NCF Nation: conference rankings 090209

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We know which players opted early for the NFL draft and which players decided to return for their senior seasons.

We know who's come and who's gone on the different coaching staffs around the league.

We know what the recruiting classes look like for this year, and we know which transfers will be eligible for next season.

What's all this mean? It's time to roll out our SEC power rankings heading into spring practice.

So here goes:

1. Florida: The Gators would also top any national power poll going into the spring. They return virtually their entire two-deep on defense and got a huge boost with the return of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. It's the same unit that held Oklahoma to 14 points in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game. Quarterback Tim Tebow also returns and is gunning for a third national title. You can bet that he will keep this team hungry. The Gators do have to replace both of their tackles on offense, and their most explosive offensive weapon, Percy Harvin, is headed to the NFL.

2. Alabama: All eyes will be on the quarterback battle at Alabama this spring between junior Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson. McElroy probably has the edge because of experience, but Jackson is plenty talented. And as John Parker Wilson illustrated last season, Julio Jones is any quarterback's best friend. The Crimson Tide will again be strong on defense, especially right up the middle with nose tackle Terrence Cody and middle linebacker Rolando McClain returning. Rebuilding the offensive line won't be easy, though, with stalwarts Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis all gone.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels are right there pushing for that No. 2 spot in the SEC and may well be there when we rank the teams again heading into the season. Jevan Snead is the best pure passer in the league and should only be better during his second tour of the SEC. Most of his offensive weapons are back, and the Rebels added receiver Patrick Patterson on signing day -- the top prospect in the state of Mississippi. Tyrone Nix's defense was nasty last season, but the anchor of that defense, tackle Peria Jerry, is gone. The Rebels are hopeful that pass-rushing specialist Greg Hardy can be healthy for the entire season and that they continue to grow up in the secondary.

4. LSU: Somewhere along the way, the Tigers lost their edge last season and managed to lose five games after winning the BCS national championship the year before. LSU coach Les Miles has brought former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis aboard to head up the Tigers' defense, and one of Chavis' first challenges will be seeing to it that the Tigers regain that edge. Even with end Tyson Jackson gone, there's still a lot of young talent on defense. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson is the front-runner to start at quarterback after playing well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but true freshman Russell Shepard is already on campus and will also take his shot at the job in the spring.

5. Georgia: Some of Georgia's best results under Mark Richt have come when the Bulldogs weren't picked as highly. So maybe that's good news for Georgia, which lost three All-SEC players early to the NFL draft -- quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Knowshon Moreno and cornerback Asher Allen. Joe Cox will try to hold off true freshman Aaron Murray for the starting quarterback job. But the real key for the Bulldogs is playing more consistently on defense next season and picking up some of the slack while the quarterback situation sorts itself out. Whoever wins the job has the luxury of throwing to A.J. Green, and the offensive line should be a strength of the team in 2009.

6. Arkansas: There's just something about that second year when a new coach takes over a program. Look what Urban Meyer did at Florida in his second year, and look what Nick Saban did in his second year at Alabama. Arkansas isn't ready to challenge for an SEC title in Bobby Petrino's second year, but the Razorbacks are a strong bet to be the breakthrough team in 2009. Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett is the favorite to win the quarterback job, and he'll have plenty of playmakers around him, including one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country in D.J. Williams. For the Hogs to make a move into the upper half of the league, they have to improve on defense. Just about everybody who made a play last season on defense returns, but the Hogs were last in the SEC and 72nd nationally a year ago in total defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks went into the proverbial tank to finish last season and were blown out in their last three games. In the months that followed, there were six different staff changes. But somehow, thanks in large part to the efforts of recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer, South Carolina was able to put together a terrific recruiting class and regain some momentum heading into the spring. A lot of what happens next season comes down to how much quarterback Stephen Garcia matures. It's his show now that Chris Smelley has left the program. Ellis Johnson's defense will again be stout even with some of the early defections in the secondary. Signees Stephon Gilmore and Devonte Holloman, both athletic safety types, are already on campus and may be able to help right away.

