Post-Spring Top 25
You hear a lot of people say that Iowa got lucky last season, especially those who enjoy bashing the Big Ten. Yet here’s another argument: Iowa was undefeated when Ricky Stanzi was healthy under center and put together an 11-2 record that included wins over three top 15 teams away from Iowa City, highlighted by an Orange Bowl triumph over ACC Champion Georgia Tech. You can’t argue with those results. The vast majority of their vicious defense is back and their running game should be much improved after struggling with injuries in 2009. The only concern is the O-Line, where only two starters are back. However, this is Kirk Ferentz and Iowa we’re talking about here: They’re always good on the line and all but one spot appeared to have been filled this spring. Iowa should be just as dangerous this fall as they were in 2009.
2009 was a nightmare season for the Sooners. They lost Heisman winner Sam Bradford on opening day, lost star tight end Jermaine Gresham before the season began and generally struggled to replace the O-Line that took them to the 2008 National Championship Game. However, the vast majority of those now-experienced Sooners are back and they have a QB in Landry Jones who performed well after being thrown into the fire last fall. Oklahoma will bounce back in a major manner in 2010.
Oregon would have been in everyone’s top four or five heading into the fall were it not for the off-field stupidity of starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was suspended for the entire 2010 season for his part in a laptop heist. Oregon’s explosive offense overran the Pac Ten last season with Masoli at the helm (before finally being stymied in the Rose Bowl against a stout Ohio State defense) and was prepared to do so once more this fall. The good news is that Oregon still returns 19 starters from last year’s team and their defense appears to have progressed in the spring. With the rest of the Pac Ten sitting in the ‘good but not great’ category, the league is Oregon’s for the taking for the 2nd consecutive season, even with a 2nd choice quarterback.
Nebraska officially announced their return to national prominence in 2009, winning the Big XII North and battling Texas to the wire in the Big XII Championship Game. Despite losing Ndamakung Suh to the NFL, Nebraska should still have a dominant D-Line (that Jared Crick guy is pretty darn good) that will anchor an elite defense. The only concern about the Huskers is at quarterback, where they were underwhelming last season. Expected starter Zac Lee sat out the spring, so we’ll have to wait until the fall to see if Nebraska can realistically expect more than a 2nd consecutive division crown this season.
In a stacked year in the SEC West, Arkansas is bound to be a big surprise to a lot of casual fans. However, the Razorbacks were quietly one of the most competitive teams in the SEC last season and they bring back an excellent group. Starting QB Ryan Mallett is going to be the best quarterback in the league and is a future NFL 1 st round pick who will pilot one of the country’s most dangerous offenses. The defense is also going to be improved in 2010 and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Arkansas upend mighty Alabama (who they host in Fayetteville this year) and win the SEC West.
While a lot of fans have nothing but derision towards Lane Kiffin, you have to be blind to ignore the superb job he did with a Tennessee team last fall that was low on talent outside of a few defensive superstars. With USC’s vaunted talent, it will only be a matter of time until the Trojans are back among the national elite. However, there are some pressing depth concerns in L.A., particularly on the O-Line, so USC might still be a year away from competing for the crystal football. Despite the depth concerns, the Trojans are definitely a major contender for the wide-open Pac Ten title thanks to their overwhelming talent and the progression of sophomore Matt Barkley under center.
Boise State has continued to elevate their profile in the national media over the past few seasons to the point that a lot of pundits are placing the Broncos in the top five. Not here. Look, Boise State had a strong 2009 campaign but what were their major achievements? An opening home win over Oregon, before the Quack Attack got up and running, and a Fiesta Bowl victory over fellow BCS Buster TCU. The Broncos are still on the negative side of things against BCS conference opponents, especially away from home. The good news for college football fans is that they’re leaving the Pacific Northwest to play a BCS conference opponent for the first time since their epic shellacking at Georgia in 2005 when they travel to face Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C. on Labor Day. If Boise State can win that one and a home tilt against Oregon State two weeks later, they’ll jump up into the top 5 real quick but I’m doubtful that will happen. The best thing that Boise State can do to earn respect in my eyes is to culminate the rumored move to the Mountain West in 2011 and then put up their undefeated record in a much tougher league.
Coming off of a successful campaign in 2009, a lot of people want to loudly proclaim that ‘Da U’ is back. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Miami, while significantly more athletic than in years past, is nowhere near the level that they were at the start of the last decade. Furthermore, Miami’s starting QB missed all of spring and their O-Line struggled with injuries, slowing down their development as they came off of a disappointing second half. Miami can be very good this season as they have a ton of experienced rising juniors but their best case scenario for 2010 is making their first ACC Championship Game.
Pitt was oh-so-close to winning the Big East last year: A missed extra point was the difference in the season finale against Cincinnati and most of that team returns for another go at it in 2010. Pitt found Bill Stull’s replacement under center, as sophomore Tino Sunseri took the reins this spring and with weapons like tailback Dion Lewis and wideout Jonathan Baldwin, he should be an instant success. The defense is also quite stout and should be much improved in coverage this fall. Pitt heads into 2010 as the favorite to win the Big East.
