College Football's Way Too Early Top 25 For 2009

Shay CroninCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2009

The 2008 college football offseason is only a few heartbeats old, which means it is the perfect time to look forward to who will be sitting in the Top 25 come next fall.

1)  Florida Gators— if Tim Tebow returns

If, and that's a big if, Tim Tebow returns, then this team is likely the most complete returning champion since USC in 2005. 

The only significant loss on offense is likely to be Percy Harvin, but with Jeff Demps, Brandon James, Riley Nelson, and Aaron Hernandez, this team should not miss a beat on offense. It should help, of course, that the Gators are likely to return all their starters on the o-line. 

The offense could be impacted by the potential loss of Chris Rainey, who went down with what looked to be a serious knee injury against Oklahoma.

The defense is likely to return almost everyone aside from Brandon Spikes, who may enter the NFL Draft. A dangerous thought about a defense that contained one of the most prolific offenses in college football history.

The schedule also works out in UF's favor, with almost all its biggest games at The Swamp.  The annual battle against Georgia isn't likely to be as heated a contest, with the Dawgs losing their top two offensive talents.  The schedule may come down to an early October visit to Baton Rouge.


2)  Texas Longhorns

The 'Horns thought they deserved to be playing the Gators in this year's BCS Championship Game, but they may get their wish next year in Pasadena.

Colt McCoy leads the offense which will likely return all of the offensive line, and most of the top receivers, including McCoy's favorite target (and most cited roommate in the nation), Jordan Shipley.

The defensive line will lose playmakers like Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller. However, the return of nearly the entire linebacking corps and the maturation of this year's inexperienced defensive backfield should help the loss.

The most important return on the defensive side of the ball for UT is coordinator Will Muschamp.  One of the most sought-after coaches in the nation accepted a new deal that will see Muschamp become the head coach when Mack Brown retires, and be paid a hefty sum until that day.

The 'Horns are seeking to add a marquee non-conference game, but the season likely comes down to showdowns with two Oklahoma teams.  The Red River Shootout on Oct. 17 may be the most hyped game of the year, especially considering the controversy surrounding the Sooners jump over Texas in the BCS in 2008, and a trip to Stillwater two weeks later to play Oklahoma State, which may be an equally diifficult task.


3)  Alabama Crimson Tide

This rank may be just as much about the coaching ability of Nick Saban as it is about the talent on the 'Bama team.

The offense loses star LT Andre Smith, who moves on to the riches and glory of the NFL, while John Parker Wilson likely moves on to the riches and glory of being former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson.

Replacing Wilson will be a heated contest in the spring between Greg McElroy and Star Jackson, a highly touted recruit from last year's class.  Jackson's talent and potential is likely to win out in the end, but the passing game will still come down to the progress of superstar freshmen WR Julio Jones.

The defense will probably lose a few players to the NFL, most notably NT Terrance Cody.  However, Saban, in his short tenure, has already influxed a solid amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball and has shown he is more than able to coach that talent.

The opening weekend game against Virginia Tech will likely be the most important game on the schedule.  While nothing in the SEC is ever easy, if 'Bama can get past the Hokies in early September, that should be a pretty good indicator that another SEC West title could be in the works.


4)  Oklahoma Sooners—if Sam Bradford returns

This ranking is based solely on Heisman Trophy winner Bradford returning.  If Bradford takes his game to Sundays, it would be tough to see this team maintaining its ranking in the Top 10.

Bradford's return would ease the loss of senior wide receivers Manny Johnson and Juaqin Iglesias, and the likely loss of junior tight end Jermaine Gresham. OU also loses the entire left side of its offensive line, with massive tackle Phil Loadholt and guard Duke Robinson.

The defense should not suffer the same kind of losses, with high first-round prospect DT Gerald McCoy being the only potentially significant loss.

The Sooners will begin the season with a pair of intriguing non-conference games.  First against BYU on opening weekend at the new Cowboys Stadium, and then a week later at Miami.  Either one of those teams has the chance to surprise the college football nation if the Sooners aren't up to the task at the start of next year.


5)  Virginia Tech Hokies

With one of the youngest team in Frank Beamer's tenure, the Hokies still managed to win the ACC Championship and the Orange Bowl, albeit over an overmatched Cincinnati team.

While redshirting Tyrod Taylor seemed like a good idea three months ago, it clearly didn't work out that way. Taylor evolved in the position since his one-week stint as a redshirt, and proved in the Orange Bowl that he has the makings of one of the most menacing dual-threat QBs in the nation.  The emergence of Darren Evans should only help what could be an already dangerous offense.

