1. USC…By the time this season is over, the Trojan offense could rank right up there with Nebraska in 1983 and Penn State in 1994 as one of the most explosive offenses in recent college football history. Studs abound on that side of the ball, led of course by Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. With the bevy of talent and experience back, this won't be the year they'll miss Norm Chow, that will come in 2006. By the time Leinart is done with the season, he'll go down as the most accomplished quarterback in the long, distinguished history of this sport. The key to being the first team in the modern era (see that as since the AP Poll was introduced in 1936) to win three straight national titles may be how quickly the youngsters on defense step up to fill some holes there. However, even if they don't, ask yourself which team on USC's schedule will be able to outscore it? I don't see one.
2. LSU…Les Miles is the first of two rookie coaches I suspect will enjoy thrilling honeymoons. He inherits a loaded roster from Nick Saban, as well as a very friendly schedule. Arizona State, Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn looks like a great schedule to the BCS computers—and they're all at Baton Rouge. The backfield is loaded, there are weapons at wide receiver, and the front seven on defense should be terrific. Just like it was in 2003. Still, the Tigers have two potential obstacles to a second national title in three years: avoiding a quarterback controversy among JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, and Ryan Perrilloux, as well as posting a rarity in the program's history—that would be a road win over Alabama on November 12th.
3. Louisville…No, this isn't a misprint. And no, this isn't an extremely early basketball poll. The Cardinals are legit, and had the most potent offense in college football last season. Most of that unit returns, and should enjoy slicing up porous Big East defenses this fall. Stefon LeFors will be missed, but Brian Brohm wasn't considered the top prep quarterback in the country two years ago for nothing. Besides, the coaches groomed him for this role last year by playing him so much as a freshman. Look for a breakout season from Michael Bush as well. The defense is just so-so, but that should be good enough to run the table against this schedule. And that schedule likely will make the Cardinals the next undefeated team to get snubbed for a spot in the national championship game.
4. Michigan…Two things we annually know about the Wolverines. First, they'll possess one of the top five most talented teams in the country. Second, they'll lose a game they're not supposed to, and it will come on the road. In fact, if this poll was just predicated on pure talent, Michigan might rank even higher. But on the itinerary this autumn are road dates in Iowa City and East Lansing, two destinations that haven't mean fun and frivolity in the Lloyd Carr era. However, should the Wolverines take care of business for a change they'll make a third straight trip to Pasadena, because on paper this is the most loaded team that Carr has had.
5. Florida…This is the second rookie coach who should make a big splash. Urban Meyer takes over one of the top jobs in the country. And although Ron Zook still thinks that Nate Kaeding is a tailback, dude did know how to recruit and the cupboard is full in Gainesville. Chris Leak is Meyer's Alex Smith with better receivers to throw to, and that's a scary thought. Now, can they rediscover a defense? That, along with undisciplined play and shoddy coaching, is what's held the Gators back as of late. Yet it's an odd-numbered year, which means bitter enemies Tennessee and Florida State come to The Swamp.
6. Virginia Tech…So much for that ACC reality check the Hokies were in line for last fall. All they did was win the league in their virgin voyage, and an encore could be in the cards. ACC Player of the Year Brian Randall's steadying influence at quarterback will be missed, but not for long if Marcus Vick lives up to the hype and steers clear of the Blacksburg police department for a change. He'll benefit from having Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes back in the backfield, as well as a quality set of pass-catchers. Defensively, cornerback Jimmy Williams is an All-American candidate and ends Darryl Tapp and Noland Burchette can wreak havoc. Watch out for that season opener at N.C. State.
7. Ohio State…No team in college football has better starters at linebacker and wide receiver than the Buckeyes, who finished 2004 on a role with routs of archrival Michigan and Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. This is also the second-most experienced team returning in the Big Ten, so they're expecting a big season in Columbus. So why not rank them higher? Three reasons. First, where is the running game? Is there a tailback on campus ready to carry the load? Next, can quarterbacks Troy Smith and Justin Wick play like they did at the end of the season for a full 11 games this autumn? Finally, they have to play that school up north on the road this November.
8. Texas…This is probably the lowest the Longhorns have been ranked in any poll this preseason. While I agree that this is the season Texas finally gets by a certain nemesis from Norman – and if they don't this year they probably never will – I still see a couple of questions that have yet to find answers. Has Vince Young further developed his passing ability? This fall opponents will key on him with Cedric Benson gone. Speaking of that, is Selvin Young completely healthy. If not, can speedy Ramonce Taylor handle the load? How much will Derrick Johnson, perhaps the best defensive player in college football last season, be missed? Can the Longhorns win on the road at The Horseshoe and Kyle Field? I think the answer to that question is no, hence a lesser ranking then you'll find anywhere else.
