NCF Nation: 2009 preseason power rankings
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It's time to unveil my preseason power rankings, which is a pretty good indicator that the season is fast approaching.
Unlike some of my coaching friends, I'm all about releasing these every week. Maybe Grant Teaff and my friends at the American Football Coaches Association could learn something about transparency in polling.
As far as the rankings, there's been little movement since May. I've boosted Baylor up a notch because Robert Griffin appears ready to direct the Bears back to a bowl game. Colorado is down because deep threats are becoming sparse in the Buffaloes' offense. And in the Big 12, you can never have enough deep threats.
Other than that, I still like Texas over Oklahoma by a smidge -- although the lack of a tight end or quick improvement from the Sooners' offensive line could cause those to change.
And in the North, I'm picking Nebraska over Kansas because of Ndamukong Suh, a better running game and the Cornhuskers' easier cross-division schedule. But it's not a great margin.
So read and remember these picks and check back in December when I'll take stock of how I did.
1. Texas: The Longhorns have long memories about what happened last season when the BCS standings kept them out of the Big 12 title game. If a running game can be cobbled together and Will Muschamp can work his magic on the defensive front, the Longhorns might not have to worry about polls this season.
2. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops has built the nation's quietest dynasty with an unprecedented three straight Big 12 championships. He's got a good shot at four straight if his young offensive line jells and that pesky recent problem at the Cotton Bowl with Texas can be taken care of.
3. Oklahoma State: No team in the conference is as balanced and explosive as the Cowboys, but the defense is another story. If veteran coordinator Bill Young can coax enough improvement from the defense, the Cowboys might shock their way to their first Big 12 title and BCS bowl game.
4. Nebraska: Last year's late finish has Cornhusker fans believing the magic is back with Bo Pelini. But breaking in a new quarterback and trying to find some deep receiving threats will keep the Cornhuskers from dreaming about a Big 12 title -- at least for this season.
5. Kansas: The Jayhawks are loaded offensively and have enough defense to arguably make this Mark Mangino's best team. The only problem, however, is that a tough cross-division schedule will make Kansas play Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. It might be enough to keep the best North team from playing in the championship game.
6. Texas Tech: Why is Mike Leach smiling so much these days? It's not just his new contract. The Red Raiders have an underrated defense and Leach doesn't think the loss of Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree will be as grievous as most outside the program believe. The Red Raiders are rebuilding, but Leach likes his new players.
7. Missouri: The Tigers are breaking in new coordinators and looking for replacements for Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Jeremy Maclin and Ziggy Hood. Gary Pinkel's recruiting has improved -- typified by new quarterback Blaine Gabbert -- but there are likely too many holes to think about a third straight trip to the Big 12 title game.
8. Baylor: Could this finally be the team to break the bowl drought? Art Briles is starting to get the pieces in place -- starting with Griffin at quarterback. But the schedule is unforgiving in the South Division and the Bears could be a little thin in the trenches to think about bowling just yet.
9. Colorado: Whether Dan Hawkins said his team would win 10 games or not isn't the point. The fact is that a deep collection of running backs, an improving offensive line, an underrated defense and the North Division's most favorable schedule could make the Buffaloes a surprise challenger. But there are still many questions -- starting with the quarterbacks on hand and the lack of a proven deep threat.
10. Texas A&M: Expectations are lower for the Aggies than any time in recent memory. These Aggies bear little resemblance to the consistent winners of the early Big 12 era, particularly on defense. Jerrod Johnson gives Mike Sherman a playmaker to start building his offense around, but winning in the South with this group might be an impossible task.
11. Kansas State: Speaking of reclamation projects, Bill Snyder might have stepped into a big one as he tries to return the Wildcats to their earlier dominance of his previous coaching tenure. It will be a long trek back as Snyder settles on a quarterback and tries to improve a porous defense.
12. Iowa State: Paul Rhoads knows the culture at Iowa State after growing up near Ames and previously working as an ISU assistant. He has quarterback Austen Arnaud back to run a retooled high-tempo offense. But Rhoads will face a monumental rebuilding job as he tries to stem a nation-worst 17-game road losing streak.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
What's our preseason projection for the Pac-10? Probably not many shocks here. This mirrors my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.
1. USC: The Trojans are No. 1 until somebody knocks them off the mountain. With nine starters back on offense, including what might be the nation's best offensive line, there will be plenty of help for the new quarterback. And do you really think USC's defense won't be elite again in 2009? Come on.
