Bucknuts Mag Excerpts: Steve Helwagen's Top 25

Last week, we hit you with some staff predictions of this year's Buckeye team. This week, we have Bucknuts managing editor Steve Helwagen's look at the national scene with his preseason top 25 and BCS projections. This is an article reprinted in its entirety from the current issue of Bucknuts the Magazine, which you can find on newsstands throughout the state of Ohio in the coming days. Read on to see the top 25.

As part of the redesign of the Bucknuts.com web site, we have added an area where we can publish excerpts from Bucknuts The Magazine. Each week, we will put in a new excerpt from the latest edition of Bucknuts The Magazine.

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Our current issue of Bucknuts continues with the preseason preview talk started in the summer issue, and one of the features was Steve Helwagen's preseason top 25. Who are Steve's BCS picks? Where are the Buckeyes? Read on...

Headline: USC, Tennessee To Smell The Roses?

By Steve Helwagen

The winds of change have been blowing across the landscape of college football – that is, except for the team favored to win it all.

Two-time defending champion Southern California is being picked by anybody and everybody making preseason predictions to go where no team has gone, at least since the inception of The Associated Press poll in 1936. Nine teams have won two straight national titles, but none of them were able to pull off the three-peat.

But USC, with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at the controls, is the unanimous preseason pick to make it three in a row.

As we said, though, that is about the only thing that is expected to stay the same in 2005. There were 23 coaching changes after last season. Steve Spurrier is in at South Carolina, Charlie Weis is new at Notre Dame, Urban Meyer takes over at Florida, Les Miles is the new kid in town at LSU, Walt Harris moves on to Stanford and Dave Wannstedt settles in at Pittsburgh. Tyrone Willingham, late of Notre Dame, was out of work just a few days before moving right in at Washington.

Some 18 schools have switched conference affiliation since last year. Boston College's move from the Big East to the ACC allows the ACC to stage its first-ever conference championship game. Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati all left Conference USA to help energize the depleted Big East.

TCU fled C-USA for the Mountain West. But C-USA also did some raiding, pulling Marshall and Central Florida from the MAC as well as Rice, SMU, Tulsa and UTEP from the WAC. C-USA will be staging its own title game as well this year.

And, for good measure, there have been and will continue to be wholesale changes with the Bowl Championship Series format.

The notable difference this year is the absence of The Associated Press poll from the selection criteria. The AP pulled its poll, leaving the BCS to contract with Harris Interactive Polling to establish, yes, you guessed it, a new poll of media members as well as former coaches, players and administrators. That poll will be merged with the USA Today coaches poll – which ESPN dropped its sponsorship of – and a computer poll component to decide the championship game opponents for the BCS.

The BCS, itself, will be revamped (again) in 2006, when a fifth BCS bowl game is added. The bowl selected to host the championship game each year will host a second game a week earlier, giving two more teams each year access to the BCS. The Fox network will also televise all BCS games – except the Rose Bowl, which will stay on ABC – beginning next year. This new deal forestalls a playoff through at least the 2009 season.

OK, the top two teams in this year's BCS standings will meet in the Rose Bowl Jan. 4.

Below you will find my preseason top 25. I have used our popular Bucknuts.com preseason consensus poll as a guide in constructing my own top 25.

It is notable that I have tabbed USC and Tennessee to finish 1-2 at the end of the regular season and I have them projected to square off in the Rose Bowl.

I have six Big Ten teams in my top 25. But the SEC may be the toughest league with five of my top 15. The revamped ACC as well as the Pac-10 and Big 12 each have three teams.

In terms of which weekend may be the best this season, I like the Sept. 10 weekend. That day you will have Arizona State-LSU, Iowa-Iowa State, Notre Dame-Michigan, and it's topped off by Texas-Ohio State. Another big weekend will be Oct. 8, with Iowa-Purdue, Ohio State-Penn State, Oklahoma-Texas and Georgia-Tennessee.

