My 2009 CFB Preseason Top 25

RunTellMattContributor IAugust 26, 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 18: Cornerback Joe Haden #5 of the University of Florida poses with two Gator mascots after the spring football orange and blue game April 18, 2009 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

After completing an exhaustive 12-part series in which I researched and evaluated all 120 FBS college football teams and ranked them within their respective conferences, I’m finally ready to post my preseason top 25.

Before you get yourself all red-faced from screaming like a teething baby, keep in mind there are several teams I didn’t include in my top 25 who I think could actually beat some of those included.

But, I wanted to recognize those teams who I feel may end up in the top 25 at the end of the season by utilizing my projected W-L records. So, although I think at team like LSU could beat several teams listed below, I’m projecting them to finish 8-4 (like I did last year) and end up outside the top 25 (like they did last year).

You could say my preseason top 25 is a hybrid of how good I perceive teams to be heading into the season and how I expect them to finish, with a lean toward the former rather than the latter.

Disagree if you like, but remember, I’ve actually done my homework and have looked at each team extensively. Have you?

Okay, enough qualifying my picks, here they are:

25. Clemson Tigers | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

The Tigers lose their starting QB, Cullen Harper, top RB, James Davis, and top WR, Aaron Kelly from the team that was the ACC preseason favorite to win the conference last year. The Davis loss may not be so tough as the Tigers have RB C.J. Spiller, who had a better yards-per-carry average (5.4) than Davis (4.4), and is the highest ranked kickoff returner back from last season with 27.2 yards/return.

The Kelly loss won’t be a big deal either as WR Jacoby Ford, the team’s second leading WR, returns and supposedly has 4.2 40 speed.

The Harper loss, however, may be a little harder to swallow as he was the 2008 preseason ACC offensive player of the year, although he didn’t play up to the hype, battling injury all season.

Harper’s backup looks to be Willy Korn, who is in his third year with the team and redshirted in 2007 after injuring his shoulder. He played sparingly last year, but was able to connect on 68.4 percent of his passes.

Whether it’s Korn or someone else, the QB will benefit from lining up behind an experienced O-line with a combined 79 career starts.

The D-line is one of the better lines in the ACC with names like Da’Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp, but they’ll have to do better than the 14 sacks the unit posted last season, which ranked dead last in the ACC by a lot.

The schedule isn’t bad, but the Tigers do catch Georgia Tech, Miami and a much-improved NC State team on the road.

The pieces are there and the schedule is manageable, but can the Tigers finally live up to their talent, exceed expectations and make their first ever ACC title game?

24. Boise State Broncos | Last Year: 12-1 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-2

Over the last seven years, Boise State has made seven bowl games, captured six conference titles and has won 80 games total—only the USC Trojans can say the same.

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This year, despite being picked once again as preseason favorites to win the conference, the Broncos might not find it so easy going as they return just half their starters from a year ago.

The offense gets six of those returning, including QB Kellen Moore, who was fantastic last year as a redshirt freshman completing an absurd 69.4 percent of his passes for 3,486 yards, 25 TD’s and 10 INT’s. Moore loses, however, his top offensive weapons of RB Ian Johnson and most of his WR corps.

The O-line, which used 11 different combination of players in 13 games last year, loses their best player, three-year starter Andrew Woodruff.

The defense will overall be pretty good once again with arguably the WAC’s best secondary led by preseason defensive player of the year, CB Kyle Wilson.

The LB unit may be a little less experienced as will the core of the D-line. However, first Team All-WAC DE Ryan Winterswyk returns to anchor the unit.

The schedule may be one of the weakest in the country—which has always been the argument to keep them out of the BCS bowls—but will start off with a difficult home game against Oregon, which should set the tone for the rest of the season.

Beat the Ducks and the Broncos should no doubt be undefeated when they face Nevada on November 27 in what should be the equivalent of a conference title game. I think the Broncos have several more questions to answer with less overall experience, which is why I’ve give Nevada the advantage to win the conference this year.

23. North Carolina Tar Heels | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Butch Davis has made considerable improvement in his short tenure as head coach at UNC by doubling the win total from year one to year two from four to eight.

