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Friday, January 20, 2006
Slaton, White could lead Mountaineers to new heights

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Picking the 2006 Top 25 in January is dumber than an improvised lateral on the dead run to an unsuspecting teammate. (Was that really you, Reggie Bush?) But that's the job here, with a mild re-write after underclassmen have made their stay-or-go declarations for the NFL draft:

Here's the first word on next season:

1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Why: One of the surprise teams of 2005 should be better in '06. Quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton were amazingly productive as freshmen, and they have plenty of other offensive weapons to rely on.

Why not: The secondary must be rebuilt, and we all remember how the Mountaineers underachieved in 2004 with top 10 expectations.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why: Did you see Troy Smith, Ted Ginn and Antonio Pittman carve up Notre Dame in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl?

Why not: Can the Buckeyes really be No. 2 after losing all three members of a great linebacking crew, plus two key offensive linemen? And with a trip to Austin next fall?

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Why: Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Anthony Fasano and Darius Walker all return along with another strong line, so the offense will torch scoreboards again. The defense will be improved. And there's a strong recruiting class coming in. Charlie Weis is just getting started.

Why not: The Irish will be breaking in some new linebackers against a schedule that includes six 2005 bowl squads.

4. LSU Tigers
Why: Tons of talent at the skill positions and the defensive backfield, and tons of momentum from that flattening of Miami in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Why not: Some key losses on both lines. Settling on a quarterback could be troublesome -- and Les Miles can ask Phil Fulmer about what a quarterback controversy can do to a team's chemistry.

5. Florida Gators
Why: Chris Leak should continue to progress in Urban Meyer's offense, and Meyer should have a better handle on what will work in the SEC. Lots of other talent to be found on both sides of the ball, and another very good recruiting class is on the way.

Why not: If Leak looked skittish behind a veteran offensive line, what will he look like behind a rebuilt one in '06?

6. Oklahoma Sooners
Why: Adrian Peterson should return to Heisman contender form, Rhett Bomar should take a major step forward at quarterback, and the defense should be up to usual Bob Stoops standards.

Why not: A shaky offensive line in 2005 only gets younger in 2006. And although Bomar impressed with his toughness in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, he's still got a long way to go before mastering his position.

7. USC Trojans
Why: If you've been paying attention the past three years, you know why. Regardless of the NFL exodus, there is plenty of talent ready to step forward at Troy.

Why not: All good things come to an end -- especially when the best and most experienced players in recent school history are gone. Darnell Bing and Fred Matua joining them a year early doesn't help, either.

8. Michigan Wolverines
Why: If Mike Hart stays healthy and Chad Henne continues to progress, the Wolverines will still score a lot of points. And the defense will have a lot of experience at linebacker and in the secondary.

Why not: When was the last time this program lived up to expectations?

9. Miami Hurricanes
Why: Kyle Wright will be better, and in Greg Olsen and Ryan Moore, he'll have a couple of quality targets to throw to. The Hurricanes' secondary should be excellent again.

Why not: Concerns exist regarding the leadership of the program, from the head coach to the upperclassmen, after the disaster in the Peach Bowl.

10. Oregon Ducks
Why: Start with a sensational offensive line and add plenty of skill talent and very good coaching.

Why not: Defense will miss Haloti Ngata up front, and quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf will have to prove they're big-time leaders and playmakers.

11. Texas Longhorns
Why: The monkey is off their back and lies dead at the Longhorns' feet. They know how to win championships -- and they have a deep cast of skill-position talent to work with, even if the quarterback has changed.

Why not: That's not just any change at quarterback. Vince Young was the heart, soul and singular talent on that Texas title team. There have been no bigger shoes to fill in college football in many years.

12. Louisville Cardinals
Why: If Brian Brohm returns healthy from knee surgery, he and running back Michael Bush will both be strong All-America candidates. There is speed and talent on defense and at wide receiver that should only improve by next year.

Why not: There are some key offensive line losses, and star rush end Elvis Dumervil has left the building.

13. Penn State Nittany Lions
Why: The skill-position speed that helped turn around the program will be back. If linebacker Paul Posluszny returns healthy and quarterback Anthony Morelli can even approximate Michael Robinson's leadership skills, the Nittany Lions will not regress very far from their 2005 form.

Why not: Take Tamba Hali, Alan Zemaitis and Robinson out of the equation and you've lost a lot. And Morelli doesn't have Robinson's mobility, which will change the scope of the offense.

14. Auburn Tigers
Why: QB Brandon Cox and RB Kenny Irons are two great places to start on offense, and the secondary should be among the best units in the country.

Why not: The Tigers have considerable turnover at receiver, plus a few holes on the defensive line and at linebacker.

15. Cal Bears
Why: Fantastic running backs and receivers and an experienced defense team up with Jeff Tedford's coaching.

Why not: Still not sure the Bears have a big-time quarterback, and they lose a couple of very good offensive linemen.

16. Georgia Bulldogs
Why: Mark Richt has elevated his program to autopilot contender status. The Bulldogs will have one of the best linebacking corps in the nation.

Why not: This team could struggle offensively. Quarterback will be a question, as will the line.

17. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why: The Crimson Tide is just about all the way back from probation. Mike Shula has answered all questions about his readiness for this job.

Why not: No Brodie Croyle, no DeMeco Ryans. There go the two solid-gold leaders on each side of the ball.

18. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Why: Another kingpin program proving that its rebound is well underway. The Cornhuskers ended 2005 with tremendous momentum and seem to have a firm grasp on Bill Callahan's passing offense.

Why not: Some holes to fill on the offensive line, and still some credibility issues for anyone from the Big 12 North.

19. TCU Horned Frogs
Why: Running back Aaron Brown could be a breakout star as a sophomore, and there is very good young talent at linebacker as well. Gary Patterson has done a remarkable job adding to the program foundation laid by Dennis Franchione.

Why not: Hard to replicate 11-1 for a second straight season, especially given some of the close calls the Horned Frogs had.

20. Arizona State Sun Devils
Why: Pick a quarterback, Rudy Carpenter or Sam Keller, and the Sun Devils will again be powerful offensively. Some D-I transfers will help immediately on defense.

Why not: ASU has had a problem getting over the hump and becoming a legitimate national title contender, in part because of chronic defensive shortcomings. Will it be much better in '06?

21. Iowa Hawkeyes
Why: Drew Tate could be the best quarterback in the Big Ten, and he'll have 1,300-yard running back Albert Young alongside.

Why not: Linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge are finally gone, leaving a major void in the middle of the Hawkeyes' defense.

22. Clemson Tigers
Why: Tigers ride momentum into '06, having won six of their last seven games in '05. Running back James Davis leads a strong returning cast.

Why not: Replacing forever quarterback Charlie Whitehurst might not be as easy as everyone in orange thinks. (See: Brandon Cox replacing Jason Campbell.)

23. Virginia Tech Hokies
Why: The defense should again be very fast and very good, and perhaps there will be some addition-by-subtraction without Marcus Vick around for the administration to overprotect.

Why not: Until the Hokies prove they can properly finish off a season, there is reason to doubt this team. Quarterback is now a big question, too.

24. Iowa State Cyclones
Why: Pass-and-catch combo of Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe return for another productive season.

Why not: Chronic crunch-time failure with the Big 12 North title on the line is no way to convince anyone that the program has arrived.

25. Florida State Seminoles
Why: Gritty showings in the ACC title game and Orange Bowl show that pride and talent remain in Tallahassee.

Why not: Early entries hurt at several key positions, and questions remain about FSU's offensive direction.

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