NCF Nation: spring power rankings 021010

Big 12 pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
With spring practice set to begin soon -- Texas opens its camp on March 2 -- here’s a quick look at how I have the teams ranked heading into spring practice. In formulating my rankings, I took into account returning players, transfers, arriving freshmen and a teams’ schedules.

1. Texas (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Garrett Gilbert got a head start on replacing Colt McCoy with his considerable playing time in the national title game, an invaluable learning experience for a young player. The Longhorns return most of the defense that improved in its second season under Will Muschamp. The biggest chores will be for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has to boost running game production and find a replacement for record-breaking wide receiver Jordan Shipley.

2. Nebraska (18 starters back: 8 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 special teams). Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers positioned for a potential top-10 preseason ranking. Most of the offensive weapons will be back from a unit that sputtered down the stretch before breaking out in the Holiday Bowl victory. Quarterback Zac Lee will miss some of spring practice as he recovers from postseason surgery. Cody Green and Kody Spano will get most of the work until Lee returns. Nebraska coaches think the defense can be better this season, even without the up-the-middle strength of Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon.

3. Oklahoma (15 starters back: 9 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Sooners overcame a debilitating run of injuries last season to finish with a flourish, knocking Oklahoma State out of a BCS game and winning the Sun Bowl in their final two games. Landry Jones will be infinitely better in his second season as a starter and Ryan Broyles and DeMarco Murray may be the best one-two receiving/running back combination in the conference. Bob Stoops will be facing a big renovation on defense where key players like Gerald McCoy and Dominique Franks left early for the NFL draft. Look for Travis Lewis to be the key to a defense that will need to improve by the time Big 12 play begins if the Sooners are to have any hope of claiming a seventh Big 12 title this season.

4. Missouri (19 starters back: 9 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 special teams). The Tigers will miss Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who were arguably the best players at their positions in the conference last season. But Blaine Gabbert is back for a second season as starting quarterback and some talented recruits are expected to emerge on defense. A key for the Tigers’ success will be a more productive running game and consistency from the offensive line. Improvement on both will be critical for coordinator David Yost during the spring.

5. Texas Tech (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Tommy Tuberville immediately will have to sort through a potentially difficult decision at quarterback between Taylor Potts and fan favorite Steven Sheffield. New coordinator James Willis hopes to install a 3-4 defense that should be a haven for athletic linebackers. But the group’s success will hinge on replacing Jamar Wall at cornerback and finding some pass-rushing threats to replace Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones and Daniel Howard along the front.

6. Texas A&M (19 starters back: 8 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 special teams). With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Christine Michael back, the Aggies shouldn’t have trouble scoring points, although the line needs to do a better job of protecting Johnson. But the Aggies’ success will depend on the returning starters quickly taking to new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s teachings. The group was blistered for at least 35 points in seven games last season and allowed at least 30 points in two other games. So needless to say that even with nine starters back, DeRuyter has his work cut out.

7. Kansas (16 starters back: 7 offensive, 7 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Turner Gill inherits an uncertain quarterback situation, but has the framework for a strong running attack with all of his starting linemen back, along with Toben Opurum and heralded back Brandon Bourbon as running threats. The Jayhawks will need to fill in for the loss of Darrell Stuckey in the secondary, but new coordinator Carl Torbush should find the elements for a blitzing, attacking defense among the returnees. But the biggest reason the Jayhawks might be bound for a bowl game in Gill’s first season is swapping Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor in their cross-divisional schedule.

8. Iowa State (13 starters back: 8 offensive, 4 defensive, 1 special teams). Paul Rhoads returns most of the offensive weapons that led the Cyclones to the Insight Bowl, most notably quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson. But the team loses all of its starting linebackers; veteran coordinator Wally Burnham will be challenged to cobble together a serviceable unit. The Cyclones could actually be a better team in 2010 but post a worse record. A tougher schedule featuring nonconference games against Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois and the addition of South Division powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech will make last season’s bowl trip much tougher to duplicate.

