1 – Florida
Tim Tebow still guides the offense and they return all 11 defensive starters. Once again the Gators are going to be tough to beat. The only question mark might be receiver with the loss of Harvin and Murphy. WRs Riley Cooper and Deonte Thomas are the replacements and should do very well. Florida’s toughest games will be on the road against LSU and on Halloween in Jacksonville against the Georgia Bulldogs.
2 – Texas
A late Crabtree TD was the only thing standing between the Horns and a battle with Florida for the National Title. This year they may just get their wish. QB Colt McCoy is one of the best QBs in the country and should compete for the Heisman Trophy. One of the college footballs best hook up should be McCoy to Jordan Shipley. Shipley is one of the more gifted receivers in the country. They are weak at running back but look for 240 pound freshman Chris Whaley to effectively pound the ball between the tackles. The Texas defense is young but extremely fast and talented. Growing pains are possible after losing Orakpo and Miller but the D should be solid. The Longhorn’s toughest games will be against Oklahoma and two weeks later in Stillwater against Oklahoma State.
3 – Oklahoma
Some players are a hit or miss and let me assure you QB Sam Bradford is a hit. He should push both Tebow and McCoy for the Heisman Trophy. When many of the NFL ready Sooners heard Bradford was coming back they did too. Most important of all would be LT Trent Williams and TE Jermaine Gresham. The Sooners are absolutely loaded in the backfield and at WR. This offensive unit should be one of the best. Defensively is a question mark however. They have plenty of talent like Granger (DT), Lewis (LB) and Franks (CB) but not much depth. Health on the defensive side of the ball is a key to this team’s success. Oklahoma also has one of the tougher schedules in the country and they could trip up once, or twice on their way to a New Year’s Day game. Oklahoma’s big games are v. BYU, @ Miami FL, v. Texas, @ Kansas, @ Nebraska, @ Texas Tech and the finale against Oklahoma State.
4 – USC
Simply put if Sanchez had stayed put I would have had USC #2 and playing the Gators for the title. Instead they will go with a QB by committee with Corp, Barkley and possibly Mustaine. Look for Coach Pete Carroll to hand the keys to the kingdom over to Freshman Matt Barkley. No matter whom the QB is they will have one of the nation’s best runners behind them in Joe McKnight. He will also have two great junior receivers in Johnson and Williams. The offensive line, as always, is solid and deep. The front seven on defense looks to be completely different as 5 of those members from last season went early in the NFL draft. They have depth and speed so the only thing lacking is game experience. The secondary should be dynamite led by future NFL 1st round pick Taylor Mays. USC’s big games are Ohio State, California, Notre Dame and Oregon all on the road.
5 – Ohio State
Ohio State should have one of the more entertaining offenses in the Big 10 with the Daunte Culpepper (the good one we remember) like Terrelle Pryor and a backfield nicknamed “Boom and Zoom”. They have a lot of big play targets in the receiver corps but the guy that might stand out is the possession stud Dane Sanzenbacher. He’ll catch just about anything thrown at him. The defense lost some big contributors in the secondary and linebacking corps. To offset the inexperience will be Gibson, Heyward, Williams, Thomas and Larimore. No, this isn’t a law firm but it is a group of dominant defensive linemen. They will be counted on to press the opposing QBs and contain the run. The defensive group will be led by senior middle linebacker Austin Spitler. Ohio State’s big games come against USC, Illinois and @ Penn State.
6 – Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have an awesome team led by QB Zac Robinson. He is entering his 3rd season as starting QB. He has great agility and has improved his downfield passing and accuracy. He is often overlooked due to McCoy, Tebow and Bradford. OSU has a very talented trio of runners. The trio, Hunter, Toston and Johnson will be used in a variety of formations to get at least two if not three of them on the field at the same time. Despite the Cowboys losing stud TE Brandon Pettigrew they do bring back stud WR Dez Bryant. He had 19 of the teams 25 receiving TDs last season. And to help these playmakers do their thing is one of the toughest groups of offensive linemen in the country. On defense the front 7 are awesome. The D-line is much improved and all three linebackers are seniors back from last year’s team. The only weak spot might be inexperience in the defensive backfield. That could be a crucial weakness against pass happy teams in their conference. OSU’s big games come against Georgia, Texas, Texas Tech and @ Oklahoma.