Oregon State has been the most consistently successful team in the Pac Ten that doesn’t wear Cardinal and Gold thanks to the intrepid coaching of Mike Riley. The Beavers have finished in the top three in the league in each of the past three years and were one win against archrival Oregon from a Rose Bowl berth in each of the past two years. That’s no accident and the talent in Corvalis is also massively underappreciated. Expect this team to have another strong season and make a big push at their first Pac Ten title since the 60s.
Looking for a reason to be optimistic? Florida State has their best quarterback since Chris Weinke under center this fall in senior Christian Ponder. Expect Ponder to be a bonafide Heisman candidate this season. The first year of the Jimbo Fischer regime is going to include some changes in how things are done but what should stay the same is FSU’s high level of athleticism. With a more veteran defense and a new coordinator, expect the Seminoles to make a serious push at winning their division this fall.
The other half of the first-ever BCS Buster Bowl is also the other non-BCS conference entrant into this top 25. TCU might have lost some talent on the defensive side of the football but the Horned Frogs are back at full force on offense. Buoyed by the confidence of last year’s success, the Horned Frogs should be the Mountain West favorites, though a 2nd consecutive undefeated year seems like a lot to expect from Gary Patterson’s team.
If Steve Spurrier is ever going to win the SEC East at South Carolina, this may be the year for him to do it. Goliath Florida is reloading, Tennessee is expected to be way down and Georgia is very young. With a veteran quarterback, pieces in place to actually field a running game and a stellar defense, South Carolina could break all kinds of hexes, curses and bugaboos from their entire existence in the SEC. I’m not saying that they’re going to win the East but the talent is definitely there.
Interested in exciting offense? Well Texas A&M might be the team for you. With the vast majority of their multidimensional offense returning, the Aggies should be able to score enough points to win nearly every game they play. While that’s good news, the improved play of their defense this spring could mean that they won’t have to score a bucket of points every week to win. In a year where both Oklahoma and Texas are reloading, the Aggies could legitimately challenge for the Big XII South.
When you talk about the best defenses in the country in 2010, North Carolina has to be included. With multiple 1st round talents on hand, UNC might not just be the best defense in the ACC, it might be the best in America. However, the Tar Heels have some problems on offense, especially at quarterback, where veteran T.J. Yates might not even hold onto his starting job. If UNC can find consistent quarterbacking this fall then they’ll be a very dangerous team but that still seems like a very big ‘if’.
Sparty had a tough 2009 campaign on and off the field and underachieved to the tune of 6-7. However, things are definitely looking up in East Lansing as junior Kirk Cousins has grabbed the mantle of leadership by the throat and former QB Keith Nichol has taken up residence as a top wideout. With two strong tailbacks and a fleet of receivers to Cousins to hook up with, Michigan State will score lots of points this year. Furthermore, the defense appears much improved, especially in the secondary, and the return of superstar linebacker Greg Jones for his senior season is a major boost as he was a projected 1st round pick in April’s draft. Don’t expect MSU to break into the Big Ten’s top three spots but an 8 or 9 win season seems very possible.
A lot of people are really high on the Tigers heading into 2010 but I’m not one of them. LSU has no proven runner and is stuck in the never-ending quarterback battle between Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, a duel that will lapse into its third season this fall! While there are some reasons for optimism, like a solid defense and the emerging playmaking of sophomore do-it-all Russell Shepard, if LSU doesn’t find solid quarterback play then they’re looking at an 8-4 or 9-3 season at best this year.
Washington improved by a whopping five games in the first year of the Steve Sarkisian era, highlighted by a shocking early upset of mighty USC. A large portion of the credit should also go to rising senior quarterback Jake Locker, who has been called the best NFL prospect in the country heading into 2010. But the team that has been assembled around Locker is coming off of a strong spring and he’ll be gifted with lots of playmakers. While the defense is still a concern, it also appears to be better and should be enough to allow the Huskies to enjoy a surprise season that features a return to postseason action and even contention in the wide open Pac Ten thanks to a very strong offensive attack.
Penn State’s spring showcase was nearly enough to drop them off of this list entirely. While JoePa’s team looks stout once more on defense, the O-Line remains in flux and the quarterback situation is downright scary. There are going to be some serious hiccups at times this fall and stud tailback Evan Royster is going to be the focus of every single defense that takes on the Nittany Lions this fall. After a ten win campaign in 2009, Penn State will be lucky to get to eight this season, barring significant improvement from sophomore QB Kevin Newsome, who played timidly this spring but will start in 2010 as his only real competition is a walk-on and two true freshmen.
TEN TO WATCH
By Matt Baxendell
CollegeSports-fans.com Staff Writer
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s college football guru. He has an opinion on every team, even lowly Eastern Michigan, so feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk football, comment on an article, get added to his mailing list or just feel like telling him how foolish he for thinking that Eastern Michigan is in for another terrible season.
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