8. Tennessee: We know Lane Kiffin can talk a good game, and we know he's already taken aim verbally at Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. He gets his chance on the field at those three guys this fall. The Vols were 5-7 last season, so getting them to 7-5 or 8-4 would be marked improvement. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton will get a new life after struggling in Dave Clawson's system last season. But he'll have competition from B.J. Coleman and Nick Stephens. The Vols' quarterback play last season was wretched. Junior safety Eric Berry is as good as any player in the country. Senior tackle Dan Williams is one of the more underrated players in the SEC, but the Vols are precariously thin up front defensively.

9. Kentucky: Ev
en before national signing day, the Wildcats picked up some key recruits on defense when end Jeremy Jarmon, middle linebacker Micah Johnson and cornerback Trevard Lindley all decided to return for their senior seasons. It's the kind of jolt Kentucky needed, because the Wildcats played better defensively than they ever had under Rich Brooks last season when they were healthy. It's a defense that has a chance to take it to another level in 2009. The pressing question, though, is how much the offense can improve. Mike Hartline goes in as the starter at quarterback, but the Wildcats will again move Randall Cobb around. He caught passes, threw passes and returned kicks a year ago as a true freshman.

10. Vanderbilt: Bobby Johnson continues to prove that he gets as much or more out of his players than any coach in the conference. But here's the catch: He's starting to get better players. The Commodores have worked hard at upgrading their talent. The early departure of cornerback D.J. Moore to the NFL will hurt, but cornerback Myron Lewis remains on the other side and also has a chance to be an NFL player. Everybody in the front seven is back, too, and the Commodores finished fifth in the SEC with 30 sacks last season. Quarterback Larry Smith's showing in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl was promising, but the Commodores are still looking for more playmakers on offense. They were 117th (out of 119 teams) nationally a year ago in total offense.

11. Auburn: The firestorm that surrounded Gene Chizik's hiring at Auburn has quieted ... for now. He's put together a quality staff, and the Tigers did a nice job in recruiting. Now the hard part begins -- taking it to the field and improving on last season's 5-7 record. That starts with implementing Gus Malzahn's spread offense. It's no secret that Tony Franklin's spread wasn't a big hit a year ago on the Plains. Much of the pressure will fall on quarterback Kodi Burns, who struggled mightily last season. The Tigers hope prep school receiver DeAngelo Benton can add some immediate firepower on offense. Losing tackle Sen'Derrick Marks early to the NFL was a blow defensively, but the Tigers did hold onto end Antonio Coleman.

12. Mississippi State: First-year coach Dan Mullen brings his version of the spread offense to Mississippi State. Too bad he doesn't also get to bring Tebow. The Bulldogs probably need one more recruiting class to fully stock the offense with the players they need to run the spread, but they're off to a good start with seven receivers in this class. They also signed quarterback Tyler Russell of Meridian, Miss. There's sure to be growing pains as the Bulldogs make the conversion on offense, which means the defense needs to be good right away. Mississippi State loses star safety Derek Pegues, but All-SEC linebacker Jamar Chaney is set to return after fracturing his leg last season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

It's an inexact science trying to provide power rankings more than six months before the Big 12 season starts, but here's my best guess heading into spring practice. I've considered coaching changes, NFL draft defections, returning players, schedules and expected boost from arriving recruiting classes in determining how I think teams should be placed heading into the spring.

1. Texas -- A sense of unfinished business is present after the Longhorns came within seconds of challenging for the national championship last season. That feeling helped lure Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley back for another year. If recruit Chris Whaley can emerge at running back and the defensive line can be rebuilt, the Longhorns should be in the hunt for a shot at the national title game at the Rose Bowl. The last time the crystal ball was awarded there, Texas upset USC for the championship. Could history repeat itself?

2. Oklahoma -- The Sooners had a strong signing day, but an even better one a couple of weeks earlier when Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and Gerald McCoy, among others, decided to return for the 2009 season. But the Sooners still need to find some playmakers at wide receiver and rebuild their offensive line. And of a more immediate concern for Bob Stoops than his recent BCS bowl struggles is that nagging 1-3 mark against Texas over the past four seasons.

