1. USC – The Trojans defeated the Michigan Wolverines with the passing ability of QB Matt Leinart and the great protection he was getting from his offensive line, but this year the offensive line will be the key in the chase for another National Championship Season. The question this year is not at quarterback, but at wide receiver with the departures of Colbert and Williams (assuming he's not returning). The Trojans have three outstanding Running Backs in LenDale White, Hershel Dennis, and Reggie Bush who combined for over 1,900 yards rushing last year. These three pose a great threat and should give way to some big plays for the wide receivers. The defense will play a 4-3 and will have the ability to get to the ball quickly as they will be aggressive again this year. They have a favorable schedule this year with having the Cal Bears at home and not having to play the Oregon Ducks. Two games to watch are the Hokies to start the season on August 28 and in late October on the road at Washington State. If they can pull those two games out look for the Trojans to be back in the National Title game! This is the Trojans spot to lose!
2. Oklahoma – I would put this team number one with this talent, but they are coming of back to back loses in shocking defeats with both marking sub par and uninspiring performances. They do have 10 starters back this year with one of them being Heisman Trophy winner in QB Jason White. He had an outstanding year and does have all his wide receivers back for a run at a second Heisman! The Sooner's do not leave Norman until October but must visit Texas A&M, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State, while getting Texas in the early part of the month. This will give the Sooners the test they need as they make another run at the National Title game in Miami. There is no doubt that there is a void in the front seven, but this team will rely on the base 4-3 while throwing different looks to confuse the opponents offenses. Losing Lombardi Award winner Tommie Harris is a big problem for the Sooners, but Coach Stoops and his staff will juggle some of the great athletes around on this team to put a superior defense on the field.
3. Georgia – The Bulldogs have yet to put it all together, but one thing is for sure that is QB David Greene is very important to this team and there is so much talent at Georgia that it is tough to find a reason why the Dawgs can't make the Title game. QB David Greene is expected to be a Heisman Trophy candidate and will have the chance with 10 starters back on offense which is young but a solid nucleus on that offensive line again. The Bulldogs have yet to put all their talented pieces together as they purse the race to Miami, but as Coach Richt continues to learn how to manage that clock and handle coaching in big games, the race to the title might get interesting. He is 32-8 in his three seasons and it looks like their year to get the SEC Title for once, but a lot will depend on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder with his basic 4-3 gap scheme that is designed to create lanes for the faster defenders to get to the ball. This defense will start with defensive end David Pollack, who is a two time All-American, but must put together a solid defensive backfield after losing three starters from last years squad. They have LSU, Tennessee, and Florida at home, so if they can win those three look for the Bulldogs to be in Miami!
4. Miami (Fl) – The Hurricanes loose a lot of players to the NFL every year, but they continue to reload and this year will not be any exception. They have so much talent, but this team will hinge around QB Brock Berlin who had more interceptions than touchdowns last year. It will be interesting to see the different wrinkles that new offensive coordinator Dan Werner will add to this year's team. With two solid running backs in Frank Gore and Tyrone Moss look for a decent running game especially to the left side behind this year's All-American candidate in Eric Winston. Look for the defense to be more aggressive this year with a young Randy Shannon as the coordinator, because there is plenty of talent left and look for CB Antrel Rolle to have an outstanding season. The Hurricanes will get a test right out of the gate with the Seminoles at home, but first remember Miami did beat them twice last year and there is a reason that Head Coach Larry Coker is 35-3 in three seasons. Look for an ACC Title out of the Canes and a run to play at home for the National Title!
5. Florida State – Well they lost to the Hurricanes twice last year and have lost to them in five straight games now. There is no question that the game on September 6 is very important not only for the ACC Championship, but for the National Title picture. This is a must win for the Seminoles and we will find out if QB Chris Rix's can fight through the mistakes and his inconsistency to lead this team throughout the year. They return 9 offensive starters and have two solid running backs in Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker. The keys to the Seminoles success this season are going to be on defense where they will place emphasis on stopping the run and preventing big plays. They will play a lot of bump and run coverage with the return of three starters in the secondary. Coach Bowden will relinquish the offensive play calling, but this team will only go as far as QB Chris Rix will take them, so inconsistency will not defend their ACC crown. This team starts with the Canes on the road and ends with the Gators at home, so those are two great book end games!