9. Tennessee…These guys are loaded, and will be one of Phil Fulmer's most talented squads. Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen are both winners at quarterback. Gerald Riggs, Jr. is poised for a breakout senior year. As usual, the wide receivers are rangy and fast. The offensive line is back to its former brutality. And the Volunteers will boast one of the best defenses in the SEC. Strictly on talent, Tennessee shouldn't be ranked any lower than No. 2 in the nation. However, the games aren't played on paper, they're played on the field. And on the field Tennessee has road dates with Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Notre Dame. Has any team in the history of the sport ever won at Gainesville, Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, and South Bend in the same year? Nope, and neither will this one.
10. Miami (Fla.)…This is an intriguing year for the Hurricanes. The inexperience on offense, plus those two road games to Florida State and Clemson to open the campaign, could very well sentence Miami to another non-BCS bowl. However, it's defenses that win championships, and this should be one of the better ones in the country. A total of nine starters are back, including another great Miami defensive line. Then there's Judicial Watch's favorite player, linebacker Willie Williams, who is returning from some advanced placement courses in criminal justice. In addition, this is a program with a lot of pride (cockiness?) and doesn't take being overlooked, as they currently are, well. Can they find a quarterback between Kirby Freeman and Kyle Wright? Probably. Can they win at Virginia Tech? Probably not.
11. Oklahoma…Buy low and sell high on this club. The Sooners are "re-loading" after playing NFL farm team the past two years, but the talent pool is hardly dried up. It's just going to take some seasoning. First, the quarterback derby between Paul Thompson and Rhett Bomar has to be settled. Second, we have to see how the reinstatement of Dusty Dvoracek turns out. Third, we have to discover how long it will take to integrate some young players in the secondary. Bob Stoops and company will iron out these wrinkles and have one of the top teams in the country at the end of the season. They'll just have to suffer through some growing pains at UCLA and against Texas first. Here's your preseason No. 1 team for 2006.
12. Iowa…It's become a familiar refrain in Iowa City. Start the season unheralded, then suffer some debilitating loss early that stalls expectations and lands the Hawkeyes below the national radar, and then once you're written off go ahead and close the season in a flurry and shock the nation. This template has led to three straight top-10 finishes for Iowa, something only USC, Oklahoma, and Georgia can equal. That is some pretty high cotton to be picking. This time, however, the Hawkeyes won't sneak up on anyone. They're one of the preseason darlings, and for good reason. They might have the two best playmakers in the Big Ten with Drew Tate and Chad Greenway. They certainly have the league's top coach in Kirk Ferentz. What they don't have is the league's friendliest schedule. Road games at Iowa State (arch-rival), Ohio State (just two wins in Columbus since 1959), Purdue (last win there was in 1991), and Wisconsin (which might need the win to be bowl-eligible) likely mean a season of unmet expectations. Nonetheless, it will still be a season that ends somewhere warm on New Year's Day.
13. Purdue…This is team darkhorse this preseason. By now, unless you haven't bothered to read a single college football preview magazine, you know the Boilermakers don't play Michigan or Ohio State and get Iowa and Notre Dame at home. You know they return the most experienced team in the Big Ten. You also know that every pundit has labeled Purdue as a team to keep an eye on as a result. Here's what you may not know. While Joe Tiller has accomplished a Hayden Fry-like reclamation project in West Lafayette, he isn't exactly charmed in the close ones. In fact, going back to the 2001 season, 16 of Purdue's last 17 losses have been by seven points or loss. That is an amazing and ominous trend. And until it reverses it's premature to rank Purdue as a national title contender.
14. Alabama…If Brodie Croyle can finally stay healthy the Tide could roll with 16 starters returning, including nine on what was not only the second best college football defense in the state of Alabama, but the second best in the SEC last season as well. In 2005 they should even be better, because the offense should be better. They've been close the first two years under Mike Shula, losing two overtime games and five others by six points or less. Year three should be the charm, again assuming that Croyle remains upright and in the lineup. As for the schedule, it should pave the way for a rebound. The only road game against a team that went bowling last season is the Iron Bowl at the end of the season. Meanwhile, Florida, Tennessee, and LSU all come to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
15. Georgia Tech…Chan Gailey hasn't exactly endeared himself to the folks down in Atlanta, but this season he's going to make lots of new friends. The Yellow Jackets return eight starters from a defense that was 12th nationally a year ago. Offensively, tailback P. J. Daniels and wide receiver Calvin Johnson have the potential to be the best two players at their respective positions in the ACC. That means the pressure is squarely on quarterback Reggie Ball to produce with consistency. The junior already has two bowl victories to his credit, but there is still a sense that he hasn't lived up to his advanced billing, especially after throwing 18 interceptions last season. Expect the Rambling Wreck to send a message the opening week of the season by knocking off Auburn on the road.