9. Oklahoma State (10 starters back: 4 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Cowboys must find replacements for key players like Zac Robinson, Keith Tosten, four offensive linemen (including Outland finalist Russell Okung) and six of their back seven on defense. New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen finds an uncertain quarterback situation but will lean heavily on a healthy Kendall Hunter. A manageable nonconference schedule should have them in bowl contention, but this should be a step back from Mike Gundy’s last two teams.

10. Kansas State (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip last season only because they scheduled two FCS teams, but they surprisingly challenged for the Big 12 North title up to their last game of the season. It might be tougher to do that this season, although Daniel Thomas will provide the foundation on offense. Carson Coffman has the inside track at quarterback, but keep an eye out for Oregon transfer Chris Harper at either that position or wide receiver. Players like Jeffrey Fitzgerald and John Houlik will be missed on defense, but all four starters are back in the secondary.

11. Colorado (16 starters back: 8 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Dan Hawkins’ seat is the hottest in the Big 12 and arguably in college football after missing a bowl for a second straight season last year. Tyler Hansen returns as the starting quarterback, but the Buffaloes need to find some help in the backfield with only three scholarship backs in spring practice. The defense was young last season and should be improved, but will miss the leadership provided by Jeff Smart and Cha’pelle Brown. A bowl trip likely will be necessary to save Hawkins’ job and a tough nonconference schedule featuring games at California and against Hawaii and Georgia will prove troublesome even before Big 12 play begins.

12. Baylor (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Bears’ hopes of stopping the conference’s longest bowl drought will hinge largely on the health of Robert Griffin, who is recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss the final nine games of the 2009 season. New offensive lineman “Big” Robert Griffin will have to protect his quarterback if coach Art Briles has any hope of making a bowl trip. Jay Finley and Kendall Wright are underrated offensive threats, but the Bears will miss key defensive leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake who were stalwarts for several years.

SEC pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
Wasn’t it just yesterday that Alabama’s Nick Saban was raising that crystal trophy out in California?

It sure seems so, but the start of spring practice in the SEC is only two weeks away. LSU cranks it up on Feb. 25, which means it’s time for the pre-spring power rankings.

There’s not much drama as to who’s No. 1. The Crimson Tide haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2007 and are coming off their first national championship in 17 years.

Even with nine starters departing on defense, they still head into the spring as the clear-cut favorite in the SEC.

Here’s a look at the entire poll:

1. Alabama: We’ll find out early about Alabama. The Crimson Tide face Penn State the second week of the season in Tuscaloosa. Losing nine starters on defense will be a challenge to overcome. But make no mistake. There's no shortage of defensive talent in Alabama’s program. New faces will emerge, and Nick Saban is one of the best in business when it comes to developing players. The offense should be even better than it was a year ago. How good will the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson tandem be next season? Repeating as SEC champions isn't easy. It hasn't been done since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998.

2. Florida: The Gators get the prize for losing the most talent in the SEC when you consider all the juniors leaving early for the NFL. John Brantley finally gets his shot at quarterback and right away will be one of the better passers in the league. How successful he is in his first season will depend largely on the players around him. Tim Tebow won’t be around anymore to convert all the key third downs. Defensively, Florida will again be strong. There’s a ton of untapped talent on that side of the ball in the program. The Gators won’t win 13 games again, but 10 or 11 isn’t out of the question.

3. LSU: Having LSU this high may be a bit of a gamble. But when you look at the talent on the Tigers’ roster, both offensively and defensively, they’re still a top 3 team. For now. Here’s betting that quarterback Jordan Jefferson breaks out and has a much more productive junior season. And somehow, the Tigers have to get Russell Shepard involved in the offense. John Chavis’ defense played well enough to win the West last season and will give the Tigers a chance in every game again next season. It’s a critical year for Les Miles. He needs to make a run at another title and finish strongly.