7 – Virginia Tech
The Hokies are led by junior QB Tyrod Taylor. His career thus far has been about potential and inconsistency. He has the potential to be a fine college QB and the talent around him should help. The offensive line is good but needs to protect Taylor better. The young, talented skill position players have plenty of speed and talent but need experience. Sophomore RB Darren Evans could have a big year as long as Beamer is patient. The Hokie offense rated 99th in the country last year and if they are to compete for a national title they’ll have to do better. The defense is very talented but young. The front seven are very inexperienced but have amazing upside. LB Barquell Rivers and DL John Graves should stand out. The defensive backfield is perhaps the best part of the defense. CB Stephan Virgil should be the leader of this talented group. VT’s big games come against Alabama in the opener, Nebraska and @ Georgia Tech.
8 – Ole Miss
Mississippi will go as far as QB Jevan Snead takes them. He is smart and accurate. He has the ability to put a team on his shoulders. He has the intangibles NFL teams love. Converted WR McCluster should be fine at RB. He was the star of the Cotton Bowl with unlimited potential in 2009. WR Pat Patterson will replace the departed Mike Wallace. RB McCluster should also continue to be a receiving target for Snead. Coach Nutt’s offensive line is big and nasty. He also pried freshman OT Bobbie Massie away from Alabama. The defense should also be a solid despite the absence of DT Peria Jerry. If healthy, DE Greg Hardy should be a stud and anchor a solid line. LB Patrick Trahan is another very talented player that should exceed expectations. The only weakness this team has is with their inexperienced defensive backfield. The talented front seven should help this young group and give them the time they’ll need to mature. The Rebel’s big games come against Alabama, @ Auburn and LSU.
9 – Alabama
Alabama is expected to have one of the toughest defenses in the country next season. Junior LB Rolando McClain and DT Terrance Cody lead this aggressive, talented group. The front seven look to be fast and furious but the defensive backfield may struggle just a bit after the departure of S Rashad Johnson. Offensively they remain talented but they lose 3-year starting QB John Parker Wilson. Look for RB Mark Ingram and WR Julio Jones to be the stars on this offense. Junior QB Greg McElroy is a bit of a question mark but early indicators say he will be an effective game manager as Bama’ moves the ball on the ground. Alabama’s big games come against VT in the opener, @ Kentucky and Ole Miss back-to-back and versus LSU in November.
10 – Boise State
The Broncos are loaded with speed and talent. Sophomore QB Kellen Moore is a stud and has a wide array of targets to choose from. RBs Avery and Harper should be a dynamic one-two punch. They also have some NFL quality tight ends and a pretty good offensive line. This offense should score a lot of points. The defense should be outstanding this season. The group only allowed a little over 12 points per game last season. The only potential weak spot is at linebacker and they have switched to a nickel style of D as their base package. In the pass happy WAC they should do just fine. The opener at Oregon proves to be their toughest test. After that the only challenging games appear to be on the road against Tulsa and Fresno State.
11 – Penn State
The Nittany Lions are a talented but thin group. Led by the vastly underrated double-threat QB Darryl Clark. While he is exciting he may be running for his life a little because of new personnel on the line. Clark will have some help on offense if RB Evan Royster can remain healthy. The receiving corps is a huge question mark so someone like WR Derek Moye or Brett Brackett will have to step up. The offensive line also lost some top players from 2008. A sophomore will be covering Darryl’s blind side. The reason I even have Penn State sniffing at the Top 10 is because of their solid defense. The D-line is led by Latimore, Hayes and Crawford. All of them are very talented but inexperienced. Hayes also needs to remain healthy. Linebacker Sean Lee is the leader. He is a smart kid with a lot of upside. The DBs are also inexperienced but extremely quick and athletic. They had better be after getting torched by USC in the Rose Bowl. Another reason Penn State is around the Top 10 is because of their easy schedule. Akron, Temple, Eastern Illinois and Syracuse aren’t exactly tough games. The games at Illinois and at home against Ohio State are probably their toughest.
