Thursday, May 14, 2009 Updated: May 15, 8:49 PM ET
Big 12, SEC continue to dominate
By Mark Schlabach ESPN.com
Spring practices are over, and the start of the 2009 college football season is less than four months away.
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Here's the third version of our way-too-early preseason Top 25, and there are several noticeable changes. Florida, with quarterback Tim Tebow and possibly the country's best defense coming back, remains a very solid No. 1. But Oklahoma and Texas flipped spots, with the Longhorns moving up to No. 2 and the Sooners falling to No. 3.
Alabama and LSU fell a few spots, and USC and Ohio State moved up a notch or two. Ole Miss was the biggest riser, going from No. 11 to No. 7. Not since Archie Manning played quarterback for the Rebels has there been this much excitement about football in Oxford.
Michigan State and Rutgers (and every other Big East team) are out. North Carolina and BYU are in.
The Big 12 and SEC continue to dominate the college football landscape with five teams from each league in the Top 25. Four ACC teams among the Top 25 could be a sign that conference is coming back, and the Pac-10 and Big 12 each have three teams in the Top 25.
1. Florida Gators
With 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tebow and all 11 starters coming back on defense, the Gators are clearly the team to beat this season. Linebacker Brandon Spikes and perhaps the most talented secondary in the country lead what should be a ferocious defense. Tebow will take more snaps from under center, and coach Urban Meyer is determined to make him a more polished passer. Tight end Aaron Hernandez emerged as a big playmaker during the spring, and Carl Moore and Deonte Thompson's consistent play alleviated some of the anxiety about losing speedy receiver Percy Harvin to the NFL draft. Florida plays eight of its 12 games in the Sunshine State, but road games at LSU on Oct. 10 and at South Carolina on Nov. 14 are potential stumbling blocks.
2. Texas Longhorns
Longhorns fans will tell you this is what the polls should have looked like at the end of the 2008 regular season -- with Texas ranked ahead of Oklahoma. The teams will play again in Dallas on Oct. 17, when the Big 12 South title and a potential spot in the BCS Championship Game might be decided. With quarterback Colt McCoy and receivers Jordan Shipley and Malcolm Williams coming back, the Longhorns should again have one of the best passing offenses in the country. But Texas has to run the football better than it did last season, when it ended a 10-year streak of having produced a 1,000-yard rusher. Vondrell McGee emerged as the most reliable runner in the spring, after Cody Johnson and Fozzy Whitaker were hampered by injuries. Incoming freshman Chris Whaley also will be given a chance to win the tailback job. The defense has to replace All-American end Brian Orakpo and defensive tackle Roy Miller, but Sergio Kindle is a blossoming superstar. The Longhorns play Texas Tech at home on Sept. 19, and road games at Missouri on Oct. 24 and at Oklahoma State on Oct. 31 might be difficult.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
With reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, running back DeMarco Murray and tight end Jermaine Gresham coming back, the Sooners have as many playmakers as any team in the country. But Oklahoma's fortunes this season might be determined by the guys up front. The Sooners must replace four starting offensive linemen, including All-Big 12 tackle Phil Loadholt and guard Duke Robinson. Right tackle Trent Williams moves to the left side to protect Bradford's blind side, and Cory Brandon emerged as a force at right tackle in the spring. Senior receiver Adron Tennell finally looked like a true deep threat in the spring after recovering from torn knee ligaments, giving Bradford another option in the passing game. Running back Mossis Madu also looked good playing slot receiver. The Sooners were still working to replace both starting safeties, and they must develop some depth on the defensive line.
4. USC Trojans
We won't have to wait long to find out if the Trojans do indeed simply reload after losing so many star players to the NFL draft. After hosting San Jose State in their Sept. 5 opener, the Trojans play at Ohio State on Sept. 12. Either Aaron Corp or freshman Matt Barkley will be making his second career start at quarterback in that game. There will be a lot of talent around whoever starts at quarterback, including receiver Damian Williams and as many as six tailbacks who could start on most other Pac-10 teams. Eight starters must be replaced on defense, including linebackers Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga and defensive end Clay Matthews. The Trojans feel pretty good about their linebacker corps, and end Everson Griffen finally emerged as a potential difference-maker during spring practice. Along with the road trip to Ohio State, USC faces difficult road games at California on Oct. 3, at Notre Dame on Oct. 17, at Oregon on Oct. 31 and at Arizona State on Nov. 7.