4. Arkansas: Watch out for the Hogs in 2010. And really watch out for them if some of the younger players on defense grow up and play more consistently. Arkansas still isn’t going to be able to win every game 41-38. But with quarterback Ryan Mallett returning along with his arsenal of playmakers, the Hogs should be the most explosive offense in the league. Mallett will also be better equipped to operate against some of the better defenses now that he’s been through the league one time.

5. Auburn: One of the biggest pickups in the offseason for any team in the SEC was the Tigers signing junior college quarterback Cameron Newton. He looks like a perfect fit in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Look for the Tigers to play at an even faster pace offensively next season. The real trick will be picking up the pace defensively and not giving up as many points. If some of the newcomers in this highly touted signing class can help on defense, Auburn has a chance to make a run at nine or 10 wins in 2010.

6. South Carolina: If ever the Gamecocks were going to make a serious push to be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game, this may be the year. They return many of their key players on offense and defense, and Stephen Garcia all of a sudden looks like a seasoned quarterback. Ellis Johnson’s defense will be up to the task, and South Carolina gets Georgia in Columbia next season in the second week. It’s all going to come down to whether or not the Gamecocks can finally figure it out in the offensive line. So far, they haven't.

7. Georgia: The Bulldogs will sport several new looks in 2010. They have a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham, who’s implementing a new 3-4 defense. They will also have a new quarterback. Redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are expected to battle it out for the starting job this spring. The Bulldogs are talented enough to make some noise in the East. The Washaun Ealey-A.J. Green combo on offense should be something to see. It remains to be seen, though, if they can improve enough on defense to be a factor.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels loom as the team most likely to take the biggest tumble next season. They were a senior-heavy team a year ago, and most of their playmakers on offense and defense are gone. More than ever, Tyrone Nix’s defense is going to have to carry Ole Miss in 2010. The Rebels should again be strong up front defensively with Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe returning. But the offense will include new faces across the board, including a new starter at quarterback.

9. Tennessee: New coach Derek Dooley may not be ready to call it a rebuilding job, but that’s what he faces in Knoxville. The Vols are frighteningly thin on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, and that’s not a good combination in the SEC. They will also have a new starter at quarterback, not to mention a killer schedule. Tennessee has lost 13 games in the last two seasons. That total could easily approach 20 following next season. In other words, it's not going to be a quick fix for Dooley.

10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs appear poised to make a move under Dan Mullen after coming close to being bowl eligible a year ago. The young talent in this program is impressive, headed up by Chad Bumphis, Johnthan Banks and Fletcher Cox. Pernell McPhee returns as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, but the real question for Mississippi State is on offense. Replacing Anthony Dixon won’t be easy. Is redshirt freshman Tyler Russell ready to win the starting quarterback job?

11. Kentucky: The Joker Phillips era begins with a lot of question marks on defense. The Wildcats lost a ton of good defensive football players from last season, including Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell and Trevard Lindley. The good news is that Randall Cobb is back on offense (and special teams), and Phillips can build around him offensively. Getting back to a bowl game for a fifth straight year may be a tall order for the Wildcats.

12. Vanderbilt: Quarterback Larry Smith will have some competition this spring in the form of junior college newcomer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Commodores can’t possibly have as many injuries as they had a year ago, which means they’re a solid bet to improve on their 2-10 season. They should again be good on defense. It just gets down to whether or not they can generate any type of passing game.

Big Ten pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It's that time again.

Four weeks have passed since the year-end installment of the power rankings, and while no games were played during the span, there has been some news. We know who's coming back (Greg Jones, Evan Royster, Cameron Heyward) and who's not (Thaddeus Gibson, Navorro Bowman, Amari Spievey). We also can size up the recruiting classes for each Big Ten team.

Spring practice in the Big Ten officially kicks off March 13 at Wisconsin, so let's take a look at how the teams stack up heading into the spring. Please remember that the power rankings can -- and will -- change several times before the season begins Sept. 2.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will be a consensus top 5 team and a legit national title contender entering the fall. Heyward's decision to return is huge for a talented defensive front. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor builds off of his Rose Bowl performance and Ohio State solidifies things at left tackle, safety and possibly running back, this team will be scary good.

