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June 28, 2010

Preseason Top 120 Countdown: Nos. 60-56

Here is the 13th part of Rivals.com's 1-120 countdown; today, we look at the teams ranked 56th through 60th.

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
60. N.C. State
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Russell Wilson (5-11/201, Jr.)
RB Curtis Underwood (5-11/220, Jr.)
FB Taylor Gentry (6-2/250, Jr.)
WR Jarvis Williams (6-4/219, Sr.)
WR Owen Spencer (6-3/185, Sr.)
TE George Bryan (6-5/265, Jr.)
T Jake Vermiglio (6-5/325, Sr.)
T Mikel Overgaard (6-6/280, Jr.)
G Andrew Wallace (6-5/299, Soph.)
G Zach Allen (6-3/314, Soph.)
C Camden Wentz (6-3/290, Soph.)
DEFENSE
E David Akinniyi (6-4/255, Sr.)
T Natanu Mageo (6-3/285, Sr.)
T Brian Slay (6-3/290, Soph.)
E Michael Lemon (6-4/267, Sr.)
LB Audie Cole (6-5/239, Jr.)
LB Nate Irving (6-1/235, Sr.)
LB Terrell Manning (6-3/224, Soph.)
CB Rashard Smith (5-11/176, Soph.)
CB C.J. Wilson (5-11/179, Soph.)
FS Brandan Bishop (6-2/210, Soph.)
SS Earl Wolff (6-0/201, Soph.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Josh Czajkowski (5-9/184, Jr.)
P Jeff Ruiz (6-2/185, Jr.)
KR T.J. Graham (6-0/180, Soph.)
PR T.J. Graham (6-0/180, Soph.)
COACH: Tom O'Brien (16-21, fourth season; 91-66, 14th season overall)
LAST SEASON: 5-7, 2-6 (5th in ACC Atlantic)
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 78th
KEEP AN EYE ON: N.C. State's chances of earning a bowl bid could depend on how well LB Nate Irving recovers from a 2009 car wreck that prevented him from playing last season. Irving was N.C. State's top defensive player before he suffered a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg last June. The Wolfpack need a healthy Irving to lead a defense that lacks experience.
STRENGTHS: Russell Wilson gives NCSU one of the ACC's top quarterbacks. Although an increase in interceptions last season prevented him from earning first-team All-ACC honors for the second consecutive season, he still led the league with 31 touchdown passes. Owen Spencer (30 catches, 765 yards, six TDs) led the nation in yards per catch last season, while Jarvis Williams (45-547-11) and tight end George Bryan (40-422-6) also are capable targets. Josh Czajkowski heads into the season having made 24 of his past 27 field-goal attempts. T.J. Graham is an effective special-teams performer who returns kickoffs and punts.
WEAKNESSES: N.C. State ranked 92nd in the nation in rushing last season and must replace its top two rushers. The Wolfpack also have major question marks on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They return only two starters on the offensive line and don't have any returning starters on the defensive line. The Wolfpack were 99th in the nation in scoring defense and 106th in pass efficiency defense last season. Inexperience could make it tough for the defense to improve much this season. The Wolfpack also need a better year from P Jeff Ruiz, who averaged just 37.9 yards per attempt last season.
BUZZ: N.C. State should be able to throw the ball effectively, but will the Wolfpack be able to stop anyone? Even if Irving regains his 2008 form, one of his teammates also must emerge as a playmaker on defense. The holes on defense and the weaknesses in the running game could make it difficult for North Carolina State to protect narrow leads in the fourth quarter. Don't be surprised if the Wolfpack lose quite a few shootouts on their way to another 5-7 finish.