6. Texas – The Longhorns are one of the most talented teams in the country and should make run at the National Title game, but we have all heard that before and RB Cedric Benson is serving eight days in jail this month. The Longhorns return 8 starters on offense with one of them being RB Cedric Benson and his 1,360 yards from last season. QB Vincent Young will be the starter, but when the Longhorns fall behind do not blink when Coach Brown turns to Chance Mock to save the day. There is a quarterback controversy in Austin, so this might hinder the Longhorns as they will try to end the four game losing streak to the Sooner's this year. Defensively Coach Brown has brought in a new coordinator in Greg Robinson who was part of two Super Bowl Championships in Denver and will stick to the 4-3 scheme, but look for more zone coverage's and blitz packages than Carl Reese ever employed. This team does not have many weaknesses, but wide receiver is one position where they must come up with some player to fill the void that Roy Williams left behind. Look for a solid year, but another loss to the Sooners!
7. Florida – It was a tough year for Coach Ron Zook, but a very young and talented team that is loaded with great players. With QB Chris Leak breaking out of a freshman season and putting together a decent season look for him to be on his way to a better sophomore season. Look for solid balance from this offense with two solid tailbacks in Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn who combined for over 1,100 yards on the ground last year. The have one of the best centers in the nation in Mike Degory and look for the success to come down to this years offensive line. Coach Zook changed offensive coordinators this past winter and the jury is still out, but one thing is for sure there is a lot of talent in Gainesville and Zook knows how to recruit. Defensively the biggest question mark is in the secondary and the schedule is not easy with Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, and than on the road at Florida State. After back to back five loss seasons Coach Zook needs to put together a solid season or he will begin to feel the hot seat!
8. LSU – They deserved to be National Champions last year, but with four tough games on the road at Auburn, Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas they will have the toughest schedule of any contender. QB Matt Mauck has departed, but Marcus Randall will step right in for offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher who bases everything off the power running game. Even though they lost two offensive starters they do have the best center in the country in Ben Wilkerson and look for RB Justin Vincent to take advantage of the left side of the line behind Wilkerson, Livings, and Whitworth. Coach Nick Saban is a defensive minded coach who will put the best speed out on the field to get to the ball and look for DE Marcus Spears to have an outstanding season. The loss of tackle Chad Lavalais and left end Marquise Hill who left early for the NFL will leave huge voids and the need to be filled. But Coach Saban thrives on his team to have the will to play with fire and emotion. Coach Saban is demanding, disciplined, and committed to do everything possible to win, so look for his team to show this desire on the field as they make another run at the National Title!
9. West Virginia – Say good bye to Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC and say hello to the BCS for the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers have a 12-2 conference record the past two seasons and have beaten four ranked opponents during that stretch. They are armed with tons of returning starters and should be in a BCS game this year. Coach Rich Rodriquez is an early architect of the spread offense the last four years and has found the players to fit that system. The Mountaineers are led by Senior quarterback Rasheed Marshall who not only can do it in the air, but also on the ground which is evident with 46 career rushing touchdowns. The offensive line will be better than last year and it is the same offensive line that only gave up 14 sacks. QB Marshall doesn't make many mistakes and will have great protection throughout this season. They are the big dogs of the Big East and will build on last years finish, winning seven out of their last eight games. They do have some tough games ahead of them with Maryland and Boston College at home, while traveling to play at Virginia Tech and UConn in back to back weeks. They need to get off to a fast start this year and not the 1-4 start they had last year, which should be possible with tons of starters returning.
10. California – With the best one two punch in the country with QB Aaron Rodgers and WR Geoff McArthur look for Head Coach Jeff Tedford to make great use of his options on offense. This might be the toughest offense to defend in the country and you can just ask the Trojans. This team keeps developing and improving every year, while it will have its first back to back winning seasons in a dozen years during the Tedford era. Cal was the only team to defeat USC last year in triple overtime and that will be the Bears toughest task again this year on the road in Los Angeles, but the Bears can't over look Oregon State on the road the week before. Defensively the Cal will play the 4-3 while focusing on stopping the run and not giving up big plays which killed them in games last year. They do return nine starters defensively and look for a more solid unit on defense with that experience. Cal won five of its last six games and look for a continued upward progression from this Cal Bear team!