Expect the progression to continue this year as UNC looks to be not only well-balanced, but loaded with experience and talent.

The defense remains mostly intact as they return nine starters, including four of their top five tacklers. The O-line returns just two starters, but have a total of four that have nine-plus starts each.

Despite the losses at the O-line, the biggest loss on offense has to be at WR, where they lose their top three targets—most importantly, Haseem Nicks, who was by far the Heels’ most valuable player.

Nicks holds 14 UNC receiving records. He had several spectacular grabs last year, caught everything that came his way, and was huge in the bowl game against WVU with 217 yards.

The replacements at WR were very highly recruited so the production may not fall too far, especially if QB T.J. Yates can remain healthy.

The schedule is somewhere between medium and difficult despite North Carolina being one of seven teams nationwide and one of three in the ACC to schedule two FCS teams.

Games against GT on the road, FSU at home, followed by VT on the road a week later, Miami at home and BC on the road a week later are what’s going to determine what kind of season the Tar Heels have.

So, although difficult and unlikely, the Heels really do control their own destiny as they have the potential to win them all.

22. West Virginia Mountaineers | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

West Virginia has not finished lower than second in the Big East since 2001, a streak I don’t think will be ending this season as the Mountaineers look to be loaded.

Despite losing their record-setting QB, Pat White, the offense won’t miss a beat. They'll be led by a much better passer in SR QB Jarrett Brown, who threw for 274 yards with four scores in the spring game.

Head coach Bill Stewart has moved the team away from the wildly successful run option spread to a more traditional passing game, which may explain the 9-4 record last season after three straight 11-win seasons.

It’s year two in the Stewart era and WVU has the right players in place to run Stewart’s system and get back to their double-digit winning ways.

RB Noel Devine, the team’s leading rusher, and several solid options at WR are all in place to, once again, give West Virginia an explosive offense.

Believe it or not, the defense, despite losing their top three tacklers, actually looks to be the strength of the team. They return seven starters, lead by sixth-year MLB Reed Williams, who posted 107 tackles in ‘07, but red-shirted last season due to injury.

The biggest question mark for the Mountaineers this year has to be at the O-line where they lose a few first and second team All-Big East linemen.

The non-conference schedule is manageable with home games against Liberty, E. Carolina, Colorado and Marshall and one road game at Auburn, who I picked to finish next-to-last in the SEC.

I think WVU will make considerable improvements from last year, especially offensively, and will earn their eighth straight bowl game. But catching three of the other top five Big East teams on the road (at USF, at Cincy, at Rutgers) may keep the Mountaineers from achieving 11 wins again this season.

21. USF Bulls | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

South Florida has certainly had their chances the past two years having climbed as high as No. 2 nationally in ‘07 before losing momentum, and then going 2-5 in conference play after starting the season 5-0 last year.

This may be their last chance at something bigger before a possible rebuilding year starts next season as they will lose nearly all of their star power, including four-year starter, QB Matt Grothe. 

Grothe combined for 22 scores and over 3,500 yards both rushing and passing last season.

Certain first round draft pick DE George Selvie, leading WR Jesse Hester and FS Nate Allen all return as experienced starters.

The defense will be solid with maybe the best D-line in the Big East.

But the biggest question mark for this year’s Bulls team is the O-line, where four seniors who combined for 87 career starts will be replaced by a group to include some junior college transfers, who have combined for only 43 career starts.

That may not matter too much for the Bulls as senior QB Matt Grothe is their leading rusher and will move the chains one way or another.

The non-conference schedule is middle of the pack considering USF is one of only seven schools nationwide to play two FCS schools, but they also play instate games at FSU and at home vs. Miami.

While I expect the Bulls to have a fantastic year and earn their fifth straight bowl bid, it remains to be seen if they can finally live up to their potential and take it to the next level by at least achieving double-digit wins—a feat they’ve yet to accomplish since becoming an FBS team in 2001.

20. Rutgers Scarlet Knights | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

Despite the high expectations heading into the ‘07 season, the Scarlet Knights severely underachieved. They started 1-5 and barely squeaking by UConn in their seventh contest thanks to a late missed field goal by the Huskies.

