College Football Preview 2002 - Part 1

Today is part one of my college football preview -- a shot at ranking the top ten teams.

This year, college football should be exciting once again.  There should be a lot of parity, and no team jumps out yet as one that will be dominant and run the table.  This is part one of my preseason preview --  a look at my personal preseason top ten.  

WR Andre Johnson (Allsport photo) hoists the Sears Trophy... can they do it again?

1. Miami - Coming into this, I said to myself, "They lost McKinnie, Shockey, Portis, Buchannon, Rumph, Reed, Davenport, Bibla, Gonzalez... how can Miami be #1?"  I was all prepared to crown someone else as the preseason #1.  However, after looking at what the teams return, there was no denying the Hurricanes' talent.  Yes, the entire starting secondary is gone, but enough is here to make a successful title defense.

Last year, when the Miami offense was clicking, they could do whatever they wanted and there was nothing any defense could do about it.  This year, on paper, the offense might not be quite as good, but it will still be potent.  It all starts with returning Heisman finalist Ken Dorsey.  Dorsey's about as proven of a QB as you'll find in college football.  He'll have a fine group of WRs to throw to in Andre Johnson, Kevin Beard, Jason Geathers, and Ethnic Sands, and at TE, you'll find a familiar name -- Kellen Winslow, Jr. --  to replace Jeremy Shockey.  At RB, Clinton Portis is gone, but there was no worry because standout sophomores Willis McGahee and Frank Gore were lined up to fill the void.  But Gore might have to wait a while as he suffered a torn ACL in spring practice.  Jarrett Payton will step in for now.  The offensive line won't be as good as it was last year, but it should still be strong as center Brett Romberg and G Sherko Haji-Rasouli are returning starters and the talented Vernon Carey and Carlos Joseph move up to fill in at tackle. 

On defense, the first thing that comes to mind is how the secondary was cleaned out by the NFL draft.  CBs Phillip Buchannon and Mike Rumph and S Ed Reed were all first-round draft picks.  So Miami will have to hope that their pool of talent can produce a new secondary.  However, the front seven will not be a question mark as six starters return there.  We like to talk a lot about how the Ohio State defensive line is one of the nation's best; well, if they want to claim that spot, the Miami line is one of the units they will be going up against for that title.  The standout is DT William Joseph, who will be a first-round NFL draft pick.  DEs Jerome McDougle and Andrew Williams are back as is DT Matt Walters.  Also watch for potential blue-chip DT Vince Wilfork as well.  At LB, the Hurricanes bring back two familiar faces in D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma. 

The Hurricanes' biggest obstacle might not be finding a new secondary... it might be the schedule.  With road games at Florida, Tennessee, and Syracuse, and contests against Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, it will be tough for the Canes to go undefeated again.  But they might not need to as it will be tough for any team to go unbeaten this year.

So overall, I can't ignore the amount of talent on this team.  They aren't #1 by a wide margin, but I give them the nod right now.  

2. Florida State - I was very tempted to put Florida State as my preseason #1.  They are talented as always, and they are hungry to prove that last year's season (where they only won eight games) was an aberration.  With seventeen returning starters and an offense that could be one of the nation's best, they have the potential to bounce back in a big way. 

Returning QB Chris Rix should help guide FSU to a much better season. (Allsport)

The offense will be led once again by Chris Rix, who should continue to develop into a strong QB.  The QB position was an issue early last year as someone had to replace the great Chris Weinke, and Rix, who was only a redshirt freshman, was thrust into the role.  He is expected to be just fine this year.  It won't hurt that he'll have one of the nation's top offensive lines as all five starters return from last year's unit, including possibly the nation's top offensive lineman in Brett Williams.  There will also be a great 1-2 punch at TB in Greg Jones and Nick Maddox, and between Cro Thorpe, Talman Gardner, Anquan Boldin, and Robert Morgan, Rix should have no problem finding targets.

Defensively, the Seminoles were not your usual Seminoles last year, but they should be improved this year.  Six starters return in the front seven, led by All-American candidate Darnell Dockett at DT.  Kendyll Pope, Michael Boulware and Jerel Hudson should make for a fine group of LBs.  At DB, The Seminoles lost a couple of starters, most notably Chris Hope, and improvement needs to be seen in this area this year. 

Florida State's schedule definitely contains some bumps in the highway as there are road games at Miami, Maryland, NC State, Georgia Tech, and Louisville as well as home games against Notre Dame and Florida.  But this is a team that has the ability to make it through that schedule to the Fiesta Bowl.  There are a couple of questions to be answered defensively, but this team looks pretty good on paper.  In all likelihood, you will not see another 8-win season out of Florida State in 2002.