At any rate, here is my preseason top 25, followed by my BCS projections:

1. USC (13-0 last year) – Heisman winner Matt Leinart is back at QB, while star RB Reggie Bush also returns. The schedule sets up well – other than a road trip to Arizona State. This is clearly still the team to beat, even with an offensive coaching shake-up. Key Games: Oct. 1, at Arizona State; Oct. 15, at Notre Dame; Nov. 12, at California.

2. Tennessee (10-3) – RB Gerald Riggs will take some of the heat off sophomore QB Erik Ainge. The Vols also have nine starters back on what may be the best defense in the country. Key Games: Sept. 17, at Florida; Sept. 24, at LSU; Oct. 8, vs. Georgia.

3. Ohio State (8-4) – Do-it-all WR/PR Ted Ginn Jr. is back, as is hard hitting LB A.J. Hawk. Road trips to Penn State and Michigan loom large. Key Games: Sept. 10, vs. Texas; Sept. 24, vs. Iowa; Nov. 19, at Michigan.

4. Texas (11-1) – QB Vince Young is a handful. The Longhorns need – desperately – to end their five-game losing streak to Oklahoma. But they must visit Ohio State first. Key Games: Sept. 10, at Ohio State; Oct. 8, vs. Oklahoma (at Dallas); Nov. 25, at Texas A&M.

5. Oklahoma (12-1) – The Sooners may take a half-step back, although stud RB Adrian Peterson will probably keep going forward. Key Games: Oct. 8, vs. Texas (at Dallas); Oct. 29, at Nebraska; Nov. 12, vs. Texas A&M.

6. Florida (7-5) – Urban Meyer is the new sheriff in Gainesville. He hopes to elevate QB Chris Leak to the next level and put the Gators back on top in the SEC. Key Games: Sept. 17, vs. Tennessee; Oct. 15, at LSU; Oct. 29, vs. Georgia (at Jacksonville).

7. Michigan (9-3) – QB Chad Henne and RB Michael Hart are back as sophs after sensational freshman debuts. Key Games: Sept. 10, vs. Notre Dame; Oct. 1, at Michigan State; Nov. 19, vs. Ohio State.

8. Virginia Tech (10-3) – QB Marcus Vick is back after his one-year sojourn. Playing Miami (Fla.) at home could be the key to an ACC Coastal title. Key Games: Nov. 5, vs. Miami (Fla.); Nov. 19, at Virginia.

9. Louisville (11-1) – The high scoring Cardinals walk right in and are already the best team in the Big East. QB Brian Brohm steps into the lineup. A BCS bowl is the next step for Bobby Petrino's program on the rise. Key Games: Oct. 15, at West Virginia; Nov. 3, vs. Pittsburgh.

10. LSU (9-3) – Les Miles takes over for Nick Saban in Baton Rouge. Sophomore QB JaMarcus Russell is a star on the rise. Key Games: Sept. 24, vs. Tennessee; Oct. 15, vs. Florida; Oct. 22, vs. Auburn.

11. Florida State (9-3) – Can you believe FSU hasn't finished better than 11th in the last four years? Uncertainty at QB – with Wyatt Sexton out – hurts the Seminoles. Key Games: Sept. 5, vs. Miami (Fla.); Nov. 5, vs. N.C. State; Nov. 26, at Florida.

12. Miami (Fla.) (9-3) – Kyle Wright takes over at QB. The 'Canes regroup after a three-loss debut season in the ACC. Key Games: Sept. 5, at Florida State; Nov. 5, at Virginia Tech.

13. Purdue (7-5) – QB Brandon Kirsch takes over for Kyle Orton. The Boilers get a break by missing OSU and Michigan. Key Games: Oct. 1, vs. Notre Dame; Oct. 8, vs. Iowa; Oct. 22, at Wisconsin.

14. Georgia (10-2) – The Bulldogs pin their hopes on QB D.J. Shockley. Eight starters return on defense, led by FS Greg Blue. Key Games: Oct. 8, at Tennessee; Oct. 29, vs. Florida (at Jacksonville); Nov. 12, vs. Auburn.