Then Rutgers finally woke up and exploded offensively. They went from an average of just over 13 points per game to just over 43 points per game as they won their final five games as well as their bowl game against NC State.

Gone from the offense that returns seven starters are three of the top four WR’s as well as QB Mike Teel. Teel led the offensive explosion during the final six game last year.

The O-line returns all five starters and should give whomever wins the starting QB job all the time needed to develop. There’s no real star RB to speak of, but rather a trio of backs all vying for playing time.

The defense returns six starters including two on the D-line and a solid LB corps lead by senior LB Ryan D’Imperio. D'Imperio totaled 93 tackles last year, 12-and-a-half of which came behind the line of scrimmage. The secondary, however, loses two stars to the NFL in CB Jason McCourty and FS Courtney Greene.

The schedule is very favorable this year and is the only reason I put them ahead of USF for the top spot. Rutgers is one of the other seven teams in the nation to schedule two FCS teams, and they also catch the other top teams in the Big East at home.

Although Rutgers certainly has some questions to answer, they look to be maybe the most balanced team in the Big East. Couple that with a favorable schedule, and the Scarlet Knights have a very good chance at winning the Big East crown this year.

19. Nevada Wolf Pack | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

QB Colin Kaepernick is one of only two QB’s in the nation to have thrown for 2,000-plus yards and rushed for 1,000-plus yards last season, the other being UAB’s Joe Webb.

In fact, Kaepernick rushed for 1,130 with an impressive 17 rushing TD’s to go along with 2,849 passing yards, 22 passing TD’s and just 7 INT’s in 383 attempts.

In 2007, RB Luke Lippincott led the WAC in rushing with 1,420 yards and in 2008, RB Vai Tua did the same with 1,521 yards—both are back for the 2009 season.

The WR corps loses their 1,000-plus-yard receiver, Marko Mitchell, but remains a solid unit. And the O-line should once again be among the best in the WAC.

On top of the offense being incredibly loaded with dangerous talent, the defense returns seven starters, including DE’s Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped, who were first and second in the WAC last year in sacks with 11-and-a-half and 10, respectively.

Last year’s defense was stout against the run and one of the best in the nation, allowing just 89 yards per game. The pass defense, on the other hand, was the worst in the nation allowing 312 yards per game.

I expect both units' numbers to balance out with considerable improvements in the pass defense and a slight drop in run defense, statistically speaking.

The schedule shouldn’t be too bad, although they start the season with a road game against a significantly improved Notre Dame team—a game I don’t expect the Wolf Pack to win.

If they beat ND, however, they should be undefeated when they face Boise St. on the road in the season finale. The outcome of that game should determine the WAC champions, but I’m predicting the Wolf Pack to finally get the nod after nine straight losses to Boise St.

18. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Georgia Tech returns 18 starters this year, the most in the ACC. The offense looks to be loaded as almost everybody is back, most importantly, ACC Player of the Year, RB Jonathon Dwyer.

Dwyer led the ACC in rush yards per game with 107.3 and posted a ridiculous seven yards per carry average. He’ll be joined by another fantastic back, Roddy Jones, who was equally impressive moving the ball at an 8.5 yards per carry average.

Although head coach Paul Johnson’s offense doesn’t throw the ball too often, all of the WR’s return along with QB Josh Nesbitt, who totaled a mere 808 pass yards last year. But Nesbitt rushed out of Johnson’s triple option offenseive formation for 693 yards, good for second most on the team.

You would think a team this lopsided offensively would be much easier to stop, but not when Paul Johnson is your coach. The triple option offense Johnson brings is very difficult to stop as evidenced by his former team Navy leading the nation in rushing three of the five years in which he was coach.

The question for this year’s GT team is at the D-line where they lose three starters to the NFL. It would be difficult for any team in the country to replace a line like that, so don’t expect them to be back to a top 10 defense right away.

This schedule is no doubt difficult with one warm up game to start the season before the ACC cream of the crop games begin.