16. Georgia…Does life go on without David Greene and David Pollack? We, along with Mark Richt, are about to find out. Those two stalwarts in Athens are now in the NFL, so it's finally time see what former prep phenoms like D.J. Shockley – who has waited three years for his shot to start at quarterback – and Charles Johnson can do. There is a three-headed monster at tailback with Thomas Brown, Danny Ware, and Kregg Lumpkin, who is returning from a torn ACL. There's also an SEC-high 57 lettermen returning. If the Bulldogs can avoid the season-opening upset against Boise State, they should be 4-0 heading into Knoxville on October 8th. That's when things really get interesting, because the second half of the schedule includes Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech.
17. Fresno State…If you're looking for this year's potential BCS spoiler, look no further. The Bulldogs bring back 16 starters and 51 lettermen, and enter 2005 with momentum after upsetting Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl. Paul Pinegar is a three-year starter at quarterback, and behind him are three tailbacks capable of 1,000-yard seasons. Garrett McIntyre is a potential All-American on the defensive line, and the linebacker and secondary units return nearly intact. Boise State is at home this year, giving Fresno State the advantage in the WAC. Non-conference road games at Oregon and USC – and no, Pat Hill's team won't be intimidated by the Trojans – will give the Bulldogs the chance to test their mettle and impress the nation.
18. UCLA…The Bruins got the best news they could've possible hoped for
just two weeks ago when quarterback Drew Olson, injured seriously in the Las
Vegas Bowl eight months ago, was cleared for preseason practice. That solidifies
a UCLA offense that already featured Maurice Drew, just the 10th
1,000-yard rusher in school history, and All-American tight end Mercedes Lewis.
The defense – again – needs improving, but eight returning starters, including
All-American linebacker Spencer Havner – is a good base to start with. The
schedule calls for a bounce-back season, which is good news for Karl Dorrell,
who is just 12-13 in Westwood thus far. Both of his first two teams started fast
(6-2 in 2003 and 4-1 in 2004) only to fade. That won't happen again after the
Bruins post a signature victory over Oklahoma at home on September
19. Penn State…Joe Paterno probably never thought he'd live to see the Nittany Lions finish with losing records four times in any five year span. But he's not only lived long enough to see it, he's coached long enough to experience it first-hand. Just about every media member in Pennsylvania under the age of 50 wants him gone, his fan base is easily the most paranoid on the Internet, and he's even creating referee voodoo dolls and buying into kooky conspiracy theories. Yet, just when you thought senility was setting in, don't ever write off perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the sport. He has the best defense in the Big Ten, an end (mercilessly) to the Zack Mills soap opera, and a cream-puff schedule. Penn State will be back in a bowl, and could even be 6-0 heading into Ann Arbor on October 15th.
20. Texas Tech…The word we're looking for here is shameless. They may like everything big down in Texas, but the Red Raiders seem to be lacking in the testicular fortitude department considering the way they're scheduling. Taking sportsmanship to a new low even Bill Snyder hasn't yet reached, Texas Tech opens the season with three non-conference home games against Florida International (apparently Florida Atlantic had a prior engagement), Sam Houston State (they decided Stephen F. Austin was too tough), and Indiana State (make sure you go box-in-one on that Larry Bird guy). Please tell me fans aren't actually paying to watch these glorified scrimmages. It's too bad they're selling out, because the Red Raiders are starting to get very good. Another plug-n-play quarterback awaits to post video game numbers, Taurean Henderson might be the best all-purpose player not enrolled at USC, and the defense is finally beginning to emerge. If the Holiday Bowl blowout of California is any indication, a nine or even 10-win season isn't out of the question.
21. Iowa State…The last time Iowa State was ranked in the preseason poll was 1978. While the Cyclones are still a long-shot to be there when the preseason AP and Coaches Polls are released in a couple of weeks, they'll certainly receive more votes than they have in a long time. Ellis Hobbs will be tough to replace, but nearly the rest of a roster that finished with the second-best turnaround in college football in 2004 returns. The skill position players are young and gifted, led by sophomores Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe and junior Stevie Hicks. The defense is strong up the middle. Nick Leaders and Brent Curvey disrupt and clog the line of scrimmage, leaving linebacker Tim Dobbins free to make the arrest. Safeties Nik Moser and Steve Paris are the best duo in the Big 12. An added bonus could be the return of former Big 12 Freshman of the Year Jason Berryman. Dan McCarney is the reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year. Iowa and Colorado come to Jack Trice Stadium, and there's just one road game against a team that went bowling last season. There's a palpable sense that something special is brewing in Ames.
