2009 NCAA College Spring Football Top 25
Post Spring Football Top 25 Rankings
Ah, spring football: the time when optimism runs supreme for college football fans across the county. Whether you’re a fan of Ohio State and were among the 95,722 fans who soaked in the sun while setting a national attendance record or you’re a fan of Vanderbilt (spring attendance: 1,000), hope runs supreme.
It is also a great time to be a college football writer. Over a six week period, it is almost like the season is back again. Unfortunately, we all know that the real season doesn’t begin for four long months but spring football gives us all a small reprieve from the cold (figuratively of course, the weather is awesome from May through August) months where football stadiums are dark across the country.
Thus I felt that I had to put together a top 25 ranking after spring football, with two rules. One, this is a top 25 at a glance. When my first true top 25 comes out in late August, it could be exactly the same or it could be completely different. I’ve looked at a lot of teams but I don’t yet know these teams as well as I will when the season rolls around. Two, scheduling isn’t a factor in these rankings either, so don’t use this as a predictor for where these teams might end up at the end of the season. If you want to know how I expect your favorite team to do this season then check back this summer as I preview every Division 1 conference in college football, beginning in late June.
So, I proudly present to you the collegesports-fans.com post spring football top 25 ranking, beginning with a very familiar face…
#1 Florida Gators
When you’re returning the vast majority of a team which won the National Championship, you’re going to go into the year as the odds-on #1 team in the nation. Enough said.
Biggest Concern: Replacing departed everyman Percy Harvin. Harvin was a huge x-factor in the Gator attack and it will be difficult to replace his unique abilities both rushing and receiving. While Florida has a ton of speed, Harvin was a uniquely talented player who will be missed.
Brightest Spot: The entire defensive TWO DEEP returns. That’s right, not only are the starters back from last year’s championship squad, so are all of the backups, meaning that there is going to be excellent depth in case of injury.
For Better or For Worse:The Gators will (gulp) be better than in 2008. Tim Tebow is back for his 3 rd year starting, the entire defense returns and the team that won last year’s National Title as sophomores and juniors have had another year to develop into stars. Barring a slew of injuries (and if Tebow stays healthy, I’m not even sure that injuries would be enough), Florida looks like the favorites to become the first consensus repeat National Champions since the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
#2 Texas Longhorns
Many people would argue, yours included, that Texas deserved to play the Gators in last year’s National Title Game. Well, perhaps this year’s team will get their shot with a slew of stars returning, including Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy.
Biggest Concern: The loss of the entire starting defensive line. Texas will have very big shoes to fill to replace the production of Brian Orakpo and company, who had the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage. While this is Texas that we’re talking about and they always have talented big men ready to play, the simple fact is that last year’s defensive line was exceptional.
Brightest Spot: Colt McCoy and the offense. The Longhorns lost a few players from last season but the key players all return from last year’s machine gun offense. The promise of an improved running game outside of McCoy scrambling will add another dimension of danger.
For Better or For Worse: The Longhorns are going to be about even from last year’s team. The offense should be just as dangerous and more versatile but their defensive line is going to be a question early. Can their returning back seven cover for the early season inexperience?
#3 Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies are the two time defending ACC champs and return a whopping 16 starters from last year’s team. Tech had to rely on a strong defensive performance last season to earn their way to the Orange Bowl but look out this year as this team could feature the most dangerous offense since Mike Vick’s heyday.
Biggest Concern: Who will replace Macho Harris? The playmaker of last year’s defense and a part-time offensive performer as well leaves a big hole in the secondary with his departure. If someone steps up opposite Stephen Virgil, the Tech defense should excel this year.
Brightest Spot: Tyrod Taylor’s progression as a passer. This young man has always been magnificently talented when running the ball. However, it looks like he has finally grasped what it takes to become a strong passing quarterback. If Taylor stays healthy this year (something he hasn’t done yet in his two seasons in Blacksburg) then the Hokies will be a very tough team to contain this season.
For Better or For Worse: Last season’s ACC Championship team was a young group and it showed as the finished with a 10-4 record. This year they bring back a huge core and their most important player (Taylor) is better as well. This is a much improved team from last year and could spawn comparison’s to the great Tech team of 1999, which made it all the way to the National Title Game.