3. Oklahoma State -- Next season's Texas Tech could be Oklahoma State, which has all of its major weapons returning after Russell Okung decided to put off the NFL draft for another season. But the Cowboys' hopes of challenging for their first Big 12 South title will depend on wily veteran coordinator Bill Young's work with the defense. If it can improve like the Red Raiders did most of the 2008 season, it won't be far-fetched to think that the Cowboys can make a similar jump.

4. Nebraska -- The Cornhuskers got a big shot of momentum after their impressive comeback victory in the Gator Bowl. Ndamukong Suh will be back, but the Cornhuskers have to find a replacement for Joe Ganz at quarterback. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson's work in turning out serviceable players at the position at Colorado and Nebraska lessens some of those concerns. But it still wouldn't surprise me to be seeing heralded incoming freshman Cody Green to be starting at the position by early November -- maybe even with the North Division title on the line.

5. Kansas -- The Jayhawks made history last season by making back-to-back bowl trips. With most of their major offensive weapons back, can they make similar history with their first undisputed Big 12 North title? Todd Reesing and Dezmon Briscoe will pile up passing yardage, along with increased talent from their past two recruiting classes. But the Jayhawks still face the same challenging Texas-Oklahoma-Texas Tech rotation among South opponents, making for the toughest challenge of any North team in their out-of-division contests.

6. Texas Tech -- Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell are gone. Mike Leach is angry after a prolonged contract dispute with school officials. It will mean that Taylor Potts will face a huge challenge stepping in at quarterback. And defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill hopes that some of the strong talent in the trenches can step forward immediately after his team's late collapse against Oklahoma and Mississippi last season.

7. Missouri -- The Tigers' offense will take a big step back with Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin all gone from last season's Alamo Bowl team. Sean Weatherspoon will anchor a defense that will have to rebuild after losing Ziggy Hood, Stryker Sulak and William Moore. Too many key Tiger players are leaving to think they can make a three-peat of North Division titles, although Missouri should again be in the hunt for a bowl game.

8. Colorado -- Dan Hawkins is already sold on this team, proclaiming it capable of a 10-2 record shortly after his team's disappointing finish last season. I'm not thinking Colorado will be that good, but I do expect a bowl trip if the Buffs can stay away from injuries, Cody Hawkins or Tyler Hansen emerges at quarterback and Darrell Scott fulfills the promise he arrived at college with.

9. Baylor -- Art Briles' unexpectedly solid recruiting class should provide Robert Griffin with a lot of weapons. Most notable might be Terrance Ganaway, a bullish 220-pound transfer from Houston who will give Jay Finley a nice balance at running back. The Bears' hopes of making their first bowl appearance since the Big 12 was formed will depend on playing better in close games -- they were 0-3 in games settled by a touchdown or less in 2008.

10. Kansas State -- Bill Snyder's return to college coaching didn't wow recruits, but it's a start. The Wildcats do have 15 returning starters, but have to hope that new coordinator Andy Ludwig can make some offensive magic with either Carson Coffman or junior college transfer Daniel Thomas. And they have to hope that some offensive linemen emerge to protect whoever is starting.

11. Texas A&M -- Mike Sherman added speed and playmaking ability to his defense, but the Aggies really needed it. And all of the heralded recruits still will be facing a steep learning curve against all of the other heralded offenses in the South Division. But Christine Michael will be arriving as the most heralded playmaker for the Aggies in more than decade, ensuring there will be some excitement when he's surrounded by players like Jerrod Johnson and Jeff Fuller.

12. Iowa State -- Paul Rhoads is back at Iowa State, and he'll think it's kind of li
ke 1995, when he started coaching there on Dan McCarney's staff. The challenges in the Big 12 might be even more imposing than they were then, meaning Rhoads will be facing a steep climb to respectability. Austen Arnaud, Alexander Robinson and Darius Darks provide an offensive foundation, but Rhoads' biggest talents have always been developing a defense. He'll definitely have his work cut out at his new job.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

Below is the Independents and Others spring top 10. As you can see, it's different from the season-ending top 10 because it reflects losses to graduation, the NFL and incoming recruiting classes. I guarantee this list will look different at the beginning of the 2009 season. 