2. California: The Bears have 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2009, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Jahvid Best. The secondary will be one of the nation's best and the defensive line is as good as any in the Pac-10. Replacing three of four linebackers doesn't seem to be causing much stress in Berkeley. The only issue is how much the passing game improves. If it improves significantly, this is a potential BCS bowl team.
3. Oregon: Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount give the Ducks a strong one-two punch on offense and an athletic corps of linebackers and cornerback Walter Thurmond and end Will Tukuafu will lead the defense. Both lines are questions that, if answered, could push the Ducks to the top of the conference.
4. Oregon State: Rebuild or reload? The Beavers have transitioned to the latter category, which is why most are overlooking a defense that needs to replace eight starters, including the entire secondary, and an offensive line that must replace three first-rate starters. There are two veteran quarterbacks in Lyle Moevao and Sean Canfield and the explosive Rodgers brothers -- James and Jacquizz -- leading the offense, while tackle Stephen Paea and linebacker Keaton Kristick lead the defense.
5. Arizona: Losing three offensive mainstays -- quarterback Willie Tuitama, receiver Mike Thomas and tackle Eben Britton --- hurts, but the Wildcats should be even better on defense in 2009, and the general feeling is the offense will be solid whether Matt Scott or Nick Foles wins the job. For one, tight end Rob Gronkowski is the best target in the Pac-10.
6. Stanford: The Cardinal have lots of guys back -- 17 -- from a team that fell just short of bowl eligibility in 2008. They also have seven home games after playing just five a year ago. The key is passing -- on offense and defense. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck is supposed to be the answer for the offense, while an injection of young talent should improve the athleticism in the secondary.
7. UCLA: The Bruins have two big questions: quarterback and offensive line. The defense should be good, led by tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner -- all three are All-American candidates -- but it won't matter if the running game remains anemic. One big reasons for optimism: five offensive players are again available who would have started last year but were out for various reasons back: running back Christian Ramirez, tight end Logan Paulsen, center Kai Maiava, fullback Trevor Theriot and tackle Sean Sheller.
8. Arizona State: Not unlike UCLA, Arizona State has questions at quarterback and on the offensive line while the defense looks solid. Senior Danny Sullivan played well in the spring and looks to be the favorite at quarterback, while new faces could key dramatic improvement on the offensive line. If things fall into place, the Sun Devils could win eight or nine games, but it's hard to project that until the offensive line proves itself.
9. Washington: The good news is the Huskies could be the most-improved team in the conference. Of course, it's hard to regress from an 0-12 season. Moreover, Washington could play much better and still have little to show for it because the nonconfernce schedule features LSU and Notre Dame. Still, the return of 18 starters, as well as quarterback Jake Locker and linebacker E.J. Savannah, suggests the Huskies won't be anyone's patsy this fall.
10. Washington State: The biggest hope for the Cougars lies in a potentially improved running game that could keep a defense that is thin on talent on all three levels off the field. That didn't happen last year -- see an offense that ranked 118th in the country that surrendered 38 turnovers, tied for most in the nation. But there's experience on the offensive line and James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy give the Cougars a pair of solid backs. If either Marshall Lobbestael or Kevin Lopina provides adequate quarterback play, Washington State might surprise some folks.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
All 11 Big Ten camps will open by the end of the day, and it's time for your latest installment of the power rankings. There have been a few key transfers since the last rundown in May, but not much to really shake things up.
I've made a few changes to the league's midsection and bottom, but the top four remain in place. The hardest section was undoubtedly Nos. 7-9. Those teams look fairly interchangeable.
1. Ohio State -- As long as quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the offensive line continue to build off of a very solid spring, Ohio State's offense will be fine after a difficult 2008 season. Defensive ends Thaddeus Gibson, Lawrence Wilson and Cameron Heyward lead the league's best line, which anchors a defense that has ranked among the top 15 nationally in five of the last six seasons.
2. Penn State -- This is the year for Penn State to truly establish itself as the third Big Ten powerhouse. To do so, the Lions must show they can reload at wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back. Penn State has the star players and a favorable schedule with both Iowa and Ohio State at home. Quarterback Daryll Clark could lead the Lions back to Pasadena.
3. Iowa -- It's a close call between Iowa and Michigan State for No. 3, but the Hawkeyes get the nod as they return their starting quarterback and the league's best offensive line. Most will eliminate Iowa from the Big Ten title race because of a treacherous conference road schedule, but Kirk Ferentz's team can make a major statement by winning Sept. 26 in Happy Valley.
