate). The Huskies won't slip up on anyone again this year, but they still have the talent to match last year's 9 win total, if not improve upon it with a revenge home win over a Virginia team that overachieved big time and is likely to regress again.

#2 - Michigan State

What I like: The Spartans return 13 starters from a team that lost all six by a TD or less (three of them in OT), and played with greatly improved toughness and discipline under new HC Mark Dantonio. Year two should see more solid improvement, with Javon Ringer returning in the backfield, a solid offensive line, Brian Hoyer returning under center, and a solid back seven on defense.

What I don't: Losses up front on defense are a huge concern, as the top linemen are gone and finding someone to replace their combined 18.5 sacks will be difficult. On offense, power RB Jehuu Caulcrick is gone, taking his 872 yards and 21 (!) TDs with him.

Where will they land?: I don't expect the Spartans to contend for the Big 10 this year, or even to finish second in the league, but I do expect them to make some noise and get a scalp or two under their belts. The schedule doesn't do them a lot of favors, adding an opening date at Cal to replace their home romp over the UAB Blazers last year, while Notre Dame will be improved this year as well, but they do get tOSU and Wisconsin at home, two teams they hung with tightly losing by three to the Badgers and seven to the Bucks, at home this year, though, and with a squeaker win over Penn State and Michigan breaking in a new HC, it's a pretty sure bet they can improve on their 7-6 record and maybe even reach double digits when it's all said and done.

#1 - Utah

What I like: After a 9-4 season, the Utes return 14 starters from a team that was up and down all season long last year. After a dreadful start, the Utes put it together after week four, reeling off seven straight wins before a heartbreaking 10-17 loss to BYU. On offense, QB Brian Johnson is back with a solid o-line, his leading rusher (Darrell Mack had 1204 yds and 12 TDs last year), and two of three starters at WR (plus a third with starting experience). On defense, 6 starters return, though that number is deceptive since a bevy of players with significant game experience before being lost to injury last season return.

What I don't: A lot of their success last season was due to a +11 turnover margin, and repeating those kind of numbers is often difficult. Relying on players returning from injury is also an iffy prospect, as at least a few of them probably won't be back to their pre-injury form early (or maybe at all).

Where will they land?: The Utes are being pegged as this year's BCS busters by a lot of folks, and a BCS bowl isn't entirely out of the question if they can handle the schedule. OOC tilts include a trip to Ann Arbor against Michigan, a Thursday night game against Oregon State (who bested the Utes 24-7 in the opener last year), and a pair of cupcakes in Utah State and 1AA Weber State. An upset of Michigan is all but taken for granted by a lot of people, but the Wolverines still have a ferocious D and all the elements they need to grind out a power run snoozer for the win. If the Utes can split Michigan and Oregon State, they should be at 8-1 by the time they welcome TCU on 11/6. TCU, at San Diego State, and BYU finish off the schedule, and even though they could beat both TCU and BYU, a split between those two seems more likely. A 10-2 regular season finish with a better than average shot at the MWC title and a Las Vegas Bowl berth isn't unreasonable, and they also have plenty of reason to hope for a shot at a BCS bowl.
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