The defense will certainly miss the presence of corner Macho Harris both on and off the field, but that could be eased with the return of Stephen Virgil, who matched Harris' total of six interceptions last season.

The Hokies are looking at two big non-conference games, with the opening week battle against Alabama at the Georgia Dome and hosting the resurgent Nebraska Cornhuskers a few weeks later.  However, if the ACC is anywhere near as competitive in 2009 as it was in 2008, then Virginia Tech's biggest games may lie in conference.


6)  Ohio State Buckeyes

The world may cringe, but the Buckeyes look headed toward another berth in a BCS bowl game.

Freshmen quarterback Terrelle Pryor was inconsistent but flashed the talent that made him perhaps the most sought after recruit in college football history. An offseason of tutelege from Jim Tressell could push him closer to reach the impossibly high expectations of Buckeye Nation.

The defense returns almost everyone, but the two notable exceptions are all-everything players Malcom Jenkins and James Laurinaitis.  While filling those two holes seems a difficult task now, knowing Ohio State, they have a few players stashed away to fill the void.

The nation will find out just how good this Buckeye team can be when the USC Trojans come to The Horseshoe on Sept. 12.  A revenge victory against the Men of Troy could be what the Buckeyes need to shake their "can't win the big game" image and propel them towards one of four slots in Pasadena next January.


7)  Oklahoma State Cowboys

One of the biggest surprises in college football last year won't be afforded the same luxury in 2009, but with the returning players on the Cowboys roster, they won't need to rely on the element of surprise to wrangle wins.

There may be no better QB-RB-WR trio in the country than Zac Robinson, Kendall Hunter, and Dez Bryant.  All three return next year, creating the potential for a very dangerous offense in a conference of very dangerous offenses.

While the offense will impress, OK State's fate will fall in the hands of its defense.  Scoring a ton of points is nice, but it doesn't ensure victory—see the Bedlam game last November.

The 2009 season kicks off with a bang when the Georgia Bulldogs come to Stillwater to return the favor for the Cowboys '07 trip to Athens.  Survive that and the Cowboys can look forward to a schedule that sees most of its toughest opponents (Missouri, Texas, Texas Tech) visiting Stillwater, with the notable exception of a late-season visit to Norman and the Oklahoma Sooners.


8)  Ole Miss Rebels

Their victory against the newly crowned Florida Gators aside, it's hard not to be impressed with the way Reverend Nutt's team finished off 2008—rattling off six straight victories, including an impressive win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

Jevan Snead was a revelation for a Rebels team that has been desperate for a decent quarterback since Eli Manning left Oxford.  Snead has an NFL caliber arm, and has already exhibited an excellent understanding of Nutt's offense.

One negative is the huge loss of LT Michael Oher. Though RS freshmen Bradley Sowell has been mentioned as a good, if not equal, substitute for the position.

The Rebels avoid Georgia and Florida on next year's schedule and could position themselves as the most complete challenger to Alabama's SEC West crown. Unless...


9)  LSU Tigers

The Bayou Bengals season looked to be a complete wash before their dismantling of Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Suddenly all is not lost for Les Miles' team.

The quarterback position doesn't seem likely to be any clearer going into 2009 than it was going into 2008.  However, Jordan Jefferson may have pushed himself into the leading position with his late-season performance.  Jefferson won't be able to do enough to keep elite incoming recruit Russell Shepherd off the field, though. 

While some question whether the Houston athlete can make it as a quarterback at college, there's no denying his playmaking ability, and he will get touches next year.

The defense is likely to see the typical turnover that LSU has gotten used to over the last few years, but if history is any indicator, the team should be able to survive the changes.

The Tigers' biggest game going into '09 would almost certainly have to be the October visit from the Florida Gators, but trips to Ole Miss and Alabama will dictate whether this team finds itself in Atlanta in early December.


10)  Oregon Ducks

The Ducks came on strong late and capped the season with an impressive victory over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl.

The offense will be powered Jeremiah Masoli, who gave Ducks fans flashbacks to Dennis Dixon late in the season. If Masoli carries that momentum into the offseason, the diminutive quarterback could prove to be a terror for Pac 10 defenses next fall.

LaGarrette Blount will lead the rushing attack after breaking the 1000 barrier last year with over 7 yards per carry and double digit touchdowns.

While the defense will need to replace a few starters, the Ducks and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly have one of the explosive offenses going into next year and pose the biggest threat to USC's dynastic Pac 10 run since the Aaron Rodgers-led Cal Bears of 2004.


11)  USC Trojans —if Mark Sanchez enters the draft

Speaking of the feels weird placing them outside the Top 10, but if Sanchez decides to leave early, it is hard to place them higher than this, considering the loss of talent.

