The Top Fan's Top 25 - Preseason
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Five short weeks from today, the South Carolina Gamecocks will travel up I-77 to face the NC State Wolfpack to kickoff the 2009 college football season. The countdown is on. I have thought all summer long about who my top teams were heading into the season, and last night, the season finally hit me like a ton of bricks: I am ready to assemble my first top 25 for 2009. I stayed up all night reading up on all of the teams on the web and in the compilation of college football magazines I buy year after year after year. So after a looong summer and one all-night bender doing research, here is TheTopFan's Top 25, preseason 2009. Each week throughout the season, on Monday mornings, I will reveal my top 25.....
1. FLORIDA GATORS - SEC (2008 record: 13-1, national champions, average home attendance: 90,544). The reasoning here is simple. I have always believed that whoever wins the national championship should be ranked number 1 going into the following season. I feel it is just one of those things that is not only about respect, but about the fact that until someone beats them, they should currently be ranked number one. Yes I know teams lose players and blah, blah, blah. Until you are beaten again, you should be number one. Period. In this case, Florida very well may be the best team in the nation anyway. They have all eleven players on defense coming back. ALL OF THEM!! And on offense, they return seven starters including a guy that has won a Heisman Trophy (probably gave it to an under-privileged child in some far away country as a gift). Yes fans, Superman, aka Tim Tebow, is back looking for his third national title in Gainesville. The schedule is tough, just as it always is, but we have seen that if Florida loses an SEC game early enough in the year, as their only slip-up, they can still reach their ultimate goal. They may have an off week and get beat in a tough SEC road game, but I do not see it happening twice. Florida will make a run at a national title for a third time in four years under Urban Meyer. Meyer, in my book, is the top coach in the game at this point. So let's review: Heisman winner at quarterback. All eleven defenders back. Game's best coach. Yep, they are number one in this first poll.
Here is where it gets tricky. The next group of teams - those 2-4 - could really be mixed any number of ways. Texas, Oklahoma and USC are the next three programs with the right ingredients to carry the torch should the Gators take a fall. So I ranked 'em, but they are interchangeable....
2. TEXAS LONGHORNS - Big 12 (2008 record: 12-1 , average home attendance, 98,046) The reasoning behind picking Texas second is simple: I think Colt McCoy is an outstanding leader, and Mack Brown is an outstanding coach. On top of these two things, the 'Horns also have a pretty darn good and experienced squad coming back. Nine guys return on offense, and another seven return on defense. Texas has a very favorable schedule, as well. Outside of the game with Oklahoma at the neutral site, Texas' biggest road game of 2009 is a trip to Oklahoma State October 31st. If you take all of this above, and add it together, it equals a path to the national championship game. Yes, it is easier said than done, but all of the right things are in place for Texas to challenge nationally this season. Texas will also have motivation on their side. After being snubbed in a 3-way tie for first place in the Big-12 South a year ago (Oklahoma won tiebreaker), the Longhorns will be out for blood. The more I study this team, the more I believe they will be in the BCS title game in Pasadena January 7th. The last time the 'Horns played in that venue, Vince Young brought home the glory. Texas has won five straight bowl games, and seven of their last eight.
3. USC TROJANS - Pac 10 (2008 record: 12-1, average home attendance:86,793) I always try to like Southern California, but despite their success, I can't understand why they do not have more titles. It just seems to me that year in and year out over the last nine years (Pete Carroll's tenure) they spend an enormous amount of time near the top of the polls, but only have the split title with LSU in 2003 and the 2004 outright title to show for it. Now don't get me wrong, that is great! But slip-ups to teams such as UCLA ('06), Stanford ('07) and Oregon State ('08) have kept USC from filling the trophy room with crystal footballs. This year, I'm going to list them, again, as a team with a great shot to go to number one if Florida loses. Why? 1. Great coach . 2. Great offense - always. 3. Managable schedule. First off is Coach Pete Caroll, who has lost only 15 games since arriving in 2001. He nearly always has his guys ready to play, and he deserves credit for brining in five-star players at nearly every position. Secondly, is that offense. Nine starters return, Mitch Mustain is on the roster, but many think that Aaron Corp, a sophomore will lead the team. This sounds unstable. But we all know that with the athletes in LA, whoever is at qb will be just fine. Finally, the deceiving schedule. Yes, road trips to Ohio State and Notre Dame are on the schedule (weeks two and seven, respectively). But to me, until I am proven otherwise, those two schools are not much more than big names right this second, and I see USC winning both. A trip to Cal on October 3rd is very big. Outside of that, take care of business at home and you are good to go.