1. TCU -- The Horned Frogs finished the season as one of the top teams in the country, and with only a few personnel losses and several key additions, the Horned Frogs are going to be the top team to bring down the BCS this year. It helps that Jerry Hughes, the anchor of the nation's best rushing defense, is still on campus.

2. BYU -- Even with the loss of Austin Collie, the Cougars bring back a strong team that will be better for its experiences from 2008. And don't forget the addition of receiver McKay Jacobson, who is a similar playmaker to Collie. He and tight end Dennis Pitta will continue to give the Cougars strong offensive options.

3. Notre Dame -- With all the talent Notre Dame is bringing back and bringing in through recruiting, it's hard to imagine that this team isn't going to be better than it was in 2008. The Irish ended the season on a high note with a big win in Hawaii and the optimism was intensified with the signing of top recruit Manti Te'o. Now it's time to put it all together on the field.

4. Boise State -- The Broncos will be just as good as they were a year ago, but the loss of Jeremy Childs will force quarterback Kellen Moore to find a new favorite target and a couple of the receivers to step up in Childs' place. There's little doubt the Broncos will be the favorite to win the WAC, but it might have trouble against an Oregon team looking for revenge, and in their tilt at Tulsa.

5. East Carolina -- The Pirates were one of the best teams in the non-BCS last season, but were discounted because of a mid-season losing streak. A lot of the players who helped defeat Virginia Tech and West Virginia to begin the 2008 season return, and key additions at running back and defensive end should help the Pirates challenge for the C-USA title again.

6. Southern Miss -- The Golden Eagles started last season slowly as they got used to coach Larry Fedora, but with a year of this system under their belts and winning their last five to end the season, the Golden Eagles will be a team to watch next year. Not to mention the fact that Southern Miss brings back all of its skill players and has a couple nice additions on defense.

7. Air Force -- The Falcons were one of the youngest teams in the country last season, but still managed to exceed expectations and finish fourth in a tough Mountain West Conference. With Utah rebuilding, the Falcons will have a chance to crack into the top three of the conference and notch another eight-win season.

8. Central Michigan -- The Chippewas struggled a little bit last season and didn't play in the Mid-American Conference title game for the first time in the past couple years, but this is still a good team that now will have a solid senior nucleus. It needs to get quarterback Dan LeFevour help in the running game, but otherwise it should be the favorite to win the MAC.

9. Houston -- The Cougars lost a couple key players on defense, but the offense remains mostly intact and should get help from a decent class and some players coming back from injuries. Quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense, is back as are most of his weapons. There's no doubt that he'll be back in the top of the total offense category once again.

10. Nevada -- The Wolf Pack will be one of the most dangerous rushing teams if running back Luke Lippincott, who missed last season with a torn ACL, receives a medical redshirt from the NCAA. That would take the pressure off quarterback Colin Kaepernick to run and he could focus on his passing, which was up and down all season. The only problem for Nevada is a tough non-conference schedule that includes games at Notre Dame and Colorado State, and at home against Missouri and UNLV.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

This pecking order includes 2008 finish, NFL early defections, recruiting and an early projection for the 2009 season.

1. USC: The Trojans lost quarterback Mark Sanchez to early entry and looked slightly less invincible during recruiting this signing day, but they remain top dogs until someone knocks them off their pedestal for the past seven seasons.

2. California: The Bears unexpectedly lost tight end Cameron Morrah to early entry as well as three outstanding linebackers to graduation, and the recruiting class was a minor disappointment, but 17 returning starters from a nine-win team indicates the Bears might be the top challenger for USC next fall.

3. Oregon: The Ducks saw cornerback Jairus Byrd bolt for the NFL early, both lines take some big hits and the recruiting class ranked sixth in the Pac-10. But if you watched the Holiday Bowl whipping of Oklahoma State, the return of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back LeGarrette Blount suggest the Ducks will find a way to be in the race.

4. Oregon State: Beavers fans probably yawn at their recruiting class being ranked eighth in the conference, but they surely are concerned about a defense that loses eight starters. On the other hand, running back Jacquizz Rodgers and quarterback Lyle Moevao lead an offense that will welcome back seven in 2009.