12 – California
The Cal Bears, led by RB Javhid Best have a realistic shot at a BCS bid. QB Kevin Riley had his issues last season but looks to improve this season behind a very talented, young offensive line. The receiving corps is a bit of a question mark but it was a very inexperienced group last season that should improve. The defense returns 8 starters and should be very good. Seniors Tyson Alualu and junior Cameron Jordan are an awesome defensive end combo. They are very aggressive and quick. Both players will be in the pros in the very near future. They return their entire defensive backfield and it should be one of the best in the country. The only weak spot should be at the linebacker position. There is some inexperience there but plenty of talent, especially in Mike Mohammed. Cal’s schedule isn’t particularly difficult which is good. They play @ Oregon and home against USC back-to-back. That could be there BCS game right there. The only other game that should be challenging is at home against Oregon State a few of weeks later.
13 – Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets return 16 guys from a 9 win team a year ago. QB Josh Nesbitt and RB Jonathan Dwyer return to lead one of the more explosive offenses in the ACC. GTech is all run and very little pass. Despite the lack of a passing attack they do have some pretty big play receivers. Now that Nesbitt is comfortable with the new offense, look for GTech to open things up through the air a little more. The defense should be solid all the way around but the strength is the defensive backfield. The front seven are talented but they have had injury issues and they lack depth. If they can remain healthy they will be one of the better units in the ACC. The schedule is too difficult but they do have a few tough games like @ Miami and versus North Carolina back-to-back. They also play Virginia Tech and @ Florida State. They finish the season with the rival Georgia Bulldogs.
14 – LSU
The Tigers had a rough season in 2008 but should rebound and be better in 2009. Untested Sophomore QB Jordan Jefferies guides the offense with his arm and his legs. He should be an exciting player to watch. He’ll have help with outstanding players like RB Charles Scott, WR Brandon LaFell and LT Ciron Black. There should be enough talent to stick with the top teams and beat up on the lesser ones. The defense is a different story. This group is under new coaching. They struggled mightily in 2008. This current group lacks experience but not talent. DE Rahim Alem and S Chad Jones should be the leaders. The schedule doesn’t look too bad for LSU but they will have to play Alabama and Ole Miss on the road near the end of the season.
15 – Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have a lot of things working for them this season. The first thing working for them is Charlie Weis taking over the play calling. He is an offensive genius and belongs in the box calling plays. ND has an experienced offense led by junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen and a set of big-play receivers in Golden Tate and Maurice Floyd. The running game should also be solid with the double threat of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. The defense should also be good but the D-line is a huge question mark. They are young and inexperienced and the Irish will be counting on young stud Ethan Johnson. The linebackers and defensive backs are stellar for the Irish. The schedule also works in ND’s favor with no Top 25 team in the first 5 games. They host USC and Boston College after that but then finish with 5 more non-ranked teams.
16 – UNC
Something old, something new and something blue for the UNC Tar Heels. Nothing borrowed from what I can tell. The offense has new coordinators and a lot of new faces. Returning on offense is talented QB TJ Yates. He is a double threat and will need to have an outstanding season for UNC to do well. The running game is a huge question mark and many of last year’s WRs are now in the NFL. WRs Rashad Mason and Greg Little are short on experience but long on talent. The defense is a different story where most of the members are returning and planning on wreaking havoc on the teams of the ACC. DT Cam Thomas and DE EJ Wilson look to be the studs on a solid D-line. The linebackers are a fast group and the D-backs are experienced and talented. However, it will be important for this group to produce more turnovers in 2009. The schedule is favorable if you look at non-conference opponents. However, in the ACC they have to play @ Georgia Tech early in the season, they host Florida State then go to Virginia Tech in the middle and then finish up at home against Miami and at Boston College.
