CFB Preview - Teams 16-25

The college football preview continues today with a look at the rest of the top 25. These teams were hard to rank, but this is what I came up with...

16. Louisville - If you're looking for a mid-major team that has a chance to make a big splash this year, Louisville could be the one.  With ten starters back on defense and one of the nation's best QBs in Dave Ragone back on offense, this team could be in for a lot of wins this year.

Dave Ragone will be one of America's #1 QBs. (Allsport)

Ragone, a St. Ignatius product, is the big man on offense.  He has been rated right up there with Byron Leftwich of Marshall as one of the nation's top NFL QB prospects.  The problem is he has no offensive line in front of him and needs to find a new #1 target as his main man from last year, Deion Branch, is now in the NFL.  The offensive line will need to continue to develop, but a target could emerge in JUCO transfer James Taylor.  Taylor is a Northeast Ohio product who originally planned on going to Michigan State, then Michigan, but he wound up in the JUCO ranks and will play this year at Louisville.  Returning starter Damien Dorsey is another candidate.  T.J. Patterson returns at RB.

Defensively, there are little or no concerns.  Among the ten starters back includes star sackmaster Dewayne White, who is projected to be an All-American DE and first-round NFL draft pick.  Louisville also has an interception master returning in S Anthony Floyd.

Schedule-wise, there are a couple of games that are definitely circled on Louisville's calendar.  One is when Florida State comes to town in late September.  How good are the Cardinals?  We'll find out that day.  The second could be the game that decides C-USA - November 14 at Southern Miss.  The Cardinals also have road games at Colorado State, Duke, and Army and a home game against Kentucky out of conference, and three of the tougher teams in-conference, TCU, Cincinnati and East Carolina, are at home.

Louisville has a chance to do some big things this year if some questions can be answered on offense.  And who knows what might happen if they could somehow knock off FSU.  Optimism has to be running high this year in Louisville.

17. Maryland - You couldn't ask for a better sports year if you're a Maryland fan; first, the football team comes out of nowhere to win the ACC and then the basketball team wins it all. Will 2002 see a follow-up?  I don't know about the basketball team, but Maryland's football team may surprisingly still be in the thick of things.

LB E.J. Henderson is possibly the nation's best. (Allsport)

Offensively, Maryland lost three key starters in QB Shaun Hill, WR Guilian Gary and C Melvin Fowler, Jr, but they return eight starters and have a chance to be solid offensively again.  The big name returning is TB Bruce Perry, who played a big role in Maryland's emergence last year as he ran for over 1200 yards.  Four starters return on the OL and with FB James Lynch returning as well, the running game should be in good shape.  Passing is a question mark though.  The candidates are Scott McBrien and Orlando Evans, two players I know very little about.  High school standout Latrez Harrison was a back-up QB last year, but he has been moved to WR.  Jafar Williams is a returning starter at WR, and he and Harrison could be two of the primary targets.

On defense, five starters return, including star LB E.J. Henderson, who will be on every preseason All-American team.  Henderson along with returning starter Leon Joe and Leroy Ambush should help make LB a strong position.  DT Charles Hill will be missed, but two starters return up front.  DB could be an issue as three starters are gone from last year. 

Maryland's schedule is set up well for a return to a good bowl.  The toughest teams on the schedule -- Florida State, Notre Dame, NC State, and Georgia Tech -- are at home.  Other home games include Eastern Michigan, Akron, Troy State, and Wake Forest.  Road games consist of West Virginia, Duke, UNC, Clemson, and Virginia.

The prediction here is that Maryland will not have a repeat performance of 2002.  However, there is enough here to have another successful season.  The Terrapins aren't going to sneak up on anyone this year, but they won't need to.  They should be good enough to win nine or ten games.

18. Illinois - Lots of people probably won't agree with this, but I like Illinois' chances this year.  Yes, Kurt Kittner was one of Illinois' great QBs, and he could be missed.  But him being gone is one of the only question marks as plenty of good players return.

WR Brandon Lloyd is back for more.  (Allsport)

At QB, things don't seem to be decided yet as Dustin Ward and Jon Beutjer seem to be the primary candidates.  But once a starter is selected, he will have a good offense to work with as Antoineo Harris returns at RB, Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young return at WR, and a solid offensive line led by possibly the Big Ten's top offensive lineman in Tony Pashos.  On defense, seven starters return including all three linebackers and a fine CB tandem in Eugene Wilson and Christian Morton.  The defensive line must find two new starters, and both safeties must be replaced, but there are some fine players back on this side of the ball as well.