4. Michigan State -- Michigan State reminds me a lot of Penn State in 2008. The more I look at the Spartans' depth chart, the more I like their chances this fall. Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Greg Jones leads a defense that looks stacked in the secondary but a bit shaky up front. The big questions here are obvious, and if Michigan State solidifies its offensive backfield, look out.
5. Northwestern -- Another close call here between Northwestern and Illinois. The Wildcats should have their best defense in recent memory and loads of questions at the skill positions on offense. The Illini bring back arguably the Big Ten's most electric offense but look shaky at best on defense. In the end, the better defense wins out as All-America candidate Corey Wootton tries to lead Northwestern to another bowl game.
6. Illinois -- There's a lot to like on the offensive side, from the league's most experienced quarterback (Juice Williams) to arguably the league's best wide receiver (Arrelious Benn). The addition of Florida transfer Jarred Fayson should only improve a dynamic pass attack. Illinois must address its pass rush and its pass coverage on defense, and this needs to be the year linebacker Martez Wilson becomes a star.
7. Wisconsin -- The quarterback position once again could drive Badgers fans nuts this fall, but teams with solid line play usually do well in the Big Ten. Wisconsin's offensive line will create room for bruising sophomore running back John Clay, and the defensive line, which adds Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt, had a terrific offseason. There are still some uncertainties in Madison, but a favorable schedule leads me to believe the record will improve.
8. Minnesota -- Can the Big Ten's most experienced team adjust to a host of offseason changes? If so, Minnesota will climb up the list and possibly make a major statement in the Big Ten. But this could easily be a better team that finishes with a worse record because of another set of new systems and a tough schedule. You've got to like the passing combo of quarterback Adam Weber and wideout Eric Decker.
9. Michigan -- Before you send the hate mail, hear me out. Until I see Michigan in a game, showing tangible improvement on offense and especially at quarterback, I can't put the Wolverines any higher. This is still a team that likely will be playing a true freshman quarterback and returns only five starters to a defense that has its third coordinator in as many seasons. Michigan should improve, but let's wait and see.
10. Purdue -- It could be a rough first season for head coach Danny Hope, but Purdue moves up a spot based on a solid group of running backs and a defense poised to make improvement from 2008. The Boilers have the right idea to emphasize the run game on offense, and if quarterback Joey Elliott elevates his play, this could be a decent team. The linebacker position concerns me, and Purdue's young defensive linemen need to grow up fast alongside standouts Mike Neal and Ryan Kerrigan.
11. Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch has seen positive changes from a team that backslid in 2008, and he believes experience and improved depth will help overcome the loss of Kellen Lewis. Lynch's confidence in quarterback Ben Chappell is admirable, but I need to see more from the junior and Indiana's young wideouts. If the Hoosiers don't make strides on defense this year, it probably will never happen. The personnel is there for an upgrade, but Indiana has a very troubling track record on that side of the ball.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's time for the preseason edition of the SEC power rankings, which means the season can't be too far away.
Maybe I'll do a little better than last season. I'm all about transparency, and my performance in the preseason a year ago was weak.
I give myself credit for getting Florida right and not picking Georgia like most everybody else was. But after that, well ...
Take a look for yourself: 1. Florida, 2. Georgia, 3. LSU, 4. Auburn, 5. Tennessee, 6. South Carolina, 7. Ole Miss, 8. Alabama, 9. Mississippi State, 10. Kentucky, 11. Arkansas, 12. Vanderbilt.
I hear ya, Alabama fans. I didn't see Nick Saban working his magic quite so quickly, nor did I see Auburn and Tennessee imploding the way they did.
After 31 combined seasons in the SEC as head coaches, Tommy Tuberville and Phillip Fulmer are now out of work. Man, does it change quickly in this league.
So here goes with my 2009 preseason power rankings. I'm counting on the same type of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 that the Crimson Tide enjoyed under Saban.
The only difference is that that I'm going to finish.
1. Florida: I'm really going out on a limb here. The Gators are the most prohibitive favorite to win the SEC since the league expanded and split into two divisions in 1992. They have the best player in college football, one of the best coaches in the game and a defense that returns virtually everybody from last season's BCS national championship team. The upset would be if anybody beats them. There hasn't been an undefeated national champion from the SEC since Tennessee in 1998.
2. Ole Miss: The Rebels swooped in under the radar last season after going 0-8 in the SEC the year before. The combination of a franchise quarterback like Jevan Snead and perhaps the deepest defensive line in the country makes them one of the favorites this season. How do they handle all the hype? We're going to find out. But talent won't be a problem. After all, they are the only team to have beaten Florida last season, and most of those guys are back.