17 – Georgia
Last year’s preseason #1 team did nothing but disappoint. They also lost players like QB Matt Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno. Replacing them are Senior QB Joe Cox and RB Caleb King. The offense will be largely RB by committee with King getting most of the carries. The offensive star in 2009 should be WR A J Green. He showed flashes of brilliance last season and should break out this year. On a positive note these new skill players will be playing behind a very skilled offensive line which should help. The strength of these Dawgs is the defense. The line is led by stud D-lineman Jeff Owens. The back 7 are led by LB Rennie Curran, LB Marcus Washington and S Reshed Jones. This group is talented and quick and should more than make up for any growing pains on the offensive side of the ball. The schedule is not kind as the Dawgs visit the OSU Cowboys right out of the gate. They also play @LSU, @ Tennessee and host Florida. They wrap up the season against an improved Kentucky team and @ Georgia Tech.
18 – Illinois
This might be a surprise pick to some but I think Illinois has the talent to be the 3rd best team in the Big 10. The Illini are led by exciting Junior QB Juice Williams who has the talent to be a Top 10 passer in college football. Helping him achieve that goal is stud WR Arrelious Benn and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson. One thing that hurt the team in 2009 was the lack of a running game. This continues to be a big question mark for the Illini but Sophomore Jason Ford could turn out to be a pleasant surprise. Defensively Illinois is solid. The only question mark is the D-line but Corey Liuget and Doug Pilcher should do very well. The back 7 are very talented, led by LB Martez Wilson who is looking to have a monster comeback season. The schedule isn’t too bad but it is very unbalanced. At the front part of the schedule they have @ Ohio State and then host Penn State and Michigan State back to back to back. The final 7 games are against unranked opponents.
19 – Kansas
Simply put the Jayhawks will go as far as Todd Reesing’s arm and Jake Sharp’s legs take them. They also have two of the better WRs in the conference in Briscoe and Meier. The KU offense should be dynamite. Unfortunately I don’t have too many nice words for the defense. It was terrible against the pass last year and they’ll struggle again this season. They do have more speed but lack the depth and talent to compete against the conferences top teams. A weak non-conference schedule should get the Jayhawks off to a quick start. However the middle to late part of the schedule includes Oklahoma, @ Texas Tech, Nebraska and @ Texas.
20 – Oregon
The Ducks have a new coach in Chip Kelly but expect similar results. This team certainly lacks leadership as most of the linemen are gone on both sides of the ball. However, where they lack in leadership they thrive in talent and speed. Leading that charge is 2nd year QB Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli may struggle as the Ducks are thin at RB but he has Holland, Cantu and Tuinei to throw to. The success of the very young and inexperience offensive line will be the difference between double digit wins and struggling to make a decent bowl game. On defense there is good and not so good. Good are the bookends Reed and Tukuafu on the line. Both should provide plenty of pressure on opposing QBs. DT Casey Matthews is a future star and should be one of the PAC 10’s top run stuffers. The not so good part is the rest of the defense. The linebacking corps is very thin and the defensive backfield lost Chung and Byrd to the NFL. Too make matters worse is the very challenging schedule ahead. They play @ Boise State, v. Utah, v. California, @ UCLA and v. USC.
21 – Oregon State
Coach Mike Riley churns out competitive teams that win bowl games but this season could be a bit of a challenge. They already have a question mark at QB with Lyle Moevao having off-season shoulder surgery. He isn’t what you would call a stud QB but he is efficient and knows the offense. The OSU offense will depend heavily on young RB Jacquizz Rodgers. He had a phenomenal year last year and there is no reason he can’t improve upon his impressive numbers. The Beavers lost to Senior WRs from last years team and will lean heavily on talented WR James Rodgers. The rest of that group is very thin. On defense there is also a lot of transition. The D-Line and defensive backfield have a lot of new faces. They have plenty of speed but very little experience. Linebackers Kristick, Pankey and Pa’aluhi are the strength of this year’s defense. They will be counted on to hold teams down while the other young defenders gain experience. The Beavers have a light early part of the schedule with a home game against Cincinnati being their toughest match up. The middle and end of the schedule is much more difficult with games at USC, California and Oregon.
