This was one of the harder teams for me to rank. The Volunteers return just nine starters, have a mystifying quarterback puzzle to solve, and are coming off a second straight Peach Bowl blunder. However, they're also coming of another 10-win season that included wins over Florida and Miami (Fla.), and have a gracious schedule that features seven home games. Tennessee could finish anywhere from 10-1 to 7-4, which is why I put them smack-dab in the middle of my top 25. Will a quarterback emerge? Returners C.J. Leak – older brother to Chris – and Rick Clausen – younger brother to Casey – hardly put their stamp on the job in the spring, leaving the door open for freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge. And where has the vaunted Volunteer running game been lately? Former prep All-Americans like Jason Respert, Michael Munoz, Cedric Houston, and Gerald Riggs need to finally live up to their media guide bios. It wouldn't surprise me if Phil Fulmer stole the SEC East Division title, but it also wouldn't surprise me if he ended up in another meaningless December bowl game either.
Every team in the Big Ten has major questions to answer this season, and with the exception of Michigan it appears every other spot in the league's first division is up for grabs. The Hawkeyes are certainly not flawless, and they've hardly had a harmonious offseason. Yet when you compare Iowa to their fellow Big Ten challengers the two things they have going for them are a proven, outstanding defense and a proven, outstanding coaching staff. I'm still leery of the precarious offensive line situation, and the losses of tremendous senior leaders like Bob Sanders, Robert Gallery, Grant Steen, and Nate Kaeding. However, Kirk Ferentz is worthy of taking a leap of faith, and he still returns some solid talent. Players like Abdul Hodge, Chad Greenway, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, and Jermelle Lewis rate as some of the best at their positions in the conference. This could be the type of year that a Ferentz-led squad could snag a share of the Big Ten title a year ahead of schedule. A third consecutive January bowl bid is forthcoming.
Roll Tide, because ‘Bama is finally released from the shackles of the NCAA infractions committee. Here's hoping Mike Shula has learned from his school's last two probations and keeps everything above board. Yeah, right…this is the SEC after all. So, while they're in between probationary periods, look for Alabama to move back into its SEC penthouse suite. Last season, five of the Crimson Tide's nine losses were by a total of 16 points, so a huge one-year turnaround is certainly not out of the question. Former in-state high school phenom Brodie Croyle needs to improve his touchdown-to-interception ratio, and Ray Hudson needs to show he can be a productive, every-down tailback. The defense, which was torched for a school-record 333 points in 2003, also needs to tighten up. The schedule is set up for a rebound, however, so the Tide will roll to their first postseason in three years.
The best coach you've never heard of is Jeff Tedford, a man that has single-handedly revitalized football at Berkley. He debuted in 2002, and took a probation-inflicted program with questionable talent to an 8-4 season. Kyle Boller owes at least half of his NFL first round signing bonus to Tedford's tutelage. Last season he took a team with the fewest starters returning in the country and went 8-6, including a stunning upset of USC; the Trojans' lone blemish. This season, Tedford does face a foe he hasn't yet had—expectations. Only USC returns more lettermen in the Pac-10, and the Golden Bears bring back 15 starters as well. Chief among them is All-American candidate Geoff McArthur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who could someday join other Tedford proteges like Boller, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and A.J. Feely in the NFL. California has waited 46 years for a return to the Rose Bowl. Unfortunately, a difficult schedule featuring four treacherous road games means patience is a virtue.
17. Notre Dame
After a terrific 8-0 start, Tyrone Willingham is just 7-10 in his last 17 games under the Golden Dome. After guiding the Irish to their first 10-win season since 1993 as a rookie, his encore was a third losing season in the last five years. There was a time when that was unmentionable in South Bend, but mediocrity has become commonplace. As if that weren't bad enough, even normally pro-Notre Dame analysts have been blasting their recruiting practices. Then there was the race card and former Heisman winner Paul Hornung this offseason. These are perilous times for NBC's favorite team. But it's always darkest right before the dawn, right? This is Willingham's third year, and the third time has often been the charm for Notre Dame head coaches. Rockne, Leahy, Parshegian, Devine, and Holtz each won national titles in their third years. With players like Brady Quinn and Maurice Stovall emerging on offense, Willingham may finally be getting the ideal personnel to run his pro-style offense. Defensively improvement is required after surrendering at least 22 points nine times last season. Thankfully, the schedule isn't as daunting as it's being touted. Beano Cook rejoice—the Irish will become a factor again in 2004.
If history does indeed have a way of repeating itself, then don't be surprised if the Boilermakers make a run for the Roses. In 2000, Purdue returned the Big Ten's lone standout senior quarterback (Drew Brees) and got to face both Michigan and Ohio State at home. That was enough to offset a young defense that possessed five freshman starters. This season, Purdue returns the Big Ten's lone standout senior quarterback (Kyle Orton) and gets the Wolverines and Buckeyes in West Lafayette. Will that be enough to offset heavy personnel losses from one of the league's top defenses the past two years? We shall see. As great of a job as Joe Tiller has done, he needs to find a way to win the close ones. The last three seasons Purdue is just 8-11 in games decided by seven points or less. You can't win championships when you leave wins on the table like that.