22. Pittsburgh…Not often does a coach get shown the door while leading his team to the BCS, but that's just what happened to Walt Harris. Oh, sure, he left for Stanford on his own. Right. In steps Dave Wannstedt, whose NFL coaching career yielded mixed results. Considered a high-character guy and defensive whiz, Wannstedt still posted a mediocre pro record with the Bears and Dolphins. But he does have a Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator for the Cowboys. Wannstedt immediately receives favorite son status as a homeboy in area replete with talent to recruit, and he inherits a pretty good team, too. Gutsy Tyler Palko guides an explosive and experienced offense. Some playmakers, other than H.B. Blades, need to be found on defense. The schedule is manageable, but opens with a bang against Notre Dame and a road game two weeks later at Nebraska, the school that really wanted to hire Wannstedt two years ago.
23. Texas A&M…This is another team whose ranking is negatively affected by factoring in the schedule. The Aggies have the kind of personnel it takes to be a contender. They have the senior, playmaking quarterback. They have weapons on the outside for him to throw to. They have the 1,000-yard rusher in Courtney Lewis. They have a still-improving defense that returns several talented youngsters. They have 17 starters and 48 lettermen returning. They have a big-time coach in Dennis Franchione. Unfortunately, what they also have are road games at Clemson, Colorado, Kansas State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma. Throw in home dates with bowl-winners Iowa State and Texas and you have the makings of the Big 12's toughest schedule. This team could be better than last year's 7-4 regular season campaign, and be fortunate to post the same record.
24. N.C. State…The Wolfpack were outstanding on defense last season, and pretty salty on special teams, too. So how did they finish 5-6? Defense may win championships, but it's offense that wins games. And N.C. State's offense last season was, well, downright offensive at times. The Wolfpack scored just 26 offensive touchdowns in 2004, and their inability to find a capable and consistent replacement for Phillip Rivers was the chief culprit. The heat is on senior Jay Davis and former prep stud Marcus Stone, who hasn't produced anything so far. The defense should be great again, especially the defensive line. And the offense can't be that bad again, can it? Besides, someone in the Atlantic Division has to take advantage of Florida State's miserable offseason.
25. Miami University…Again, all the talk in the MAC is about Toledo and Bowling Green. The Redhawks are used to that. They're also used to winning. Miami has a streak of 11-straight winning seasons, and that number will reach 12 in 2005. They're also in line for a third-consecutive bowl appearance for just the second time in the school's proud football history. Next man in at the cradle of coaches is Shane Montgomery, who replaces Terry Hoeppner, who took a step down in prestige by bolting for Indiana. Talking to some Miami people in the press box at the Independence Bowl, they were ecstatic about the news of Montgomery's promotion from offensive coordinator, and they should be. The last three years the Redhawk offense has averaged 32, 43, and 31.3 points per game under his tutelage. Look for big things from playmakers Ryne Robinson and Terna Nande, and for Miami to scare the heck out of Ohio State on September 3rd.
26. Florida State…A freshman quarterback pressed into duty and that's followed by the loss of one of the top cornerbacks in the country. And the season hasn't even started yet. FSU's run was impressive, but the Seminoles are beginning to fade.
27. California…J.J. Arrington is gone, but Marshawn Lynch could be better. Aaron Rodgers is gone, but Joseph Ayoob steps in as a JUCO All-American. The defense returns just three starters, but the workable schedule offsets that.
28. Boise State…The Broncos continue to rewrite the offensive record books with an exciting brand of football that is highly successful. College football's version of Gonzaga will make some noise again this fall, beginning with a road opener at Georgia.
29. Arizona State…This squad has the talent to be ranked in the top 25, but there are two intangibles to consider. First, how much will the tragic offseason be a distraction this fall? Second, can the Sun Devils handle road games with LSU, Washington State, and UCLA?
30. Toledo…The Rockets could soar back to the top of the MAC behind quarterback Bruce Gradkowksi and a 13-game home winning streak. Two road games – at Fresno State and Bowling Green – are all that stand between Toledo and a run at an undefeated season.
31. Boston College…Will the Eagles' transition to the ACC be as smooth as former Big East shipmate Virginia Tech's was last season? Probably not, but B.C. has been to six straight bowls under Tom O'Brien, and 14 returning starters means a seventh straight awaits.