11. Michigan – They won the Big Ten last year and should win it again this year without having Wisconsin or Penn State on the schedule. Look for QB Matt Gutierrez and RB David Underwood to come out of camp as the starters at those positions, while those two positions were the biggest question marks during the off season. The offensive line will be solid with the return of Baas, Stenavich, and Lentz up front, while Bihl will be the center of the unit creating holes for David Underwood throughout this season. This team will go as far as the rushing game will carry them with RB David Underwood or Jerome Jackson. You must be able to run the ball to win the Big Ten, but in the process the running game will also open up the passing lanes for WR Braylon Edwards and Company. WR Braylon Edwards must have a big year and step up as a leader of this offense while also making some big plays. Defensively look for a 3-4 with the key being around the two OLB's in Pierre Woods and LaMarr Woodley. The Secondary is the strength with Jackson, Shazor, and Curry, while watching out for Ryan Mundy to emerge as the starter at Free Safety. Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams how they cost some games last year and kept Michigan out of the National Title picture. They will be much more improved unit with Coach Mike DeBord as the new coordinator. If the Wolverines minimize the turnovers offensively, no mental errors on Special Teams, and can keep the opponents under 100 yards per game rushing they will be in the Title game. The Wolverines do have a tough task finishing the season at Ohio State, but there are two games not to over look in the process with San Diego State at home and Purdue on the road.
12. Auburn – Fifth year QB Jason Campbell is back and is at his best when he rolls out to throw on the move. With the two best running backs in the SEC in Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown this team is a sleeper to win the SEC West. The Tigers are installing the West Coast Offense, but don't kid yourself running the ball will remain high priority for this team come fall. Look for some shuffling up front to get the best five offensive linemen out there to block for those two backs and remember the Tigers play their best without any high expectations. The third game of the season will give them a test when LSU comes to town and with a game at home against Georgia, while finishing up with Alabama on the road. Defensively the front seven is the biggest question mark with some rebuilding needed after the loss of DeMarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson, and Reggie Torbor up front. Look for a lot of blitzing and some pressure packages that will disguise coverage's as the defense will have to stop the run, while playing this 4-3 style of defense.
13. Wisconsin – The Badgers are strong up front on both sides of the ball, so they have a chance to be pretty good team. The biggest question mark is who will be the starting quarterback come Kick-Off and it will determine how good this team will be come November. The starter will be either John Stocco or Matt Schabert with both of them being 6-2 and having a solid offensive line in front of them, while also having a decent running back in Anthony Davis. The Badgers love to pound the football with the running game, but with a solid WR core in Jonathan Orr, Darrin Charles, Brandon Williams, and Brandon White they pose a terrific threat to defenses. Defensively the Badgers must to deliver the big stop unlike last season. They will be much improved defensively and the defensive line will be their strength. The Badgers do not play Michigan or Indiana this year, but do have some tough road games as they travel to Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, and Iowa all in the same season. It will come down to the wire in the Big Ten this year and don't count the Badgers out, while remembering they were one of two teams to beat Ohio State last year!
14. Ohio State – There is nothing flashing about the Buckeyes, but they lost too many starters to make a serious run at the National Title. Coach Jim Tressel loves the grinding of the ground attack and has the two backs in Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall to get that done during this years challenge for the Big Ten Title. The biggest question mark will be at quarterback where it's finally Justin Zwick's turn to be the leader of this offensive unit. This Buckeye offense will only go as far as he can carry them, but they will have to reload up front on the offensive line with the departures of Clarke, Stepanovich, and Olivea. It's going to take some time for this offense to gel, but the defensive for the Buckeye's is what keeps them in the games. Their linebackers are very special and probably the best in the country with AJ Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Mike D'Andrea, and transfer Anthony Schlegel, while the Buckeye secondary is solid unit with Fox, Whitner, Salley, and Underwood. The Buckeye's not only lost players to graduation, but also two juniors in Will Allen and Chris Gamble to the NFL. On special teams Mike Nugent is back and is the best kicker in the Big Ten, while true freshman CB/WR Ted Ginn will see some action this year too. They will not be in the Title game come the end of the year, but they could make some waves throughout the season. They must travel to NC State, Iowa, and Michigan State, while also keeping in mind of that great rivalry game on November 20 in Columbus, Ohio.