#4 Oklahoma State Cowboys
2008 was a great season in Stillwater but the Cowpokes still couldn’t get over the hump against their Big Twelve South rivals. Even worse, OU and Texas are loaded AGAIN this season. Luckily for Okie State, they have a really good team returning as well. However, the Cowboys snuck up on a lot of teams last year: How will they play when they have a target on their collective back?
Biggest Concern: The defensive secondary. While the loss of all but 1 starter could be seen as a concern, the more cynical Cowboy fan will tell you that this year’s team should improve by default after last year’s dismal showing. However, that’s not quite true, seeing how the Cowboys played very well against both Texas and Missouri, two aerial powers, last season. However, replacing your entire secondary in the air raid environment that is the Big XII is a significant cause for concern.
Brightest Spot: The plethora of skill on the offense. The three-headed monster of Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and wideout Dez Bryant should be the centerpiece of a very good offense. Expect Oklahoma State to continue last year’s offensive success.
For Better or For Worse: This team is definitely a stronger unit. Their offense only lost three starters from a team that started a lot of underclassmen, meaning that their scoring should be on par with last year’s. On defense, the majority of their experience returns up front which should create a significant pass rush to take pressure off of their young secondary. Oklahoma State is a very good team and could be a dark horse threat to crash the BCS party.
#5 Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes regained a lot of respect around the country after taking the Longhorns to the wire in last season’s Fiesta Bowl. However, this team now belongs to Terrelle Pryor, whose play will decide the fate of the Buckeyes 2009 season.
Biggest Concern: Left tackle. Junior Andy Miller and sophomore Mike Adams battled to a draw throughout the spring and the fight will continue into the fall. However, someone had better step up to protect Pryor’s blind side because USC comes to Columbus in Week 2.
Brightest Spot: The defensive line. Awash with upperclassmen, the OSU defensive line stepped up in a big way during the second half of last season. Hybrid end Thad Gibson could be one of the country’s best at getting to the quarterback and OSU’s depth should make running the football extremely difficult. Expect this group to be the strength of the defense and will be the best unit in Columbus since at least 2005.
For Better or For Worse: After losing a large senior class that was the backbone of two National Title Game appearances, it would be tough to say that the Buckeyes were better. However, with the improvement of Pryor and the emergence of the defensive line, I’m going to say that the Buckeyes are an improved team from their 2008 incarnation, especially along the line of scrimmage. If this team can get by USC in the early going, they could make a run at an unbeaten season.
#6 Southern Cal Trojans
USC was my pick as the #1 team in my final poll from last season. However, 2009 will field a much different Trojan team than the one which defeated Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Though USC is always teeming with talent, there will be a lot of new faces starting this year, especially on defense.
Biggest Concern: Quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Corp and true freshman Matt Barkley impressed during the spring but for the first time in Pete Carroll’s tenure, there isn’t a clear cut starter heading into the fall. If the battle continues, who will Carroll turn to against the Buckeyes in September?
Brightest Spot: The play of the defense during spring. With an offense returning 9 starters, the defense was expected to be far behind, yet they were the superior unit throughout. While it would be folly to expect this group to be as dominating as the historically good 2008 defense, USC should be better than most expect this fall.
For Better or For Worse: With the loss of Mark Sanchez, who grew into a lethal passer by season’s end, and the majority of the country’s best defense, there is simply no other explanation than to say that this edition of the Men of Troy will be slightly worse. However, this is still USC and the terms ‘slightly worse’ are definitely relative here. If USC can find solid quarterback play in time to travel to Columbus, this team has the ability to make a run at a National Championship.
#7 Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners are coming off of another National Title Game appearance (and loss) with a remarkably talented group still intact. However, they will have to rely on a more experienced defense while Heisman winner Sam Bradford gets in tune with a number of new starters on offense.
Biggest Concern: Offensive Line. One of the reasons that Oklahoma was so great last year was that their O-Line featured 4 seniors and a redshirt junior to protect Bradford. There were times where it seemed like Bradford had FOREVER to throw. Even a school like Oklahoma will struggle to replace that much talent and experience. Can Oklahoma’s line perform up to 2008’s lofty standards?
