Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Tide, Buckeyes, Broncos set for '10 run
By Mark Schlabach
College football's underclassmen have declared for the NFL draft. Incoming prospects have signed their national letters of intent.
There's no better time to update the Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2010.
Say hello to North Carolina and BYU, which weren't included in the original top 25 released on Jan. 8, the day after Alabama defeated Texas 37-21 in the BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl.
Say goodbye to Stanford and Navy, which could very well return to the top 25 when we revise it again before the start of the 2010 season in September.
Georgia Tech, which lost four of its best juniors to the NFL draft, moved down the poll. Florida State, which signed one of the country's best recruiting classes under new coach Jimbo Fisher, moved up.
Here's a revised look at the best teams in the country for the upcoming season:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama, the defending BCS national champion, will have plenty of holes to fill before it kicks off the 2010 season against San Jose State at home on Sept. 4. But Tide coach Nick Saban has stockpiled talent the past three seasons and signed a third straight top-three recruiting class this year. Most of the Tide's offensive firepower is coming back, including quarterback Greg McElroy, receiver Julio Jones and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. Two starting offensive linemen will have to be replaced, but left tackle James Carpenter might be a future NFL star.
The defense will have to be rebuilt, but there might not be a better defensive architect than Saban. He was able to persuade defensive coordinator Kirby Smart not to leave for Georgia, his alma mater, and that will help in the rebuilding process. The entire defensive line will have to be replaced, along with two linebackers and three defensive backs. Cornerback Kareem Jackson and All-American linebacker Rolando McClain left for the NFL draft. Incoming freshman cornerbacks DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton and defensive ends Adrian Hubbard and Alfy Hill might have to contribute right away. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower's return from a knee injury will help.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel can only hope quarterback Terrelle Pryor turned the corner with his performance in a 26-17 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Entering his third season, Pryor is still trying to live up to the hype that made him the country's top high school QB prospect. The good news: Four starters will be back on the offensive line. The Buckeyes will have to replace left tackle Jim Cordle, and junior Mike Adams will be the top candidate to protect Pryor's blind side entering spring practice. Three tailbacks will compete for the starting job, including heralded freshman Jaamal Berry, who missed all of last season because of a hamstring injury.
Six starters, including five seniors, are returning on defense. Junior end Thaddeus Gibson entered the NFL draft, but getting Cameron Heyward to come back to school was a major coup. Incoming freshman Christian Bryant might be able to help in the secondary right away.
3. Boise State Broncos
The Broncos beat TCU 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish the 2009 season unbeaten, but their biggest victory might have been keeping coach Chris Petersen around for another season. And if Petersen hasn't left for a bigger school by now, he just might retire at Boise State.
The Broncos will bring back 21 of 22 starters on offense and defense in 2010, but they'll have to replace defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who left for the same position at Tennessee. Petersen promoted defensive-line coach Pete Kwiatkowski to replace Wilcox. Quarterback Kellen Moore will enter the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after throwing for 3,536 yards with 39 touchdowns and only three interceptions last season.
The only starter leaving on defense is Kyle Wilson, one of the best cornerbacks in the country. All five starters are back on the offensive line, which allowed the fewest sacks in the country last season.
Boise State's schedule gets much tougher in 2010, as it opens the season against Virginia Tech on Labor Day night at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and hosts Oregon State on the blue turf on Sept. 25.
4. Oregon Ducks
With Pete Carroll leaving USC to coach the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, Oregon might be in position to become king of the Pac-10. The Ducks' loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl momentarily put the brakes on coach Chip Kelly's early momentum, but it picked up again after he signed what was being called the best recruiting class in school history.
Oregon returns all but three starters from last season, including quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and tailback LaMichael James. Kelly signed three running backs from Texas to help James carry the load, with senior LeGarrette Blount departing.
Starting defensive linemen Will Tukuafu and Blake Ferras departed, but the Ducks signed junior college transfer Isaac Remington and freshman Ricky Heimuli to help replace them.
Oregon's schedule isn't especially difficult, with nonconference games against New Mexico (home), Tennessee (road) and Football Championship Subdivision opponent Portland State (home). The Pac-10 schedule includes road games at Arizona State, USC, Cal and Oregon State.