15. Purdue – The Boilermakers have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Kyle Orton. The Boilermakers will still be in a one-back, four wide set that spreads the opposing teams out, but one thing Coach Joe Tiller will do every year is add a wrinkle or two to the offense. This veteran offense is going to need to score a lot of points this season, because the Boilermakers will have a young defense on the field. The Boilermakers will only go as far as this retooled defense will take them through the season, so look out for some shootouts with what Coach Tiller calls basketball on grass. Defensively they play with speed and will also rely on two junior college transfers to contribute heavily as they open the season Syracuse at home. For the Boilermakers to win the Big Ten they are going to need to put 34 points a game on the board, so only time will tell how far this young defense can carry them through the Big Ten Challenge!
16. Utah – The Mountain West Conference champions last year and they will be again this year! Just because they are not in a BCS conference doesn't mean they aren't any good. QB Alex Smith will lead this spread offense again and will probably win the league offensive player of the year. This is a solid offense with talented wide receivers around him in Paris Warren, Travis LaTendresse, and Steve Savoy. The biggest question is who the running back for this Utes team is going to be after camp? One thing we do know is one of the five candidates will win the job during two-a-days. The Utes defense has led the MWC in scoring the past four out of five seasons and it will likely happen again with a strong core of last years defense coming back. Meyer was named National Coach of the year by the Sporting News and it will not be much longer until he moves on to his next job with it most likely being Notre Dame. He has done an outstanding job and look for a big win at home this year against Texas A&M to start the season!
17. Iowa – The Hawkeye's were able to shut down the Gators with a 37-17 victory in front of a capacity crowd at Raymond James Stadium last season, but this year they don't have the offense to put up 37 points a game. The Hawkeye's are going to go as far as this defense will take them, but there is on thing about the Hawkeye's, they will always be fundamentally sound and a physical football team. This defense will not have to gamble or take chances out of this 4-3 alignment, but with a strong secondary, linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway they will be solid up the middle. The Hawkeye's are going to need the defense to show up strong, while the offense takes time to develop. Coach Ferentz needs to develop QB Drew Tate early on and hope that he turns out to be a playmaker. While this team might win 8 or 9 games this year they will not win the Big Ten Title, so success is very important in the early non-conference games. With dates on the road in back to back weeks at Arizona State and Michigan it is not a good sign for the Hawkeye's in the third and fourth game of the year.
18. Kansas State– It is always hard to predict how well a team will fare with an untested quarterback, but with possibly the best running back in the country in Darren Sproles don't be surprised to see the Wildcats pull things together. Darren Sproles is only 5'7" and 180 lbs. but he keeps his legs moving while finding ways to scoot through the wholes quickly before they close. Don't be surprised to see Mr. Sproles as a Heisman candidate! The backup RB is a transfer from Florida State named Thomas Clayton and both will have a solid line up front to block for them. Defensively they are aggressive, while being led by defensive coordinator Bob Elliott, who is one of the best coordinators in the college football. The secondary loves to play man to man coverage, which is why losing three defensive linemen is going to be important to replace. Getting kids involved quickly to find out what the rotation will be during two-a-days is a priority. If quarterback Dylan Meier can get the job done this year look at Kansas State to make a run at the Big 12 Title!
19. Missouri – They have a great schedule to start the season and with senior QB Brad Smith the game plan will be simple, which is to let him create opportunities. The offensive scheme is based around him with shotguns, draws, slants, and rolling out. He is a field general, but will be working behind a rebuilt offensive line with only one returning starter. Coach Gary Pinkel has done an outstanding job with the Tigers by improving every year that he has been the head coach and with quarterback Brad Smith anyone is beatable on any given Saturday. The Tiger defense is the key to this year's team and by playing a traditional 4-3 with pinching up front it forces action in the middle of the field, while in passing situations going to a 4-2-5 most of the time defensively. The Tigers create a lot of turnovers and had 24 in 2003, while only giving up the ball 13 times, which is the least of any team in the nation. Coach Pinkel will do anything to protect the ball, even if it means to play conservatively. If the defense can hold up they will make a run in the Big 12 North Division.
