The Sweep: Preseason Edition

In future Sweeps, we'll look at each week's biggest games, the Heisman race and the BCS chase, and the wacky stories from across the college football landscape, but today, we have a whole top-25 to roll out. The SEC leads the way with six in our poll, and the Pac-10 has three, but from Ohio State to Michigan, here they all are…

1. Ohio St.
Key Loss: DE Vernon Gholston
Key Addition: QB Terrelle Pryor
Tough Games: at USC, at Wisconsin

Really, there isn't a weakness to be found on this team.  A strong OL, a strong running game, above average receivers, and that's just the offense.  The defense should be a leader in every major statistical category with Gholston as the only major loss.  Running on this team will be nearly impossible.  They could force more turnovers, but they already force a ton of 3 and outs.  The only major weakness, a QB who will never win any games by himself, has been upgraded with the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation, who can completely change the offense's dynamic, even in his limited role.  While a daunting road trip to LA looms, this veteran team should take care of business against a USC team breaking in a new QB and lacking a dependable, every-down running back.  No one in the Big Ten is at their level now and a fourth straight league title and national title game appearance appear likely.

Record Prediction:  12-0

2. Oklahoma
Key Loss: LB Curtis Lofton
Key Addition: The no-huddle offense
Tough Games: at Kansas State, Texas Tech

OU must replace its main man on defense, LB Curtis Lofton, a major factor on offense, WR Malcolm Kelly, and three starters in the secondary, an area in which it has struggled since losing Mike Stoops.  However, QB Sam Bradford returns to lead a no-huddle version of last year's potent offense.  A road trip to Manhattan presents a potential pitfall, in addition to the rivalry game at Oklahoma State.  They also must face Texas Tech, a team that absolutely shredded their defense in Lubbock last year.  However, by playing the Red Raiders at home, OU should cruise through the schedule that contains no real world-beaters.  Look for Bradford and DeMarco Murray to lead a potent attack to a Big 12 title and an appearance in the national title game.

Record Prediction: 11-1

3. USC
Key Loss: OL experience
Key Addition: the emergence of Joe McKnight
Tough Games: Ohio St, at Arizona

USC begins a new era as Mark Sanchez begins his reign as starting QB in LA, thus making him an automatic Heisman trophy candidate.  This team will be far superior talent-wise to any of its Pac-10 opponents.  While every game appears winnable, I think there are too many questions for ‘SC to run the table.  The combination of a new QB and three new starters on the OL, plus the lack of an every-down back, may make this a feast-or-famine offense.

Record Prediction: 10-2

4. Florida

Key Loss: DT Derrick Harvey
Key Addition: added experience in the secondary
Tough Games: at Tennessee, Georgia (Jacksonville)

A phenomenal offense returns, led by the world's most famous circumsionist.  While the development of a backup QB will only aid Tim Tebow, the most important addition really is added experience in the secondary.  Opponents threw at will on the Gators, to the tune of 259 passing yards per game on 59 percent accuracy.  This year, the only thing holding back the Gators will their nightmare schedule in the SEC, which includes visits from LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina, and trips to Tennessee and Arkansas.  With Meyer's intensity and attention to detail, I say they win three of those five, leading to a birth in the SEC Championship Game and a second SEC title in three years, but, alas, no national title appearance. Electron-fast receiver Percy Harvin is out early though, and if he's still injured by the Tennessee game, the Gators grasp on the SEC title will weaken, especially with AP preseason No. 1 Georgia threatening.

Record Prediction: 10-2

5. Missouri
Key Loss: Tailback Tony Temple (1,039 yards, 12 touchdowns)
Key Addition: A chip on their shoulders after going from national title contender to left out of the BCS all together. Mizzou never played with enough passion early in the Gary Pinkel era, but last year's season looks like a breakthrough – things have changed for good.
Tough Games: Illinois, at Texas

Back is freshman All-American receiver Jermey Maclin (2,776 all-purpose yards last year!) and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Chase Daniel (whose name always sounds like a command to me). The Tigers scored 40 points per game last year, and while there's no way they can improve upon that, the defense (23 points per game) should toughen with its eight returning starters. One to watch there is end Stryker Sulak. The Tigers duck both Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the Big 12 South, leaving them with one of the easiest schedules in the country.