Brightest Spot: While the obvious choice is the return of Bradford, I’m going to say the overall experience of the defense. The vast majority of the group which held Florida to a season-low 24 points returns and all of the injuries that group incurred makes the 2009 edition very deep and experienced. Expect OU to take part in far fewer shootouts this fall.
For Better or For Worse: Overall, the vast majority of the core of this team returns. The only questions are the O-Line and at safety. I have to think that the Sooners are going to be a little less dangerous than last year’s group because of the offensive line but this team is still a legitimate National Title Contender.
#8 Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama had a renaissance last year, starting the year 12-0. Unfortunately for the Tide, they lost their last two games but optimism reigns supreme in Tuscaloosa. A year after playing more freshman than almost anyone in America, Alabama seems ready to compete once more on the national stage.
Biggest Concern: Offensive Line. Alabama’s offensive line was the biggest reason that the Tide won earlier than most observers expected. There were games last year where the vast majority of plays were power run plays up the middle that the opponents knew were coming but were powerless to stop. Unfortunately, three starters are gone from that unit, including first round pick LT Andre Smith and we all saw how much the Tide struggled in the Sugar Bowl without him. Finding a solid group of linemen is priority number 1 for Nick Saban this year.
Brightest Spot: The defense. The Tide returns a whopping 9 starters from last year’s stellar group, including massive run stopper Terrance Cody and shutdown corner/return man extraordinaire Javier Arenas. Alabama’s defense should be even better than the 2008 edition, even with the loss of Rashad Johnson to the NFL.
For Better or For Worse: Alabama is almost definitely a more talented team but I’m not so sure that it will show up in the win column. The Tide have a ton of players who excelled as freshmen who will be counted on this year to be much more dangerous against what should be a much tougher schedule. Can Alabama live up to expectations and compete for the National Title?
#9 Georgia Bulldogs
Normally, when a team loses its starting quarterback and running back and both are first round draft picks, you expect a major drop off. However, in the curious case of the Georgia Bulldogs, I’m not so sure that will be the case. No other team in the country was hit harder last season than Mark Richt’s team with injuries and the Bulldogs could surprise a lot of people this year if they can keep their best players healthy.
Biggest Concern: Inexperience at the skill positions. After losing your leading receiver, tailback and passer, you’re normally going to go through some growing pains. While 5 th year senior Joe Cox should be a solid replacement and sophomore wide receiver AJ Green was dynamic as a true freshman, replacing that much talent could be an issue, especially in the early going.
Brightest Spot: The line of scrimmage. Georgia oozes with experience along both the offensive and defensive lines. Even better, two of the stars of the 2007 season, tackle Trindan Sturdivant and defensive tackle Jeff Owens, return after missing all of last season due to preseason knee injuries. The Bulldogs will have a huge advantage in the trenches this year.
For Better or For Worse: This will surprise some people but I really think that the Bulldogs are about as good as last year’s team, if not better. The losses of Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and company should be mostly offset by the expected higher level of performance of both lines and the return of 15 starters. It is absolutely not unreasonable to expect another 10 win season in Athens.
#10 Ole Miss Rebels
It would be an understatement to say that Ole Miss’ 2008 season was a surprise. In Houston Nutt’s first season, the Rebels won more games than their last three seasons COMBINED, were the only team to defeat BCS Champion Florida, and decimated Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. The big question now is: Can they do it again?
Biggest Concern: Expectations. There won’t be any sneaking up on opponents this year. While the Rebels lost two first round picks from last year’s team, they return 16 starters and should have all the pieces in place to make a run at the SEC West. However, if they start reading their own press clippings, then there could be a step back.
Brightest Spot: Jevan Snead. The quarterback who decommitted from Florida when Tim Tebow pledged, only to sign with Texas and sit behind Colt McCoy for a year before transferring finally got his shot last year and was extremely impressive. With a year of experience under his belt, Snead looks primed to have a huge season and is probably the best QB in the SEC West.
For Better or For Worse: While Ole Miss had 4 players selected in the NFL draft this year, including three in the first three rounds, there is still a ton of talent returning. I expect this team to be better than last year’s group. However, they’re going to have a target on their collective backs, so the Rebels had better come ready to play every week or they could actually have a worse record than last season.