On the schedule, Illinois has a tough one out-of-conference when they travel to Southern Miss, but home games against Missouri, Arkansas State and San Jose State are tune-ups for the conference season.  In-conference, the Illini hosts Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana, and Purdue with road games at Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Minnesota (like OSU, no Michigan State or Iowa). 

I could be wrong (God knows I am all the time), but I have a feeling Illinois will be good once again this year.  If the QB situation isn't a problem, this team will be in a position to compete for the Big Ten title.  Don't count them out just yet.

19. Michigan State -  Watch out for Sparty.  With 16 starters returning including two of the Big Ten's top offensive stars, Michigan State will be expected to compete for the Big Ten crown this year.  

WR Charles Rogers is the top returning player in the Big Ten.  (Allsport)

This year's version of the Spartans will be known best for QB Jeff Smoker and WR Charles Rogers.  Smoker is arguably the Big Ten's top returning QB, and Rogers is arguably the nation's top returning WR.  However, as fate would have it, two needs on offense for MSU are a second WR and a TB to replace T.J. Duckett.  Chances are that a couple of players will need to materialize for this offense to be a very good one.  Fine TE Chris Baker needs to be replaced as well.  Four starters return on the offensive line. 

Defensively, Michigan State has a couple of question marks, but they could be pretty solid, particularly in the secondary, where three starters return along with CB Cedric Henry.  Four starters return in the front seven, but a replacement needs to be found at MLB as well as two starters on the line.

The Michigan State schedule could equal a lot of wins.  The only two games where they'll probably be underdogs are the games at Michigan and at Penn State.  Other than that, they have road games at Indiana and Iowa, and the rest of the schedule is all home games -- Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin in-conference and Notre Dame, Cal, Eastern Michigan, and Rice out-of-conference -- that are are each winnable.  Sparty misses my choices for the top two teams in the Big Ten, Ohio State and Illinois.

This team has the ability to win the Big Ten if things fall into place.  Charles Rogers will continue to emerge as a household name (in what will presumably be his final season in college), and if a couple more weapons can be found on offense, this team will put some points on the board.  Michigan State hasn't been to a Rose Bowl in quite a while, but this year, they could have a very good shot.

20. Michigan - I have already let my feelings be known that I am not too high on this year's version of the Wolverines (at least not yet).  Never count them out because they are a program that is never short on athletes, but this offense just doesn't look like one that has the ability to bring home the Big Ten crown.

UM at #20 is my unbiased opinion.  I swear!

Last year, Michigan fans seemed very confident that QB John Navarre was going to pick up where Drew Henson left off and not miss a beat.  Navarre did have a nice start, but by the end of the season, UM fans learned that Navarre is no Drew Henson.  This year, Navarre is trying to hold off Spencer Brinton, another overly-hyped QB.  Either way, UM's QB situation will not be as good as it has been in recent years.  What makes it worse is that the offense's big playmaker in 2001 -- WR Marquise Walker -- is not there.  Without Walker, last year's UM offense would have been quite bad, so you have to wonder what this year's offense will be like.  Trying to pick up the slack will be Ronald Bellamy, Calvin Bell, and Tyrece Butler, who are players with talent, but they won't remind anyone of Walker or David Terrell this year.  At RB, B.J. Askew was a handy player last year who helped both rushing and catching passes, but he has been moved back to fullback while Chris Perry and David Underwood will take over at TB.  Both are talented players, but more was expected out of Perry last year. If one emerges as a 1,000-yard type guy this year, it will be big for the offense.  Bennie Joppru returns at TE and brings some experience.  The offensive line has talent but is young.  Two starters (Tony Pape and Dave Petruziello) return from last year. 

The defense is much-hyped as they return several starters.  There are a couple of reasons for doubt as they lost their best player from last year (Larry Foote) and they were manhandled by Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, but the Wolverines will be expecting the defense to win some games this year.  Each unit appears to be in decent shape; four starters return on the DL, two new starters will be at LB but Victor Hobson is back, and familiar faces return in the secondary in future star CB Marlin Jackson and safeties Charles Drake and Cato June.  An issue arose recently as two projected starters, CB Markus Curry and LB Carl Diggs, were shot at an off-campus party; I haven't heard anything regarding their status.  Special teams could also be an issue as UM is breaking in a new kicker and punter.

The UM schedule won't be easy.  They open the season with a home game against Washington, during which we will see their defense get tested right away.  Other non-conference games include Western Michigan and Utah at home and a game at Notre Dame, which will be tough.  The road schedule in the Big Ten (Illinois, OSU, Minnesota, Purdue) will be challenging while Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin come to Ann Arbor. 