Record Prediction: 11-1

6. West Virginia
Key Loss: Coach Rich Rodriguez, offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and strength coach Mike Barwis to Michigan
Key Addition: OL Josh Jenkins might not start this year, but as the No. 2 lineman recruit in the nation, he's a potential All-American for the Mountaineers.
Tough Games: Auburn, USF

If not for Rodriguez's departure, the ‘Eers would be preseason top-three, with a backfield of Pat White and Noel Devine and a road schedule of Colorado, Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh. New head coach Bill Stewart, a longtime WV assistant, looked just fine in the Fiesta Bowl, leading the underdog ‘Eers to a 20-point rout of Oklahoma. The offense, which returns its entire starting line (for some fluke reason, that's the case with a lot of this year's top teams) will have to carry the defense early, as it breaks in seven new starters. Luckily, the schedule and the talent should be more than enough to allow West Virginia to do just that.

Record Prediction: 11-1

7. Georgia
Key Loss: Sophomore LT Trinton Sturdivant (lost to injury this season)
Key Addition: Tailbacks Richard Samuel and Donavius Jackson should give Georgia a backfield as deep as anyone's, including USC's.
Tough Games: at Arizona State, vs. Florida

I wonder if the Bulldogs would still be preseason No. 1 if Sturdivant had been lost for the season before that poll was conducted. They do return 17 starters off a 11-2 team, but rule No. 1 in handicapping this sport is never to pick an SEC team to win the whole thing – the league is just too deep. If I'm confident  the national champion is coming out of the Big 10, I know it' s going to be Ohio State, in the Pac-10 I know it's USC, and in the Big 12, it's probably Oklahoma. Even if the SEC does win a third-straight title, could be Florida again, or Georgia, or Auburn, or LSU, or even Tennessee or Alabama. That's half the league right there, and that's not a smart way to guess.

Record Prediction:  10-2

8. Texas Tech
Key Loss: No one. The Raiders return everything. (Okay, okay, leading tackler Joe Garcia.)
Key Addition: One more year of experience for the 18 returning starters
Tough Games: Texas, at Oklahoma

The Raiders duck Missouri and catch Texas at home in a down year, so they could be favored in 11 this year. Quarterback Graham Harrell completed an unreal 72 percent of his passes last year, with a 48-14 touchdown-to-pick edge. He threw for at least 397 yards in each game, and with Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree and all five offensive linemen back again, I don't think there's a team out there that can hold the Red Raiders offensively. The defense has been historically soft against the run (177 rush yards per game last year), but six of the front seven do return. If Tech can be tougher against the run, we'll see them in the BCS, because no one is stopping them from scoring.

Record Prediction:  11-1

9. USF
Key Loss: Cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams were All-American and All-Conference respectively. USF doesn't have the recruiting pipeline to just replace two guys currently in the NFL overnight.
Key Addition: The return of the entire starting offense, save for a right tackle. The 87 starts of the O line is one of the better marks nationally.
Tough Games: Kansas, at West Virginia

It's a new day in college football. There's just one ACC team in my top 25, and the fall of that league has left an opening for some Big East schools to come out of nowhere and rise to national prominence. The Bulls started 6-0 last year to become the unlikeliest No. 2 in the history of the AP poll. Because the team backslid down the stretch, finishing only 9-4, national media is sleeping on them, but do so at your own risk for a team that returns ten offensive starters, including run-pass threat Matt Grothe at quarterback.  It's possible the Bulls will be 11-0, with buzz swirling about them crashing the BCS Title Game before the season finale at West Virginia.