5. Virginia Tech Hokies
Much like Ohio State, Virginia Tech's fortunes in 2010 might depend on the development of its quarterback. Like Pryor, Tyrod Taylor has repeatedly hurt opponents with his feet, but he also has struggled at times with his passing accuracy. Entering his senior season, Taylor should have a much better grasp of Tech's offense. He'll have plenty of help in the backfield with two 1,000-yard runners returning. Sophomore Ryan Williams ran for a school-record 1,655 yards last season; sophomore Darren Evans ran for 1,265 yards as a freshman in 2008. Evans missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Tech will have to rebuild its defense after losing seven starters, but coordinator Bud Foster has never had problems filling holes. End Jason Worilds, who entered the NFL draft as a junior, will have to be replaced, as will linebacker Cody Grimm and safety Kam Chancellor. Incoming freshman Nick Dew and Theron Norman might be asked to help immediately.
Tech opens the season against Boise State and then plays a very difficult three-game stretch in November: Georgia Tech at home, followed by road games at North Carolina and Miami.
6. Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns will have to replace a lot of firepower in 2010, including record-setting quarterback Colt McCoy and receiver Jordan Shipley. But as long as coach Mack Brown keeps recruiting top-five classes, Texas should have little trouble filling holes.
Sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert gave Texas fans reason to hope for big things in 2010 with his performance in the Longhorns' loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Forced into action after McCoy injured his throwing shoulder, Gilbert played surprisingly well after getting only spot duty during the regular season. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis will have to find a running game to keep pressure off Gilbert this coming season, and incoming freshman receivers Mike Davis and Darius White might be able to play right away.
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who is Brown's coach-in-waiting, will have seven starters back. Safety Earl Thomas turned pro, and end Sergio Kindle and tackle Lamarr Houston also departed. Texas' No. 2-ranked recruiting class includes highly regarded end Jackson Jeffcoat, linebacker Jordan Hicks and tackles Taylor Bible and Ashton Dorsey.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Do you think Nebraska fans are excited about the direction of the program under coach Bo Pelini? More than 50,000 tickets already have been sold for the April 17 spring game. Big Red has good reason to be jacked for 2010. Don't be surprised if you see a Texas-Nebraska rematch in the Big 12 Championship Game in early December.
The Cornhuskers will have to replace defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who was probably the best player in the country last season, along with four other starters on defense. But Pelini has Nebraska playing "Blackshirt" defense again. Ten starters are expected back on offense, but the Cornhuskers have to improve after finishing 101st in the country in passing (175.7 yards per game) and 99th in total offense (322.7 yards) last season. Quarterback Zac Lee played better in Nebraska's 33-0 rout of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, but he was inconsistent throughout the 2009 season.
Nebraska's nonconference schedule is really soft except for a Sept. 18 road game at Washington. In Big 12 play, the Cornhuskers will face Texas at home on Oct. 16 and make road trips to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
8. TCU Horned Frogs
Fresh off a 12-1 season, with the only loss coming against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, TCU should be armed for another run at a BCS bowl game in 2010. The Horned Frogs will bring back nine starters on offense, including quarterback Andy Dalton. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and tailback Joseph Turner will have to be replaced, and coach Gary Patterson signed a couple of heralded tailback prospects to help fill the void.
TCU lost only four starters on defense, but all of them were significant departures. Pass-rushing end Jerry Hughes, linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerbacks Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest were the heart and soul of one of the country's stingiest defenses. The Horned Frogs signed six defensive backs in their recruiting class.
9. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers seemed to turn the corner under coach Bret Bielema last season, and he was rewarded with a one-year extension that would take him through the 2015 season. The Badgers finished 10-3 in 2009 and beat Miami 20-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Wisconsin should be good enough to challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten this coming season, especially with quarterback Scott Tolzien playing so well down the stretch. If the Badgers have lacked anything during Bielema's tenure, it was consistent quarterback play. It won't hurt Tolzien that tailback John Clay and eight other starters on offense are returning to the team, too. Five starters are leaving the defense, including linebacker Jaevery McFadden and safety Chris Maragos. The heaviest losses were on the interior defensive line, so Bielema signed three defensive tackles in his recruiting class.
The Badgers get a break in the Big Ten schedule, as they won't play Penn State this season. They'll face Ohio State at home on Oct. 16 and play road games at Michigan State and Iowa.
10. Florida Gators
So what if half the Gators are leaving for the NFL draft and coach Urban Meyer is on a self-imposed leave of absence? With the country's No. 1 recruiting class on board, the Gators should again be the favorites in the SEC East.