3. Texas - Sigh.  There's really no need to go into what's been going on with Texas lately as they are the team who has taken on the role of yearly underachiever.  Last year was especially fitting as the table was set up perfectly for them to get to the national championship game, but they couldn't get it done.  For that reason, I thought I wouldn't be rating them this high.  But I can't ignore the potential of this team, which -- while I don't like it better than Miami and Florida State -- I think is higher than any team I have ranked below them.

It starts on offense, which will be explosive if Chris Simms can be consistent.  The oft-maligned Simms will have a chance to redeem himself this year, and he'll have plenty of firepower to do it with.  The wideouts are the best around as Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas are back.  Cedric Benson returns at RB after rushing for over 1000 yards as a freshman.  Benson has the look of an NFL back and should be one of the best if he stays healthy.  Benson also appeared to be in trouble for a moment as he faced marijuana charges, but the charges have since been dropped due to lack of evidence.  Bo Scaife is back at TE.  The OL might be an issue; there will be a big void left by Mike Williams, who was picked fourth in the NFL draft this year.  But it isn't hopeless as there is some talent to build upon.

DE Cory Redding could be the Big 12's top defensive player. (Allsport)

On defense, the leader is DE Cory Redding, an All-American candidate.  Two other starters return on a Texas DL that looks to be stacked once the fabulous recruiting class arrives.  Starters must be replaced at LB, but watch for true sophomore Derrick Johnson to continue to become a star after a standout debut season.  Another high NFL draft pick (Quentin Jammer) must be replaced in the secondary, and fortifying that secondary seems to be UT's primary task on defense. 

Schedule-wise, there are a couple of challenges.  The Longhorns have a cake out-of-conference schedule, and in-conference, they get a break as they host what should be a tough A&M squad, but they have Oklahoma at a neutral site and also must travel to Nebraska, Kansas State and Texas Tech.

Will this be the year that Texas breaks through and plays for all the marbles instead of playing in the Holiday Bowl?  I am guessing not quite, but a Big 12 title and/or a BCS berth is attainable.

4. Oklahoma - Speaking of teams that had the table set to get a shot at the national title game, Oklahoma was just that last year until that fateful day in November.  Everyone (except Buckeye fans, who think of the last weekend of last season as 26-20 weekend) looks back at that weekend and remembers that thrashing that Colorado laid on Nebraska, but I think that Oklahoma losing at home to lowly Oklahoma State may have been an even bigger shocker.  This year, Oklahoma hopes to bounce back and get back to the national title game.

DT Tommie Harris is going to be a star! (Allsport)

Offensively, there are a lot of familiar faces.  Jason White, Nate Hybl and Brent Rawls are the QBs, and White is expected to be the man this year.  He'll have lots of experience at the skill positions as Quentin Griffin is back at RB as are WRs Antoine Savage and Curtis Fagan as well as likely All-American TE Trent Smith.  The offensive line might be an issue though as only two starters return.

On defense, the Sooners will miss stars Roy Williams and Rocky Calmus, but they are expected to be tough once again.  True sophomore Tommie Harris is a star in the making and is expected to become a household name.  Three starters return in the secondary.  One of the only questions seems to be how they will fill in for Calmus at LB.

When it comes to their schedule, Oklahoma shouldn't be too upset.  They have a very manageable out-of-conference schedule, and if they can win the showdown with Texas and a road game at Texas A&M, the rest of the games should be wins.  So far, Oklahoma has the easiest road to the Fiesta Bowl out of these top 6 teams.  You have to expect that they'll be right in the thick of things this year.

5. Tennessee - I hate the Tennessee Volunteers.  I hate Rocky Top.  I hate the cars and trucks that drive around with ugly orange T stickers in their windows.  And I was all set to rank them lower than everyone else has them, because how can a team lose over half of their starters -- three of whom were first-round draft picks -- and be the #5 team in America?  I didn't think they could be, but after looking at what returns, they just might.

QB Casey Clausen is back and is the leader of what could be a fine offense. (Allsport)

On offense, the Vols should be able to score some points.  QB Casey Clausen is back once again to lead the charge, and he'll have star WR Kelly Washington to throw to for at least one more season as Washington surprised most people by coming back for another year.  The Vols need to replace Travis Stephens at RB, but with Jabari Davis and Cedric Houston, they should be able to find someone to step up.  Leonard Scott brings experience at the other WR spot, and Jason Witten is a fine TE.  The offensive line should be good, especially if Mike Munoz is 100%.  