Record Prediction:  10-2

10. Auburn
Key Loss: Quarterback Brandon Cox
Key Addition: The return of all five starting offensive linemen; a much friendlier schedule
Tough Games: LSU, Georgia

Auburn's my sleeper pick out of the South because they duck Florida in the SEC East, and host their three toughest opponents, LSU, Georgia and Tennessee. 16 returning starters doesn't hurt either. Sophomore quarterback Kodi Burns has three games to get his feet wet, but then will need to provide more than the 180 passing yards per game the Tigers managed last year.

Record Prediction:  9-3

11. Wisconsin
Key Loss: Quarterback Tyler Donovan
Key Addition: the 105 returning starts on the offensive line, sixth-most nationally
Tough Games: Ohio State, Penn State

Ohio State and Penn State are both at home, and with Michigan way down, the road schedule of Fresno State, Michigan, Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana could conceivably feature nary a bowl team. If the Badgers had more speed offensively, and hadn't perpetually disappointed for the past 10 years, I'd be more excited, but on paper, the Badgers are right up there with Ohio State and Penn State as the clear Big 10 frontrunners.

Record Prediction:  10-2

12. Penn St.
Key Loss: The departure of quarterback Anthony Morelli
Key Addition: The departure of quarterback Anthony Morelli
Tough Games: at Wisconsin, at Ohio State

Sorry if that's mean, but Penn State fans know that with a decent quarterback, they would have finished 2005 undefeated (but left out of the Texas-USC national title game) and won perhaps eight more games over the past three or four seasons. This year, the Lions return 18 starters and will be touchdown-plus favorites in every game save for the two above. 10-2 looks pretty safe, but I still don't see the Lions (or anyone) toppling Ohio State, so that ceiling on their success is why I have them here.

Record Prediction:  10-2

13. LSU
Key Loss: Two quarterbacks, Matt Flynn to graduation and Ryan Perrilloux to being a 21 year-old male a bit too publicly
Key Addition: The retention of Les Miles, despite Michigan's best efforts to woo him
Tough Games: At Florida, Georgia, at Auburn

Who'd have thought it would be a Harvard transfer, starting quarterback Andrew Hatch, who will be the key to LSU's success this season. The secondary is young, with only one upperclassman and one returning starter (free safety Curtis Taylor), but true freshman Patrick Johnson, sophomore Jai Eugene and sophomore Chad Jones were all top-ten recruits at their positions who've lived up to the hype early. To paraphrase Les Miles, this could be a "damn strong" secondary now, and the nation's best next season. The schedule has a brutal five-game stretch featuring Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, so after Oct. 25, we'll know whether or not the Tigers are for real.

Record Prediction:  10-2

14. Clemson
Key Loss: None. Only six of last year's starters depart, which is why the Tigers are much higher in the mainstream media preseason polls.
Key Addition: A schedule with only four true road games, and no teams that should finish in the top 20. Hard to see the Tigers losing more than two.
Tough Games: vs. Alabama, at Florida State

Sorry I'm not buying the hype and doing the AP-mandated choose an ACC team and throw them in the preseason top-five drill. How has that worked out for Florida State, Miami and now Clemson this decade? Although judging by the bar scene here in Atlanta last night, my goodness, Clemson fans travel well. (And are loud drunks.) In addition to a fanbase that could teach some of the shady siders a thing or two, Clemson has a great hybrid running attack with backs CJ Spiller and James Davis. The defense, though, is quietly the strength of this team, allowing just 19 points per game last year.