#11 Illinois Fighting Illini
Undoubtedly, this pick will surprise a lot of people. Illinois, who was all of 5-7 a year ago, ranked ahead of defending Big Ten Champion Penn State? Well, believe your eyes folks, as Illinois was the most underachieving team in the country last year. Coach Ron Zook has consistently brought a ton of talent into Champaign and this will be his best team to date.
Biggest Concern: Confidence. This team began last season in most top 25 polls but proceeded to have a terrible hangover from their 2007 Rose Bowl run. However, everything that has been reported on the Illini this spring has allayed most of my concerns as this team seems to be brimming with confidence.
Brightest Spot: Experience. Quarterback Juice Williams is now a senior going into his 4 th season starting. Regis Benn is going into his 3 rd year. The defense has a lot of experience and a number of transfers (especially Florida transfer Jarred Fayson) are also eligible this fall. This team’s mixture of talent and experience will be a potent combination this fall.
For Better or For Worse: Illinois should be far better in 2009. The only major loss was cornerback Vontae Davis, who was a late first round pick. This team should have an experienced and multidimensional offense now that their top tailbacks (Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure are both sophomores) have a year of playing time to their credit. This could be far and away the best passing offense in the Big Ten. Their defense should have a solid linebacker corps led by Martez Wilson. Above all else, this team should be hungry to prove that their 2007 season wasn’t a fluke. Expect Illinois to have a very good season and compete for the Big Ten title.
#12 Oregon State Beavers
In terms of sheer fun, the 2009 Oregon State Beavers might be the team I pick to watch first. After yet another quietly great season (though the victory over USC won’t be forgotten anytime soon), the Beavers need to finally get their due as one of most consistently good teams in the country.
Biggest Concern: Defense. The Beavers only bring back 3 starters from last year’s defense. However, after watching them get shelled for 60+ points against archrival Oregon, it wouldn’t be a shock if the defense is actually better this year. Very rarely does Mike Riley struggle to field a good defense.
Brightest Spot: The entire offense. That’s because 10 starters are back from a dynamic team that is built around the diminutive Rodgers brothers. The Beavers scored a ton of points last year and should do so again with everyone back. There is plenty of depth along a veteran offensive line and at the quarterback position, where Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao provide a pair of excellent triggermen. Expect Oregon State to win a few shootouts this year.
For Better or For Worse: Overall, the Beavers are probably a better team. Their offense had a lot of young players and first year starters last season and everyone is back. Furthermore, even though the defense is rebuilding, there is a lot of experience back up front. Expect the Beavers to resemble a Big XII team in the early going this season but this team is primed for a solid year.
#13 Louisiana State Tigers
2008 was a forgettable but entirely predictable season for the Tigers after losing a massive number of seniors from their 2007 championship team. LSU struggled in throughout the year, largely due to poor quarterback play, until freshman Jarrett Jefferson was given the reigns. Jefferson spearheaded a stunning blowout victory over Georgia Tech in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl and in doing so pushed this season’s expectations from sky high to unreasonable on the Bayou.
Biggest Concern: Quarterback. Jefferson was very good in limited action last year. However, it is not even a given that he is going to start this year after true freshman Russell Shepherd enrolled early and impressed during Spring Football. Either way, LSU will have an underclassman under center with a very limited amount of experience in the hypercompetitive SEC. That’s not a good thing.
Brightest Spot: The defensive line. Despite the loss of DE Tyson Jackson, who was the 3 rd overall pick in the NFL draft, the Tigers still boast a ton of talent, led by Rahim Alem, who was a force last season. LSU has built a reputation under Les Miles as always fielding one of the premier D-Lines in the country and this year should be no different.
For Better or For Worse: Overall, the Tigers look better than last season based on the simple fact that their quarterback play should be much improved. Furthermore, they had a lot of young players last year who will have a full year of experience under their belts. However, Tiger fans shouldn’t get ahead of themselves as this team is still a year away from competing for a National Title.
#14 Penn State Nittany Lions
2008 was a fantastic year for Penn State, as the Nittany Lions went 11-2 and won their 2 nd Big Ten Title in the last 4 years. People always seem to forget the Nits when discussing the elite teams in college football but this team is 40-11 in the past 4 years. That’s pretty impressive and few other teams can make a similar claim.