3. Alabama: I could easily see the Crimson Tide winning the West this season. Their defense should be one of the best in the country, and you know Saban will have this team ready to play every week. But whereas the Crimson Tide leaned on their offensive line a year ago, I'm not sure they will have that luxury in 2009. Not that they will be bad up front. I just don't see them being dominant. Then again, stud receiver Julio Jones is the great equalizer.
4. LSU: If sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson plays with the same poise he did in the Chick-fil-A Bowl rout of Georgia Tech last season, the Tigers' drop from elite status in this league will be short-lived. First-year defensive coordinator John Chavis has reinvigorated a defense that went belly-up last season, and the Tigers' secondary will be scary good. So much of what happens this season on the Bayou, though, gets back to the quarterback position. In fairness to Jarrett Lee, the Tigers asked him to throw too much a year ago.
5. Georgia: Mark Richt has 'em right where he wants them. Nobody really expects Georgia to contend for the SEC championships this season, which means we might want to look out for the Bulldogs. Remember 2005? The Georgia coaches think first-time quarterback starter Joe Cox, a fifth-year senior, will be the least of their problems, and the offensive line should be the strength of the team. The big question: Can Willie Martinez's defense tackle better and get back to playing championship defense?
6. Arkansas: Man, I'd like to pick the Hogs a little higher. I told myself the same thing this time last year with Ole Miss and didn't have the guts. Because of the killer schedule, I don't know where Arkansas will end up. What I do know is that Bobby Petrino has an offense in his second season that's going to light up a few SEC scoreboards. But you can't win shootouts all the time in this league, which means the defense needs to be significantly better if the Hogs are going to make a move in the West.
7. South Carolina: The key for South Carolina is not losing anybody else to injury or suspension. Depth won't be the Gamecocks' friend in 2009. But they're talented enough if they stay healthy to better their 7-6 record from a year ago. The other wild card is sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia. There are signs that he's ready to take off and be a quality player and the kind of leader the Gamecocks need him to be. You've also got to love the young talent in this program.
8. Vanderbilt: It's about time Vanderbilt got a little respect. After all, only Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss won more SEC games last season. Losing cornerback D.J. Moore early to the NFL hurts, but Myron Lewis might end up being even better. Putting together a second straight winning season will require that the Commodores find a passing game. Sophomore quarterback Larry Smith has a big-time arm. But if Connecticut transfer Terence Jeffers-Harris isn't eligible, there won't be any proven receiver threats to throw to.
9. Tennessee: The Vols probably deserve to be higher when you look at their talent in spots. They will be good again on defense this season, and there's a definite energy surrounding the program now with first-year coach Lane Kiffin and his staff. But there's no depth at defense tackle. Protecting the quarterback on offense will be a problem, and the two guys playing quarterback are the same ones from last year. Maybe Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens are better under this new regime, but they have to prove it first.
10. Auburn: It seems like everybody in the SEC (with the exception of Florida and Ole Miss) has some sort of issue at quarterback. The Tigers are sort of like the Vols. The same guys are back that struggled mightily last season. Plus, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is putting in a new spread offense. It's going to take some time, and first-year coach Gene Chizik has said himself that he doesn't want people to have "illusions of grandeur." The defense will be good enough, though, that the Tigers will still be a tough out.
11. Kentucky: The Wildcats took a bit of a tumble from the post-spring power rankings, and it's no secret why. Losing senior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon was a big blow. He was their top pass-rusher and an invaluable presence in the locker room. It's tough for any team to lose a senior leader like that, and now the Wildcats are faced with having to trot out two first-time starters at end. The defense should still hold its own with the likes of cornerback Trevard Lindley and linebacker Micah Johnson. But on offense, if junior quarterback Mike Hartline isn't greatly improved as a passer, the Wildcats could have real issues.
ppi State: Somebody's got to be last, and that dubious distinction belongs to the Bulldogs. The reality, though, is that the bottom five teams in the SEC right now are pretty close to being interchangeable. The Bulldogs will be salty on defense, and the return of middle linebacker Jamar Chaney after going down in the opener last season is huge. First-year coach Dan Mullen is an offensive guy, and that's why he was brought in -- to put in his version of the spread. But getting this offense up to speed in Year 1 may be too much to ask.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Summer camp has officially begun in the ACC, and there's a sense of urgency throughout the entire conference as the opening kickoffs are less than a month away. Things have changed since spring ball ended -- Nate Irving's status is questionable, Boston College found a quarterback, and FSU's receivers have been cleared by the law. Here's the latest ACC power ranking:
1. Virginia Tech -- Until somebody unseats them, the Hokies are the team to beat. Virginia Tech's opener against Alabama will determine whether or not it is a legitimate national title contender. There are no excuses for the offense not to improve, and the defense should again reload.