Record Prediction:  10-2

15. Texas

Key Loss: Frank Odom and Derek Lokey, their All-Conference defensive tackles
Key Addition: Cornerbacks Aaron Williams and Nolan Brewster, who could immediately help a secondary with just one returning starter
Tough Games: Oklahoma, at Texas Tech

The Longhorns have their lowest starting poll position in years because of their losses defensively, where only four starters return. Stanford fans saw Thursday how far Oregon State (with three returning starters) fell off from 2007, and, like the Beavers, Texas last year was a team that lived on its rush D (just 93 yards per game allowed). Offensively, redshirt freshman Foswhitt Whittaker has the inenviable task of filling the shoes of Jamal Charles, who ran for 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. The schedule is soft enough that the Horns have to finish with nine wins, but they won't finish with many more.

Record Prediction:  9-3

16. Virginia Tech
Key Loss: Tailback Branden Ore, seven defensive starters
Key Addition: a tougher schedule, with five of their toughest opponents all on the road
Tough Games: At Nebraska, at Boston College

That schedule, the regression to the mean effect after +11 turnovers last year and just four defensive starters have me miring the Hokies down here, despite playing in what's turned into one of the easier BCS leagues. Quarterback Sean Glennon has gone from liability to strength over his career, and as a senior this year, the Hokies will need for him to throw for over 200 yards per game, which he still hasn't done over the course of a season. The team has won at least ten games each of the last four seasons, but I think they'll need a bowl win to keep that record alive this year.

Record Prediction:  9-3

17. Utah
Key Loss: Four starters in the front seven, two of them All-Conference last year
Key Addition: Tailback Matt Asiata, healthy after injury sidelined him in 2007
Tough Games: at Michigan, TCU, BYU

With a win at the Big House today (hey, Appalachian State did it a year ago), the Utes will be as likely as not to run the table and assuredly earn a BCS berth. Quarterback Brian Johnson completed 67 percent of his passes in the Utes' West Coast offense last year, and will eight starters returning on offense, should be as accurate this season. The Utes went 12-0 in 2004 under Urban Meyer, but haven't won ten since Kyle Whittingham took over that offseason. I think this is the year though.

Record Prediction:  10-2

18. Cal
Key Loss: at Stanford last year. (Sorry, had to do it.)
Key Addition: Continuity on defense, with eight returning starters. I know Stanford and USC's linebackers have gotten a lot of love, but how about Cal's group that includes Zack Follett and Worrell Williams?
Tough Games: Oregon, at USC (back-to-back)

The Wicked Witch of the East (Bay), Jeff Tedford, has a team more characteristic of his playing style. It isn't going to wow you, but they'll be great on the line of scrimmage, and that's where football games are won. With Rulon Davis back and healthy, and those linebackers, look for the 164 rush yards per game to drop significantly. Bet the under a lot with all the new faces on offense, but Cal is strong enough fundamentally to take on everyone save for the Trojans out west.

Record Prediction: 9-3

19. Tennessee
Key Loss: Quarterback Eric Ainge
Key Addition: Arian Foster turning down NFL riches to return for his senior season
Tough Games: Florida, at Auburn, at Georgia

The defense is suspect, especially up front, as the Vols allowed 165 rush yards per game last year, and return just three starters in their front seven this year. But between Foster, underrated receiver Lucas Taylor and a line that returns four, the offense should score near last year's 33 points per game, even with the loss of Ainge.

Record Prediction:  8-4

20. Alabama
Key Loss: WR DJ Hall – and the two other starting receivers.
Key Addition: True frosh receiver Julio Jones, last year's No. 1 receiving recruit in the nation (for the school that signed the No. 1 class in the nation).
Tough Games: vs. Clemson, at Georgia, at LSU

If Jones and the other true freshmen can replace Hall (1005 yards last year), the Tide will be just fine offensively, despite having their third OC in four years. The defense, however, is too weak up front for the Tide to really make a push for the SEC Title and return to their glory of yore. Give Saban a few years fans, he's recruiting his way to the top of the SEC.