5. Arizona: Offensive tackle Eben Britton bolted early for the NFL and the recruiting class ranked seventh in the Pac-10, but the Wildcats should be in pretty good shape for another bowl run if someone emerges at quarterback. Of course, that's a big "if."

6. UCLA: The Bruins perk up in the power rankings in large part because of the momentum of an outstanding recruiting class, which includes a handful of guys who can provide immediate help. Moreover, 16 returning starters means there will be nice competition for the incoming youngins.

7. Arizona State: Linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive tackle Corey Adams made the recruiting class -- Dennis Erickson is putting a stamp on his defense. And 16 starters will be back in 2009. But the Sun Devils have critical questions at quarterback and on the offensive line.

8. Stanford: With 17 starters back and the conference's third-rated recruiting class, the Cardinal look poised to move up. And the margin between Nos. 6, 7 and 8 is small. But the bad taste of losing three of four to finish the season -- thereby falling one win shy of bowl eligibility -- lingers.

9. Washington: The Huskies lost to Washington State in the Apple Cup and signed an inferior recruiting class compared to their rivals. And 17 returning starters from a winless team doesn't mean a whole lot. But one of those starters is quarterback Jake Locker, a certifiable difference-maker.

10. Washington State: The Cougars signed a better recruiting class than Washington and beat the Huskies last year, but -- despite 16 returning starters -- there are more roster questions heading into spring practices, particularly who will end up starting at quarterback.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The recruiting classes are in, several underclassmen are out (preparing for the NFL draft) and coaching changes have been made. It's time to re-examine the Big Ten power rankings, which project forward to the 2009 season but take into consideration the way a team finished up 2008.

1. Ohio State -- The Buckeyes lost juniors Chris "Beanie" Wells, Brian Hartline and Donald Washington to the NFL draft and said goodbye to a large senior class, but they performed well in the Fiesta Bowl and brought in the league's best recruiting class. The youth movement has begun in Columbus, and Ohio State likely will surround Terrelle Pryor with more dynamic skill players on offense. There are some holes in the defensive two-deep, but Ohio State rarely misses a beat on that side of the ball.

2. Penn State -- The somewhat surprising early departures of defensive ends Aaron Maybin and Maurice Evans create questions in an area where Penn State dominated last season. Linebacker should be a major strength, but Penn State must replenish the secondary and find a stud pass rusher or two. Wide receiver should be the most interesting position to watch during the spring and summer, and if Penn State avoids a drop-off on the offensive line, it should be in good shape for another league title push. A large recruiting class will play a key role in the Lions' quest to repeat.

3. Iowa -- Shonn Greene surprised absolutely no one by declaring for the NFL draft, and the Doak Walker Award winner leaves a major void in production. But backup running back Jewel Hampton showed promise last year, and Iowa has fewer question marks on offense than most Big Ten teams. Arguably the bigger questions come at defensive tackle, where four-year starters Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. Avoiding a major drop-off in the interior line is crucial, but Iowa returns most of its key players from a 9-4 team.

4. Michigan State -- Several key seniors depart, including running back Javon Ringer and safety Otis Wiley, but Michigan State brings back most of its key contributors and adds its best recruiting class in recent memory. The competition at both running back and quarterback will set the course for the 2009 season, but the Spartans should be deeper and better on defense.

5. Northwestern -- Much like Michigan State, Northwestern must replace its starting offensive backfield for the 2009 campaign. Mike Kafka steps in at quarterback after a solid junior season, but there will be plenty of competition at both running back and wide receiver. The offensive line should be much improved, and as long as star defensive end Corey Wootton recovers from knee surgery, the Wildcats will boast one of the Big Ten's best defenses.

6. Illinois -- As expected, cornerback Vontae Davis entered the NFL draft, leaving some questions in an Illini secondary that struggled at the safety spot in 2008. Improving the defense will be Illinois' top priority entering the fall, especially with so much talent back on the offensive side. Ron Zook's recruiting class drew mixed reviews after several committed prospects went elsewhere, but Illinois held onto wide receiver Terry Hawthorne and addressed several of its needs.

