1. Southern California
Assuming that All-American wide receiver Mike Williams performs well enough academically this summer to be reinstated by the NCAA following his failed bid to enter the NFL draft, this is the most talented team in the country. The Trojans will be double-digit favorites in every game as well, thanks to a soft schedule. That also means they'd better go undefeated to avoid a second straight BCS slight as well. The incoming recruiting class is considered the best at USC since the 1970s, and a few of them – like Taitusi Lutui – may be asked to fill a void or two along the offensive line right away. Nonetheless, Matt Leinart is a good bet to give USC a second Heisman Trophy in three years with all of the weapons at his disposal. This time Pete Carroll's crew won't have to share the title when they return to the Orange Bowl where they'll claim both the AP and Coach's crowns for themselves.
The well-respected Phil Steele told me on the radio two weeks ago that this is the most talented team he's evaluated in the 10-year history of his exhaustive publication. That's saying something, when you consider All-Americans like Teddy Lehman, Derrick Strait, and Tommie Harris are now all in the NFL. This year the balance of Sooner power exists on an explosive offense that returns every key ingredient. That includes Jason White, the first returning Heisman Trophy winner since Ty Detmer in 1991. White's favorite target, Mark Clayton, is also back. Oklahoma is pegging freshman Adrian Peterson for stardom, hoping he can bring the breakaway threat back to their backfield. On special teams, Trey DiCarlo and Antonio Perkins deliver a potent 1-2 punch. The Sooners will return to the Orange Bowl, where they won the 2000 national title, but look second best next to USC.
If you're familiar with my radio program, then you know I hardly ever go along with conventional wisdom when making my predictions. Yet this time I think the 2004 race for the national title will look a lot like the one we saw in 2003. The Tigers will be even better on defense this season, and that's not a pleasant thought for SEC foes. The loss of two outstanding performers up front is offset with seniors Corey Webster and Travis Daniels capably providing coverage at cornerback. Their return will allow Nick Saban to take even more chances on defense. Offensively, the backfield is an embarrassment of riches, and the offensive line – led by All-American candidate Ben Wilkerson – is stout. Either Marcus Randall or JaMarcus Russell should be fine at quarterback as a result. The schedule presents three tough road games, which is why the Tigers won't repeat. The kicking game has some uncertainty as well.
Mark Richt has done a fabulous job returning the Bulldogs to the elite of college football, after they wallowed in also-ran status for most of the last 15 years since Vince Dooley retired. After returning just nine starters last season was expected to be a re-tooling one. However, the ‘Dawgs still made an encore performance in the SEC Championship and won 11 games. Now they're loaded with experience, returning 51 lettermen. The key for Georgia living up to expectations this season is seasoning what was a young offensive line a year ago, which is the primary reason why Georgia failed to break 17 points three times in 2003. That just shouldn't happen with a quarterback like David Greene at the helm with receivers like Fred Gibson to throw to. On defense, All-American David Pollack headlines a unit with several other potential headliners. On paper, this looks like a national title team. However, until Georgia proves it can beat Florida on the field I'll predict otherwise.
Considering the fact arch-nemesis Miami (Fla.) is bringing Virginia Tech and Boston College with it into the revamped ACC, and the fact the Seminoles will start seven seniors on offense, this could be Bobby Bowden's last, best shot at a third national title before retirement. Florida State, despite struggling to maintain its lofty national perch the past few seasons, has still been the ACC's bully. But it will get an immediate test on Labor Day night to open the season when it travels to Hurricane country. Three of the Seminoles' last six losses have come at the hands of Miami (Fla.). To win that game, Chris Rix needs to deliver like he did against Florida, not like he didn't in the Orange Bowl. The rest of the offense rivals what USC and Oklahoma will put on the field. The problem is a defense that lost several standouts, and returns just four starters. Nonetheless, if it escapes Coral Gable with a rare win FSU will be a major national championship contender.
Napoleon had his Waterloo. Al Gore had the rule of law. And Texas has Oklahoma. The last four years the Longhorns are 42-6 against the rest of college football, and 0-4 against the boys from Norman. The average margin of defeat at the hands of the Sooners is a humiliating 28 points per loss. Talent hasn't been the problem for Texas, toughness and heart has been. No team in America has done less with more than the Longhorns, failing to win a Big 12 title or qualify for a BCS berth over the last four years despite having a squad that scores as high as a pro team in the eye test. This year Texas returns arguably the two top prospects for the 2005 NFL draft in tailback Cedric Benson and linebacker Derrick Johnson. They also return a total of 53 lettermen and figure to be double-digit favorites in every game they play this season—except one. I'd like to believe this is the year a good guy like Mack Brown finally gets it done, but until he settles on one quarterback and one quarterback only, hide the women and children on October 9th. Somebody in Austin should get Steve Spurrier on speed-dial.