Record Prediction:  8-4

21. Notre Dame
Key Loss: Ty Willingham. Oh, wait, you mean he's just a scapegoat and it's not automatically his fault whenever anything goes wrong in South Bend?
Key Addition: LB Steve Filer might start, and you have to figure OL Trevor Robinson will get a look after how disastrous the line was last year.
Tough Games: at USC

Just wanted to mention that Notre Dame went 3-9 last year, because I might not be able to say that for the rest of my life. For one thing, Jimmy Clausen was actually quite good for a freshman statistically, and so every indicator we have (college performance plus high school recruiting profile) indicates he's going to be a star in a year or two. The issue plain and simple is the offensive line. I think it was a matter of inexperience and some quit, as opposed to an actual talent issue, so I think the Irish return to their ways of old in 2008. It'd be hard not to against a schedule that any Pac-10 team would die for. After USC, the next toughest game is what? Versus Michigan's worst team in 20 years? Versus Pittsburgh? At Boston College?

Record Prediction:  8-4

22. BYU
Key Loss: MLB Bryan Kehl, a fourth-round draft choice, was the star, but eight of last year's starting 11 on D are gone.
Key Addition: All those extra years of physical and emotional maturity the players have because of taking their missions before college.
Tough Games: at TCU, at Utah

The Mountain West is quickly distancing itself from the other non-BCS conferences. There's some legitimate talent at the top, as evidenced by two top-25 teams (and Stanford foe TCU just missing the cut). BYU would be higher if not for its defensive attrition, because First Team All-Mountain West quarterback Max Hall should match the 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns he threw for next year. If Hall improves his accuracy (60 percent, which isn't that great given the quality of some of the opponents), the Cougars could surprise some people – including Washington and UCLA weeks two and three.

Record Prediction:  8-4

23. Pitt
Key Loss: Left tackle Jeff Otah, a first-round NFL Draft pick
Key Addition: A tough schedule, by Big East standards. Six road games, plus Iowa and Notre Dame out of conference.
Tough Games: at USF, at Notre Dame, West Virginia

Get used to seeing the Panthers a lot on national TV, with USF on a Thursday and West Virginia on a Friday, all the better to secure a national broadcast, and the Notre Dame tilt national by default. You'll see a team that has a lot of experience at the marquee positions, with the top eight rushers, three passers and two receivers from last year all returning. Still, that crew went just 5-7 last year and Wannstedt is just 16-19 at Pitt, so they'll need to pull an upset or two before the nation takes them too seriously.

Record Prediction:  8-4

24. Oregon
Key Loss: Should-have-won-the-Heisman quarterback Denis Dixon, tailback Jonathan Stewart
Key Addition: DT Justin Thompson, a JC transfer. With end Nick Reed First Team All-Pac-10 last year, Oregon's going to be strong against the run.
Tough Games: at USC, at Arizona State, at Cal

The schedule isn't friendly, with the other Pac-10 big boys all on the road. The secondary, however, should be the best in the country, and the front four is stacked too. The D could lead the Pac-10, but the offense will be thoroughly pedestrian. If Denis Dixon were still here, Oregon would be a shoe-in for the Top 10, but I have them on the fringe of the poll because I suspect they're going to go through two or three quarterbacks before this season's over.

Record Prediction:  9-3

25. Michigan
Key Loss: Nothing too major. Just all-time leading passer Chad Henne, all-time leading rusher Mike Hart, No. 1 and 1A receivers Adrian Arrington and Mario Manningham early to the NFL Draft, left tackle Jake Long (No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft) and 13-year head coach Lloyd Carr.
Key Addition: Rich Rodriguez, the spread offense, and strength coach Mike Barwis
Tough Games: At Ohio State, at Penn State (Michigan's won nine in a row, PSU fans are salivating at the chance to snap that this year).

No, this isn't like Steve Spurrier giving Duke a pity vote at No. 25 each year. Michigan won't win the Big 10, (heck, they could very easily lose the season opener to Utah), but they'll get better as the season goes on. The talent has always been there in Ann Arbor, but there appears to be more buy-in and commitment from the players than ever before.

Record Prediction: 7-5

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