The Yellow Jackets get VT and NC at home, but have to travel to Miami and FSU. GT must also face their in-state rival Georgia to end the season, a team they were able to beat last year for the first time since 2000.

With a difficult schedule and an inexperienced D-line, we’re going to see just how good this Yellow Jacket offense is and if it’s good enough to carry the team to an ACC title.

17. TCU Horned Frogs | Last Year: 11-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

The Horned Frogs were a mere three points away from spoiling Utah’s perfect season last year and reaching their first 12-win season.

From that team, six starters return on offense including their top weapons of QB Andy Dalton, RB Joseph Turner and their top two WR’s. The O-line loses some experience including their C, Blake Schlueter, who was drafted in the NFL by Denver.

The defense will definitely not be of the same caliber as last year considering they only return four starters, but they do get back two of their stars, including DE Jerry Hughes, who led the nation with 15 sacks last year, and CB Nick Sanders who is the leading returning MWC pass defender with 12 passes broken up and two INT’s.

The LB unit will also be down a bit as they lose three First Team All-MWC players to the NFL. With three first-time starters, the D-line will certainly be less experienced and may not be able to post the ridiculous 47 rush yards allowed per game they posted last year.

The schedule looks pretty weak with only two real tests to speak of, which are both on the road at Clemson and at BYU (assuming Utah taking a major step back this year as a given).

The Horned Frogs will be good, but will not have the same defense they relied on last year which enabled them to shorten the game with a heavy dose of the run.

The schedule is just weak enough to easily go 9-3 or 10-2 on cruise control, but they still need to be careful along the way as there are a few teams on the agenda with the potential to upset.

16. Iowa Hawkeyes | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

Iowa looks to be somewhat the opposite of Illinois with a solid defense, returning eight starters, with the question marks being on the offensive side returning six.

Second year starting QB Ricky Stanzi isn’t the best passer, but he certainly should get the time with RT Bryan Bulaga providing protection.

And no longer is there Greene to hand off to, but there is (was?) RB Jewel Hampton along with Paki O’Meara and Jeff Brinson.

I question whether Hampton will even play this year having torn his ACL this spring. Either way, there’s depth at RB so they should be fine.

Overall, the defense will be smothering and the offense may struggle, so they could be in for some low-scoring close games. If the offense can find a rhythm and produce points, Iowa could be a very dangerous team with a shot at the Big 10 title.

15. BYU Cougars | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

One reason BYU is at the top of my list this year in the MWC is because of QB Max Hall.

Hall was outstanding last year completing an amazing 69.2 percent of his passes for nearly 4,000 yards with 35 scores and just 14 INT’s in 477 pass attempts.

The biggest loss in the offensive weaponry is WR Austin Collie, who led the conference in receptions (103), yards (1,538), TD’s (15) and yards per game (118.3).

Hall will get back his second leading target, TE Dennis Pitta, who had 83 receptions for 1,083 yards last year, as well as the team’s leading rusher, Harvey Unga, who netted over 1,100 rush yards and 11 scores.

The biggest question mark on offense, and maybe on the team, is at the O-line where they lose a combined 154 career starts and return just 23 combined career starts.

The defense is in much better shape with eight returning starters and will be led by the MWC’s career sack leader, DE Jan Jorgensen.

This year’s schedule includes two of the three teams that beat them last year—Utah and TCU. But this year the Cougars get them in their own house.

The rest of the schedule is slightly more difficult than others in the MWC with games against Oklahoma to kick off the season and FSU. But all of the other road games (UNLV, San Diego St, Wyoming, NM, Tulane) should not be a problem.

I expect another fantastic season, with a Heisman campaign by Max Hall, but one loss to Oklahoma.

14. Virginia Tech Hokies | Last Year: 10-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

VT was picked to win their conference by the ACC media for the fourth time in six years. And the Hokies return a much more experienced and better team from last year when they won the ACC and a BCS bowl game.

The Hokies have most of their offensive weapons back, most importantly QB Tyrod Taylor, whose rushing stats (738 yards, seven TD’s) looked much better than his passing stats (1,036 yards, two TD-seven INT, 57.2 percent completion) last year.