Biggest Concern: Where to begin? The Nittany Lions have had the same top 3 receivers for the better part of the past 4 seasons. They all graduated. Last year’s O-Line was the best in recent memory. Most have graduated. On defense, Penn State lost almost every single upperclassman at defensive end and all 4 starters in the secondary are gone. This year will be a litmus test as to whether Penn State can reload instead of rebuild.
Brightest Spot: Darryl Clark. No PSU player impressed more than Clark in the Rose Bowl loss to USC. Simply put, he rallied his team from way behind to make the game a lot closer than anyone expected at halftime and is perhaps the best quarterback in the Big Ten. While some might argue that Penn State’s linebackers, led by Navarro Bowmann and Sean Lee (who is returning after redshirting last year due to injury), are the brightest spot on this team, I’m going to put my confidence in a senior quarterback who can be counted on to keep the Lions in every single game.
For Better or For Worse: Penn State has lost way too much talent to be considered as good as last year’s team. With only 9 starters returning, there is a lot of reloading to be done, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Lions to take a step back. However, there is still a lot of talent in Happy Valley so expect Penn State to still be very good this year and they will definitely factor into the Big Ten title chase.
#15 California Golden Bears
Cal bounced back nicely from a disappointing 2007 with a 9-4 record last season, including an Emerald Bowl win over Miami. However, quarterback controversy dogged the Golden Bears all season. If junior Kevin Riley can grab the reigns this year, Cal could be a dangerous team.
Biggest Concern: More Quarterback controversy. Departed senior Nate Longshore and Riley traded the starting job back and forth over the past two seasons and many observers expected that the job would firmly belong to Riley in 2009. However, head coach Jeff Tedford has declared an open competition at the quarterback position this season and that’s not a good thing. If Cal has another season-long controversy, it could cost the Bears some wins.
Brightest Spot: The Best player in the Pac Ten is Cal’s superstar tailback. Jahvid Best continued Cal’s recent tradition of excellence at the tailback position and is the nation’s leading rusher returning from 2008. If Best can stay healthy all season, Cal will be very tough to slow down on the ground. Consider him the number 1 tailback candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
For Better or For Worse: Cal will be a better team IF they settle on a quarterback. I know, I know, I’m hedging, but after watching this team play fairly erratically last year and still win 9 games, it is tough to say that the Bears are better if they’re going to run into the same trouble spot as last season.
#16 Miami Hurricanes
If you had to pick one team in all of college football last fall based on pure potential, then one of the easiest options was to pick the Hurricanes. Miami was one of the youngest teams in the country and still managed a fairly successful season. What will the Hurricanes do now that most of their team returns?
Biggest Concern: Jacory Harris. With Robert Marve’s transfer, the quarterback job now sits in the hands of true sophomore Harris, who was predictably erratic in his first season of college football. However, with a plethora of talent returning around him on offense, Harris’ progression as a quarterback will be the biggest factor in Miami’s success this year. If he can become a more polished passer with better decision-making then Miami could be in for a big year. However, as of right now he remains a big question mark.
Brightest Spot: The Calendar. All of Miami’s fabulous freshmen are now sophomores and most college football observers will tell you that most players, physically, make their biggest leap between their freshmen and sophomore years. That bodes really well in Coral Gables and the Hurricanes should reap the rewards
For Better or For Worse: Miami will definitely be a better football team this season. Besides the fact that the Hurricanes have so much youth that has had an extra year to grow, the Canes’ expected strength along the line of scrimmage is perhaps the greatest factor in why they are considered by many observers to be a legitimate threat to win the ACC this fall. The talent at Miami is undeniable; the only questions are whether Jacory Harris can lead this team and Randy Shannon can coach it to double digit wins.
#17 Oregon Ducks
It looks like another major year for the Civil War rivalry. After Oregon ruined archrival Oregon State’s bid for the Rose Bowl and then defeated Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl, optimism is high in Duck land. Can Oregon fill enough holes to compete for the Pac Ten?
Biggest Concern: The offensive line. The only thing standing in the way of another offensive explosion in Eugene this year is if the blocking isn’t on point. After becoming such a major run threat last year, the Ducks must find a good 5 man group to continue their success. After losing a number of solid starters, including NFL 1 st rounder Max Unger at center, it won’t be easy.