2. Iowa: The NFL draft stung the Hawkeyes a bit, as both Spievey and left tackle Bryan Bulaga opted to turn pro. But All-America candidate Adrian Clayborn returns, and Iowa will be stacked at both running back and wide receiver in 2010. Rebuilding the offensive line will be Iowa's top priority as it aims for a Big Ten championship this fall.

3. Wisconsin: The mojo is back in Mad-town as Wisconsin returns the core players from a team that went 10-3 and finished 16th in the final AP Poll. Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay leads a balanced and efficient offense, while the defense boasts a lot of young talent but must replace star pass rusher O'Brien Schofield.

4. Penn State: No Big Ten team lost more standout players than the Nittany Lions, but Penn State has shown an ability to reload, particularly in the defensive front seven. Royster's decision to return is huge for Penn State, which will rely on the rushing attack and an improved offensive line in 2010. A crucial quarterback competition begins this spring, as Kevin Newsome tries to hold off several young challengers.

5. Michigan State: I'm a bit leery to put Michigan State this high after 2009, but Jones' decision to return eased some concerns about the defense. The Spartans must get better on both lines and in the secondary, and quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to rebound after a rough finish to his sophomore season. Recruits William Gholston and Max Bullough should help the defense right away.

6. Northwestern: The Wildcats proved in 2009 that they could overcome the losses of several offensive standouts. They'll need to do it again as All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka departs and junior Dan Persa steps in. Northwestern must revive its rushing attack this spring behind an offensive line that returns fully intact. The secondary also is a concern as three starters graduate.

T-7. Michigan: The offense will put up points again, but Michigan's big concerns rest with a defense that loses standouts Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren. A recruiting class headlined by safety Demar Dorsey certainly should help matters, as Michigan needs immediate contributions from its young players. The Wolverines need a strong spring from their early enrollees as they prepare for a critical 2010 season.

T-7. Purdue: It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finishes in the top half of the Big Ten in 2010, but a few key questions remain. The biggest one comes at quarterback, where Miami transfer Robert Marve and sophomore Caleb TerBush will compete for the top job. Purdue also must reload in the secondary and improve a run defense that has ranked last in the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons.

9. Minnesota: Spring practice will be critical for a Gophers team trying to establish an identity on offense and reload on defense. The starting quarterback job is up for grabs as incumbent Adam Weber tries to hold off MarQueis Gray and impress new coordinator Jeff Horton. Minnesota must replace all three starting linebackers, both starting defensive tackles and both starting cornerbacks.

10. Indiana: The Hoosiers should be very dynamic on offense in 2010, but they must address their chronic defensive woes as soon as possible to rebound this fall. Head coach Bill Lynch is moving several offensive players to defense this spring, and IU's ability to identify impact players likely will determine whether it can rise up the rankings.

11. Illinois: Things have been anything but quiet around Champaign the last eight weeks, as head coach Ron Zook shuffled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators and four new position coaches. Illinois doesn't have time for growing pains, and the new assistants will need to implement the scheme and get the most out of a roster filled with question marks. One way or another, Illinois will be a fascinating team to watch between now and the season opener.

Spring Pac-10 power rankings

February, 10, 2010
Where does everyone stand heading into spring practices? These rankings are about today -- not 2009 -- and what's coming back in 2010. Recruiting success also is a secondary factor.

Nos. 4 through 8 were difficult because each team has some nice players coming back, as well as some big losses -- players and coaches.

Expect these to change, perhaps dramatically, before the 2010 season.

1. Oregon: All the pieces are here for another Rose Bowl run, the only question being the defensive line. The Ducks also had a top-25 recruiting class, with a number of incoming players appearing capable of immediately contributing.

