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August 25, 2006

Texas, USC not only ones with tough acts to follow

There is a theme running through most of the Rivals.com list of the 10 teams with the toughest acts to follow.

Eight of them lost their starting quarterback from a season ago, and one that was supposed to have its starting signal-caller back recently saw him undergo knee surgery that could force him out of the opener.

Now while losing the QB doesn't necessarily signal disaster (D.J. Shockley springs to mind as an example of a first-year starter who did just fine under center last season), it's not exactly a recipe for success.

We're not talking about run-of-the-mill quarterbacks either. Most of these teams lost great players guys who won Heisman Trophies and national championships and conference MVP awards.

Texas has to replace Vince Young. In fan voting on Rivals.com, Young was named the greatest player in Longhorns history. No pressure for the freshman who will take snaps in Austin this season.

The cleats are just as huge to fill at USC and Alabama, and the list goes on.

Wisconsin is slated to start John Stocco at QB, and he performed admirably for the Badgers last season (2,920 passing yards, 21 TDs, nine interceptions). However, he recently underwent knee surgery that could sideline him for a game or two to start the season. When Stocco returns, he still will have to overcome this frightening fact: UW doesn't have a returning player who gained more than 100 yards rushing or caught more than one pass last season.

This doesn't mean we predict doom for any of these teams. It's just that they set the bar for themselves last season at a height they may not be able to clear in 2006.

Rivals.com 2006 Tough Acts to Follow
1. Texas: The Longhorns return plenty of talent and figure to be among the nation's elite. But they are not the same team that went undefeated and won Texas' first national championship since 1970. The options to replace otherworldly Vince Young at quarterback are a redshirt freshman or a true freshman, and the big question on defense is who will replace Michael Huff. The new starters will get only one game under their belts before Ohio State rolls into Austin on Sept. 9, and that may be too much to ask. Oklahoma should be improved, and the Longhorns face back-to-back road games at Nebraska and Texas Tech.
2. Southern Cal: Settle down, Trojans fans. We're not saying your team won't be good. Heck, it probably will play in a BCS bowl again. But even you have to admit the 2006 Trojans can't possibly be the offensive juggernaut of the past couple of seasons. You just lost the past two Heisman Trophy winners. The offense is going to suffer. Chauncey Washington may very well be a great running back. Reggie Bush was from another planet, not to mention he had a pretty decent complement in LenDale White. Then there is the matter of replacing Matt Leinart. And it seems many people have forgotten that the Trojans have to replace three starters on the offensive line. When you haven't had a regular-season loss since 2003, you're always a tough act to follow.
3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions return just nine starters from last year's 11-1 Orange Bowl team, the fewest returning starters of any team in the Big Ten. There are high hopes for new QB Anthony Morelli, but he's replacing the Big Ten MVP of a season ago in Michael Robinson. He also will be playing behind a revamped offensive line. The defense will have to carry PSU a long way before this offense can catch up, and a middling finish in the Big Ten is a real possibility.
4. Alabama: The Tide loses only two starters on offense, but one of those is quarterback Brodie Croyle. His leadership, not to mention his statistics, will be difficult to replace for a team that went 10-2. There also is the matter of seven starters lost on defense, including All-American linebacker DeMeco Ryans, running mate Freddie Roach and three-fourths of one of the SEC's best secondaries. The Tide will be looking up at Auburn and LSU in the West, and Arkansas could battle Alabama for third place.
5. UCLA: Much like Pac-10 rival USC, you simply can't lose the kind of offensive firepower the Bruins lost and expect to duplicate a 10-2 season. Quarterback Drew Olson played almost flawlessly last season, finishing with 34 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. He's gone. Running back Maurice Drew racked up 914 yards and 13 TDs, not to mention 28.5 yards per punt return and three punt return TDs. He's gone. Tight end Marcedes Lewis had 58 receptions for 741 yards and 10 TDs. He's gone. Can you say seven-win season?
6. Vanderbilt: First off, congratulations to the Commodores for even qualifying for this list. Last season's five wins were the most since 1999. They included a regular-season finale upset at Tennessee, Vanderbilt's first win over its in-state rival since 1982 and first in Knoxville since 1975. But the Commodores return only 12 starters, and quarterback Jay Cutler is not one of them. Cutler left Nashville with almost every school passing record and was snapped up in the first round of the NFL Draft.
7. Northwestern: There are a lot of factors working on the Wildcats, chief among them their emotional state following the shocking death of coach Randy Walker on June 29. Can new coach Pat Fitzgerald keep his team focused? The Wildcats return 13 starters, including seven from one of the nation's most prolific offenses in 2005. The bad news is the trigger of that offense, quarterback Brett Basanez, isn't one of them. All he did last season was account for more than 4,000 yards of total offense and 28 TDs. That equals irreplaceable. And don't forget that offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar moved on to California.
8. Wisconsin: The lasting image of the Badgers from 2005 is of them thrashing heavily favored Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. Most of the defense is back, which is good news. But the offense returns only three starters, and gone are leading rusher Brian Calhoun (1,636 yards and 22 touchdowns) and leading receiver Brandon Williams (59 receptions, 1,095 yards, six TDs). Starting QB John Stocco also recently had to undergo knee surgery, and he may not be ready for the start of the season. The schedule has only four road games, but we'll take the wait-and-see approach on new coach Bret Bielema.
9. N.C. State: Chuck Amato's Wolfpack rallied from a 2-4 start to make the postseason, but only 10 starters return. The defense was decimated by the NFL Draft, with three linemen going in the first round and leading tackler LB Stephen Tulloch taken in the fourth round. The offensive line will be young and inexperienced as well, and Marcus Stone has yet to prove he can be an effective QB.
10. Oregon: We like the Ducks. We really do. Running back Jonathan Stewart is a future star. But duplicating a 10-win season without last year's leading rusher (Terrence Whitehead), leading passer (Kellen Clemens) and defensive leader (Haloti Ngata) is a tall order. Throw in a schedule that is less than friendly (road games against Fresno State, Arizona State, California and USC and a home game with Oklahoma) and even eight or nine wins would be worth a pat on the back.
The Rivals Five
Just as there are teams with tough acts to follow, there are teams that fell well short of expectations last season and fully expect to bounce back. Here are five teams with acts they would rather not repeat:
1. Tennessee: Preseason No. 3, finished 5-6.
2. Michigan: Preseason No. 4, finished 7-5.
3. Purdue: Preseason No. 15, finished 5-6.
4. Texas A&M: Preseason No. 17, finished 5-6.
5. Iowa: Preseason No. 11, finished 7-5.

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