15. Auburn (13-0) – Last year's uncrowned champs press on without star RBs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Coach Tommy Tuberville's job is safe for now. Watch out for that defense. Key Games: Oct. 22, at LSU; Nov. 12, at Georgia; Nov. 19, vs. Alabama.

16. Penn State (4-7) – Just when you think Joe Paterno should go, he could spring a surprise on the Big Ten – provided Anthony Morelli or Michael Robinson steps up at QB. The defense is stellar. Key Games: Oct. 8, vs. Ohio State; Oct. 15, at Michigan; Oct. 29, vs. Purdue.

17. Texas A&M (7-5) – QB Reggie McNeal wants big things for his senior year. The third year could be the charm for Dennis Franchione. Key Games: Oct. 29, vs. Iowa State; Nov. 12, at Oklahoma; Nov. 25, vs. Texas.

18. Fresno State (9-3) – Bowl win over Virginia gives the Bulldogs and returning QB Paul Pinegar plenty of validation. Hosting Boise State may be the key to Fresno's first WAC title since 1999. Key Games: Sept. 17, at Oregon; Nov. 10, vs. Boise State; Nov. 19, at USC.

19. Arizona State (9-3) – QB Sam Keller stepped in for the injured Andrew Walter late last year. He'll be the man this year, and the Sun Devils could be a force in the Pac-10. Key Games: Sept. 10, at LSU; Oct. 1, vs. USC; Nov. 26, vs. Arizona.

20. Iowa (10-2) – Can the Hawkeyes sustain their recent success? QB Drew Tate and LBs Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge would say yes. Key Games: Sept. 10, at Iowa State; Sept. 24, at Ohio State; Oct. 22, vs. Michigan.

21. Boise State (11-1) – Louisville ruined BSU's unbeaten season at the Liberty Bowl. Coach Dan Hawkins is armed with a five-year deal and is content on the blue field. QB Jared Zabransky returns. Key Games: Sept. 3, at Georgia; Sept. 21, vs. Bowling Green; Nov. 10, at Fresno State.

22. California (10-2) – Jeff Tedford must find new weapons for his futuristic offense. The Bears miss Arizona State in the Pac-10. Key Games: Oct. 8, at UCLA; Nov. 12, vs. USC.

23. Michigan State (5-7) – A healthy Drew Stanton at QB could spell problems for the Big Ten. The Spartans owe Michigan after last year's 3-OT loss. Key Games: Sept. 17, at Notre Dame; Oct. 1, vs. Michigan; Oct. 15, at Ohio State.

24. Pittsburgh (8-4) – Dave Wannstedt returns to his alma mater. He'll try and maintain what Walt Harris built. QB Tyler Palko led the Panthers to their first BCS bowl game a year ago. Key Games: Sept. 3, vs. Notre Dame; Sept. 17, at Nebraska; Nov. 3, at Louisville.

25. Bowling Green (9-3) – QB Omar Jacobs is one of the game's best. Gregg Brandon is 20-6 in two years at the helm. Key Games: Sept. 3, at Wisconsin; Sept. 21, at Boise State; Nov. 15, at Miami (Ohio).

Others To Consider

Here are 17 more schools, listed in no particular order, to keep an eye on in 2005: Texas Tech, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Alabama, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Nebraska, N.C. State, Minnesota, Utah, Colorado, Miami (Ohio), UCLA, UTEP and Notre Dame.

BCS Projections

Obviously, I am looking at USC and Tennessee in the Rose Bowl. That means the Sugar Bowl will lose the SEC representative.

In placing the "automatic berths," I have Big East champion Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and Big 12 champion Texas in the Fiesta. That leaves Ohio State, my pick in the Big Ten, and Big East champion Louisville to be placed.

The Sugar Bowl, in my scenario, will go off the board for a strong territorial draw with Oklahoma. The Orange Bowl would then grab Ohio State to face Virginia Tech. The Fiesta Bowl will look at Louisville, Florida and Michigan and take UM to meet Texas. That would leave Oklahoma to meet Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

That's how I see it. Whatever happens, we know this will be another great year for college football.

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