2. USC: A top-10 recruiting class bolsters USC and provides momentum for new coach Lane Kiffin. On the downside, three offensive linemen and the entire secondary need to be replaced. Still, the depth chart hints the Trojans will be in the conference -- and perhaps national -- mix.

3. Oregon State: The Beavers lose just five starters, but all eyes will be on the quarterback competition between Ryan Katz and Peter Lalich this spring. Young quarterbacks thrived in the conference in 2009, so there's no reason to believe the Beavers can't find a guy who can be productive.

4. California: You might as well pick the next five teams from a hat. The Bears lose their three best players -- Jahvid Best, Tyson Alualu and Syd'Quan Thompson -- and are uncertain at quarterback. Still, a strong recruiting effort paired with lower expectations might be the ticket for a "Don't call it a comeback!" season in Berkeley.

5. Washington: The Huskies (Jake Locker) are thin on both lines (Jake Locker) and lost their two best (Jake Locker) defensive players -- end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and linebacker Donald Butler. But there's a lot of returning skill on offense (Jake Locker) and recruiting went well (Jake Locker). What's-his-name is a pretty good QB.

6. Stanford: The Cardinal welcome back eight on offense, but Toby Gerhart is gone. The defense loses five starters, not including end Erik Lorig, who missed most of the season with a groin injury. And there's been significant coaching turnover. Strong recruiting will fill gaps. But how well?

7. Arizona: The Wildcats must replace 12 starters and two coordinators. That's a lot of turnover. On the plus side, quarterback Nick Foles has a lot of skill around him and defensive ends Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed could be the best pass rushing combo in the Pac-10.

8. UCLA: The Bruins offense must break through next year because it's hard to imagine the defense won't take a step back after losing six starters, including tackle Brian Price and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Problem is the offense, which loses four starters, ranked ninth in the conference in scoring in 2009.

9. Arizona State: The Sun Devils lose seven starters on both sides of the ball. The defense should be OK. It remains to be seen if the offense can dramatically improve with a new starting quarterback and new coordinator.

10. Washington State: The Cougars, who only lose four starters, should be much better in 2010. Quarterback Jeff Tuel and defensive end Travis Long, who both started as true freshmen, are two reasons for hope. It's still a risky bet, however, to predict they climb out of the conference cellar.

Big East pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
Bowl season is long gone. Draft declaration day has passed. Signing day is over. So now it's time to look ahead and gauge the Big East teams as we head into spring. Here, then, are our first set of power rankings for the 2010 season:

1. Pittsburgh: The Panthers will have to replace quarterback Bill Stull, co-defensive player of the year Mick Williams and some other key pieces. But they've still got offensive player of the year Dion Lewis, receiver Jonathan Baldwin, two talented lines and depth created by solid recruiting. This could be their year.

2. West Virginia: Like Pitt, West Virginia will have to break in a new quarterback, though sophomore Geno Smith got some valuable experience during the 2009 campaign. The Mountaineers, though, lose only two starters on defense and bring back the core of their offense, including Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. If the offensive line improves, this team should challenge for the title.

3. Cincinnati: This could prove a bit low for the two-time defending Big East champs, who should have a very potent offense with Zach Collaros, Vidal Hazelton, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead, et al. Once again, however, the Bearcats will be looking for new playmakers on defense. And with the transition to a new coaching staff, I've got to think the team takes a small step back.

4. Connecticut: The Huskies lost only six starters from 2009 and finished as strong as anybody in the conference. If they can patch up some holes in the secondary and find some receiving threats to replace Marcus Easley, this is a team that can make a run at the Big East crown.

T-5. Rutgers: Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu are a year older, which is nice. Not so nice: The Scarlet Knights must replace three starting offensive linemen, their best wideout (Tim Brown) and five key starters on defense. Don't count them out, but this will be a young team that may be a year away from serious conference contention.

