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Thursday, January 8, 2009
Updated: January 9, 6:45 PM ET
Champion Gators claim top spot in early look at 2009 Top 25

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

The 2008 college football season ended less than 24 hours ago. But it's never too early to take a look at 2009, so here's the way-too-early Top 25 for the upcoming season.

Once again, some very familiar names are at the top.

1. Florida Gators

Don't be surprised to see the Gators go wire-to-wire at No. 1 in 2009. Florida might return as many as 10 starters on defense (star junior linebacker Brandon Spikes is expected to enter the NFL draft), and much of its firepower on offense will be back, too. Quarterback Tim Tebow probably will return for his senior season, although speedy receiver Percy Harvin might turn pro.

2. Texas Longhorns

With quarterback Colt McCoy coming back for his senior season, the Longhorns once again will be as explosive as any offense in the country. Four starters should be back from a very young offensive line, and receiver Jordan Shipley was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Texas has to do a better job of running the football in 2009. The defensive line will be gutted, and All-American end Brian Orakpo and tackle Roy Miller won't be easy to replace.

3. Oklahoma Sooners

If current sophomore Sam Bradford returns to school, the Sooners should have a high-scoring offense once again. It might not be as easy, however, for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in 2009. Oklahoma will have to replace four starters on its offensive line, and leading receiver Juaquin Iglesias is departing. Tight end Jermaine Gresham might enter the NFL draft.

4. USC Trojans

The Trojans will start 2009 ranked in the top five, but don't be surprised if they struggle to stay there. USC's ferocious defense will be gutted by personnel losses. Three of the four starting defensive linemen will have to be replaced, and all three starting linebackers will be gone. At least one starting defensive back must be replaced, and possibly three if junior safety Taylor Mays enters the NFL draft and cornerback Josh Pinkard isn't given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. The offense could be very good if junior quarterback Mark Sanchez returns to school.

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama fans learned how valuable All-American left tackle Andre Smith was to the offense in the Crimson Tide's 31-17 loss to Utah in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Tide will go into the 2009 season without their two best offensive linemen -- center Antoine Caldwell was a senior and Smith is entering the NFL draft as a junior. Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson is done, and Greg McElroy and Star Jackson will battle for the starting job this spring. Nine starters are expected to be back on defense -- if junior nose tackle Terrence Cody returns for the 2009 season.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

Much of Ohio State's success in 2009 might be determined by quarterback Terrelle Pryor's development during the offseason. Pryor played remarkably well as a freshman, but he must become a more polished passer for the offense to be truly effective. Pryor's job would have been easier if tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells had returned to school, but he declared for the NFL draft. The Buckeyes lose a lot of star power on defense -- All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Marcus Freeman were seniors.

7. Virginia Tech Hokies

If we learned anything from Virginia Tech's 10-4 season, it's that Frank Beamer is one of the best coaches in the business. After losing to East Carolina in the opener and struggling early in conference play, Virginia Tech rallied to win its second straight ACC championship. The Hokies should have nine starters back on offense, including quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailback Darren Evans. Only four starters will be lost on defense, but cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris is one of them.

8. Boise State Broncos

The 2008 season didn't end the way the Broncos hoped, as they suffered their first loss in a 17-16 defeat to TCU in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. But Boise State again will have a chance to run the table in 2009. Star tailback Ian Johnson is departing, but quarterback Kellen Moore played very well as a freshman, and top receivers Jeremy Childs and Austin Pettis are expected back. The linebacker corps will have to be rebuilt, but the secondary should be very good if cornerback Kyle Wilson returns for his senior season.

9. LSU Tigers

Freshman quarterback Jordan Jefferson's performance in LSU's 38-3 win over Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl gives the Tigers plenty of hope for 2009. Inconsistent quarterback play and a surprisingly porous defense were LSU's biggest deficiencies in 2008. Former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis should shore up the defense, which must replace its entire defensive line and middle linebacker Darry Beckwith.

10. Oklahoma State Cowboys

It's still hard to gauge whether the Cowboys are a real threat to Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South. They won eight of their first nine games in 2008, but then lost three of their last four. Oklahoma State's defense was gashed in those three losses, allowing 56 points to Texas Tech, 61 to Oklahoma and 42 to Oregon. Oklahoma State again figures to have one of the country's best offenses, with quarterback Zac Robinson, running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Dez Bryant coming back. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew will be missed.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

The defending Big Ten champions will have to replace much of their firepower on offense. Receivers Jordan Norwood, Derrick Williams and Deon Butler are departing. Three offensive linemen will also have to be replaced, including center A.Q. Shipley. Quarterback Daryll Clark and tailback Evan Royster are expected to return. The losses on defense could be big, too, especially if junior end Aaron Maybin enters the NFL draft.

12. Ole Miss Rebels

Houston Nutt did a remarkable job in his first season at Ole Miss, finishing with a 9-4 record and beating Texas Tech 47-34 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Ole Miss will have to replace All-American left tackle Michael Oher on offense, and the defensive line will lose tackle Peria Jerry and possibly end Greg Hardy. Quarterback Jevan Snead played better down the stretch and leads a very versatile offense.

13. Iowa Hawkeyes

After a couple of mediocre seasons, coach Kirk Ferentz seems to have the Iowa program back on track. The Hawkeyes won six of their last seven games to finish 9-4, including a 31-10 rout of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Six starters are expected back on offense, but Iowa will have to replace star running back Shonn Greene. He'll enter the NFL draft after rushing for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns, both school records. Defensive tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King will be big losses on defense.

14. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Yellow Jackets' 38-3 loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl didn't diminish what they accomplished in coach Paul Johnson's first season. Georgia Tech finished 9-4, including its first victory over rival Georgia since 2000. The Yellow Jackets will return all 11 players who started on offense in the bowl game. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt should be more comfortable in his second season running Johnson's triple-option spread offense, and running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones form a great one-two punch. Nine starters are expected to return on defense, but Tech will have to replace defensive linemen Vance Walker, Darryl Richard and Michael Johnson.

15. Georgia Bulldogs

The Bulldogs lost much of their offense when quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno announced they'll forgo their final college season to enter the NFL draft. Georgia's coaches are confident Joe Cox can get the job done at quarterback in 2009, and Caleb King and Richard Samuel were highly recruited running backs. Receiver A.J. Green was sensational as a freshman and is a big-play threat the Bulldogs lacked in recent seasons. The defense must get tougher, and the Bulldogs will have to find consistent pass-rushers.

16. TCU Horned Frogs

Behind the country's No. 1 defense, the Horned Frogs finished 11-2 in 2008, beating Boise State 17-16 in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. As many as eight defensive starters will have to be replaced if junior defensive end Jerry Hughes enters the NFL draft. Middle linebacker Jason Phillips and safety Stephen Hodge will be big losses, too. Six starters are expected back on offense, including quarterback Andy Dalton.

17. Oregon Ducks

There's much uncertainty surrounding the Ducks heading into the offseason. Will coach Mike Bellotti return for another season -- or will he turn the program over to offensive coordinator Chip Kelly? After suffering a myriad of injuries at quarterback, Oregon won its last four games to finish 10-3. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli brought stability to the offense. The Ducks lose tailback Jeremiah Johnson and receivers Terence Scott and Jaison Williams. Three offensive linemen also must be replaced, including center Max Unger. The personnel losses will be heavy on defense, too. Defensive end Nick Reed, both tackles and safety Patrick Chung are leaving.

18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

How excited should we be about Notre Dame's 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl? The Irish beat a mediocre team on its home field, but quarterback Jimmy Clausen showed why he was once ranked the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. If Clausen continues to improve over the offseason, the Irish have reason to be excited about 2009. They have good playmakers on offense. Golden Tate is an exceptional receiver, and Michael Floyd showed he can be a deep threat. Notre Dame expects to return eight starters on offense and five on defense. The defensive line and secondary will have to be rebuilt. The Irish will play seven teams that played in bowl games in 2008, but six of those games will be played at home.

19. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles have slowly gotten better the past two seasons, as coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher continues to make his mark on the offense. FSU was the youngest team in the country in 2008 -- 39 first-year players saw action and six true freshmen started games. Three freshmen and two sophomores started on the offensive line. Fisher believes Christian Ponder will be one of the best quarterbacks to play at FSU, but he must become more consistent. The Seminoles will have to replace only two starters on offense: receiver Greg Carr and tailback Antone Smith. The losses on defense will hurt more, with two defensive ends and two linebackers leaving.

20. California Bears

The Bears overcame inconsistent quarterback play to finish 9-4 in 2008. Even though senior Nate Longshore is moving on, Kevin Riley won't automatically inherit the QB job. Coach Jeff Tedford will give current redshirt freshman Brock Mansion an opportunity to win the job. The Bears will rely heavily on running back Jahvid Best, and must replace center Alex Mack and guard Noris Malele. The linebacker corps will be gutted, with outside linebacker Zack Follett and both inside linebackers moving on.

21. Utah Utes

The Utes finished the 2008 season as the only unbeaten team in the country after upsetting Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl. They will have to replace quarterback Brian Johnson, their top three receivers and the right side of their offensive line. Nine starters are expected to return from one of the country's best defenses. Kicker/punter Louie Sakoda also will be difficult to replace. The Utes will play three difficult road games: at Oregon, BYU and TCU.

22. Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Cornhuskers made big strides under first-year coach Bo Pelini. So much so that they might be ready to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 North title in 2009. To take the next step, though, Nebraska will have to replace most of its skill players. Quarterback Joe Ganz, I-back Marlon Lucky and receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson are all departing. Seven starters will be back on defense if nose tackle Ndamukong Suh returns for his senior season.

23. Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks couldn't match the success of their breakout season in 2007, slipping from 12-1 to 8-5 in 2008. But there are plenty of reasons for optimism in 2009. Quarterback Todd Reesing, tailback Jake Sharp and receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier return from an offense that averaged better than 430 yards per game. Seven defensive starters are expected to return, but losing linebackers James Holt, Joe Mortensen and Mike Rivera will hurt. They were three of the team's top four tacklers and the heart and soul of the defense.

24. BYU Cougars

The Cougars fell short of their "quest for perfection" in 2008, losing to TCU 32-7, at Utah 48-24, and to Arizona 31-21 in the Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl. BYU will need to find a replacement for wide receiver Austin Collie, who declared for the NFL draft. The Cougars are waiting to see if tight end Dennis Pitta will return for his senior season. Quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga are definitely returning, but four starting offensive linemen will have to be replaced. Nine starters are expected back on defense.

25. Texas Tech Red Raiders

The Red Raiders were fortunate to keep coach Mike Leach, who is close to signing a contract extension. Leach will have his hands full preparing for 2009, as Texas Tech must replace record-setting quarterback Graham Harrell and probably All-American wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The heart of the offensive line -- left tackle Ryland Reed, left guard Louis Vasquez and center Stephen Hamby -- also will have to be replaced. Sophomore QB Taylor Potts should step right into Leach's pass-happy attack. Eight starters are expected back on defense, but the Red Raiders must continue to get better on that side of the ball.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.