The X-factor (cont.)
Run defense: 84.2 per game
It's hard to believe the same team that once boasted the likes of Reggie Bush, Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett -- and has recruited umpteen five-star running backs and receivers since -- could suffer from a lack of gamebreakers, but that's exactly what happened to the Trojans last season.
There's little doubt USC will once again field a championship-caliber defense. To finish No. 1, new starting QB Mark Sanchez will need the help of a true go-to threat. The Trojans' top pass-catcher last season was since-departed TE Fred Davis (62 catches, 881 yards). Their top two wide receivers, Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton, averaged just 11.3 yards per catch.
While Turner and Hazelton could well improve, the buzz out of USC's camp is that Arkansas transfer Damian Williams will provide the game-changing threat the Trojans have been lacking. Meanwhile, touted sophomore RB Joe McKnight could render the issue moot if he lives up to billing. He averaged 12.5 yards on 10 carries in last year's Rose Bowl.
Run defense: 110.3 yards per game
X-factor: Run defense.
The Sooners come as close as any of the five contenders to hitting all five benchmarks, led by last season's most-efficient quarterback, Sam Bradford, and an offensive line that ranked fifth nationally in sacks allowed.
Their one below-average category is rushing defense, but even there Oklahoma finished just one spot behind Georgia in the rankings last season (17th). So why call out the Sooners and not the Dawgs? Because unlike Georgia, OU has struggled mightily to defend the pass ever since coordinator Mike Stoops bolted in 2003 -- ranking between 41st and 59th the past four seasons.
Several previous BCS champions got away with shoddy pass defenses but compensated for it with a suffocating run defense, which is exactly what the Sooners need to produce in '08. The presence of dominating DTs DeMarcus Granger and Gerald McCoy make it a realistic goal, but someone will need to replace the production of departed All-America LB Curtis Lofton (157 tackles).
Run defense: 103.3 yards per game
The prevailing wisdom was the Gators were all offense and no defense last season. That's only partially true. While Heisman winner Tim Tebow and the explosive Harvin were unquestionably Florida's prime attractions, LB Brandon Spikes & Co. also managed to produce a top 10 rushing defense.
The Gators struggled considerably in defending the pass, where they ranked a ghastly 98th nationally (258.5 yards per game), and that problem started up front with the lack of a pass rush. No previous BCS champion has finished with just 28 sacks, as Florida produced last season. Even more telling, the Gators only produced 15 of those sacks in their eight SEC contests.
Much of those struggles could be attributed to the Gators' youth up front -- four of the top five defensive linemen from Florida's dominating 2006 BCS-title unit departed. The good news is guys like sophomore DE Carlos Dunlap, sophomore DT Lawrence Marsh and junior DE Jermaine Cunningham have gained a year's experience. The bad news is last year's sack leader, Derrick Harvey (eight), left for the NFL.