Brightest Spot: The skill positions. From LeGarrett Blount at tailback to Jeremiah Masoli at QB, the Ducks have a lot of offensive talent. While departed tailback Jeremiah Johnson will be missed, expect the Ducks to have a ton of playmakers at their disposal in newly promoted Head Coach Chip Kelly’s offense.
For Better or For Worse: Oregon looks about as talented as last year’s successful team but they will have to play up to their potential to match last year’s impressive 10-3 mark. An early game at Boise State will go a long way towards that goal.
#18 Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State is a very interesting team. After establishing an identity as a marauding running team en route to a 9-4 record last year, the Spartans’ spring game featured an aerial shootout between two young QBs who combined for over 700 passing yards and 8 TDs. After two years of Brian Hoyer’s ineptness at the position, Michigan State should be vastly upgraded at quarterback this fall.
Biggest Concern: Tailback. Javon Ringer was dominant last year and was also a huge workhorse. To replace the national leader in carries is going to be a tough task. Luckily, MSU has a large pool of candidates, including two 4 star freshmen recruits coming to campus this fall. Expect Michigan State to find someone to run the football well enough this fall but no one is going to replace Ringer’s durability or production.
Brightest Spot: Defense. Eight starters return from last year’s solid unit (remember how well they played against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl?) and they should only continue to improve. Linebacker Greg Jones is one of the country’s best and will be the leader of what should be another very tough defense.
For Better or For Worse: Michigan State is almost certainly a better team. Last year, they could only pound Javon Ringer between the tackles on offense, putting a lot of pressure on their defense and running game as opposing teams would stack the box against the run. This year, however, it looks like MSU is going to have a much more varied offense, regardless of which sophomore, Kirk Cousins or Keith Nichols, wins the job. Furthermore, the Spartans return 15 starters from last year’s nine win team. Michigan State is a much improved team this fall and with the Spartans missing Ohio State on the unbalanced schedule, it could show up in the win column.
#19 Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa holds the distinction of being the only Big Ten team to win a bowl game last season. The Hawkeyes capped off one of the best 2 nd halves in all of college football by dominating SEC foe South Carolina in the Outback Bowl to finish the season on a 5 game winning streak. Even better, the Hawkeyes bring back 15 starters to continue Iowa’s momentum on the field.
Biggest Concern: Up the middle. Iowa’s biggest losses were superstar tailback Shonn Greene and defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. While sophomore Jewel Hampton looks to be a capable replacement for Greene, Iowa has major concerns about replacing their DTs. Junior Karl Klug appears to have one spot filled but even if Iowa finds another suitable replacement the Hawkeyes are going to dearly miss their departed seniors’ dominance in the interior line.
Brightest Spot: The passing game. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi progressed throughout last season and appeared to really flourish this spring, his first as the starter. Former quarterback Marvin McNutt stole the show at receiver and could lead a receiving corps which offers Stanzi three potential game-breaking options. While Iowa is always going to be a running team, this year’s Hawkeye squad could prove to be very dangerous through the air.
For Better or For Worse: Iowa will dearly miss their defensive tackles and Shonn Greene. However, they return so much talent across the board and appear to have improved at so many key positions (Quarterback, Wide Reciever, Linebacker, Offensive Line and Defensive End) that this Iowa team can’t be considered any worse than last year’s 9-4 squad. If the Hawkeyes can find replacements for King and Kroul, the only thing preventing them from competing for the Big Ten title could be a brutal conference schedule.
#20 Florida State Seminoles
2008 was a renaissance year of sorts for Florida State, as the Seminoles went 9-4 with a Champs Sports Bowl win over Wisconsin. This year the vast majority of the offense returns and FSU is as talented as they’ve been in the past 5 years. However, there will be off-field distractions with the NCAA’s continuing investigation of program, so the Noles will have to stay focused.
Biggest Concern: Defense. Only 5 starters are back from a very good defense and the word out of Tallahassee is that multiple true freshman, including DT Jaccobi McDaniel, could end up starting this fall. That’s not a good sign of defensive depth if true freshmen are being counted on to contribute immediately at more than one position.
Brightest Spot: Tough to decide. The Noles are good at a lot of positions but aren’t really great. The brightest spot probably belongs to the offensive line, which didn’t feature an upperclassman in the two deep last fall. Expect that unit to be a lot better this season and provide the basis of a strong running game.