-- STEVE MEGARGEE

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Top 120 countdown
59. SMU
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Kyle Padron (6-4/210, Soph.)
RB Zach Line (6-1/235, Soph.)
WR Cole Beasley (5-9/180, Jr.)
WR Darius Johnson (5-10/178, Soph.)
WR Aldrick Robinson (5-10/178, Sr.)
WR Terrance Wilkerson (5-10/183, Jr.)
T Kelvin Beachum Jr. (6-3/298, Jr.)
T J.T. Brooks (6-5/303, Jr.)
G Josh LeRibeus (6-2/363, Jr.)
G Kelly Turner (6-1/308, Jr.)
C Bryce Tennison (6-3/285, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Marquis Frazier (6-3/298, Jr.)
T Aaron Davis (6-3/260, Soph.)
E Taylor Thompson (6-6/276, Jr.)
LB Ja'Gared Davis (6-1/216, Soph.)
LB Pete Fleps (6-1/230, Sr.)
LB Taylor Reed (5-11/215, Soph.)
LB Youri Yenga (6-1/231, Sr.)
CB Richard Crawford (5-11/180, Jr.)
CB Sterling Moore (5-10/204, Sr.)
FS Chris Banjo (5-10/200, Jr.)
SS Ryan Smith (5-11/189, Soph.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Matt Szymanski (6-1/196, Sr.)
P Matt Szymanski (6-1/196, Sr.)
KR Chris Butler (5-10/215, Sr.)
PR Chris Butler (5-10/215, Sr.)
COACH: June Jones (9-16, third season; 85-56, 12th season overall)
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 6-2 (T-1st in C-USA West); beat Nevada in Hawaii Bowl
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 61st
KEEP AN EYE ON: The Mustangs are coming off their first bowl appearance since 1984, and returning to the postseason will depend heavily on QB Kyle Padron. He was pressed into starting duty as a true freshman in Game 7, after Bo Levi Mitchell was injured, and Padron performed so well down the stretch that Mitchell -- a two-year starter -- decided to transfer to FCS member Eastern Washington. Padron threw for 1,922 yards in seven games, and 3,000 yards is an eminently reachable goal this season. Padron is the latest quarterback off the assembly line at powerhouse Southlake Carroll High, in the Dallas suburbs.
STRENGTHS: Expect Padron to hook up often with Aldrick Robinson, who becomes the go-to receiver with the departure of Emmanuel Sanders. Robinson averaged 17.0 yards per catch on his 47 receptions last season, and it's conceivable he could double that receptions total this fall. Terrance Wilkerson and Cole Beasley are other veteran targets. Four starting linemen return; one is Bryce Tennison, who is moving from guard to become the new center. G Josh LeRibeus and T Kelvin Beachum Jr., both juniors, have all-league potential. LB Pete Fleps and FS Chris Banjo are potential all-league guys. The Mustangs allowed 397.1 yards per game last season, which was just 84th nationally. But that was an 80-yard improvement over 2008 and almost a 100-yard improvement over 2007. Getting tougher against the run in the 3-4 set is the No. 1 priority this season. Five starters return in the front seven, and coaches hope the added year of experience helps. Matt Szymanski does double-duty as the kicker and the punter. He has a strong leg and kicked a 53-yard field goal last season; he also averaged 41.9 yards per punt.
WEAKNESSES: SMU will miss RB Shawnbrey McNeal, who ran for 1,188 yards and decided to turn pro early (he wasn't drafted). There's no way any one back on the roster can replace McNeal's production, so expect a committee approach. Even with McNeal, the Mustangs averaged just 109.8 rushing yards per game. The Mustangs need to develop a more consistent pass rush. Cornerback is a potential trouble spot because of academic woes. The coverage units need a huge upgrade. SMU was egregiously bad on kickoff coverage last season, allowing 25.9 yards per return, with two touchdowns.
BUZZ: It took coach June Jones just two seasons to turn SMU from a joke into a bowl team. The Mustangs improved from 1-11 in Jones' first season to 8-5 last season, capping it off with a 45-10 rout of Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. It was SMU's first postseason appearance since 1984 and just their second winning record since resurrecting football in 1989 after an NCAA-imposed "death penalty." The turnaround doesn't look like a fluke. The Mustangs return 15 starters, and though the schedule is difficult, another bowl bid looks likely.