The offense would have been even better and VT might be ranked higher if not for the loss of star RB Darren Evans who tore his ACL during practice.

The O-line will start several ex-TE’s in an attempt to get more athletic and reduce their sacks allowed from last year, which was 42 and worst in the ACC.

The defense returns seven starters and should once again be very solid with defensive coordinator Bud Foster, whose defense has ranked top 10 nationally the past five years, including No. 1 in ‘05 and ‘06.

I think the success of the Hokies this year will rely on Tyrod Taylor’s overall effectiveness and the O-line’s ability to provide better protection. Taylor has to first stay healthy and also become a better, more consistent passer.

The schedule is definitely challenging with several tough matchups, but only two of which are at the opponents' home field (GT, E. Carolina).

If VT doesn’t get past Alabama in the season opener, they'll have no shot at a national championship, but could very well win out, win the ACC and play in a BCS bowl.

But if they do beat Alabama, they’ll gain tons of confidence and will no doubt have their sights set on Pasadena all season long.

13. California Golden Bears | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Had it not been for the sub-par passing game (190 yards per game), Cal might have actually had their first outright PAC-10 title since 1958.

This year could reveal a similar story as returning QB Kevin Riley, who has started 15 games over the last two seasons, has yet to reclaim his starting position.

Despite the question mark at the QB position, the offense returns seven, including their brightest star, Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best.

Best led the PAC-10 in both rushing yards per game with 131.7, adding 15 rushing scores, and in yards per carry with a ridiculous 8.1 average.

Best will have to run behind an O-line replacing three-year starter RG Noris Malele and first round NFL draft choice, C Alex Mack. There’s no real go-to WR threat as no one from the corps topped 30 receptions or 500 yards last year.

The D-line returns a couple of good stars and there’s two more in the secondary, including CB Darian Hagan, who had 18 pass defends last year, and First-team All PAC-10 CB Syd’Quan Thompson who also had 18 pass defends.

The schedule is fairly difficult with three toss-up road games at Minnesota, Oregon and UCLA. The Golden Bears do benefit from getting a home game with USC.

Like all but a few PAC-10 teams this year, the success may rely on finding an answer to the QB question.

If the pass game improves, Best could have another solid year helping make the Golden Bears a very dangerous team.

12. Mississippi Rebels | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

Not only did Mississippi have their first winning season since 2003, but it was also the first time since then—when Eli Manning was at the helm—that they won more than four games in a season.

So, the Rebels go 9-4 one season and all of a sudden they’re a top 10 team? If that isn’t a serious SEC bias I don’t know what is. In fact, if you look at their nine wins, five came against sub-.500 teams and one more was against Samford from the FCS.

QB Jevan Snead may have played well at times last year, but his numbers are nothing to get excited about. He ranked no higher than 20th in any one statistical category for QB’s.

Is Sneed a very capable QB and do the Rebels have a lot to be excited about moving forward? Absolutely.

I’m just saying back the hype down and take them out of the top 10 because the level of expectation has become unrealistic simply because they’re in the SEC.

Now, what the Rebels do have is eight starters returning on both sides including three on both the D-line and O-line.

Although the D-line should again be very good, the O-line loses first round draft choice, Michael Oher, as well as their LG and RG, so they may not have as much success as the 4.7 YPC they paved the way for last year.

There’s a depth of good RB’s and a pair of WR’s returning that each had 44 receptions last year, although they lose their leading WR and KR Mike Wallace.

The schedule certainly bodes well for a nice looking record come season’s end with four lay-up non-conference games against two FCS teams, SE Louisiana and Northern Arizona, as well as Memphis and UAB.

The other games include this year’s SEC bottom against South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, Vandy, and Miss. St. That is almost a guaranteed nine wins. The remaining more closely-matched games are all at home against Alabama, Tennessee and LSU.

Best case scenario, Ole’ Miss goes 10-2 and meets Florida in an overly-hyped conference championship game, only to get smashed and watch Florida go on to another national championship game.

Because as tough as the SEC is, the winner of the SEC championship now has an automatic placement in the BCS title game.

I was being sarcastic if you couldn’t tell.