T-5. South Florida: The Bulls are the hardest team for me to peg in these rankings right now. They have lots of potential and bring back the nucleus of the offense around promising sophomore quarterback B.J. Daniels. On the other hand, the defense will be young, though it should be very skilled. The biggest question is whether new coach Skip Holtz can reverse the program's recent history and get it to overachieve in Big East play.

7. Syracuse: It's tough to differentiate between Syracuse and Louisville for the last two spots in these rankings. Both will be at a disadvantage talentwise. It pretty much comes down to the fact that it's Doug Marrone's second year vs. the first year for Charlie Strong. Still, the Orange need a quarterback and some offensive playmakers to avoid the cellar again.

8. Louisville: I believe Strong will get the Cardinals turned around in due time. This year will probably be a struggle again. If he finishes better than seventh this year, we'll know the man can really coach.

Non-AQ pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It’s time for everyone’s favorite: pre-spring rankings. Now, we had some communication issues with these rankings last year, so I’m going to explain how these rankings are done. These rankings are based on if the season started tomorrow.

These are NOT my preseason rankings.

There are several teams that have a lot of returners and fewer questions to answer. There are other teams that have talent, but are still looking for some key pieces. This is a reflection of how those teams stack up. Again, these are NOT my preseason rankings.

1. Boise State: The only loss bigger than cornerback Kyle Wilson is the loss of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. The Broncos did make a quick hire from within to keep up the continuity, which should help with the transition into spring football. The offense is totally intact and this team should be working on refining the good thing it already has going.

2. TCU: The Horned Frogs proved last year that they don’t rebuild, they reload. They lost a lot of defensive players that were supposed to hamper the team this year, but actually did little to slow it down. Even though TCU loses defensive stars Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington, there are quality guys waiting and TCU should be able to pick up right where it left off.

3. Utah: The Utes had a huge signing day, especially nabbing some key junior college players who will be able to come in and help right away. Jordan Wynn is the undisputed starting quarterback, which should make this spring a lot more productive than the last one. The defense has a few question marks, but has several players that can step in seamlessly.

4. SMU: Coach June Jones likes working with young players and he’ll have a whole host of them this spring. However, unlike last year, Jones has a quality season on which to build and a lot of young experience with which to build it. The quarterback battle should be interesting with Kyle Padron, New Mexico State transfer J.J. McDermott, and incoming freshman Stephen Kaiser, and they need to find a new starting running back, but overall this team should be looking toward a nine or 10-win season.

5. Navy: Quarterback Ricky Dobbs will likely miss the spring as he recovers from knee surgery, which might not be a bad thing for the Midshipmen. Dobbs was their primary source of scoring last season, and the spring will force the Mids to find other players to become offensive weapons. This Navy teams doesn’t lose much and should continue to be a tough group.

6. Air Force: Coach Troy Calhoun flirted with Tennessee and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is gone, but many of the players from last season's young team return. Losing DeRuyter is a huge hit since the defense was the anchor of the team, but with former co-defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt assuming fulltime coordinator duties, it should be an easy transition this spring.

7. Houston: The Cougars need to spend this spring working on the defense, which should be a transition with new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. Luckily for Stewart, he’s got a young and talented group with which to work, it just needs some direction. Offensively, the Cougars should be roughly the same despite a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Both have been in the program, and they return almost all of their offensive players.

8. BYU: Why are the Cougars so low? It’s not because I hate BYU (though some of you will dispute that), it’s because the Cougars have a lot of key questions to answer this spring. The most pressing is at quarterback, but offensive production is also going to be a question mark. Tight end was the most productive position on the team last season, and both of the top players at that position are gone. The Cougars have to find a go-to receiver and replace all of their starters on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps. There is a lot of talent that played last season returning, though, and several missionaries coming in.

9. Middle Tennessee: Middle Tennessee returns most of its players from last season, but lost both of its coordinators. The only reason Middle Tennessee is on this list is because it broke in a new offensive coordinator in 2009 and won 10 games. The talent is still there. Quarterback Dwight Dasher returns and most of the defense remains intact. There are a couple holes to fill, but nothing that should stop this team from being as good as it was a year ago.