-- MIKE HUGUENIN

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Top 120 countdown
58. Temple
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Chester Stewart (6-3/214, Jr.)
RB Bernard Pierce (6-0/218, Soph.)
WR Michael Campbell (6-2/202, Sr.)
WR Delano Green (5-10/170, Sr.)
WR Joe Jones (5-11/195, Jr.)
TE Vaughn Charlton (6-4/248, Sr.)
T Pat Boyle (6-5/316, Jr.)
T Darius Morris (6-4/315, Sr.)
G Colin Madison (6-4/323, Sr.)
G Wayne Tribue (6-4/324, Jr.)
C Jeremy Schonbrunner (6-3/300, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Kadeem Custis (6-4/285, Soph.)
T Elisha Joseph (6-3/285, Sr.)
T Muhammad Wilkerson (6-5/305, Jr.)
E Adrian Robinson (6-2/250, Jr.)
LB Elijah Joseph (6-2/240, Sr.)
LB Amara Kamara (6-2/240, Sr.)
LB Tahir Whitehead (6-2/228 Jr.)
CB Maurice Jones (5-10/192, Soph.)
CB Marquise Liverpool (5-11/189, Sr.)
FS Jaiquawn Jarrett (6-2/202, Sr.)
SS Kevin Kroboth (6-0/195, Jr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Brandon McManus (6-3/190, Soph.)
P Jeff Wathne (6-2/195, Sr.)
KR James Nixon (6-1/185, Jr.)
PR Delano Green (5-10/170 Sr.)
COACH: Al Golden (19-30, fifth season).
LAST SEASON: 9-4, 7-1 (T-1st in MAC East); lost to UCLA in EagleBank Bowl.
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 55th
KEEP AN EYE ON: The passing attack was abysmal last season, ranking No. 12 in the MAC and 111th in the nation (146.5 ypg). Until the Owls show they can throw effectively, defenses will jam the box to thwart the run.
STRENGTHS: Temple likes to pound the rock, boasting the second-best running game in the conference and No. 23 nationally (187.0 ypg) in 2009. RB Bernard Pierce burst onto the scene as a true freshman, running for 1,361 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He is a big, physical runner who has a second gear. The Owls should have one of the best offensive lines in the MAC, headed by T Darius Morris and G Colin Madison. Defense again will be a strong point under the guidance of rising star coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, who will have seven returning starters to work with from a unit that ranked No. 2 in the MAC (334.0 ypg). The strength of the group will be the line. E Adrian Robinson is back after earning MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. FS Jaiquawn Jarrett is another potential all-league guy. The return men may be the best in the MAC. James Nixon is a standout kickoff returner who ran back two for touchdowns in 2009, while Delano Green returned two punts for touchdowns last season.
WEAKNESSES: Quarterback play must improve. Vaughn Charlton started nine games last season, throwing for 1,390 yards and 10 touchdowns, but he has been moved to tight end; he also will be the long snapper. Temple will turn to Chester Stewart, who started four games and threw for 514 yards and three scores in 2009. Those two combined to complete just 48 percent of their passes last season. The receiving corps must improve. Rob Spence, the former coordinator at Syracuse, Clemson and Toledo, was hired to coach the receivers. The kicking and punting need to improve.
BUZZ: Temple is coming off one of the best seasons in school history, earning the program's first bowl bid since 1979. A fast start may be tough for Temple, which opens with three difficult home games: FCS champ Villanova (which beat the Owls last season), Central Michigan and Connecticut. That is followed by a trip to Penn State. Regardless, lots of talent returns, and the Owls are thinking big. Temple must deal with success for the first time in a long time. Can the Owls handle it, or will they fold under expectations?