20. Clemson – Coach Tommy Bowden was on the hot seat last year, but with a fast finish that included wins over South Carolina, Florida State, and Tennessee they were one of the hottest team in the country last year. Now with Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and the same spread offense that frustrates defenses with the no huddle approach, this team could end up anywhere, but we do know that they will be in a bowl game for the sixth straight year. The line play will determine the success of this team on both sides of the ball with only one returning starter up front on defense and two new tackles on offense. Defensively they have one of the best duo's in Tye Hill and Justin Miller, while trying to get eight men in the box all game long by putting pressure on the Quarterback and the running game. Offensively if they can get the wide receivers to come up with some big plays and prove themselves this year the on both sides of the ball this team could have great potential. Watch out for this team, because they have a chance to make some waves in the ACC. Keep in mind that they play three games on the road in a row in September at Texas A&M, Florida State, and Virginia, while also going on the road in November to Miami, Fla.
21. Memphis – Another Tiger team that might have the best offense in the South. It uses a wide open attack, but can still run the football. They have a great schedule without having to play TCU and with Southern Miss, Louisville, and Houston at home. The Tigers are trying to put together back to back nine win seasons so they can stay at home and play in the Liberty Bowl. The tigers are loaded on offense with QB Danny Wimprine and RB DeAngelo Williams plus the return of the entire offensive line gives them the best 1-2 punch in the conference. The fate of this team will be on the shoulders of the defense and the coordinator Joe Lee Dunn as he will play the 3-3-5 scheme. This is a tough scheme to prepare for, because there are so many options out of this defensive set. This is the main reason while they finished ninth nationally with only giving up 295.8 yards a game and 29% of third down conversions respectively. If the defense can find ways to force some more turnovers this year and by getting Albert Means more active on the defensive line they should be able to improve that ratio. Solid team, well coached, and will be a force this season, so watch them as the open the season on the road at Mississippi.
22. Nebraska – A massive change in Cornhusker land, but Callahan will call the plays offensively now with coordinator Jay Norvell as his assistant. Coach Callahan only kept two coaches from the prior staff, but look for a new offense that will feature short controlled passes with a lot of balance in the running game in many different ways. There will be more passing in one season than there was in a decade in Lincoln, Nebraska, but the biggest question mark will be if Coach Callahan has the personnel to run this offense style and to top it off they will have a new quarterback to start the season. Defensively Callahan brought in Kevin Cosgrove from Wisconsin as the coordinator, which will be the Cornhuskers third coordinator in the last three years. The Huskers will extend their bowl streak to 36 years, but don't look for a Big 12 Championship.
23. UCLA – A rough season for first year Coach Karl Dorrell, but with some coaching changes and experience at quarterback with Drew Olsen, running back with Manuel White, and wide receiver with Craig Bragg this Bruin team has some potential. The offensive line is the biggest question mark, while giving up 51 sacks last year, but should improve and have a more solid unit up front with two fifth year starters. The Bruins must start the season fast with Oklahoma State, Illinois, Washington, and San Diego State in four consecutive games. Defensively there were solid with the third best defense in the PAC-10 last year and will play an aggressive 4-3 with the linebackers being the strength of this team. Look for solid special teams and an overall much improved Bruin team as they open the season against Oklahoma State in the Rose Bowl.
24. Toledo – The Rockets might run the spread offense better than any team in the country and Coach Tom Amstutz will continue to run it well with quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in control and running the offense. There will be three new offensive linemen up front, but with the quick passing attack and a solid running game that spreads you all over the field they should be very effective again offensively this year. The defensive unit will play with an attitude, while playing relentless attacking defense with heavy pursuit to the ball and full of a lot of intensity. If the Rockets can continue to improve defensively and get a pass rush they will not have to outscore their opponent every game like they did last year. The Rockets have one of the best records the past four years going 37-12, which will continue this year and look for them to be the MAC Champions. The Rockets will get a great test to start the season with their first three games being on the road and one of them being Minnesota in the season opener.
25. Virginia – What an outstanding job Coach Al Groh has done with this program and look for continued success this year. The quarterback will be Marques Hagans and they will continue to throw to the tight ends and running backs to stretch the opponent's defense. The defense improves every year while defensive coordinator Al Golden uses the 3-4 scheme with heavy use of nickel and dime packages throughout the year. This gives the Cavalier defense the flexibility to use a lot of different stuff and with a front seven that matches up with anyone in the country this defense is capable of being top notch. The Cavaliers are going to need a solid year offensively and especially out of the quarterback position for this team to make a run in the ACC which will not be an easy task with both Florida State and Virginia Tech on the road.
Others to watch:
29. Fresno State
30. Virginia Tech
34. Oklahoma State
36. Washington State
38. San Diego State
39. Arizona State
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