11. Illinois Fighting Illini | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

The Illinois offense looks scary good with talent at all the skill positions, including QB Juice Williams, Phil Steele’s Big 10 1st team choice; WR Arrelious Benn, who’s being heralded as the next Anquan Boldin; Florida transfer and five star recruit, WR Jarred Fayson; senior TE Mike Hoomanawanui; and even RB’s Jason Ford and Daniel Dufrene.

However, the defense will be the biggest question mark with only five starters returning led by outstanding athlete and LB Martez Wilson, who is a beast with 4.5 40 speed.

He’ll be relied on heavily as the other two LB’s on each side of him are brand new. The secondary returns a lot of experience minus CB Vontae Davis, who left early for the money.

Despite any perceived deficiencies in the defense, Ron Zook is a relentless recruiter and you can bet there’s plenty of talent to fill the voids. Nonetheless, it will be a major disappointment if the Illini cannot improve on last year’s mark. Illinois should once again be in for a lot of shoot-out’s.

The offensive firepower will be there and the defense will mature. But unfortunately the schedule is opposite of most with the tougher games—such as Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State—in four of the first five.

10. Alabama Crimson Tide | Last Year: 12-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Gone are RB Glen Coffee and QB John Parker Wilson from the team that last year started the season 12-0 before losing to Florida in the SEC title game and to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

Alabama also boasted the second best run defense in the country and returns eight of their top 10 tacklers, which certainly looks to be the strength of the team this year.

Two three-year starters need to be replaced at the O-line, including their C and team leader, Antoine Caldwell, who will be replaced by 6’0" William Vlachos.

Alabama won’t stray from last year’s formula of utilizing their smothering defense and long, methodically drawn out offensive drives to slow the game and control the ball.

That strategy might also be somewhat out of necessity considering that none of the current options at QB have any meaningful experience.

There are playmakers at WR including Julio Jones, but the QB is going to need time to get the ball down field, which may be hindered by the fact the starting C is only 6’0".

While Alabama won’t repeat last year's performance, they have a way-too-easy schedule to not end up with a good-looking W-L record at the end of the season.

9. Notre Dame | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

After a few down seasons, this is the year Notre Dame gets back to being a national powerhouse and head coach Charlie Weis’s seat cools down.

This should also be QB Jimmy Clausen’s breakout season. If he hadn’t thrown 17 INT’s last season, his 25 TD’s and 3,172 yards would have looked that much better.

Clausen won’t have as many mistakes in his junior season, and with a star playmaking WR in Golden Tate, the passing game could be electric.

One weakness might be the lack of a solid No. 1 RB, but the three returning RB’s each had 90-plus carries last year. The O-line gave up a league-worst 58 sacks in 2007, but improved to just 22 sacks allowed last year and should be even more improved this season.

Defensively, the team looks very solid and experienced. With the talented secondary, the LB’s can afford to be more aggressive and put pressure in the backfield.

It remains to be seen if RB Armando Allen can step up and provide the desperately-needed run game, but Clausen will be better if the O-line can control the line and pave the way.

Although Notre Dame plays a very difficult schedule, they have the pieces in place to finish the season in the top 10, and maybe play in a BCS bowl game come January.

8. Georgia Bulldogs | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Last year, Georgia started the season ranked No. 1 with an all-star cast including No. 1 overall draft pick QB Matthew Stafford, back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Knowshon Moreno, second round draft choice WR Mohamed Massaquoi and third round draft choice CB Asher Allen, all of whom are now gone.

Georgia, however, didn’t lose everybody.

Back are seven starters on offense, including leading WR A.J. Green. They also have eight returning starters on defense, including Butkus finalist LB Rennie Curran.

No, they may not get the media attention as their predecessors, but this Georgia team will once again be very good and could challenge Florida for the SEC East.

After all, they have had a top five recruiting class the past two years according to scout.com.

Under center is fifth-year senior QB Joe Cox, who is very capable and will be lined up behind an O-line that returns all five starters. That line is led by LT Trinton Sturdivant, who is back from a knee injury suffered last August.