4. OKLAHOMA SOONERS - Big 12 (2008 record: 12-2, average home attendance: 85,075) I tried to keep them out of my top five, but just couldn't. OU deserves a little more credit than it has gotten under Bob Stoops, who is 109-24 in 10 years here. The Sooners have lost three of their last five bowl games. Despite winning the national title in 2000, fans probably remember a few games that made OU look pretty bad. The 55-19 drubbing to USC in the 2004 national title game, after going 12-0 to get there, stands out the most. But the fact of the matter is that Oklahoma is in the national talks nearly every year, and this year will be no different. The Sooners have the Heisman Trophy winner returning in quarterback Sam Bradford, and have recruited as well as anyone in America the last several years - so the talent is there at the seven offensive spots that will be filled by new guys. The defense will be stellar with nine returning starters back. Schedule-wise, Oklahoma has an interesting trip to Miami to face a Hurricane team that is extremely unpredictable at this point. That is in week four. A November 7th game at Nebraska is another game that will be a challenge for OU. Texas Tech away, and Oklahoma State at home, is a tough way to close the regular season.
Ok, here is where it gets even trickier. Above are the four teams that I feel have the best chance to make it to Pasadena and the national championship game. The next six teams - the rest of my top 10 - are teams that really have it going on, and could easily find themselves in the national mix in short time.
5. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES - ACC (2008 record: 10-4, average home attandance: 66,233) What am I saying??? An ACC team in the top 5??? Is that even allowed anymore??? It is allowed still, and VT needs to be the team to prove that. The ACC was the butt of many jokes a year ago, strongly due to the very game VT will start the season with: a date with Alabama in the Georgia Dome September 5th. Last year, the Tide pummeled Clemson on national TV to give the ACC a huge black-eye. This year, Tech has a chance to get some conference redemption in what will surely be a battle. Tech also hosts Nebraska in week three. VT returns nine offensive starters, including junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He can throw it, but also rushed for almost 800 yards a year ago. The VT defense is always strong, and seven returning starters are a good sign.
6. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE - SEC (2008 record: 12-2, average home attendance: 92,138) Despite losing their starting quarterback, John Parker Wilson, to graduation, and an offense as a whole that is hurting with just four starters returning, I feel strongly enough about Nick Saban as a head coach to list Alabama as a top 6 team. The dude can motivate like no other, and back to back elite recruitng classes will have those offensive holes plugged quickly. Look for the Tide to come out of the gates quickly again this season and give VT all they want and then some. Saban faces Arkansas in week four, Mississippi away in week six, and LSU at home in week ten. A game against Auburn on the road to close the year is going to be a war as the Tigers look to start another winning streak against their rival.
7. GEORGIA BULLDOGS - SEC (2008 record: 10-3, average home atendance 92,746) Georgia is a team to watch because all anyone seems to be talking about is that Matthew Stafford is gone, and Florida is going to be unstoppable. Let's not forget that the Dawgs have 15 other guys coming back that really know how to play, and eight of them are on defense - which is very important in SEC play. Joe Cox, a senior, will run the offense. He won't be on highlight reels as much, or break many records, but he has shown he can be steady, and sometimes steady wins the race.
8. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS - Big 10 (2008 record: 11-2, avearge home attendance: 108,254) This pick is kind of a long shot, and is based on a couple of things. One, I think the world of Joe Paterno and his ability to put together quality teams. Yes, he has been around since Pennsylvania was a colony, but he still is the CEO of a major program, and does a great job with it. Second, the Penn State schedule is not terribely fearful. Akron? Syracuse? Temple? Eaastern Illinois? Come on. And the Big Ten is pretty weak in my eyes, anyway. Lots of easy wins in State College this fall equals PSU ranked high. With that said, they will probably get smeared in a major bowl again.