Last season the Tigers were chic pick by the preseason punditry to win the national title. They responded with an 0-2 start and five-loss season. Adding insult to injury was the Auburn administration's exposed flirtation with Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino before the season even ended. Sympathy for Tommy Tuberville over that fiasco led to a contract extension, but in the SEC they treat contracts the way J.R. Ewing once did. If Tuberville doesn't exceed expectations in 2004, he's gone and he knows it. The running game is certainly there with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, and the schedule is much more manageable than last year's slate. And you always know Auburn will have a nasty defense, regardless of who has moved on. Nevertheless, Tuberville's fate is ultimately tied to quarterback Jason Campbell, who has never lived up to the recruiting hype. If he finally delivers as a senior than Tuberville will remain employed.
The one traditional ACC member who isn't particularly fazed by the recent additions to the ledger are the Cavaliers, because they're the one team not named Florida State that has the horses to compete in the enhanced league. Al Groh and staff have recruited quite effectively the past few years, and now prospects like Kai Parham and Ahmad Brooks are starting to come of age. Virginia returns 16 starters gets all the top ACC contenders, except for Florida State, at home. So why are the Cavaliers not rated higher? I'm squeamish about the quarterback position with Matt Schaub now in the NFL. When Shaub was hurt last year, former prep All-American Anthony Martinez struggled so much as a freshman he's third on the depth chart this fall and threatening to play baseball full time. The man atop the depth chart now is quarterback-turned receiver-turned quarterback again Marques Hagans. He's not the answer. Maybe the answer is Notre Dame transfer Christian Olsen? Until that answer is found Virginia can't be considered an ACC challenger.
In terms of pure athletic ability, the best player in college football – regardless of position – could very well be Missouri quarterback Brad Smith. He's the toughest player to gameplan around, because Coach Gary Pinkel correctly runs every facet of the Tiger offense through his superstar. But does Smith have enough pieces around him to win a championship? Damien Nash, a highly touted recruit two years ago, takes over the tailback slot. I'm not sure any of Smith's receiving options strike fear in the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators. Gone are two of the best offensive linemen the school has produced in a long time as well. Defensively they do return nine starters, but this is the same unit that yielded at least 21 points eight times last season. The schedule is favorable. Every home is certainly winnable, and even if they lose both road games at Texas and Nebraska a nine-win season is possible. Most magazines have the Tigers as the hot choice for the Big 12 North Division title, but I'm from Missouri so you have to show me first.
Since becoming the only Big Ten coach not named Woody Hayes to win three Rose Bowls, Barry Alvarez has won just 13 of his last 32 conference games. Camp Randall Stadium was once one of the most difficult road venues in America, but since 2000 the Badgers are just 16-13 at home. Now that Alvarez has added athletic director's duties to his schedule, there's talk he won't last much longer as head coach before going into administration full time. If that's true, this may be his last, best chance at a return to Pasadena. A Big Ten best 17 starters return, including stout offensive and defensive lines. Tailback Anthony Davis is one of the best in America, and even without Lee Evans the wide receiver position is still well stocked. The big question is at quarterback. Matt Schabert has experience, including the upset of Ohio State last season. But he was passed this spring by sophomore John Stocco, who combines athleticism with a cannon arm. Yet even if he develops under center it may not be enough, because Wisconsin faces the toughest road schedule of all the Big Ten contenders.
Out of nowhere last season the Tigers went from perennial doormat to a nine-game winner. Their postseason appearance was their first since 1971, and just their third since 1956. Was it a fluke? I don't think so. An amazing 59 lettermen are back, including all 11 starters from Conference USA's best offense. DeAngelo Williams is a stud in the backfield, and was the league's offensive player of the year in 2003. A defense that improved enough to allow 19 points per game should be enhanced with the addition of the much-traveled Albert Means. Means and his recruitment has been at the heart of many a SEC controversy, but if he's ready to go he's the type of athlete that could dominate a mid-major league. Especially now that respected defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn was brought in to coach him and his cohorts. If Memphis repeats last year's upset over Mississippi by winning in Oxford in the season-opener, a Cinderella season looms.
It's the last go-around in Conference USA for perennial powerhouse TCU. With another cushy schedule and eight starters returning on offense, the Horned Frogs are headed for a seventh straight bowl appearance and will be C-USA contenders yet again. Lonta Hobbs and Robert Merrill form one of the better running back tandems in the country. Tye Gunn returns at quarterback after an injury-riddled 2003. However, the silver lining there was it gave Brandon Hassell time to develop as a suitable replacement. Yet the real weapon in the arsenal could be wide receiver Reggie Harrell, who became the first TCU receiver to ever amass 1,000 yards receiving in a season. The defensive line, a traditional strength under Coach Gary Patterson, was hit hard by graduation. Still, it's hard to believe TCU won't be salty on defense yet again. The schedule calls for road trips to Texas Tech and Louisville, plus a dangerous home game with Northwestern. It says here the Horned Frogs will win at least nine games for the fourth time in five years.
25. Ohio State
The Luckeyes are about to have their luck run out. No team in America has lost more talent than Ohio State, which had an all-time high 14 players drafted by the NFL in April. Only nine starters return from a program that has won 25 of its last 27 games, including a national title and two BCS bowl wins. The personnel lost alone is enough to make Buckeye Nation whisper "rebuilding year." However, when you're 14-1 in games decided by seven points or less the last two years, you have to figure the glass slipper will soon find another foot to call home. Listen, this is still The Ohio State University, where talent abounds and only requires seasoning. However, this is now Jim Tressel's program, and he doesn't have John Cooper's recruiting gems to coach any longer. This is the first time he's been called upon to develop his own players, and he'll do it against a schedule that features five road games against squads that went bowling a season ago.