10. Nevada: The Wolf Pack didn’t end the season on a high note, but they return a good portion of the team that rattled off an eight game winning streak after losing their first three. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is back and the running game is deep with or without Vai Taua, who missed the bowl game because of academic issues. The defense is the weak spot on this team, but with defensive coordinator Andy Buh coming over from Stanford, the Wolf Pack should start to show some improvement.

ACC's pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It’s early, but it’s never too early for pre-spring power rankings -- especially since Duke kicks off spring practice on Feb. 15. Now that the NFL departures have been announced and signing day is over, it’s time for the first look at how the ACC might stack up in 2010. Keep in mind that this can -- and most likely will -- change. The ACC is all-too familiar with star players getting hurt before the season begins, and there are other factors like position battles to be won and coaching changes to acclimate to that can impact this later. For now, though, here’s how the ACC looks heading into 2010:

1. Virginia Tech – The Hokies’ spot at the top is based on their historical ability to reload on defense, but they can fall quickly if significant progress isn’t made this spring and summer in replacing six starters. In an unusual twist, the offense is in a position to keep this team in contention early.

2. Florida State – Things are different under coach Jimbo Fisher, but this ranking is based on the assumption that the defense will be different -- and improved -- under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. The Noles will have a championship-caliber offense led by quarterback Christian Ponder, who will be playing behind a standout veteran offensive line.

3. North Carolina – This defense is scary good. It should be one of the best in the country. But visions of last year’s offense should still be dancing in John Shoop’s head. The Tar Heels aren’t far from where they need to be, though, and this defense can take them places, even with an average offense. All T.J. Yates has to do is manage the offense without turning it over, but the players around him need to improve, too.

4. Miami – If Miami is going to take the next step under coach Randy Shannon, it has to protect quarterback Jacory Harris better and improve the running game. That will be difficult after losing three starters on the offensive line and having very little returning experience at tight end. The Canes will also be under the direction of new defensive line and running backs coaches, and have one of the most difficult schedules in the conference -- again.

5. Boston College – The Eagles were in contention for the Atlantic Division until November last year, and they can do the same again if they work out some trouble spots at quarterback and build the depth at running back. The linebacker corps can be one of the best in the ACC.

6. Georgia Tech – There are too many questions to give the defending ACC champs too much credit just yet. Having lost their leading rusher, receiver and top two defenders, the Jackets have some work to do. They also have to adjust to a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Al Groh. Odds are the offense makes a seamless transition with Anthony Allen at B-back.

7. Clemson – Some of the most accomplished players in school history have graduated, leaving this season a true test for coach Dabo Swinney. The recruiting has gone well under his direction, and there is still plenty of talent left on the roster, but the Tigers could be without quarterback Kyle Parker if he chooses baseball, and they will have to find a way to replace the production of C.J. Spiller.

8. NC State – The young secondary will still be an issue, and the Pack will be without their starting quarterback, Russell Wilson, all spring because of his baseball obligations. The defense should improve with the return of Nate Irving, but it’s still unclear how much he’ll be able to do this spring.

9. Maryland – There’s only one way for this 2-10 team to go, and that’s up. The pressure should be on in College Park to get back to a bowl game, but the Terps have questions up front on both sides of the ball, and there should be a quarterback competition this spring.

10. Wake Forest – The Deacs are in the lower half for one big reason -- they have to replace the winningest quarterback in school history, and right now, that job is wide open.

11. Duke – The big question holding Duke back right now is the graduation of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and the fact his backup, Sean Renfree, will miss this spring with a torn ACL. The Blue Devils also have questions on the defensive line and need to improve their running game.

12. Virginia – Progress isn’t only measured in wins and losses, and first-year coach Mike London will make progress, but until he is able to put together a few of his own recruiting classes, Cavs fans will need some patience. First, though, they need a quarterback.