5. Virginia Tech Hokies
If the Hokies are going to truly emerge as a BCS National Championship contender, quarterback Tyrod Taylor will have to improve his passing skills. He displayed an improved throwing motion during spring practice, which at least gives coach Frank Beamer hope that his offense won't be so one-dimensional this season. Tailback Darren Evans is as good as any tailback in the ACC, and the offensive line figures to be more athletic than it has been the past couple of seasons. Virginia Tech's young wide receivers will have to be better after struggling last season. Coordinator Bud Foster's defenses are always good, but there were questions on the defensive line and in the secondary coming out of spring practice. The ACC figures to be one of the more improved leagues in the country, but the Hokies play most of their difficult league foes at home, including Miami, Boston College, North Carolina and NC State. Tech opens the season against Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Sept. 5 and also plays Nebraska at home on Sept. 19.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes
It's hard to imagine the Buckeyes' being as good as last season without star players such as Chris "Beanie" Wells, James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins. But quarterback Terrelle Pryor will probably be better in his second season as a starter, and the offensive line might be much better after underperforming the past few seasons. The Buckeyes feel good about tailbacks Dan "Boom" Herron and Brandon Saine, and receivers DeVier Posey and Taurian Washington showed glimpses of productive play during spring practice. Michigan transfer Justin Boren looks like a star at left guard, and Andy Miller and Mike Adams were still battling at left tackle at the end of spring drills. Sophomore Michael Brewster is one of the better centers in the country. Ohio State's defensive line is as deep and talented as any unit in the country. But there are two new starters at linebacker, and cornerbacks Jenkins and Donald Washington won't be easily replaced. The Buckeyes open the season with difficult non-Big Ten games against Navy and USC, and play league road games at Penn State on Nov. 7 and at Michigan on Nov. 21.
7. Mississippi Rebels
It might seem as if the Rebels are getting too much credit for their thrilling 47-34 victory over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. But on paper, at least, they have fewer questions than every other SEC team except Florida. With quarterback Jevan Snead, receiver Shay Hodge and versatile Dexter McCluster coming back, the Rebels have plenty of firepower on offense. Defensive end Greg Hardy came back for his senior season and should be more effective after playing much of last season with a foot injury. Outside linebacker Patrick Trahan and free safety Kendrick Lewis are blossoming stars, and slimmed-down nose tackle Jerrell Powe should help Ole Miss replace departed star Peria Jerry. The Rebels' biggest concern heading into spring practice remains left tackle, where converted tight end Bradley Sowell tries to replace NFL first-rounder Michael Oher. The Rebels will play a very soft nonconference schedule (road game at Memphis and home games against Southeast Louisiana, UAB and Northern Arizona) and three of their most difficult SEC games (Alabama, Tennessee and LSU) will be played in Oxford.
8. Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide were ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings for five weeks last season, before their campaign ended with consecutive losses, including a stunning 31-17 defeat against Utah in the Sugar Bowl. It's hard to forget what the Utes did to Alabama's offensive line, which played without suspended left tackle Andre Smith. Smith, the Outland Trophy winner, is gone for good, along with All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell and starting right guard Marlon Davis. The Tide also must replace quarterback John Parker Wilson, one of the most accomplished passers in school history. Juco transfer James Carpenter takes over for Smith at left tackle and will protect new quarterback Greg McElroy's blind side. Nine starters are back on defense, but safety Rashad Johnson is a big loss in the secondary. Alabama opens the season against Virginia Tech, but plays most of its difficult SEC games at home. Its Oct. 10 road game at Ole Miss might decide which SEC West team plays in the SEC championship game.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions
The defending Big Ten champions have to replace their entire starting receiver corps and rebuild both of their lines, but they still seem to be the second-best team in what will probably again be a watered-down league. Quarterback Daryll Clark is efficient, and tailbacks Evan Royster and Stephfon Green form a pretty good one-two punch (if Green recovers from offseason ankle surgery). The Nittany Lions will have three new starters on the offensive line, and Stefen Wisniewski moves from guard to center. Derek Moye, Chaz Powell and Graham Zug will have to step up at receiver, after Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood all departed. Linebacker Sean Lee returns from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2008 season. The Nittany Lions will have one of the country's best linebacker corps if Navorro Bowman puts his off-field problems in the rearview mirror. Penn State's non-Big Ten schedule (home against Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois) is far from challenging, and fellow Big Ten favorites Ohio State and Iowa play in Happy Valley.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys
We knew Cowboys coach Mike Gundy was a man. Now we're going to find out if he's a legitimate coach. Few teams in the country return as much firepower as Oklahoma State, which welcomes back quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and receiver Dez Bryant. The Cowboys ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring, total offense, rushing and pass efficiency, generating more than 3,100 yards both through the air and on the ground in 2008. But Oklahoma State struggled to stop most teams last season, and new defensive coordinator Bill Young must rebuild a defensive line that couldn't rush the passer and a secondary that couldn't cover receivers. Derek Burton looked good in the spring after moving from defensive end to tackle, and Jeremiah Price emerged as a consistent pass-rusher. The offensive line must jell after losing center David Washington and guard Steve Denning. Oklahoma State opens the season against Georgia in Stillwater on Sept. 5 and also plays Texas and Texas Tech at home.