7. Miami, Fla.
The NFL's chief farm team just keeps re-loading with outstanding prep talent, and that should be the case again for a young Hurricane squad that has just six senior starters returning. Despite the lack of punch in the running game after Frank Gore was hurt again, and the lack of consistency from Brock Berlin at quarterback, Miami still found a way to finish 11-2, beat arch-rival Florida State twice, and capture a BCS bowl championship. They also effectively dissolved the Big East as a BCS-worthy conference and catapulted the ACC into the SEC/Big 12/Big Ten's stratosphere. The keys for Miami earning a fifth straight BCS berth will be: 1) Berlin emerging as a senior; 2) youngsters like Ryan Moore developing into playmakers at wide receiver; 3) Notre Dame transfer Greg Olsen continuing the legacy of Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow at tight end; 4) defeating the Seminoles – again – to open the season in the Orange Bowl on Labor Day night.
Gone are record-setters John Navarre at quarterback and tailback Chris Perry. Back is everybody else. The Wolverines will actually feature a more physically gifted squad than the one that won the outright Big Ten title a year ago, but will they find replacements for the leadership Navarre and Perry provided in 2003? Replacing Navarre will likely be former prep All-American Matt Gutierrez, who never lost a game at Concorde De LaSalle High School. However, two other former prep studs in Clayton Richard and Chad Henne will challenge him. Replacing Perry could be a running back-by-committee, led by sophomore Jerome Jackson and senior David Underwood. The receiving corps features four future pros in Braylon Edwards, Steve Breaston, Jason Avant, and Carl Tabb. The defense has All-American candidates Marlin Jackson, Pierre Woods, and Ernest Shazor. The schedule is title-friendly, but at least one of three land mines – at Notre Dame, Purdue, and Ohio State – will trip up the Wolverines. They'll just have to settle for another trip to Pasadena.
This is our first real reach in the preseason poll. When we last saw the Gators the University of Iowa was taking them behind the woodshed in the Outback Bowl. This season Florida returns just nine starters, and unfortunately returns the apparently clue-less Ron Zook as head coach (somebody tell him Nate Kaeding was not a running back). Yet they also return the most dynamic player in the SEC in quarterback Chris Leak, and the friendliest schedule of all the East Division contenders. True, they play at Tennessee on September 18th, but the Volunteers have an iffy quarterback situation and Florida has won eight of the last 11 meetings. The Gators simply own Georgia, which is fast becoming an annual Ron Zook job-saver. Other conference road tests at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt don't figure to be much of a threat. This is the year Ron Zook retires the shadow of the visor by making it to the SEC Championship Game.
10. West Virginia
In terms of evaluating talent, do the Mountaineers rate this high? The easy answer is no. But in terms of evaluating talent, cushy schedule, and conference affiliation, Coach Rich Rodriguez could pull off what his predecessor Don Nehlen did in 1988 and 1993—finish undefeated. Quietly, West Virginia shared the Big East crown with Miami in 2003. Now the ‘Canes are gone, and a Mountaineer team that returns 15 starters remains. No other Big East team rates top 25 status, so barring divine intervention West Virginia is going to earn its first BCS berth this season. If Rasheed Marshall has a great senior year at quarterback, and Kay Jay Harris is a capable replacement for Quincy Wilson at running back, then your dark-horse contender for the national title could be found in Morgantown. However, I'm guessing they'll run into a buzzsaw against revenge-minded Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on October 2nd.
Every year we seek the mid-major school that has the best chance to make the BCS Pooh-Bahs sweat it out. If you're looking for the team that is the best bet to do that in 2004, look no further than the Utes. Rising coaching star Urban Meyer, whose just waiting for Tyrone Willingham to get fired or Lloyd Carr to retire, should win a second consecutive Mountain West crown with a stout defense that surrendered just 17 points in its final three games of 2003. The offense is nothing to sneeze at either, with efficient quarterback Alex Smith and a healthy Marty Johnson returning in the backfield. What sets Utah apart from other non-BCS conference spoilers is its schedule. Big-name schools Texas A&M, Arizona, and North Carolina highlight the non-conference slate, and those are all winnable games that could boost the Utes in the minds of voters. But don't overlook a visit to underrated San Diego State on October 30th.
Rumors of The Big Red's demise have been greatly exaggerated. True, the long-term ramifications of the embarrassing, 40-day coaching search conducted by Steve Pedersen that resulted in the questionable hiring of Bill Callahan still remain to be seen. But are we forgetting this is a squad that won 10 games last year? Tradition only gets you so far, but also gets you further than not having any tradition. And few traditions rival that of Nebraska's. The Big 12 North Division is a hodge-podge. I'm still not buying the Missouri hype, Kansas State lost several key components, and Colorado is in complete disarray. Callahan inherits a terrific defense, and a solid kicking game. Just like Tyrone Willingham did when he started 8-0 his first year at Notre Dame because of the defense Bob Davie left behind. The Huskers have enough everywhere else on their roster to avoid putting too much pressure on their new, West Coast offense. Callahan enjoys a honeymoon season courtesy of Bo Pellini's leftovers.