2. Georgia Tech -- Don't forget they were the co-Coastal Division champs a year ago, and return a league-high 19 starters from last year's nine-win season -- including nine on offense. The backfield is the deepest in the conference, and the offensive line should be better, but not even Paul Johnson knows what to expect from his defensive line.
3. Florida State -- One by one, the receivers have started to come back. Felony battery charges against Richard Goodman have been dismissed, Bert Reed should have completed his community service by the end of August, and Rod Owens' DUI case has been closed.
4. NC State -- The Pack is already better than it was a year ago because of its quarterback situation, but this year it needs to start strong instead of making a desperate push at the end. The absence of Irving and the transfer of safety Jimmaul Simmons leaves question marks for the defense.
5. North Carolina -- Until we see how the passing game unfolds with the new receivers, the Tar Heels will have to work their way up the ranking, especially with three positions on the offensive line still unsettled. The defense will be the strength of the team while the offense literally catches up.
6. Miami -- It's simply impossible to ignore the fact the Canes are under the direction of a third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, are learning a new offensive scheme, have a brutal schedule, and are still young. But Jacory Harris has matured as the team leader, and he's surrounded by speed and skill.
7. Clemson -- Yes, the offensive line will be better, but how much better remains to be seen. It's the same group that paved the way for a whopping four yards against Nebraska in the bowl game. The starting quarterback has yet to be named, and the defense will be depended upon to win some games.
8. Wake Forest -- This is my darkhorse candidate in the Atlantic Division (last year it was Maryland). The offense is in place. The defensive line is in place. It's the linebackers and secondary that remain a question mark. You can't go wrong with the winningest quarterback in school history, but replacing those defensive playmakers will take time.
9. Maryland -- They think they're better. They're confident. But if Maryland couldn't do it last year with a senior-laden team or in 2006 when it was one win away, why should anyone outside the program have confidence it can do it with such a young, typically inconsistent team?
10. Boston College -- They found a quarterback. The question is, can he throw? The reports from Chestnut Hill say yes, but Dave Shinskie hasn't done it in a college game yet. Is the 25-year-old minor league pitcher the answer? He's got the supporting cast.
11. Duke -- Coach David Cutcliffe said he won't be satisfied with anything less than a bowl game, and this man means business. He's got one of the best quarterbacks in the league to work with, a dynamic rusher in Re'quan Boyette, and some big-name players on D. But you don't turn around two decades of losing in just two years.
12. Virginia -- The linebackers are gone. The receivers are gone. The leading rusher is gone. The offensive coordinator is gone. This is going to be a big transition year, and a bowl game should be considered a good season.
Enough hemming and hawing. It's time for me to reveal my official preseason Big East power rankings, which also serve as my official predicted order of finish. (That's why these rankings differ from my post-spring power rankings, which was where I thought each team was at the time).
I'm taking into account schedule advantages and disadvantages here as well as how strong I think each team will be. Of course, this is an impossible task given the unbelievable parity in the league. If I could, I'd put six teams tied for first (or sixth) and have two tied for last. But I checked with my bosses, and they told me I couldn't.
So here goes (literally) nothing ...
1. Rutgers: Three words: schedule, schedule, schedule. OK, so that's not the only reason I like the Scarlet Knights, as they bring back a stellar offensive line and a sturdy defense. Plus, they seem due. But mostly, it's that schedule.
2. Pittsburgh: Overall, the Panthers have the most talent in the league. I love the defensive line, and the defense as a whole. I'm worried about the quarterback and the running backs. In any other league, that would mean Pitt wouldn't be the preseason media favorite or No. 2 in my rankings. This isn't any other league.
3. West Virginia: The Mountaineers still have some questions, especially on the offensive line. But I love their skill players and think Jarrett Brown is ready to bust out as a star. If they didn't have four road games in conference play, they might be higher than this.
T-4. Cincinnati: I know Brian Kelly is going to put together a good team. I'm less concerned than most people about the massive replacements on defense. But I think the schedule -- the Bearcats' first two league games are at Rutgers and South Florida, and they end at Pitt -- will keep Cincinnati from repeating as champs.