7. Minnesota -- The Gophers welcome two new coordinators (Jedd Fisch and Kevin Cosgrove) and a different offensive approach heading into spring practice, but they bring back most of the pieces from a 7-6 team. Tim Brewster continued to improve the defensive secondary with his recent recruiting haul, and both lines return virtually intact. If Minnesota can adjust to the changes in coaching and scheme, it should take another step forward in 2009.

8. Wisconsin -- Underappreciated running back P.J. Hill surprised some by declaring for the NFL draft, and Wisconsin also said goodbye to a large senior class. John Clay looks more than capable of becoming a featured back for the Badgers in 2009, but unless some significant progress is made at the quarterback position, it's hard to see improvement. A very solid recruiting class featuring quarterback Jon Budmayr and wide receiver Kraig Appleton could bolster the passing attack and move Wisconsin up the rankings.

9. Michigan -- Despite a 3-9 season, Michigan landed a top 10 recruiting class that features several players likely to contribute right away. Brandon Graham stayed for his senior year, giving the Wolverines a dominant pass rusher. The Wolverines very well could make a major move up this list, but they first must find a solution at the quarterback spot and fill holes on the defensive line and in the secondary. The recruiting class provides a major boost, but the program remains in a transition phase.

10. Purdue -- The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's mystery team, as they welcome a new head coach (Danny Hope) and most likely a different type of player. Hope landed 14 recruits from Florida in hopes of upgrading Purdue's speed and athleticism, and he also must replace starters at all the offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, wide receiver). If the defense avoids a drop-off and Hope's recruits contribute immediately like he thinks they will, the Boilers will be a much-improved team.

11. Indiana -- Wide receiver Andrew Means declared for the NFL draft, but Indiana doesn't lose a whole lot from last year's team, which could be good or bad. Head coach Bill Lynch didn't make any staff changes, hoping that continuity and improved health will lead to better results in 2009. Indiana boasts two experienced quarterbacks (Kellen Lewis and Ben Chappell), two proven pass rushers (Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew) and some promising young players, but if the defense doesn't improve, it could be another long season.

Pre-spring ACC power rankings

February, 9, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

With the NFL departures announced, and signing day officially over, it's time for a re-ranking heading into spring football. Keep in mind things change during spring practice -- some players get hurt, some win position battles, but here's the first early peek at how the ACC might fare in 2009:

1. Virginia Tech -- The ACC and Orange Bowl champs return 16 starters, and there are high expectations for an offensive backfield that will contain shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. If the defense maintains its tradition without Victor "Macho" Harris, the Hokies could be a top 10 team.

2. Florida State -- The defense took some hits -- the most notable being the loss of defensive end Everette Brown -- but should have enough experience to compensate for it. The offensive line should be one of the best in the conference and give returning quarterback Christian Ponder and tailback Jermaine Thomas plenty of help. The question is the depth at receiver after the loss of Preston Parker, Greg Carr, and probably Corey Surrency. FSU also loses Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano.

3. Georgia Tech -- Overall, this team will be experienced and deeper -- it will return every starter at the skill positions -- but the Yellow Jackets must reload on the defensive front and improve on the offensive line. There will be three new starters on the defensive line, and Tech lost two senior starters on the offensive line. There are 25 players on the roster, though, who have at least one career start.

4. Miami -- Coach Randy Shannon brought in yet another outstanding recruiting class, and playing so many true freshmen in 2008 should help this season. There shouldn't be any quarterback drama this season, and Jacory Harris should only improve under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple. Defensive coordinator is still a question mark, though.

5. North Carolina -- Never count out a Butch Davis-coached team, but the Tar Heels will be a question mark until a new batch of receivers proves otherwise. Brooks Foster, Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks accounted for 114 receptions in 2008, and all three have left for the NFL. Safety Trimane Goddard is arguably the biggest loss on defense.

6. NC State -- If the Pack stay healthy -- something they haven't been able to do for the past two seasons -- NC State could be the sleeper in the Atlantic Division. It has to replace tight end Anthony Hill and running back Andre Brown, though, and 2007 leading receiver Donald Bowens will miss spring practice because of knee surgery.