22 – Michigan State
The Spartans and Illini should be neck and neck for 3rd best in the conference. A huge question mark is at QB where two sophomores, Cousins and Nichol, will compete for the starting job. Hopefully for the Spartans this QB competition will be over before the Big 10 schedule kicks in. The RB situation is also up in the air with 4 freshman and sophomores battling it out. Dell, Martin and White aren’t a law firm. They are a deadly trio of receivers the QBs will have to choose from. Look for the Spartans to open it up once they settle on a QB. The defense should be very good, led by DE Trevor Anderson and LB Greg Jones. The unit is fast and aggressive. CBs Ross Weaver and Chris Rucker will give opposing team’s WRs a very difficult time. The Spartans schedule looks to have several road blocks @ Notre Dame, @ Illinois and the last game at home against Penn State. They don’t have to play Ohio State this season but games at Wisconsin and Minnesota could prove tough.
23 – Florida State
The Seminoles aren’t quite the national powerhouse they used to be but if everything goes right they could crash the Top 20. One thing FSU has going for it is QB Chris Ponder and the returning offensive line. Ponder is a smart QB and a bit of a double threat. He should make the offense exciting. The running game is an important part of the Bowden offense and either Jermaine Thomas or Ty Jones is going to have to step up. The receiving corps is extremely thin after graduations and dismissals. They will depend heavily on an inexperienced incoming class to carry the load. Keep your eye on WR Cameron Wade. The defense has gone through a lot of changes and may be inconsistent. One thing consistent will be the play of senior LB Dekoda Watson who may be one of the best linebackers in college football. The defensive line appears to be small and inconsistent. Lineman Kendrick Stewart will have to have a huge year. The defensive backfield is a little thin and lacks consistency. CB Patrick Robinson could be in for a good season but he needs to stay healthy. FSU has one final issue and that is the schedule. It is tough. They start off against Miami (FL), @BYU, v. Georgia Tech, @ North Carolina and @ Florida to finish the regular season. Not too mention all of the other tough conference games.
24 – TCU
TCU should once again be in the running for a Mountain West title. QB Andy Dalton is a three year starter and is flanked by talented RBs Ryan Christian and Joseph Turner. This team will run it down your throat and pass only when they have to. That being said Andy doesn’t have too many options through the air. The defense is solid. It was one of the best units in the country last year and should be good again. DE Jerry Hughes and LB Darryl Washington will lead a group that is only bringing back 4 starters. The only thing keeping TCU from the Top 20 and a possible BCS date is the schedule. TCU is at Virginia and Clemson to start the season. This is good BCS strategy, unless they fall to one or both of them. They play a tough game at BYU in the middle of the season and at home against Utah at the end.
25 – Nebraska
The Cornhuskers have a very nice team and could be better if the QB situation works out. QB Patrick Witt transferred leaving Zac Lee as the heir apparent. Zac is a double threat but will need time and patience from the coaching staff. While Zac is learning RB Roy Helu Jr. will be counted on heavily to move this offense. He put on weight in the off-season and should be a real force between he tackles. The best receiver on the team is probably the TE Mike McNeill. He is big, quick and has the ability to stretch the field. One luxury all of them have is playing behind the always steady Nebraska offensive line. The defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, should be very good. They have plenty of talent and speed. LBs Koehler and Dillard are also excellent players. The front 7, sometimes 6, should be a very good group. The D-backs are also a strength with several coming back from last year’s team. Eric Hagg and Prince Amukamara should be the stars of that group. The schedule should prove to be a bit of a challenge. The Huskers travel to Virginia Tech in the 3rd week. The other tough games will be Texas Tech, Oklahoma and @ Kansas.
On the outside looking in: Iowa, Utah, Texas Tech, UCLA, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Miami (FL), BYU, Minnesota, East Carolina, Houston and Arkansas.