T-4. South Florida: Your guess as to where the Bulls should rank is as good as mine. They've got some serious athletes, but they're also frightfully young at a lot of spots. Given that they're 10-11 in Big East play the past three years, I will remain guarded in my optimism.
6. Connecticut: I agree with Randy Edsall that the Huskies don't get enough respect. And I hate ranking them this low. But somebody has to be sixth, and with all the talent lost to the NFL draft, UConn seems like the logical choice.
7. Syracuse: I predict the Orange will shock one of the top contenders this year. Otherwise, they'll still be irrelevant in the league race.
8. Louisville: After the spring, I thought 0-7 in the Big East was a real possibility. I now think the Cardinals will avoid that fate. But not by much.
It's time for everyone's favorite post of the year -- the preseason power rankings.
I feel a lot more confident picking the top 10 this year than I did last year when I had just taken the job. With that said, I'm not ashamed to admit that I butchered last year's picks. Here's how I saw it:
1. BYU, 2. Fresno State, 3. Tulsa, 4. Utah, 5. Boise State, 6. Notre Dame, 7. FAU, 8. Central Michigan, 9. TCU, 10. East Carolina.
All right. Done laughing? Get it out. One more hearty chuckle. OK, let's move on.
In all fairness, I was new. I didn't have the background on the non-AQs that I do now. I will say that despite Utah's preseason ranking, I did pick them to be the BCS-buster. Ask coach Kyle Whittingham, I'm not making that up.
But how was I supposed to know that Fresno State and Notre Dame would tank? That Rusty Smith would get so caught up in the hype that he'd help lead FAU to a 1-5 start? That BYU and Tulsa were only good against teams that weren't very good?
Prognostication is tough business and while it gave you all great pleasure to mock me, I'm coming back with a vengeance this year.
Let the 2009 season jabs commence...
1. Boise State -- Pretty much everyone is going on a leap of faith that sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore will not endure a post-awesome season slump like some of his predecessors. He has tons of talent around him and a finally a steady offensive line. The season opener against Oregon should provide a good idea of how good Boise State will be this year.
2. TCU -- The Horned Frogs lost several key players on defense last year, but several of the guys stepping in earned solid playing time. TCU has tweaked its offense to get more production out of quarterback Andy Dalton and his receivers. We'll learn early if it was a good move.
3. Notre Dame (courtesy of Brian Bennett) -- The Fighting Irish have tons of returning talent and a forgiving schedule, which should make for an eight- or nine-win team, at least. Whether that means they're actually any good remains to be seen.
4. BYU -- Coach Bronco Mendenhall is insulating his team from the pressure of the media and fans in an attempt to make the season more fun. So far players have responded, but they haven't played a game. And the season-opener against Oklahoma is a tough way to start especially after ending the season with two losses.
5. Utah -- Similar to TCU, Utah lost a ton of talent at key positions and also lost a lot of leadership. That's difficult to replace. The defense will be solid, but the offense remains a question mark with no clear-cut starter at quarterback. Still, the Utes have the talent to easily be a nine- or 10-win team this year.
6. East Carolina -- The Pirates generated a lot of buzz at the beginning of last season with big wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, but fizzled at the hands of the hype. Almost the entire group returns and coaches and key players said they're better equipped to handle things on and off the field.
7. Nevada -- Quarterback Colin Kaepernick said that for the first time in his college career, he can hit any target he wants. That's scary. Kaepernick has always had a rocket arm, but if he has accuracy now, Nevada has another dimension to its offense. Throw in three 1000-yard rushers, including Kaepernick, and Nevada could be a major sleeper.
8. Southern Miss -- It took about eight weeks for the Golden Eagles to connect with their new coaches last season, but once they did, they won five straight and finished their 15th consecutive winning season. Now they carry a heap of momentum into 2009. If receiver DeAndre Brown is healthy, this team will challenge for the C-USA title.
9. Houston -- There's no question Houston, led by quarterback Case Keenum, is one of the best offensive teams in the country, but its defense needs to catch up. The Cougars can beat a lot of teams if they get into a shootout, but they want to cut down those scenarios. The league's media and coaches believe in the Cougars for the title.
10. Central Michigan -- The Central Michigan defense is healthy after being ravaged by injury last season. The lack of a consistent starting lineup made for one of the worst defenses in the country and cost the Chippewas some games. If the defense can stay healthy and improve upon the awful numbers of the past two seasons, the Chippewas could win their third title in the past four seasons.