Florida looks to be equipped to handle the heavy personnel losses, which included five juniors (defensive end Carlos Dunlap, cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Aaron Hernandez, center Maurkice Pouncey and safety Major Wright) leaving for the NFL draft. Throw in the losses of all-everything quarterback Tim Tebow and star linebacker Brandon Spikes, and it's no wonder Meyer needed a break. But quarterback John Brantley is a more polished passer than Tebow and might make the Gators more explosive.
Florida's coaches were really excited about freshman receiver Andre Debose this past fall until he tore his hamstring during preseason camp. Incoming freshman Mack Brown might be the tailback the Gators have sorely lacked during Meyer's tenure.
The Gators are still searching for a defensive coordinator, after Charlie Strong was hired as Louisville's coach. Meyer hired NFL assistant George Edwards, but he left shortly after he was hired to become defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills.
11. Oklahoma Sooners
Programs such as Oklahoma don't stay down for long, so last season's 8-5 record figures to be nothing more than a blip on the radar for coach Bob Stoops. Quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham turned pro, but they barely played last season because of injuries. Replacing cornerback Dominique Franks and All-American defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who also left school early, might be a bigger chore. Quarterback Landry Jones played very well at times during Bradford's absence, and getting tailback DeMarco Murray to come back was a coup. Seven starters are expected back on offense, but tackle Trent Williams and guard Brian Simmons will be tough to replace.
The Sooners will play one of the country's toughest schedules, with nonconference games against Florida State (home), Air Force (home) and Cincinnati (road). Oklahoma will play its annual game against Texas in Dallas and also will face Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State on the road.
12. Iowa Hawkeyes
The 2010 schedule sets up very well for Iowa, which plays Big Ten challengers Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home. Coach Kirk Ferentz's teams have made their living running the football and playing stingy defense. They'll have to replace four starting offensive linemen (and tight end Tony Moeaki) to run the ball well this coming season, which might not be easy. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns and must eliminate the turnovers that plagued him last season.
Eight starters are expected back on defense, but the linebacker corps will have to be rebuilt after losing A.J. Edds and Pat Angerer. End Adrian Clayborn is one of the country's best pass-rushers, and safety Tyler Sash has a knack for making big plays. Cornerback Amari Spievey turned pro, taking away a big weapon on defense.
13. Cincinnati Bearcats
Maybe we have too much faith in new Bearcats coach Butch Jones. Cincinnati was embarrassed by Florida 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl after former coach Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame. Quarterback Tony Pike is leaving, as is star receiver Mardy Gilyard. But Jones was a big winner at Central Michigan, and the Bearcats didn't miss a beat when quarterback Zach Collaros was on the field last season. In fact, Collaros looks like a tailor-made quarterback for Jones' offense, much like former Chippewas star Dan LeFevour. Only five starters are coming back on defense, but the Bearcats had to replace 10 defensive starters before the 2009 season.
Cincinnati will play a very difficult schedule, with nonconference games against Miami (Ohio) at home, Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and road contests at NC State and Fresno State.
14. Pittsburgh Panthers
The Panthers were four points from playing in a BCS bowl game last season, losing at West Virginia 19-16 in the Backyard Brawl and 45-44 to Cincinnati, which ended up deciding the Big East championship. Instead, Pitt beat North Carolina 19-17 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, which gave the Panthers their first 10-win season since Dan Marino was playing quarterback for them in 1981.
If coach Dave Wannstedt can find a replacement for quarterback Bill Stull and rebuild his team's interior defensive line, the Panthers might be even better in 2010. Tailback Dion Lewis is back after a sensational freshman season, and Jonathan Baldwin is as good as any receiver in the country. Sophomore Tino Sunseri is the early favorite to replace Stull. Sunseri led Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High to a state championship in his senior season, and his father, Sal, was an All-American linebacker at Pitt and is currently the assistant head coach/linebackers coach at Alabama.
Pitt will be tested early and often, with nonconference road games at Utah and Notre Dame and a home contest against Miami.
15. Arkansas Razorbacks
It seems to be only a matter of time before Bobby Petrino has the Razorbacks seriously challenging Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West. It might happen in 2010, especially because junior quarterback Ryan Mallett decided to return to school. Mallett was eligible to enter the NFL draft as a sophomore because he sat out the 2008 season after transferring from Michigan. He has plenty of good weapons, including receivers Greg Childs and Jarius Wright and tight end D.J. Williams, who also bypassed entering the NFL draft.