Michigan is going to be competitive this year, there's no doubt.  It would not surprise anyone in the least if they happened to come together and be the team to beat in the Big Ten.  Right now though, I am not as confident in them as others may be.  I'm guessing 8-4, but you never know.  Like I said, don't count them out.

21. Arkansas - This is a team to watch.  A lot of people are high on the Hogs as they bring back 14 starters from a team that gave Oklahoma a much better fight in the Cotton Bowl than people thought they would. 

RB Cedric Cobbs returns at RB for Arkansas  (Allsport)

Offensively, the Razorbacks need to come up with a quarterback.  There's experience at the other skill positions as Fred Talley and Cedric Cobbs return at TB and Richard Smith, George Wilson, and Nathan Ball are returning starters at WR and TE.  But QB is an issue.  Matt Jones, Tavaris Jackson and Ryan Sorahan are the competitors; Zac Clark would have been the returning starter, but he transferred. 

Arkansas is expected to be good on defense, particularly in the secondary.  Ahmad Carroll and Lawrence Richardson were two prep super-recruits, and now they combine to be one of the top corner tandems in the south, and exceptional safety Ken Hamlin is back as well.  The Hogs bring back two starters at LB as Tony Bua and Caleb Miller return.  Bua won second-team All-SEC honors last year.  The leader of the defense is up front in DE Raymond House.  A couple of holes need to be plugged on the defensive line and at MLB, but this looks like the makings of a strong defense.

The SEC always brings with it some tough games.  In Arkansas' case, the toughest looks to be a road contest at Tennessee.  The Hogs also face challenges at South Carolina, Auburn, and Mississippi State.  There are many winnable home games though.  Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and LSU come to town, and the out-of-conference schedule is the easiest out of any team on this top 25 list (Troy State, Boise State, La-Lafayette, and South Florida... all at home). 

Arkansas is one of several good teams in the SEC that are rated around this area.  But do they have what it takes to jump forward and compete for the SEC West?  If they find a QB, I think they have a good chance. 

22. Auburn - I am having a hard time deciding where to rank Auburn.  This is a team with some potential. 

RB Carnell Williams is a very talented player to watch (Allsport)

There are some key losses on offense, particularly NFL draft picks in WR Tim Carter and OL Kendall Simmons.  Those gaps at WR and OL need to be filled.  But two experienced QBs return in Jason Campbell and Daniel Cobb, and I like the RB corps of Carnell Williams, Canisious Moore and Ronnie Brown.  Lorenzo Diamond and Robert Johnson are a good TE tandem.  And don't count out Damon Duval, one of the nation's top kickers.

Defensively, Auburn could be tough to do much against.  Eight starters return, including most of the secondary.  At LB, watch for Dontarrious Thomas, who will compete for first-team All-SEC honors.  Up front, DeMarco McNeil and Spencer Johnson are returning starters at DT. 

Auburn has some tough games this year, starting with a road game at USC.  The road schedule does not get any easier as they must travel to Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama.  The rest of the home schedule includes Syracuse, Western Carolina, UL-Monroe, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. 

Auburn is yet another team that is capable of competing in the SEC and possibly taking home the SEC West title.  Nine wins is an attainable goal.

23. Alabama - As we know, the Crimson Tide has gotten a lot of headlines lately for all the wrong reasons.  They got decked by the NCAA, and deservedly so.  Will they have anything to play for this year other than beating their rivals?  I don't know (Alabama is appealing their penalties), but either way, they have a chance of being a quality team this year as eighteen starters return.

QB Tyler Watts is back for what seems like his fifteenth season (Allsport)

Nine of the starters are on offense.  Tyler Watts is a been-there-forever guy who returns for his senior season at QB.  Another been-there-forever guy is RB Ahmad Galloway, who is a senior, and also watch for Santonio Beard and Shaud Williams at TB as well.  Freddie Milons is gone at WR, so someone will have to be found to step up there.  The offensive line should be good as it returns five starters.

The Tide brings back a strong defensive line in Kindal Moorehead, Kenny King, Jarrett Johnson and Nautyn-McKay Loescher.  Saleem Rasheed needs to be replaced at MLB, but Brooks Daniels and Corneilius Wortham are returning starters there.  The secondary needs to improve, but it should be better as three starters are back including CBs Gerald Dixon and Hirchel Bolden.

The schedule won't be easy.  The Tide opens with a home game against Middle Tennessee State, but from there, they have a road game at Oklahoma.  The other non-conference games are home games against North Texas and Southern Miss.  In the SEC, the road slate is Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt, and the home schedule consists of Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. 