Sanchez, who was inconsistent most of the year, broke through at the perfect time—before a national television audience in the Rose Bowl.  His performance was more than enough to solidify his spot as a first-round talent, and could eventually move him into the conversation with Bradford and Matt Stafford after the combine in February. 

His return would bump this ranking back to the top five, as his presence figures to be the catalyst for an uber-talented USC offense.

If Sanchez leaves, the offense likely goes over to former Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain. Mustain, who saw very limited action this year, has a history of winning as a starting quarterback, but is still raw and two years removed from big-time play.

Mustain could be challenged by fellow backup Aaron Corp, who was actually ahead on the depth chart at the start of the season, or by elite recruit Matt Barkley, who is already seen as the next star USC quarterback.

The defense will suffer too many losses too count, just name a player and odds are their 2009 games are going to be on Sundays. And while USC "reloads, not rebuilds," it is difficult to see how so much talent can be replaced so easily.

The schedule is brutal, with road trips to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon, and Arizona State (though mercifully avoiding Corvallis). That, combined with the loss of talent, makes it hard to see how 2009 could see the same win total as 2008.

Still, I'm sure Pete Carroll will have many people eating their words come next January.


12)  Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The questions of whether or not Paul Johnson's triple option offense could work in a BCS conference have been silenced, if only for one year.

The most important thing for the offense's continued success is the return of the team's three top rushers—QB Josh Nesbitt and RBs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones.

Dwyer was a beast last year, posting huge numbers for a team that needed to find a premiere running back, while Nesbitt ran Johnson's offense smoothly enough to get Tech within a tiebreaker of the ACC Championship Game.

The defense will have its work cut out replacing a number of players, including DE Michael Johnson, who figures to hear his name called sooner rather than later in April's draft.

Still, the ACC looks to be another open race next year, and the triple option has been successful thus far.


13)  Pittsburgh Panthers —if Shady McCoy returns

This ranking seemed safe just a day or two ago, but recent rumors that star RB LeSean McCoy has been skipping team meetings since their Sun Bowl loss to Oregon State fuels speculation that he may be taking his game to the next level.  That loss would certainly bump Pitt further down these rankings, if not out of them altogether.

For the time being, though, Pitt looks like a solid team next year.  There is, however, a lingering question at quarterback.  While Bill Stull took hold of the job last year, his performance (9 touchdowns against 10 interceptions) did not impress, and his job is anything but assured heading into the spring.

However, that point is a lot less important if McCoy returns, which emphasizes his importance to this team. If the near 1,500-yard, 20-plus TD rusher returns, this team may be the favorite to win the Big East.  If not, it could be a long and potentially final season for Dave Wannastedt at Pitt.


14)  TCU Horned Frogs

Somebody has to play the role of BCS buster and who better than the Frogs, who seem to consistently flirt with the role while never actually reaching it. The bowl victory over previously unbeaten Boise State should motivate Gary Patterson's team heading into the offseason.

The Frogs lose players on defense, but star DE Jerry Hughes returns. And on the offensive side of the ball, QB Andy Dalton heads up a squad that returns leading rusher Joseph Turner and leading receiver Jimmy Young.

With Utah losing a number of players, most notably QB Brian Johnson, TCU figures to be the strongest team in the Mountain West, which seems to be becoming the seventh BCS conference.


15)  South Florida Bulls

Things seem to have been going consistently downhill for Jim Leavitt's team since it unexpectedly rose to the No. 2 position in the country in October 2007.

The offense returns a number of players, but most notably QB Matt Grothe. Grothe struggled down the stretch last year and seems to have difficulty finding the flare that made him one of the up-and-coming signal callers in college football just a few years ago.  With his last season at stake, Grothe will retake his place as one of the prominent dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.

The defense will once again be anchored by DE George Selvie who, like Grothe and, come to think of it, the entire USF team, struggled in 2008.  Selvie, once projected as a high first-round pick, fell back to earth this year as he faced double and triple teams off the line every game. 

The Bulls' defensive coaches are likely to find a way to ease up on the number of blockers Selvie faces, and that should allow his pure talent to shine through.

The Bulls, who have wrestled their way into the discussion as one of Florida's best college football teams, will have a chance to prove it this year with games against Florida State and Miami.  The Bulls will make the trip to Tallahassee in late September, and then host the Baby Canes late in the season.


16)  North Carolina Tar Heels

The Heels figure to be one of the sexier picks going into the 2009 ACC season.  Butch Davis has brought the team back to the level of popularity and success it enjoyed under former coach Mack Brown.