Arkansas' biggest problems in 2009 came on defense, and star tackle Malcolm Sheppard and linebacker Wendel Davis are departing. Petrino's staff will look much different, too, with three new coaches coming on board. Petrino's brother, Paul, left to become offensive coordinator at Illinois.
16. LSU Tigers
It figures to be a big season for Tigers coach Les Miles. If his team doesn't bounce back from last season's disappointing 9-4 finish, Miles might find himself on the hot seat even after leading the Tigers to a BCS national championship in 2007. If LSU does rebound, Miles might be a hot coaching commodity again, especially at a place like Michigan, his alma mater.
For LSU to bounce back this coming season, Miles and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton have to get on the same page offensively. The Tigers never seemed to have an identity on that side of the football last season. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson struggled in his first full season as a starter, and Miles and Crowton never seemed to have complete confidence in him. The Tigers also failed to get the ball to two of their best young playmakers: Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle. They have to be more involved this coming season.
Coordinator John Chavis shored up the defense last season, but he'll have to replace three starting defensive linemen, two linebackers and star safety Chad Jones, who left for the NFL draft. Incoming freshmen J.C. Copeland and J.R. Ferguson might be able to help up front.
LSU will play a tough schedule, starting with the opener against North Carolina in Atlanta. The Tigers also will play West Virginia at home and SEC road games at Florida, Auburn and Arkansas.
17. Florida State Seminoles
For the first time in 34 seasons, Bobby Bowden won't be coaching the Seminoles. But new coach Jimbo Fisher did a fantastic job assembling his coaching staff and inherits a team that was very young in 2009. Fisher lured Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to Tallahassee and persuaded East Carolina defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to come to FSU as linebackers coach.
The Seminoles allowed 30 points or more five times in 2009 and won't challenge for an ACC title until their defense gets better. Expect incoming freshmen such as Jeff Luc, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner to play on defense right away.
FSU might be very, very good on offense. Quarterback Christian Ponder is coming back from a shoulder injury and will have all five offensive linemen back to protect him. Fisher will be tested in his first season, as the Seminoles play road games at Oklahoma and Miami and home games against Florida and BYU.
18. North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina fans can't wait for football season to get here, and it's not just because basketball season can't end soon enough. The Tar Heels finally look ready to turn the corner under coach Butch Davis after finishing 8-5 in 2009. Four All-ACC defenders are coming back: end Robert Quinn, linebacker Quan Sturdivant, cornerback Kendric Burney and safety Deunta Williams. If UNC is to challenge for an ACC title, though, its offense has to get much better. The Tar Heels ranked 108th in total offense (307.7 yards per game), 102nd in passing (174.9) and 83rd in scoring (23.7 points). Returning quarterback T.J. Yates will have to hold off Bryn Renner to keep the starting job.
UNC fans won't have to wait long to find out whether the Tar Heels' title hopes are legitimate. UNC opens the season with perhaps the toughest five-game stretch in the country: against LSU in Atlanta on Sept. 4, home against Georgia Tech on Sept. 18, at Rutgers on Sept. 25, home against East Carolina on Oct. 2 and home against Clemson on Oct. 9.
19. Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs were one of last season's more disappointing teams with an 8-5 finish. But Georgia upset rival Georgia Tech 30-24 in the regular-season finale and blasted Texas A&M 44-20 in the Independence Bowl, giving it some momentum heading into the offseason.
The Bulldogs will have 10 starters back on offense, including all five offensive linemen and junior receiver A.J. Green. Tailbacks Washaun Ealey and Caleb King didn't hit their stride until late in the season and might form a potent one-two punch this coming season. The only offensive starter leaving is quarterback Joe Cox, who wasn't very good last season. Redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger will battle junior Logan Gray for the starting quarterback job.
Georgia's defense was awful at times last season, and coach Mark Richt fired coordinator Willie Martinez and two other assistants. Richt hired former Dallas Cowboys defensive-line coach Todd Grantham as his new coordinator. Grantham coaches a 3-4 scheme and will try to put more pressure on the quarterback and create more turnovers. The Bulldogs will have to replace linebacker Rennie Curran and safety Reshad Jones, who entered the NFL draft, and they'll have to find some tackles with Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens leaving.