7. Clemson -- Speedy playmakers C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are back, but they'll be under the direction of a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Let's see how the Tigers do without any expectations for a change.

8. Maryland -- The Terps graduated 30 seniors and junior receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey left for the NFL. One of the biggest question marks is how they'll fare up front after the graduation of three starting offensive linemen, including All-ACC center Edwin Williams. The defense, which loses four starters from its front seven, will be led by first-year coordinator Don Brown.

9. Wake Forest -- The good news for the Deacs is the offensive line should better, and they return veteran quarterback Riley Skinner. The bad news is they'll sorely miss some of the best defensive players the program has had in recent years, along with kicker Sam Swank.

10. Virginia -- If quarterback Jameel Sewell makes a smooth transition back into the lineup and quickly learns the new offense, the Cavs could surprise some people this season. They'll have to replace all three starters at linebacker, though, and will miss starting receivers Kevin Ogletree and Maurice Covington, as well as leading rusher Cedric Peerman.

11. Boston College -- Consider this a rebuilding year for the Eagles. The loss of defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will have an effect up front. With a new staff, a small recruiting class and a young starting quarterback, the only direction for BC to head is up.

12. Duke -- The Blue Devils have arguably one of the league's top quarterbacks in Thaddeus Lewis, but he won't have Eron Riley to throw it to this season. Duke also loses ACC-leading tackler Michael Tauiliili at linebacker. Still, the Blue Devils should take another step forward in their second season under David Cutcliffe.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft is a distant memory. Signing day is in the rear-view mirror. So now it's time for our pre-spring 2009 conference rankings.

And I thought the Big East was hard to decipher in 2008. I submit that no league is more difficult to sort out right now than this one. As many as five teams can be considered serious contenders, and you can make just as strong a case for each team to be ranked fifth as you could first.

Anyway, here's my best estimation (read: wild stab) at it. I suspect these will look different after we get a look at spring practices.

1. West Virginia: When in doubt, go with the most successful program of the past few years. Actually, that's not why I'm picking the Mountaineers here. I think they have the fewest question marks of any team right now. Yes, Pat White is gone, but Jarrett Brown has been a solid quarterback in relief the past couple of years. Virtually the entire defense is back, and there is a host of playmakers for Brown to find. That's good enough for the slightest of nods.

2. Cincinnati: Putting my faith in Brian Kelly here. The Bearcats lose all but one starter on defense, but they still have a lot of firepower left on offense, including perhaps the league's best quarterback in Tony Pike. I'm guessing the two-time Big East coach of the year will have his defense up to speed by mid-October.

3. Rutgers: Can momentum carry over from a previous season? The Scarlet Knights, who will enter 2009 riding a seven-game winning streak, sure hope so. There's a lot of good, young talent on this team. Still, with so many major contributors gone -- including Mike Teel, Kenny Britt and Courtney Greene -- it looks to me like Rutgers is a year away from claiming the league's BCS bid.

4. Pittsburgh: At the beginning of January, I would have told you Pitt was the prohibitive favorite to win the 2009 Big East. Then LeSean McCoy turned pro. The Panthers probably should be higher than this, but until I see signs this spring that the quarterback play will be improved, I'm curbing my enthusiasm.

5. South Florida: You'd probably expect to see the Bulls higher on this list, given the return of quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie for their senior seasons and the influx of new talent. Yet I refuse to have much confidence in this team until it plays consistently for a full 12 games and rises to the competition of the Big East. Plus, there are several question marks on the offensive line and in the secondary.

6. Connecticut: Randy Edsall's team is continually and criminally underrated, and I hate to put the Huskies this low. But when you consider that Donald Brown, Cody Brown, Will Beatty and Darius Butler are gone from a team that won only two conference games a year ago, I have a hard time seeing how UConn is going to be better in '09. Perhaps the new no-huddle offense will do the trick.

7. Syracuse: Doug Marrone should be able to pull off a surprise or two in his first season at the Syracuse helm. This was a really young team that was starting to mesh at the end of last season, and the offense has to improve.

8. Louisville: The Cardinals lost their last five Big East games in 2008, and it might be a while before they end that slide.

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