The biggest area of concern for Georgia this year is the schedule. They have to face what might be one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country with games against Oklahoma St. to start the season, Arizona St., and GA Tech, not to mention a game in Jacksonville against the No. 1 ranked Florida Gators.

Whatever the W-L record may read at the end of the year, the Bulldogs are without a doubt better than every other team in the SEC—possibly even Florida—and deserve a higher ranking than the over-hyped Mississippi.

7. Oklahoma State Cowboys | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

All of the offensive weapons from last year’s exciting team are back including senior QB Zac Robinson. Robinson posted very impressive numbers last season, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 25 TD’s and rushing for more than 500 yards with eight rushing TD’s.

The offense also welcomes back their top RB, Kendall Hunter, who added 1,555 yards with 16 TD’s on the ground. One of the best WR’s in the country, Dez Bryant, a certain first round draft pick who totaled 87 catches for 1,480 YDS and 25 TD’s, is back as well.

The defense returns seven starters and will have to do a better job of getting to the QB, as they had a mere 15 sacks, the lowest total in the Big 12.

The schedule is very ambitious with games against three preseason top 10 teams including Georgia, Texas, and Oklahoma, as well as some serious challenges against Texas Tech, Houston and, believe it or not, Baylor.

Despite questions in the secondary, I think this might be Oklahoma State’s year.

Oklahoma and Texas are not unbeatable and if anybody has a chance to knock one of them off or even both (whaaaa?), it’s the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

6. Penn State Nittany Lions | Last Year: 11-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

I’m not sure why a few sources (including Phil Steele) have the Nittany Lions ranked ahead of Ohio State, considering they have nine total players returning, leaving several questions to be answered.

However, returning to lead the offense are QB Daryll Clark and RB’s Evan Royster and Stephon Green, stars from last year’s team that was a last second field goal away from going undefeated and playing for a national championship.

One question will be if they can have the same kind of success playing behind an O-line that must replace three first-team All Big Ten linemen.

Clark will also be without his three top WR’s from last year. DE Sean Lee comes back from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2008 and Novorro Bowman may turn out to be the best LB in the Big 10 if not the country.

Despite the losses Penn State is a big-time program and will have solid players top to bottom.

The Nittany Lions are in store for another solid year, and the winner of their game with Ohio State could determine the Big 10 Championship.

5. USC Trojans | Last Year: 12-1 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

If ever there was a season for another Pac-10 team to unseat the mighty Trojans from their perennial conference crown, it would be this year.

The offense returns nine starters, but like so many other Pac-10 teams this year, lacks a proven and experienced passer.

The Trojans certainly have several very highly touted recruits, however the projected starter, QB Aaron Corp, suffered a cracked bone in his left leg, which may put true frosh Matt Barkley at center stage.

Make no mistake about it, Barkley is going to have an outstanding career as he’s the real deal, but it may not all come together this year. Just ask Terrelle Pryor what it’s like to play with the big boys as a true frosh.

The rest of the skill players are in place with WR’s Damian Williams and Ronald Johnson, not to mention a ridiculous amount of talent in the backfield, including Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and C.J. Cable. Each of those backs had at least 600 yards and a five yard per carry average or better.

The biggest question mark this year is on the defensive side where they return just three starters—their lowest total during the last seven years.

The Trojans lose their entire LB corps to the NFL, which was also their top three tacklers, and have their least experienced D-line in years. Overall, the defense will be good, but don’t expect the same nine points per game allowed and 222 yards per game of total offense allowed.

The schedule may be the toughest it’s been for the Trojans, considering their losses and four difficult road games at Ohio State, Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon.

They Trojans do get Oregon St, Stanford and UCLA at home this year, which are the three teams that have taken turns beating them the past three seasons.

I think the Trojans will have another fantastic season, but will drop two games, including one to Ohio State, on their way to an eighth-straight conference title.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes | Last Year: 10-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 12-0

Aside from having the nation’s best player, Terrelle Pryor, under center, the Buckeyes reload as well as anyone in the country with multiple three, four and five star recruits coming to Columbus each year.

It is impossible to replace a stud like Beanie Wells, but the run game won’t suffer any with a pair of solid RB’s in Daniel “Boom” Herron and Brandon Saine, both of whom will see plenty of carries.