20. Oregon State Beavers
During the past four years, few teams have been as consistent as Oregon State, which finished in the top three of the Pac-10 standings every season. With nine starters coming back on both offense and defense, there is no reason to believe the Beavers will take a step back in 2010. Coach Mike Riley's biggest concern is replacing quarterback Sean Canfield, who completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,271 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Redshirt freshman Ryan Katz is expected to take over at quarterback, and he'll have tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and receiver James Rodgers to help him. Together, the Rodgers brothers accounted for more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 32 of the Beavers' 49 touchdowns in 2009. The Beavers play at Boise State on Sept. 25 and host USC and Oregon in 2010.
21. USC Trojans
So the USC band is back together, huh? The biggest question going into the 2010 season is whether USC athletic director Mike Garrett picked the right front man. Lane Kiffin, who bolted Tennessee after only one season to replace Carroll at USC, inherits a team that slipped mightily in 2009. After tailback Joe McKnight and receiver Damian Williams left for the NFL draft, it might not get much easier this coming season. At least Kiffin can work with quarterback Matt Barkley, who played well at times as a freshman starter in 2009.
The left side of the offensive line will have to be rebuilt, and tight end Anthony McCoy also departs. Seven starters are coming back to a defense that was really bad in 2009. But the Trojans' defense probably got better the day Monte Kiffin, the head coach's father, stepped onto the USC campus. The Trojans play nonconference games at Hawaii and Minnesota and play Pac-10 road games at Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona and UCLA.
22. Penn State Nittany Lions
Joe Paterno's 45th season as Penn State's coach will begin with an inexperienced quarterback under center, something JoePa always seems to enjoy. Paterno goes into the 2010 season needing only six victories to reach 400 in his career, and the Nittany Lions should be good enough to reach that milestone.
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will have to rebuild his unit after linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee and tackle Jared Odrick departed. Incoming freshmen Khairi Fortt and Dakota Royer, who enrolled at Penn State in January, might get opportunities to play early. Freshman Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will battle for the quarterback job, as will incoming freshman Paul Jones, who enrolled in classes early. The Nittany Lions face three difficult road games this coming season: at Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State.
23. Miami Hurricanes
Randy Shannon's fourth season as coach of his alma mater might be an important one. The Hurricanes seemed to lose momentum at the end of last season, losing two of their last four games, including a 20-14 defeat to Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Shannon was the toast of South Beach after leading the Canes to three victories over nationally ranked opponents in the first month of the 2009 season. But Shannon has yet to be rewarded by school officials. His contract is set to expire after the 2010 season, and he and Miami officials have yet to have formal talks, as far as anyone knows.
If Miami is to reach its potential this coming season, quarterback Jacory Harris has to continue to develop and avoid the turnovers that plagued him last season. Tackles Jason Fox and Matt Pipho will have to be replaced on the offensive line, and tailback Graig Cooper's status is in serious doubt after he suffered a serious knee injury in the bowl game. Lamar Miller or incoming freshmen Eduardo Clements or Storm Johnson might get the call to replace him.
24. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech's breakthrough campaign under coach Paul Johnson ended with something of a thud, as the Yellow Jackets lost to Georgia and Iowa in the Orange Bowl to finish the 2009 season. It didn't get much better after that, as four juniors declared for the NFL draft: tailback Jonathan Dwyer, receiver Demaryius Thomas, safety Morgan Burnett and end Derrick Morgan.
Quarterback Josh Nesbitt returns to anchor Johnson's triple-option spread offense, and Tech should have enough talent to fill the backfield. Johnson hired former Virginia coach Al Groh to shore up his team's defense, which was porous at best last season. Tech plays road games at Kansas, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia this coming season.
25. BYU Cougars
The Cougars finished 11-2 last season after blasting Oregon State 44-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish with at least 10 victories for the fourth season in a row. Coach Bronco Mendenhall's biggest task will be finding a quarterback to replace departed starter Max Hall. Incoming freshman Jake Heaps, who was ranked among the best drop-back passers in the country, already has enrolled in classes and will participate in spring practice. He'll challenge junior Riley Nelson and redshirt freshman James Lark, who is back from a two-year Mormon mission.
Whoever starts at quarterback won't have much of a honeymoon. The Cougars open the season at home against Washington on Sept. 4 and play at Florida State on Sept. 18. They host Nevada at home on Sept. 25.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.