-- TOM DIENHART

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Top 120 countdown
57. Northwestern
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Dan Persa (6-1/210, Jr.)
RB Arby Fields (5-9/200, Soph.)
WR Jeremy Ebert (6-0/185, Jr.)
WR Demetrius Fields (6-0/205, Soph.)
WR Sidney Stewart (6-1/190, Sr.)
TE Drake Dunsmore (6-3/235, Jr.)
T Al Netter (6-6/300, Jr.)
T Patrick Ward (6-7/305, Soph.)
G Doug Bartels (6-4/300, Jr.)
G Brian Mulroe (6-4/290, Soph.)
C Ben Burkett (6-4/285, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Vince Browne (6-5/265, Jr.)
T Corbin Bryant (6-4/285, Sr.)
T Jack DiNardo (6-4/290, Jr.)
E Kevin Watt (6-4/265, Jr.)
LB Quentin Davie (6-4/230, Sr.)
LB Ben Johnson (6-4/220, Jr.)
LB Nate Williams (6-2/235, Sr.)
CB Jordan Mabin (5-11/180, Jr.)
CB Justan Vaughn (6-0/190, Sr.)
FS Jared Carpenter (6-1/210, Jr.)
SS Brian Peters (6-4/215, Jr.) SPECIAL TEAMS
K Stefan Demos (5-10/185, Sr.)
P Stefan Demos (5-10/185, Sr.)
KR Jeravin Matthews (5-11/175, Jr.)
PR Jeravin Matthews (5-11/175, Jr.)
COACH: Pat Fitzgerald (27-23, fifth season).
LAST SEASON: 8-5, 5-3 (T-4th in Big Ten); lost to Auburn in Outback Bowl.
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 40th
KEEP AN EYE ON: The running game bears watching. No Northwestern player rushed for 100 yards in a game in 2009, when the Wildcats were 95th nationally in rushing offense (117.5 ypg). Arby Fields led the team with a paltry 302 rushing yards last season. Other backs in the mix are Scott Concannon, former walk-on Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons.
STRENGTHS: The offensive line will be a strength; all five starters are back, and some of those guys could lose their jobs because there is good competition. But they need to become better run blockers. T Al Netter is the star. Look for TE Drake Dunsmore, the team's top returning receiver with 47 grabs for 523 yards and three scores, to be a key weapon. The linebackers will lead the defense, as every 'backer from last season's two-deep is back. Quentin Davie, who paced the team with 90 tackles in '09, will be one of the Big Ten's top linebackers. CB Jordan Mabin should be one of the best defensive backs in the Big Ten. Coaches are high on DE Vince Browne and DT Corbin Bryant. K Stefan Demos returns after going 18-of-25, including 6-of-10 from 40-to-49 yards. While he had two huge misses in the Outback Bowl, he should be one of the Big Ten's top kickers.
WEAKNESSES: Dan Persa is being counted on to take over for departed QB Mike Kafka, who paced the conference with 3,430 passing yards in 2009. Persa is nifty with his feet and a good athlete, but he has some work to do as a passer. To make matters worse, the receiving corps is being overhauled with Andrew Brewer and Zeke Markshausen gone; that duo combined for 148 catches and 12 touchdowns in 2009. Sidney Stewart, who had 42 catches for 470 yards and two scores last season, should be the go-to receiver. The secondary must replace three starters, including both safeties. And the d-line needs to find a playmaker to fill the shoes of departed E Corey Wootton.
BUZZ: In the past seven seasons, Northwestern has the sixth-best Big Ten record (29-27), which is better than Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana. That's only three fewer wins than Penn State. And few Big Ten programs have played better the past two seasons than Northwestern, which has gone 17-8 overall and 10-6 in conference play. Expect the Wildcats to continue to be an upper-tier Big Ten team in 2010 and shoot for a third consecutive postseason appearance for the first time in school history.