For Better or For Worse: Florida State is probably no better than last year’s team. Their defense was surprisingly good last year but losing a lot of starters will hurt them. The offense should be more productive but they’re still missing game breakers. On top of that, the looming specter of the NCAA investigations will be a constant distraction. Repeating the 9 wins of a year ago could be tough.
#21 Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas entered last season with high expectations. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, they faced a brutal schedule and at one point sat at 6-5 on the year. However, they bounced back with wins over archrival Missouri and Minnesota in the Insight Bowl to finish with a solid 8-5 record. Can another year of excellent offense bear fruit in the wins column?
Biggest Concern: Linebacker. The Jayhawks lost all three starters to graduation and replacing that much experience won’t be easy, especially in the offensive juggernaut that is the Big XII.
Brightest Spot: The passing game. Todd Reesing is back for his 3rd season starting at quarterback and his top two receivers, Kerry Meier (also the backup QB) and Dezmon Briscoe, also return. Factor in the return of tailback Jake Sharp to add some balance and Kansas will once more be lethal on offense.
For Better or For Worse: Kansas should be a better football team than last season, both in terms of talent and record. With an easier non-conference slate and the entire offense back outside of the interior line, this team is primed for another big year. Will they win 12 games like in 2007? Unlikely but expect Kansas to give the Big XII heavyweights fits this year.
#22 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Paul Johnson’s debut season was an unqualified success in Atlanta. Most observers wondered how his option attack would translate to big time college football but the Yellow Jackets shocked the world (and archrival Georgia for the first time in 7 years) by running off a 9 win regular season, with Johnson promising after the season that the best was yet to come.
Biggest Concern: Defensive line. Tech pretty much starts from scratch here as DTs Vance Walker and Darryl Richard are going to be very difficult to replace. While the option got most of the publicity for Tech’s success last year, their defensive line was just as important.
Brightest Spot: Another year of experience. Paul Johnson claimed before the Chik-Fil-A Bowl that he had only had time to implement around 60% of his offense, citing time issues. Foremost of the remaining 40% is apparently the passing game, as Tech barely threw the ball last year. If the Yellow Jackets can somehow integrate a passing offense while continuing their success on the ground, Tech will be very, very good.
For Better or For Worse: Most observers are very high on the Yellow Jackets this offseason despite the trashing they received in Atlanta, literally two miles from their campus, at the hands of an average LSU team in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl. Seeing how I have the Jackets at 22, I clearly disagree. The Yellow Jackets will not have the same stout defense that pulled their team out of the fire multiple times last year (remember the Florida State game?) and opponents will spend a lot more time devoted towards preparing for the option attack. The novelty will have worn off a bit, if you will. Expect Tech to still be good but it is unlikely that they’ll have the same level of success as 2008.
#23 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Minnesota had a huge turnaround season last year, improving from 1-11 to 7-6 in head coach Tim Brewster’s second season. However, enthusiasm for the turnaround was tempered by a 5 game losing streak to close the season. However, Minnesota returns a massive amount of experience (18 starters) and could be a big surprise as they open their brand new on-campus stadium.
Biggest Concern: The running game. Minnesota returns a very solid passing attack but their inability to consistently establish a good running game led to coaching and philosophy changes in the offseason. To make matters worse, the top 3 tailback candidates for the fall spent most of the spring on the shelf due to injuries. If Minnesota wants to stay in the top 25, they’ll have to find a way to run the football.
Brightest Spot: Quarterback. Adam Weber, a junior, enters his third season as the Golden Gophers’ starter and is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Weber’s backup, freshman MarQueis Gray, was also very impressive in spring action and Brewster has said that Gray will play a lot this fall. Expect Gray to provide a major change of pace for the Gophers offense, which will be tough to defend this fall.
For Better or For Worse: Minnesota took a huge step last year and now they have to continue that evolution. Brewster’s early recruiting classes are beginning to become the centerpiece of the team and he has brought in top 25 caliber classes in twice in his young tenure. Minnesota should continue its evolution into a major player in the Big Ten this season and they are a much better team than a year ago.