On defense, there is an issue up front as the Vols need to replace stars John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth and Will Overstreet.  There will be four new starters there.  But three starters return in the secondary and two at LB, and most are expecting this to be a solid defense.

The schedule isn't easy, but Tennessee gets their two toughest games -- Florida and Miami -- at home.  Road games include Georgia and South Carolina.  If Tennessee can win those four, it could be Fiesta Bowl time. 

However, it's very tough for anyone to go unbeaten in the SEC, and I think Tennessee will slip up somewhere at least once.  But this is a quality team that should be in the top ten all year, and if things go right, they could be competing for all the marbles.

Ron Zook comes to UF as the new head coach. (Allsport)

6. Florida - Florida is the last of this year's "Super Six."  By that, I mean there are probably six teams that stand out from the others as national title contenders, and after that, there's a drop-off and a lot of parity.  UF brings back a lot of talent, but a lot of talent left as well.  Oh, and there is that coaching issue...

Yes, you'll hear it a lot this year as the Gators try to go at it without Steve Spurrier.  The hiring of Ron Zook brought laughter and glee from Gator haters and outrage from many of the Gator faithful.  But it's the Gators who may laugh last because they are going to be able to put up a fight this year.  Heisman finalist Rex Grossman returns at QB to lead the traditionally high-powered UF offense.  This year though, WR is a question mark as Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell are now NFL WRs, and a couple of people are going to need to step up.  Taylor Jacobs is the WR with the most experience, and he should get one spot.  Carlos Perez, Kelvin Kight and Reggie Vickers will be among the competitors. At RB, Earnest Graham is back.  The OL returns three starters but must replace Mike Pearson, who left early for the NFL.

Defensively, there could be some question marks.  Three out of four starters are gone from the secondary, and there is work to do there.  Both DEs need to be replaced as does the MLB spot.  At DT though, Ian Scott and Tron LaFavor are good and Bam Hardmon is a quality LB as well.  The cupboard is not bare on defense, but there are holes to be filled for sure.

The schedule is not easy.  Road games include Florida State, Tennessee, and Ole Miss, with home games against LSU, Auburn and South Carolina and the Cocktail Party against UGa.  If the Gators are going to win the SEC, they're going to have to earn it. 

Florida is going to be one of the biggest stories this year as everyone will be watching to see how Ron Zook performs in his first year.  Will he shock the world and win it all?  Or will the Gators go down the tubes?  My guess is that it will fall somewhere in between, but don't expect the Gators to lose their bite just yet.

7. Colorado - First off, once you get to this point in the rankings, there seems to be a bit of a drop-off, and the next few teams are all very close to one another.  But I like Colorado by a slight edge here because of the power running game it brings to the table, which might be the best in America this year.

Chris Brown leads what should be a strong running attack. (Allsport)

Last year, things did not start out well for Colorado.  They lost to Fresno State early and some fans were calling for Gary Barnett's head.  But things turned around in a very big and unexpected way as the Buffaloes began to buffalo their opponents, and then at the end of the season, they destroyed Nebraska and topped Texas to win the Big 12 crown.  This year, expectations are high.  With three starters back on the offensive line and Chris Brown, Marcus Houston and Bobby Purify back at RB, the Buffs are expected to have a great running game again.  The talented Craig Ochs returns at QB along with Derek McCoy at WR, so running won't be all the Buffs are able to do on offense, although they will need to come up with a TE to fill in for NFL first-rounder Daniel Graham.

Defensively, CU lost a couple of good ones in DB Michael Lewis and LB Jashon Sykes, but they return seven starters.  The front seven should be solid; watch for LB Sean Tufts to possibly emerge as one of the Big 12's better LBs. 

Colorado will have to earn its way back to the Big 12 title game though.  The two games that jump out are road games at Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Nebraska will be itching for some payback after last year's game.  The Buffs also have Texas Tech and Kansas State at home and a tricky non-conference schedule that includes a road game at UCLA and home games against USC and Colorado State. 

It will be difficult for Colorado to repeat the success of 2001.  They have the ability, but that schedule has some major hurdles to clear.

8. Washington - Say what you want about Rick Neuheisel (and there is a lot to say), but the Washington program is back in a position of power.  This year, they bring potentially one of the most potent offenses in the Pac-10 and will be one of the top teams in the conference.