-- TOM DIENHART

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Top 120 countdown
56. Oklahoma State
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
OFFENSE
QB Brandon Weeden (6-4/224, Jr.)
RB Kendall Hunter (5-8/197, Sr.)
WR Hubert Anyiam (6-0/198, Jr.)
WR Justin Blackmon (6-1/207, Soph.)
WR Josh Cooper (5-11/192, Jr.)
TE Tracy Moore (6-2/237, Soph.)
T Levy Adcock (6-6/330, Jr.)
T Nick Martinez (6-4/317, Jr.)
G Jonathan Rush (6-4/314, Jr.)
G Lane Taylor (6-2/301, Soph.)
C Grant Garner (6-3/290, Jr.)
DEFENSE
E Jamie Blatnick (6-3/270, Jr.)
T Chris Donaldson (6-1/299, Sr.)
T Shane Jarka (6-3/295, Sr.)
E Ugo Chinasa (6-5/252, Sr.)
LB Justin Gent (6-1/236, Sr.)
LB Orie Lemon (6-1/246, Sr.)
LB James Thomas (5-11/209, Jr.)
CB Brodrick Brown (5-8/180, Soph.)
CB Malcolm Murray (6-1/195, Soph.)
FS Johnny Thomas (5-11/195, Jr.)
SS Markelle Martin (6-1/190, Jr.)
SPECIAL TEAMS
K Dan Bailey (6-0/200, Sr.)
P Quinn Sharp (6-1/191, Soph.)
KR Josh Cooper (5-11/192, Jr.)
KR Josh Cooper (5-11/192, Jr.)
COACH: Mike Gundy (36-27, sixth season)
LAST SEASON: 9-4, 6-2 (2nd in the Big 12 South); lost to Ole Miss in Cotton Bowl
FINAL 2009 RIVALS.COM RANKING: 28th
KEEP AN EYE ON: There will be much intrigue surrounding the Cowboys' offense, which was expected to be the area of strength in'09. But that was before WR Dez Bryant was suspended, RB Kendall Hunter was injured and the Cowboys were held to a combined seven points in their final two games. That led to the arrival of new coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who previously supervised one of the nation's most explosive offenses at Houston. In two seasons under Holgorsen, the Cougars averaged more than 40 points and 560 yards per game. The Cowboys are hopeful his system can produce similar results in Stillwater. He has a healthy Hunter with which to work, but also has a new quarterback, a rebuilt line and an unproven receiving corps.
STRENGTHS: Hunter is healthy again. That means the Cowboys have one of the best running backs in the country. In '08, he rushed for 1,555 yards and earned All-Big 12 recognition. Renewed health also will give the defense a boost. LB Orie Lemon made 90 tackles in '08 and seemed poised to surface among the country's best at his position in '09, but he suffered a season-ending injury just before the opener. Now recovered, he's shown the signs of picking up where he left off. DE Ugo Chinasa is coming off a solid season in which he posted 6.5 sacks. K Dan Bailey and sophomore P Quinn Sharp are a nice duo. While Bailey is inconsistent beyond 40 yards, he does have 50-yard range. Sharp was exceptional in his debut season with a 45.1-yard average and 24 punts killed inside the 20.
WEAKNESSES: There is uncertainty in the offensive line, which must replace four starters, including All-America T Russell Okung. The Cowboys also are breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in three seasons as Brandon Weeden -- a rifle-armed 26-year-old former pro baseball player in the New York Yankees' organization -- takes over Zac Robinson. Oklahoma State ranked 89th in the nation in pass defense last season. That was bad enough, but now the Cowboys don't have CBs Perrish Cox and Terrance Anderson, who completed their eligibility. There is just one returning starter in the back seven. The coverage teams were horrendous last season, ranking in the bottom 12 nationally in both categories.
BUZZ: The Cowboys are seeking to post at least nine wins for the third consecutive season, a feat never accomplished in Stillwater. That mark won't be easily reached with a schedule that includes Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, among others. The returns of Hunter and Lemon and the arrival of Holgorsen enhance the chance to get there. But the defense has to show improvement and Weeden has to prove himself as a capable fulltime starter or the Cowboys could fall back into second-division status in the Big 12 South.

-- OLIN BUCHANAN

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