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Wednesday, January 5, 2005
Three-peat for USC?

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

The Gatorade isn't even dry on Re-Pete Carroll's back, and already the talk is turning toward next season. Predicting the 2005 Top 25 in January might be the dumbest thing this side of Mark Bradley picking up that bouncing punt -- but it hasn't stopped us.

What follows is the first word on next season:

1. USC Trojans
Why: The answer is as obvious as a Reggie Bush cutback or a LenDale White power run. If even they lose their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the NFL draft, the Trojans could be the unanimous preseason No. 1.

Why not: The only reason to bet against USC is the fact that nobody has won three straight AP national titles.

2. Texas Longhorns
Why: Vince Young will be back behind a veteran offensive line, and the recruits keep flooding into Austin.

Why not: Losing star linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Cedric Benson will hurt, and Oklahoma is still on the schedule.

3. Michigan Wolverines
Why: Chad Henne, Michael Hart and Steve Breaston make a pretty awesome skill-position trio to build around.

Why not: Wide receiver Braylon Edwards made Henne look good on many occasions. The Wolverines face a major rebuilding job in the secondary.

4. Miami Hurricanes
Why: Something tells us the Hurricanes will be better without Brock Berlin. And the defense should be nasty.

Why not: Larry Coker needs to rekindle a Miami offense that seemed short on playmakers at times this year.

5. Oklahoma Sooners
Why: No team in America has a better building block than Adrian Peterson, and recruiting never slows down in Norman.

Why not: New quarterback. Rebuilt offensive line. Key losses on defense. And did the Sooners lose some of their aura during that mugging in Miami?

6. Tennessee Volunteers
Why: Three proven quarterbacks return, plus plenty of additional experience. And for once, the Volunteers have post-bowl momentum.

Why not: Vols will face significant losses to deal with at running back, offensive line and receiver, and might lose a couple other players to early entry.

7. Iowa Hawkeyes
Why: Almost the entire offense is back, and Kirk Ferentz has firmly established himself as one of the nation's elite coaches.

Why not: The Hawkeyes must do some rebuilding on the defensive front seven.

8. Florida Gators
Why: Take Chris Leak, Andre Caldwell and the rest of that gang, give them some improved coaching from Urban Meyer, and look out.

Why not: Well, losing Channing Crowder and Ciatrick Fason doesn't help. Plus, these guys don't know what it takes to win at the highest level. How quickly can they learn that?

9. Louisville Cardinals
Why: Bobby Petrino stuck around to play mad scientist with dazzling talents like quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush.

Why not: Even with all the players coming back, it's never easy to replace a great quarterback (Stefan LeFors), your top rusher (Eric Shelton) and top receiver (J.R. Russell).

10. LSU Tigers
Why: This team is littered with prep All-Americans, many of whom got valuable experience in a "rebuilding" 9-3 season.

Why not: After losing Nick Saban, it's hard not to think LSU settled for Les with Miles.

11. Virginia Tech Hokies
Why: Because Frank Beamer really doesn't have bad years, and because this year's 9-3 team was built around its junior class.

Why not: Losing quarterback Brian Randall could prove a bigger blow than anyone could have imagined at this time last year. Is Marcus Vick still in the picture?

12. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why: Ted Ginn seems like a wonderful place to start.

Why not: An NCAA investigation could turn into a mushroom cloud over Columbus.

13. Texas A&M Aggies
Why: Dennis Franchione took a step forward in Year Two in College Station. Look for a leap in Year Three.

Why not: Have to be concerned by how the Aggies finished the season, losing four out of five -- including a loss to Baylor and a 31-point shellacking in the Cotton Bowl from underdog Tennessee.

14. Fresno State Bulldogs
Why: Just about everybody of consequence is back from a team that won its last six games, including an upset of Virginia in the Micron PC Bowl. And next season, WAC heavy Boise State must come to Fresno.

Why not: Somebody unexpected always seems to jump up and get Pat Hill's team somewhere along the line.

15. Georgia Bulldogs
Why: Mark Richt's program is just about on autopilot, continually sustaining itself with excellent recruiting and good coaching.

Why not: Even a top-flight program will struggle after losing four-year quarterback David Greene, defensive end David Pollack, most of the receiving corps and probably a couple other defensive stars through early entry.

16. Arizona State Sun Devils
Why: The only major offensive loss is star quarterback Andrew Walter, and his backup, Sam Keller, played great in the Sun Bowl upset of Purdue.

Why not: The defense will have to be largely rebuilt -- and it was shaky at times anyway.

17. Florida State Seminoles
Why: It's not like losing Chris Rix is going to hurt. A good defense in '04 should be sensational in '05.

Why not: Key losses on the offensive line and in the secondary, and you have to wonder whether the talent level has taken an appreciable dip from the halcyon days in Tallahassee.

18. Boise State Broncos
Why: Dan Hawkins' program has a ton of momentum going right now, and brings back a lot of talent. Many people in Boise thought all along that '05 would be the Broncos' best team.

Why not: The offensive and defensive lines were exposed by the superior size and speed of Louisville in the Liberty Bowl.

19. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Why: Mike Leach will plug in another 4,000-yard quarterback and drive defensive coordinators crazy.

Why not: The Red Raiders still have to compete with Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M in the murderous Big 12 South.

20. Bowling Green Falcons
Why: If Matt Leinart goes pro, Omar Jacobs might be the top returning quarterback in the country. Coach Gregg Brandon deserves to see his name on future hot lists.

Why not: Most of Jacobs' receiving corps is gone.

21. Auburn Tigers
Why: Tigers should be very good up front on both sides of the ball, and bring back a posse of quality receivers.

Why not: No team could lose quarterback Jason Campbell, running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen without some serious slippage.

22. Virginia Cavaliers
Why: The program has become an annual contender under Al Groh. Cavaliers' brightest skill-position stars are back (as long as stud tight end Heath Miller doesn't opt to go pro early).

Why not: There are some big losses to deal with on both lines, most notably offensive lineman Elton Brown, and Virginia didn't prove up to the task of taking down the ACC big boys last year.

23. Pittsburgh Panthers
Why: Resourceful quarterback Tyler Palko leads a strong cast of returning players.

Why not: Does Dave Wannstedt know what he's doing on the college level? For that matter, did he know what he was doing on the pro level?

24. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Why: Plenty of players back from the Champs Sports Bowl champions, including almost the entire defense.

Why not: In three years under Chan Gailey, Tech has not been able to push past "decent" and into "good."

25. Iowa State Cyclones
Why: Quarterback Brett Meyer and wide receiver Todd Blythe, both sophomores, will be one of the top tandems in the country. Playing in the Big 12 North will help the Cyclones' record.

Why not: We'll see how this program performs with a bullseye (admittedly, a small bullseye) on its back.

Another Dozen To Watch
Alabama, Boston College, California, Colorado, Colorado State, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Purdue, South Carolina, Toledo, Utah and Wyoming.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.