On offense, the team will have to decide on a quarterback between Cam Sexton and T.J. Yates, both of whom saw significant playing time in '08.  Complicating the matter could be former top recruit Mike Paulus, who saw limited playing time last season (though managed to throw two picks on only 13 attempts). 

The offense loses star WR Hakeem Nicks, but retains running backs Shaun Draughn and goal line beast Ryan Houston, creating one of the more effective running attacks in the ACC.

The defense will be headed by potential all-everything DT Marvin Austin.  The junior-to-be's play has been as impressive as his choice of the No. 9 jersey is strange.

The biggest hurdle between UNC and the ACC Championship Game is likely the team's schedule. Road trips to Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech mean that the Heels will probably need to rely on a little help in order to make it to Tampa next December.


17)  Miami Hurricanes

While 'Canes fans still pine for a return to their prominence of the late 90's and early 2000s, Miami fans would surely be happy to see their team return to the Top 25 polls on a consistent basis, which is a goal that seems within Randy Shannon's reach next year.

On offense, the team found its quarterback late in the season with Jacory Harris. The Miami native seems to already have the respect of his teammates—a feat that has been in no small measure helped by the fact nearly a dozen Canes were Harris' teammates at Northwestern high school in Miami.

In fact, Harris looked good enough to prompt the transfer of once highly touted gunslinger Robert Marve.

The skill positions should see almost everybody returning, including top rushers Graig Cooper and Javarris James, along with talented young wide outs like Aldarius Johnson and Travis Benjamin.

The defense needs to take steps forward, but for a team that was dotted with starting freshmen, it doesn't seem a stretch that under the tutelage of a good coaching staff that will happen.

The Canes will have big non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and South Florida to go along with the competitive ACC schedule.  But the biggest question has to be at what point will this team stop being referred to as the Baby Canes?  How about the Toddler Canes?


18)  Cal Golden Bears

Now on to the team that beat Miami in the Emerald Bowl.

The offense may have a case of addition by subtraction with the graduation of much maligned QB Nate Longshore. His replacement is likely to be a battle between one-time starter Kevin Riley and former star recruit Brock Mansion.

The Golden Bear's offense, however, will rely on the play of their Heisman candidate tailback, Jahvid Best. Best came on late, breaking the century mark in his last four games, including a 300-yard game against Washington. Along with equally explosive back Shane Vereen, this figures to be one of the best running combos in the game next year.

The Bears schedule sees them taking a difficult trip to Eugene to face the Ducks in late September, along with an intriguing matchup at Minnesota in the new Gophers Stadium.

A solid season from Best could be enough to have Cal seeing roses late in the season.


19)  Florida State Seminoles

A thorough beatdown of the Wisconsin Badgers in the Champs Sports Bowl has 'Noles fans hoping that Miami isn't the only resurgent powerhouse in the Sunshine state.

Christian Ponder played well enough at quarterback to ease fears going into 2009, but erratically enough to further rumblings about whether last year's star recruit EJ Manuel will be taking the reigns at some point in the near future.

Jermaine Thomas will likely have to pick up the slack for the departure of star RB Antone Smith. Thomas flashed brilliance in 2008, averaging seven yards per carry, but whether he will be able to handle the load by himself is another matter.

The defense will be in need of some patchwork with the loss of DE Everette Brown, LB Derek Nicholson, and hard-hitting nerd Myron Rolle.

Still, Florida State feels like a squad that is starting to get its swagger back, and you can't help but feel that Bobby Bowden has at least one great stretch left in his career.


20)  Georgia Bulldogs

A "disappointing" 10-3 season was compounded by the loss of star players Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.  Still, Mark Richt returns a number of players and should keep the team above water while they replace those two.

On offense, the big question will be who replaces Stafford. While veteran Joe Cox has the lead going into the spring, look for star recruit Aaron Murray to push him for playing time...if he can hold off fellow recruit Zach Mettenberger.

Moreno's replacement is much easier, with Caleb King ready to take over the carries and hand off his change-of-pace role to Richard Samuel.

What the defense loses on the line it makes up for in the return of linebackers Akeem Dent, Rennie Curran, and Darryl Gamble. 

An opening week faceoff with Oklahoma State in Stillwater will provide UGA instant feedback on how its process to replace Stafford is going.

While the Dawgs lose a lot of star power to the draft, they still remain one of the most talent-laden rosters in college football and should be competing for second billing in the SEC East, behind Florida.


21)  Penn State Nittany Lions

A team that many pegged to give USC a battle in the Rose Bowl ended up providing another example for Big Ten bashers across the nation, though a few scoring drives in the second half kept the game from getting too out of hand and saved some face for Joe Pa's boys in Pasadena.