11. Oregon Ducks
For the first time in 15 seasons, Oregon will open a football season without coach Mike Bellotti on the sideline. Bellotti retired from coaching and becomes the school's athletic director July 1. Offensive coordinator Chip Kelly replaces Bellotti and his honeymoon won't last long. The Ducks open the season Sept. 3 at Boise State and then play consecutive home games against Purdue, Utah and California. Oregon must replace six players who were selected in the NFL draft, including safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Jairus Byrd and center Max Unger. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is back and is a threat to run or throw the ball. Running back LeGarrette Blount has battled off-field problems and a foot injury. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, along with receiver Jaison Williams. Only one starting defensive lineman returns, and the losses in the secondary were heavy.
12. LSU Tigers
What was more stunning last season? Watching LSU's once-ferocious defense allow 134 points combined in losses to Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss or watching the Tigers completely dismantle Georgia Tech 38-3 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? The Tigers were plagued by poor quarterback play and a surprisingly porous defense during their national title defense last season. Coach Les Miles hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis to shore up the defense, and the Tigers responded with more aggressive play during spring practice. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson, who started the final two games at quarterback last season, showed more consistency during the spring. Tailback Charles Scott and receiver Brandon LaFell are proven playmakers, and the offensive line should be pretty solid. The defensive line must be rebuilt, but end Rahim Alem and tackle Drake Nevis looked like solid players during the spring. The Tigers play three of their most difficult SEC games on the road: at Georgia on Oct. 3, at Alabama on Nov. 7 and at Ole Miss on Nov. 21.
13. California Golden Bears
This might very well be the season in which California finally breaks through in the Pac-10. The Bears have been close before -- they climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings before finishing 7-6 in 2007. Coach Jeff Tedford has earned the reputation of a quarterback guru, but Cal's passers have been pretty mediocre in recent seasons. Kevin Riley will have to hold off Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney to win the starting job this year. But the Cal offense starts with tailback Jahvid Best, who ran for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He missed spring practice after undergoing foot and elbow surgeries. All-American center Alex Mack will have to be replaced up front, and the receiver corps is far from a finished prospect. Three of the team's four starting linebackers must be replaced, including star Zack Follett. The Cal secondary is one of the most underrated in the country, after finishing sixth in pass-efficiency defense and ranking third nationally with 24 interceptions last season. Cal will have to play better on the road this season, with games at Minnesota, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State looming on the schedule.
14. Boise State Broncos
We might know before the first Saturday of the season whether the Broncos are again a legitimate BCS bowl game contender. Boise State opens the season Thursday, Sept. 3 against Oregon on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium. The opener is being called the most anticipated home game in school history. With six starters coming back on both offense and defense from a team that finished 12-0 during the regular season in 2008, Boise State fans have plenty of reason to be excited. Quarterback Kellen Moore and receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young lead a high-octane passing attack. The offensive line needs to be more consistent, after 11 different combinations played in 13 games last season. All four starters are back in a very talented secondary, led by cornerback Kyle Wilson. If the Broncos can beat the Ducks, they'll face two difficult road games: at Fresno State on Sept. 18 and at Tulsa on Oct. 14.
15. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Will the Yellow Jackets be even better running coach Paul Johnson's triple-option spread offense in Year 2? Or will opposing defenses catch up with his offense? Georgia Tech returns all but two starters on offense, including running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt missed much of spring practice with a wrist injury, and needs to become a better passer to keep defenses honest. The offensive line remains the No. 1 concern after many projected starters missed the spring because of injuries. Georgia Tech must replace three star defensive linemen: end Michael Johnson and tackles Darryl Richard and Vance Walker. Georgia Tech plays many of its most difficult ACC foes at home: Clemson on Sept. 10, North Carolina on Sept. 26, Virginia Tech on Oct. 17 and Wake Forest on Nov. 7. The Yellow Jackets play three games in the first 12 days of the season and don't have an open date until the week before the Nov. 28 regular-season finale against rival Georgia.
16. Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs won't have the star power they had last season, when quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno led one of the SEC's most explosive offenses. Senior Joe Cox takes over after spending the past three seasons behind Stafford. Cox threw 66 touchdowns as a high school senior and showed good command of the offense during spring practice. Caleb King and Richard Samuel are being counted on to replace Moreno, but freshman Carlton Thomas was the most impressive runner during spring practice. The offensive line should be better with tackle Trinton Sturdivant returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2008 season. The Bulldogs struggled to find a pass-rusher during spring practice, and projected starting defensive end Justin Houston will miss the first two games of the season because of a suspension. Georgia opens the season at Oklahoma State on Sept. 5 and also plays Arizona State at home on Sept. 26. The Bulldogs play only six home games and travel to Arkansas and Tennessee during SEC play.
17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
There are no more excuses for coach Charlie Weis, who returns 10 starters on offense and a ton of experience across the roster. With quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd coming back, the Fighting Irish should be explosive on offense. Notre Dame must improve its running game, which ranked 100th nationally in 2008, and new offensive line coach Frank Verducci helped it make strides during spring practice. Coordinator Jon Tenuta takes over the defensive play-calling duties, and the Irish are going back to a 4-3 scheme. Opponents can expect the Irish to be more aggressive with safety and linebacker blitzes. Notre Dame plays seven home games, along with an Oct. 31 neutral-site game against woebegone Washington State in San Antonio. Only one game on Notre Dame's schedule -- home against USC on Oct. 17 -- seems to be especially difficult. The Irish might need to win at least nine games to show Weis is truly making progress.
18. TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs have built their reputation on defense during coach Gary Patterson's successful tenure, but TCU's offense might be reason for optimism in 2009. Quarterback Andy Dalton is entering his third season as a starter, after helping the Horned Frogs set single-season school records for points (437) and touchdowns (56) last season. Top wide receiver Jimmy Young also is back, along with tailbacks Joseph Turner and Ryan Christian. The Horned Frogs must replace seven starters on defense, but end Jerry Hughes is back after leading the country with 17 sacks in 2008. The secondary must replace two starters, but Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders form one of the country's best cornerback tandems. TCU plays two ACC opponents on the road (at Virginia on Sept. 12 and at Clemson on Sept. 26) and plays at BYU on Oct. 24. The Horned Frogs host defending MWC champion Utah at home on Nov. 14.
19. Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa won six of its last seven games -- spoiling Penn State's BCS title hopes in the process -- to end the program's recent slide with a 9-4 record in 2008. The Hawkeyes have to replace tailback Shonn Greene, the country's second-leading rusher with 1,850 yards last season, and star defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. But with quarterback Ricky Stanzi and one of the country's best offensive lines coming back, Iowa might be good enough to challenge Ohio State and Penn State for the Big Ten title. Iowa lost four games by only 12 points combined last season. The Big Ten schedule is difficult, with road games at Penn State on Sept. 26, at Wisconsin on Oct. 17, at Michigan State on Oct. 24 and at Ohio State on Nov. 14.
20. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Cornhuskers improved from 5-7 to 9-4 in coach Bo Pelini's first season in 2008, and the pieces are in place for even more improvement this season. Ndamukong Suh is one of the best defensive tackles in the country, but the Cornhuskers were still sorting out their linebacker corps at the end of spring practice. Pelini stressed forcing more turnovers during spring practice, after Nebraska finished 107th nationally in turnover margin in his first season. Steady quarterback Joe Ganz will have to be replaced, along with wide receivers Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. The Cornhuskers' offense might resemble the old Big Red Machine, relying heavily on tailbacks Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille and mobile quarterback Zac Lee's running. The schedule is pretty manageable with non-Big 12 games against three Sun Belt Conference foes and a Sept. 19 road game at Virginia Tech. Nebraska plays Big 12 road games at Missouri and Kansas, but plays Texas Tech and Oklahoma at home.