Sanzenbacher, Small, Posey and “Flash” Thomas are next in line at WR and will produce better numbers with more emphasis on the passing attack.

The question is, who will be the next great LB produced by the Buckeyes?

The biggest loss may just be in the secondary where First Team All American CB Michael Jenkins used to play. If they can become a shut down unit, the defense will be among the best in the country as the D-line is already top five.

The schedule should be recognized for how difficult and ambitious it is considering the Buckeyes catch every one of the top teams in the Big 10, as well as USC and Navy, who has led the nation in rushing four straight years and five of the last six.

If the Buckeyes make it through this tough schedule unscathed or even with one loss to one of the top teams, they’ll no doubt be back in the title game discussion.

3. Oklahoma Sooners | Last Year: 12-2 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

Oklahoma is just one of those elite of elite teams that has the ability to reload year after year, which is evidenced by their 11-plus wins in each of the last nine seasons, less 2005 (8-4).

This year is no exception.

The Oklahoma offense is without a doubt loaded.

One major concern with this year’s Sooner squad, however, has to be at the O-line where they lose everybody except LT Trent Williams.

On the other hand, they also only had one starter return at the O-line back in 2006 and finished 11-3. But, this Sooner team is far too talented to settle for 11-3, and after losing another bowl last year in the national championship game, they no doubt have redemption on their mind.

I say this without taking into consideration a very difficult schedule, which includes BYU, Oklahoma State, and Texas, all of whom will undoubtedly be ranked in the top 25 at the start of the season.

The Sooners also have four other difficult match-ups with Baylor, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas Tech.

If Oklahoma goes undefeated or even possibly suffers only loss with a Big 12 title, they very well may end up in the natioinal title game for the second consecutive year.

2. Texas Longhorns | Last Year: 12-1 | My 2009 Prediction: 12-0

Despite what the AP says, Texas is not a distant second to any team in the nation.

In fact, an argument can be made that they're the best team in the country. After all, they didn't lose to Florida.

Last year, Texas had to settle for a BCS bowl against Ohio State where they played every bit like a championship team, lead by Heisman Trophy runner-up, Colt McCoy.

The offense returns nearly everyone with nine starters coming back. The biggest loss perhaps is that of WR Quan Cosby, who led the team with 92 REC’s and 1,123 yards a year ago.

Seven starters return on defense, however the D-line seems to have taken the biggest hit losing two DT’s and two DE’s, including their Big 12 Player of the Year, DE Brian Orakpo, who also won the Nagurski, Lombardi and Hendricks awards.

However, much like Oklahoma, Texas also brings in a strong recruiting class year after year, so they’ll definitely be able to fill those voids with some talent—inexperienced as it may be.

The schedule isn’t nearly as difficult as Oklahoma’s, which is why I think they’ll finish with a better record. And their non-conference schedule is weak as well with games against ULM, Wyoming, UCF, and UTEP being the strongest of the four.

Texas should go undefeated and will no doubt have redemption on their collective minds.

1. Florida Gators | Last Year: 13-1 | My 2009 Prediction: 12-0

The No. 1 ranked and returning national champion Florida Gators return nearly their entire team (seven on offense, 11 on defense), which justifies the ranking.

The biggest loss on offense is at the WR position where they lose their top two guys, Louis Murphy and their everything-man Percy Harvin, who was also their leading rusher behind QB Tim Tebow.

It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, can replace Harvin, especially when running the bubble screen—seemingly one of Florida's favorite plays.

Harvin's speed was able to bail the Gators out quite a bit last year and will surely be missed.

The defense returns entirely intact and was among the best in the country last year. They are led by First Team All-American senior LB Brandon Spikes, who did it all compiling 97 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for a loss and four INT’s.

Their SEC schedule includes the bottom on up, minus Auburn. They do also catch LSU and Tennessee, but neither is as good as they once were.

The only team on the schedule that appears to have a good chance of knocking them off is Georgia. If Florida doesn’t go 12-0, considering their weak schedule, there should be no way they make it to the national championship game, SEC champions or not.

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