#24 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Many fans are going to scoff at the idea of the Fighting Irish sitting in amongst the top 25 teams in the nation and I can’t say that I disagree with that notion after the last two years. Notre Dame’s signature game of 2008 was a come from way ahead loss to Syracuse that nearly cost Charlie Weis his job and I remain convinced that another average season earns him a pink slip. However, Weis has recruited very well in recent years and that talent should show up on the field this year.
Biggest Concern: The spotlight. The worst kept secret in college football is that Charlie Weis is on thin ice in South Bend and the early schedule is anything but friendly. If the Irish get off to a 4-2 or 3-3 start, will they be able to keep things together down the stretch?
Brightest Spot: The passing game. Jimmy Clausen, whatever you might think of him, is a very talented quarterback who will enter his 3 rd season as a starter. Furthermore, he has no less than 3 big time receivers to throw to AND a solid tight end in Kyle Rudolph. Notre Dame showed last season that Weis still knows how to run an offense and this year’s Irish squad should put up plenty of points.
For Better or For Worse: Notre Dame is a better football team than last year. Of course they are, else I wouldn’t have them anywhere near the top 25! The Irish should be vastly improved along both lines of scrimmage and should have a much more consistent running game. In Weis’ make or break year, his recruits are now the core of the team and even if you think that recruiting services overinflate Notre Dame recruits’ merits (like I do), you still have to admit that Weis should have one of the 25 most talented teams in America. On top of that, I’m not buying into the ‘weak schedule’ argument. Of Notre Dame’s 12 games this year, 7 are against teams that went to bowl games in 2008 and the others are against talented BCS conference opponents like Michigan and Stanford. In fact, this is probably the best Notre Dame schedule in recent memory, featuring only 2 non-BCS teams (Nevada and Navy, both of whom played in bowl games last year). Notre Dame will play tough enough opponents to show how good they are this fall.
#25 Boise State Broncos
I’ve had a lot of people accuse me of being unfair to non-BCS schools, especially the wannabe national title contenders. However, they’re simply not reading facts. Let’s get a quick summary of Boise State’s season in 2008: Beat an undermanned Oregon team early, go undefeated through one of the worst conferences in the country (when your second toughest win is over Nevada, that’s just sad), then lose to another non-BCS ‘power’ in their bowl game. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Boise State and Colorado are practically the same team. Equal talent (if not a tiny bit better at Colorado), same system, same program architect (Dan Hawkins), same signature win (Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl for Boise State and in the 2007 regular season for Colorado). However, every year Boise State goes undefeated or loses 1 game because they don’t play anyone while Colorado has had one winning season in 3 tries under Hawkins. The difference? Colorado plays a tough schedule. Boise State doesn’t play more than one or two ranked opponents per season and that’s why they’re always ranked. The unbeaten Boise State and Utah teams of the past few years have proven that they can upset a very good team on any given day, just like a good depth team (see: Colorado v Oklahoma, 2007) in a major conference can. What they haven’t proven is the ability to navigate a tough conference week in and week out while fighting through injury attrition. Does anyone really think that Boise State or Utah would have NOT lost 2-3 games at a minimum in any BCS conference outside of the Big East? Hawai’i’s shellacking at the hands of Georgia, in this writer’s opinion, is a much more representative view of the non–BCS teams than any other I’ve seen thus far. If Boise State doesn’t beat Oregon this year in September, they’re out of my rankings for good and I don’t care if they go 11-1.
Biggest Concern: The Oregon game. Oregon looks to be pretty solid this year and Boise State has to beat them if they realistically want a shot at a BCS bowl. Luckily for Boise State, the game is on the Smurf Turf early in the year. The opposite is that Oregon should be a much better team.
Brightest Spot: Kellen Moore. Say what I may about Boise State, I’m still impressed with their sophomore quarterback. Moore makes quick decisions, throws a nice ball, and could set records when he’s done in Boise. They also have a pretty solid secondary.
For Better or For Worse: The return of game breaker Titus Young for a full season means that this Boise State team is probably superior to last year’s edition. Another year of experience for Moore is also a major plus and the Boise State secondary will be a strength. Expect another 10 win season*, at least, from the Broncos.
*If they played in the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac Ten, or Big XII, they’d be looking at 3-4 losses at a minimum.
By Matt Baxendell
Matt Baxendell is not looking forward to four more months without football, so feel free to email him at email@example.com with your comments, compliments, and criticisms.
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