Reggie Williams is one of the most talented wide receivers in America. (Allsport)

The thing that jumps out about Washington is their wide receivers.  Reggie Williams had a great season as a true freshman and will be a superstar.  If Washington is on TV, you should try to tune in for a few minutes and check Reggie Williams out because he's a good one.  He's not the only one though as Paul Arnold also had a good year last year, and he returns to give Washington the Pac-10's best WR tandem.  QB Cody Pickett will also be returning.  The Huskies need to fill the starting TB spot, but other than that, things look good on offense as four starters return on the OL and Kevin Ware brings experience at TE.  This is an offense that could put up a lot of points.

The Husky defense probably won't be great, but it has a chance to be solid.  Larry Triplett will be missed at DT, but Ben Mahdavi and the LBs should be good, and there is some talent at DB as well. 

Looking at Washington's schedule, there are some tough spots, but I think the Huskies should be able to win most of them.  The schedule starts out with a road game at Michigan, which won't be easy.  After that, the Huskies should be favored to win every game up until the end -- that's when they have two potential monster matchups in a row at Oregon and at Washington State to end the season.  The Pac-10 title could be decided in those games.  The Huskies are my pick by a nose for the top team in the Pac-10 coming into the season, but of the three top teams in the Pac-10 (Oregon and Washington State being the other two), Washington may have the most difficult road in-conference due to those two road games.

Onterrio Smith will emerge this year as the Pac-10's top RB. (Allsport)

9. Oregon - The Ducks and their fans will look back on last season and wonder what could have been as they were arguably the team that should have been playing Miami for the national title.  Star QB Joey Harrington is gone now, but the cupboard is not bare in Eugene.

As a matter of fact, even though Harrington is gone, the offense has a chance to be very potent once again.  Jason Fife is getting good reviews at QB and looks like he will be Harrington's successor.  At RB, remember the name Onterrio Smith as he should emerge as one of the nation's top RBs this year.  Oregon also returns both starting WRs in Keenan Howry and Sammie Parker.  Two new starters need to be found at the tackle positions and at TE, but both guards and the center return.  If Fife (or the other QB candidate Kellen Clemens) can have a good year, this is a promising offense.

Defensively, Oregon looks okay.  The starting DEs are back, and some newcomers - particularly blue-chip DT Haloti Ngata and Chris Solomona - are expected to bring a big boost to the inside.  LBs should be solid as two starters return, and although two very good CBs are gone (Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith), the secondary could be good as two starting safeties return.

The out-of-conference schedule consists of home games against Mississippi State, Fresno State, Idaho, and Portland State (four Ws).  The Pac-10 slate won't be as easy as the Ducks must travel to UCLA, Washington State and rival Oregon State, but getting Washington at home is big.  To me, Washington and Oregon are neck-and-neck for the preseason top team in the Pac-10, and I give the slight edge to Washington because Oregon needs to replace Harrington.  But if things go right, this could very easily be the Pac-10's top team once again. 

10. Georgia - Georgia strikes me as a bit of a weak #10 team, but I guess I like them a bit better than any of the teams left.  They will most likely not be national title contenders, but they look like the third best team in the SEC this year. 

The success of UGa depends a lot on the health of Musa Smith. (Allsport)

The offense coming back has a chance to be strong.  A lot depends on the health of RB Musa Smith.  Musa is a good one when healthy, but he has had problems with getting hurt.  If he's ready to go, then the UGa offense will be good to go because they have four starters back at OL, including All-American Jon Stinchcomb, plenty of WRs, including Terrance Edwards, Fred Gibson and Damien Gary, and a starting QB returning in David Greene.  Greene had a fine season as a freshman.  However, I have read that despite Greene's status as the returning starter, back-up D.J. Shockley, who was all-everything out of high school, should see a lot of time this year.  TE Randy McMichael needs to be replaced, but other than that, the offense looks good. 

Defensively, UGa needs to find replacements at defensive end and in the secondary.  Both areas have a chance to be okay as there is talent, but there is work to be done.  CB Bruce Thornton is the only returning starter in both areas.  In the middle, both starters return in Jonathan Sullivan and David Jacobs, and Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert return at LB, making that position solid.

Schedule-wise, it's never easy when you have to play Florida and Tennessee every year, but this year, UGa gets Tennessee at home, which is a big plus.  Road games at South Carolina, Auburn, and Alabama will be challenges though.  Out-of-conference, Clemson and Georgia Tech are the toughest foes, and they are both at home.

On paper, Georgia has a chance to have a good team this year, but the SEC will always be a challenge. They should lose at least a couple of games with that schedule.  But nine wins seems to be an attainable goal, and that will be good enough for a New Year's Day bowl.  


Check back soon for the rest of my top 25, as well as several other items that will be part of my college football preview!

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