Posted: Wednesday January 18, 2006 10:57AM; Updated: Wednesday January 18, 2006 8:49PM
Winner: Ole Miss
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Coach Ed Orgeron had a nightmarish fall, going 3-8 in his debut season, but thus far, January has been filled with good news.
First, the former Miami assistant landed former colleagues Dan Werner and Art Kehoe as his new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, respectively. Last weekend, Oregeron received a visit from ex-Tennessee quarterback Brent Schaeffer, who, if he chooses to transfer to Oxford (it's down to Ole Miss, Wisconsin and N.C. State), would give the Rebs a much-needed upgrade. And most pleasing of all, All-America linebacker Patrick Willis, the nation's sixth-leading tackler last year, elected to return for his senior season.
Loser: N.C. State
Chuck Amato's program was already viewed by many as a sinking ship (the Wolfpack finished 11-3 in 2002, then went a combined 12-11 in '04 and '05). N.C. State's underclassmen seemed to be in a hurry to jump overboard. Defensive end Mario Williams, a projected top-10 pick, can hardly be faulted for leaving, but defensive tackle John McCargo, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and tackle Derek Morris are all marginal prospects who would have benefitted greatly from another year in school.
Amato is now faced with rebuilding the core of a defense that ranked among the nation's best the past two seasons (the offense stunk). Gone are not only Williams, McCargo and Tulloch, but also defensive end Manny Lawson, linebacker Oliver Hoyte and cornerback Marcus Hudson. Two highly recruited D-linemen who redshirted last season, Willie Young and Littleton Wright, will need to contribute immediately next season.
Winners: LSU and Georgia
Last year's SEC divisional champs really only had one player each to worry about, but they were pretty important players, and both came back. For the Tigers, safety LaRon Landry will contend for All-America honors and provide much-needed leadership for a defense losing several veteran leaders (defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten, linebacker Cameron Vaughn). The Dawgs, meanwhile, get back big-time pass rusher Quentin Moses, who had 11.5 sacks last season.
Loser: South Carolina
Half of South Carolina's starting secondary turned pro. All-America safety Ko Simpson was the heart and soul of the Gamecocks' defense the past two seasons, and though he's just a redshirt sophomore, he is 22 and likely NFL-ready. He'll need impressive workouts to crack the first round, though. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph, who led the team with four interceptions, played just one season after transferring from a junior college and is not ready. Meanwhile, linebacker Dustin Lindsay, South Carolina's third-leading tackler in 2005, has been deemed academically ineligible for '06, leaving Steve Spurrier with just three returning starters on defense.
The 'Canes certainly wanted playmaking return man Devin Hester back for another season, but his departure had been expected for months. The good news for Miami is that after losing 10 underclassmen to the NFL during the past four seasons (seven were first-round picks), Hester was this year's only early exit. Defensive end Baraka Atkins and receiver Ryan Moore wrestled with leaving but decided to stay. Tight end Greg Olsen and safety Brandon Merriweather probably could have made the jump, but never seriously considered it.