32. Auburn…Losing four first round picks in the NFL draft is difficult for any school to overcome. The Tigers won't fall off the face of the Earth by any means, but this team will have to fight for a good bowl bid let alone a repeat SEC title.
33. UTEP…The Price is right in El Paso. Mike Price is making the most of the grace given to him by the Miners, and proving again his brand of wide-open offense can produce victories. This year the addition of UCLA transfer Tyler Ebell should provide more of a running game.
34. Bowling Green…Omar Jacobs, Charles Sharon, and P.J. Pope are the best set of triplets you've never heard of. However, a defense that allowed 119 points in the final three games must stiffen. Road games at Wisconsin, Boise State, and Miami University will be difficult.
35. Virginia…At some point all these great recruiting classes has to pay off for the Cavaliers, doesn't it? Big names like Wali Lundy, D'Brickshaw Ferguson, Kai Parham, and Ahmad Brooks are sprinkled throughout the two-deep. But where are the big wins?
36. Colorado…The Buffaloes love to get written off, and they certainly were last year before winning a third Big 12 North Division crown in four years. They can do it again if Joel Klatt is more consistent and a consistent workhorse is found at tailback.
37. Minnesota…Looking for an under-the-radar Heisman pick? Try Laurence Maroney on for size. He could be the first running back taken in the 2006 NFL draft, and is the most explosive runner in the Big Ten. Now, if he only had a defense to help him.
38. Washington State…The Cougars had won 28 games from 2001-03 before falling to 5-6 last season behind youth and injuries. They still have the second best Pac-10 record the past four years, behind only USC. This season they'll return to form behind Will Derting.
39. TCU…Another solid program that slipped last fall but will come back in 2005. The Horned Frogs are now in the Mountain West, a pass-happy league unprepared for their physical approach to the game. Expect a big season from Lonta Hobbs.
40. Michigan State…If this were a video game tournament the Spartans would be a chic pick. If he stays healthy, Drew Stanton might turn out to be the Big Ten's best quarterback, and he helms an explosive offense. But what about that defense?
41. Oregon…The Ducks are hoping a big senior season from quarterback Kellen Clemens will spark a turnaround. What stands in the way of that happening is a vulnerable defense that has allowed an average of 26.7 points per game the past three years.
42. Utah…It's a long way down for the Utes without Urban Meyer and Alex Smith, who each left early for greener (see that as dead presidents) pastures. Still, the road to the MWC title will go through Salt Lake City.
43. Missouri…Gary Pinkel is feeling the heat. Last year he had Brad Smith and one of the top defenses in the Big 12, and still finished 5-6. His personality doesn't win him many converts, either. But wins do, and maybe now he'll produce without the burden of expectations.
44. Notre Dame…New Coach Charlie Weiss returns a potentially potent offense with all 11 starters back, including Brady Quinn, Darius Walker, and Maurice Stovall. However, a young defense is ill-equipped to handle what could be the toughest schedule in the country: at Pittsburgh and at Michigan to open the season, Michigan State at home, at Washington (and don't think that Tyrone Willingham won't be ready for that one) and at Purdue, and home games with USC and Tennessee.
45. Maryland…After a 31-8 record to start his tenure in College Park, Ralph Friedgen's fourth season resembled most Maryland football seasons with its inconsistencies. The Terrapins return the fewest starters in the ACC, but we'll bet on Friedgen turning it around.
46. Clemson…Tommy Bowden is back on his semi-annual coaching hot seat. A 6-5 season climaxed by an ugly brawl against in-state rival South Carolina didn't endear him to his own administration. The taxing schedule might finally be Tommy's inevitable downfall.
47. Wyoming…The Cowboys have the most experienced returning in the MWC, and are coming off a rare bowl win for the school. I'd like to rank them higher, but two road games with SEC teams and three tough conference road trips prevents me from doing so.
48. Southern Mississippi…Year in and year out, this is one of the most unheralded yet solid programs in the country. Last season the defense was solid, but the offense was leaky. That could be the case again this fall. Watch out for road games at Houston and UAB.
49. Oklahoma State…There's money and talent in Stillwater, and a new coach as well. Mike Gundy, once a record-setting quarterback in the 1980s, is the new skipper, replacing Les Miles. He should have enough talent on hand to eke out a bowl bid.
50. UAB…The Blazers are coming off the school's first bowl appearance, and should be able to secure another this season provided quarterback Darrell Hackney stays healthy and duplicates last year's numbers without Roddy White to throw to.