The offense loses WRs Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood, but returns star QB Daryll Clark and RB Evan Royster. Clark's presence means that while the Spread HD offense may not be as defined as it was in 2008, it won't fall to the realm of Spread Standard Definition anytime soon.

A fairly uneventful non-conference schedule leads the Penn State into another open competition in the Big Ten, and while Pasadena is probably out of reach in 2009, another strong showing by the ageless Paterno is quite possible.


22)  BYU Cougars

The Cougars started the season strong before eventually suffering losses to fellow mid-major heavyweights Utah and TCU, and suffering a hard-fought loss to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The offense will lose WR Austin Collie to the draft, but it returns QB Max Hall, along with RB Harvey Unga. Hall tossed 35 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards in 2008, and Unga broke 1,100 yards rushing and amassed double digits in rushing touchdowns.

The two returning means that BYU should maintain one of the more balanced offenses in the nation in 2009.

The defense will have to patch up a unit that became prone to giving up points late in the season, and it will have to be at the top of its game opening weekend when they travel to new Cowboys Stadium to face the BCS title runner-up, the Oklahoma Sooners.


23)  Texas Tech Red Raiders

Tech was flying high in mid-November, coming off a victory against then-top ranked Texas. Then the Red Raiders looked to ride that momentum into Norman and a victory against Oklahoma. Obviously, that wasn't how things went. A loss to OU was followed by a near-disaster loss against Baylor and a humbling loss to Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl.

Offensively, the team will lose its top two players in Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree. Harrell graduates, while Crabtree, though undeclared for the draft at this point, is almost certainly taking his game to sundays. Still, Tech returns a number of receivers, including Edward Britton and Detron Lewis, and QB Taylor Potts figures to be the next stat monger under mad scientist Mike Leach.

The defense returns a high number of players, and while the unit was far from perfect last season, it did show flashes of brilliance that had not been seen to that point in Leach's tenure at Tech.

While Crabtree and Harrell represent a huge loss both on the field and in terms of the teams marketability, the Tech machine is likely to plug in a new round of players to keep the team moving.


24)  Minnesota Golden Gophers

If before the season you had said the once 1-11 Gophs would push their way to 7-5 and a bowl bid, it would have seemed like a pretty successful season. However, the way it happened left a bad taste in the mouths of maroon and gold fans. 

The once 7-1 Gophs lost their last four regular season games, including a 55-0 embarrassment to Iowa in the last home game at the Metrodome, before losing to Kansas in the Bowl.

Still, hope lies ahead for the Gophers in the form of a beautiful, new, on-campus stadium that opens this upcoming fall. TCF Bank Stadium figures to provide the type of atmosphere befitting of the sport, and vacant from Gopher football since their actual "golden" period.

The offense returns almost every player of note, most notably QB Adam Weber and WR Eric Decker. The two were one of the most dangerous pairs in the country until Decker was plagued by injuries late in the year. Weber has the ability, and the system, to play himself into a race as a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman next year.

The defense was better in '08 than it was in '07, but since the Gophs were the worst ranked team two years ago, there was hardly anywhere to go but up. Still, the defense contains a lot of raw talent, and one of the more interesting stories going into 2009 in former star recruit LB Sam Maresh, who has been medically cleared to return to the game after open heart surgery last fall.

Tim Brewster has recruited talent to the Twin Cities the likes of which hasn't been seen for decades. Now, with a new stadium and Brewster entering his third year as head coach, the expectations will be set out for him to start moving this team toward their ultimate goal: Pasadena.


25)  Nebraska Cornhuskers

For a team that had so publicly failed in recent years, the Huskers had a surprisingly quiet and successful 2008 campaign. Bo Pelini's first year saw his team go 9-4, winning its last four games, including a 26-21 victory over Clemson in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.

On offense, the team will have to find someone to replace QB Joe Ganz. The favorite going into the spring will probably be Patrick Witt, who attempted only eight passes this season.

The heart of the Nebraska team has always been, and will always be, its defense. Pelini was brought in with the specific goal to return the Huskers' D to brilliance, and they seem to be on their way. If nothing else, the team received a huge boost in confidence and morale when Pelini returned the famed blackshirts that the team had lost over a year ago.

Nebraska's quiet success in 2008 is unlikely to lead to quiet expectation in 2009. Success for Nebraska football is followed by the expectation for more success, and with Bo Pelini at the helm and the Big 12 North wide open, there's no reason to think that Nebraska won't be the team representing the division next December in Dallas.




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