21. North Carolina Tar Heels
It didn't take Butch Davis long to turn the Tar Heels around, as they finished 8-5 in 2008, doubling their victory total from his first season. Much of UNC's firepower on offense is gone, with receivers Hakeem Nicks, Brooks Foster and Brandon Tate departing. Quarterback T.J. Yates will have to stay healthy, and the Tar Heels need to get more production from tailbacks Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston. The right side of the offensive line also must be rebuilt. UNC won't have to outscore many opponents if its defense is as good as advertised. The Tar Heels have perhaps the ACC's best defensive line, led by tackles Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas. Middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant is another budding star. The Tar Heels will have to navigate a difficult ACC schedule, which includes road games at Georgia Tech on Sept. 26, at Virginia Tech on Oct. 29, at Boston College on Nov. 21 and at NC State on Nov. 28.
22. Kansas Jayhawks
After winning 20 games in two years and back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history, the Jayhawks wouldn't figure to have much room for improvement. But with quarterback Todd Reesing returning for his senior season, along with tailback Jake Sharp and top wideouts Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier, Kansas should again challenge for the Big 12 North title. The Jayhawks will have to replace all three of their starting linebackers, who were the heart and soul of a defense that struggled at times last season. Kansas plans to use a 4-2-5 scheme to better defend the Big 12's high-octane passing attacks. The offensive line also must be rebuilt after the Jayhawks lost their center and starting guards. Jeremiah Hatch moves from left tackle to center, and converted end Tanner Hawkinson is the projected left tackle. The schedule figures to be more difficult, as Kansas plays Big 12 South opponents Oklahoma (home), Texas Tech (road) and Texas (road). In fact, five of Kansas' last seven games will be played away from Lawrence.
23. Utah Utes
The team that finished 13-0 and stunned Alabama by two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl last season has plenty of holes to fill in 2009. Utah returns only four starters on offense and must replace quarterback Brian Johnson. The top three receivers from 2008 also are gone, along with the right side of the offensive line. Quarterback Corbin Louks was trying to hold off juco transfer Terrance Cain and freshman Jordan Wynn during spring practice, but the three-man race probably won't be settled until preseason camp. Seven starters are back on defense, but the Utes must replace star defensive end Paul Kruger and cornerbacks Sean Smith and Brice McCain. Coach Kyle Whittingham feels very good about ends Koa Misi and Derrick Shelby. The loss of All-American kicker/punter Louie Sakoda also can't be underestimated. The Utes will be good enough to win 10 games again, but they'll have to win at least one of three difficult road games: at Oregon on Sept. 19, at TCU on Nov. 14 and at BYU on Nov. 28.
24. Brigham Young Cougars
There are no slogans for the Cougars this season, after last year's "Quest for Perfection" ended with a 10-3 record. The Cougars will be lucky to leave their 2009 opener with a victory. They open the season against Oklahoma at the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington, Texas. BYU also plays home games against Florida State on Sept. 19, TCU on Oct. 24 and Utah on Nov. 28. Quarterback Max Hall returns, but four starters on the offensive line must be replaced. The Cougars also lost top receivers Austin Collie and Michael Reed. The offense might be OK if tailback Harvey Unga stays healthy. Eight starters return on defense, but BYU still had questions at cornerback at the end of spring practice.
25. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles moved a step closer to returning to the BCS hunt last season, finishing 9-4 and blasting Wisconsin 42-13 in the Champs Sports Bowl. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher is convinced Christian Ponder is a potential NFL quarterback and he showed flashes of such ability last season. The offensive line, which had been FSU's Achilles' heel the past few seasons, should be a strength with all five starters returning. FSU is counting on young tailbacks Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas, and young players will also have to step up at receiver after Greg Carr graduated and Preston Parker was kicked off the team. Defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews faces a sizable rebuilding job, but junior Markus White is a potential star at defensive end. FSU plays three of its first four games at home, including a Labor Day night contest against Miami. The Seminoles play difficult road games at BYU on Sept. 19 and at defending national champion Florida on Nov. 28, along with road games against ACC foes Boston College, North Carolina, Clemson and Wake Forest.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.