This is going to be an interesting year in the SEC, both on and off-the-field.  While schools and fans are starting to really squabble back-and-forth, the teams on the field are going to be beating each other up.  The SEC West teams in particular are going to be beating each other up on the field as it is wide open, and Alabama is one who has a chance to be on top when the smoke clears.  We shall see.

24. Marshall - Did you like Marshall's 64-61 double-overtime win over East Carolina in the GMAC Bowl?  If so, you might like this year's Thundering Herd as they should be scoring a lot of points, but could give up a lot as well. 

QB Byron Leftwich is a secret no longer.  (Allsport)

By the end of the season, you will have heard of Byron Leftwich as he will most likely be a Heisman Contender.  One of the things that will make Leftwich so good this year though is the fact that he has an arsenal to work with on offense.  WR Darius Watts is an All-American candidate and one of the nation's top returning WRs as he had 1400+ yards last year.   Two other starting WRs return in Josh Davis and Denaro Marriott, and starting RB Franklin Wallace is back as are four starters on the offensive line.  There won't be many teams that this offense won't be able to put up points on.  Marshall's defense needs improvement over last year, but they won't need to be dominant for the Herd to run the table in the MAC.  Six starters return.

There's a chance Marshall could not only run the table in the MAC but go unbeaten over the entire year.  They have one big hurdle out-of-conference --  a road game at Virginia Tech.  That's a game that I think could actually be winnable.  Other than that, the toughest teams may be Central Florida and Miami (OH), and those are at home. 

This could be a big season for Marshall.  They have the firepower on offense to win a lot of football games.  Just how high they climb is yet to be seen, but the guess here is that they will win at least 11 or 12 games.

25. USC - The USC Trojans have been one of the more disappointing programs in the country over previous years.  For that reason, it's hard to include them in my top 25.  But if you consider that they finished strong last year, winning their last four regular season games to unexpectedly make a bowl game, and 14 starters are back from that team, maybe they have found the right direction.

WR Kareem Kelly will be a main target on offense (Allsport)

Offensively, the Trojans return nine starters, including QB Carson Palmer, who is often referred to as one of the nation's more talented QBs.  Joining him are five returning starters on the offensive line as well as both WRs in Kareem Kelly and Keary Colbert and a pair of talented tailbacks in Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas.  On paper, the offense has potential, but the offensive line will need to play better.

Some talent returns on defense as well.  Watch for the DT tandem of Shaun Cody and Bernard Riley.  Matt Grootegoed and Mike Pollard return at LB, and All-American safety Troy Palomalu is back to anchor the secondary.  Two new CBs need to be found, but the defense has the potential to be solid. 

USC's schedule is often difficult, and this year is no exception.  The out-of-conference schedule is rugged as the Trojans travel to Kansas State and Colorado while hosting Auburn and Notre Dame.  In the Pac-10, USC must travel to Washington State, Oregon, Stanford, and UCLA while hosting Washington, Oregon State, California, and Arizona State. 

Needless to say, if USC wants to make big waves this year, they are going to have their work cut out for them.  With that schedule, they might have a hard time making eight wins.  But the ability is there if everything falls into place.  If not, it could be another frustrating year in Southern California.

Best of the Rest:

Boston College: The Eagles return basically everything except RB William Green, and they're expected to be one of the top three in the Big East.

Notre Dame: Will 14 returning starters and a new coach help bring the Irish back to life?

Ole Miss: QB Eli Manning is one of the best and will lead this team to some victories in the SEC.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions bounced back a bit in the second half of the season last year and are bringing back QB Zac Mills and enough on both sides of the ball to be competitive in Big Ten play.

Purdue: QB Kyle Orton should help lead this team to a more successful season than last year.  16 starters return.

South Carolina: They lost some key players but enough returns to remain competitive.

Texas Tech: Potentially a very good team and QB Kliff Kingsbury is being hyped as a Heisman contender, but they could struggle with a tough schedule. 

Wisconsin: With Lee Evans, they have a very intriguing offense, but without him, they still have all offensive linemen back plus 1400-yard rusher Anthony Davis.

Virginia Tech: They just lost too much on both sides of the ball for me to have them ranked, but they should still be competitive and RBs Kevin Jones and Lee Suggs will be among the nation's top RB tandems.

Phew... and so the top 25 is complete.  Please don't print it out and save it because I do not want to know how wrong I turn out to be at the end of the season.  But these aren't predictions... just a preseason top 25.  As for predictions, well, those are still to come...

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