9. LSU TIGERS- SEC (2008 record: 8-5, average home attendance: 92,383) The Tigers could easily be a surprise team this season as a 4-0 start is very realistic. They travel to Washington (win) and then come home for Vandy (win) and Louisiana (win). They then travel to Mississippi State (should win). A trip to Georgia in week five, followed by a vist from Florida in week six, will tell LSU if they are a conference contender or not. The Tigers have fourteen startes coming back for 2009 - seven on either side of the ball. Jordan Jefferson will be under center after playing some in 2008 due to some odd circumstances at the quarterback position. Under Les Miles, LSU is 24-5 at Tiger Stadium.
10. TCU HORNED FROGS - MWC (2008 record: 11-2, average home attendance: 30,389) Playing in a non-major conference is having the same effect on TCU that it has had on Utah and Boise State: It is just hard to get respect. And while I do think they can play ball, I do not think TCU is one of the ten best teams in the nation. However, they do play a weak schedule this year, and so I think they are capable of winning all of the games on it, leaving them as this year's version of Utah. Really, the biggest hurdles on the slate are at Clemson in week four, and Utah at home in week eleven. Gary Patterson has proven to be one of the top coaches in the game, and he will see his team go 11-1 or 12-0 in 2009, perhaps reaching a BCS bowl.
So there are the top 10 teams for me as we head into the start of the 2009 season. Next up - teams 10-17 - are teams that I think are poised to become elite teams, but are just in need of a breakthrough game.
11. OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 48,261) Mike Gundy has led the Cowboys to new things since becoming head coach in 2005. They have appeared in three straight bowl games, winning the first two before losing to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl a year ago. Now, with seven offensive starters back, OSU looks to do more big things in 2009. They will get a high-profile inter-regional game right off the bat as Georgia comes to town. The Dawgs hosted OSU in a 2007 35-14 UGA win. Only one tough road game is on the schedule: the season ender at Oklahoma.
11. OLE MISS REBELS - SEC (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 55,005) This is strange territory for Ole Miss fans. The Rebels are usually the hunters in the SEC West. This year, they will be the hunted. The Rebels find themselves with a bit of a target on their backs after going 9-4 and winning the Cotton Bowl over Texas Tech, 47-34. Back for this season are sixteen starters, eight on offense and eight on defense. Back at quarterack is 6'3" 215 pound Jevan Snead, who played well in the last three games of 2008. Houston Nutt, who made Arkansas a national factor for a couple of seasons, is entering his second season in Oxford.
12. CALIFORNIA BEARS - Pac 10 (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 61,634) The Bears are somewhat of a mystery team to me. Playing on the West coast, I do not hear about them as much as I would like to know. But I do know that Jeff Tedford is a solid coach, and that fifteen starters are returning. Kevin Riley takes over at quarterback, and is somewhat of a question mark. However, the schedule is pretty favorable. USC is at home, and the toughest road game appears to be at Oregon in week four.
13. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES - Big 10 (2008 record: 10-3, average home attendance: 104,976) The offense returns just five players, or else I would have this squad ranked higher. Jim Tressel is the top coach in that area of the country, and will find a way, through toughness if nothing else, to make this a top 10 team and Big 10 contender. Michigan is down, so a November 7th game at Penn State could decide who goes to the Rose Bowl (or better). On defense, Ohio State welcomes back seven men.
14. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS - ACC (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 47,489) This could very well be the ACC team to make a run nationally before it is all said and done. GT made huge strides under Paul Johnson's leadership in year one in Atlanta, and are poised to make more noise in 2009. The Jackets return eighteen starters, ten on the dangerous mis-direction offense, including qb Josh Nesbitt and all-conference running back Jonathon Dwyer. The schedule sets up nicely for them, as well. Clemson visits early, followed by a trip to Miami. FSU on the road could be dangerous, and VT vistis October 17th for homecoming, and perhaps to decide the ACC Coastal. Georgia, a team they finally beat once again in 2008, must travel to Bobby Dodd Stadium this year.
15. UCLA BRUINS - PAC 10 (2008 record: 4-8, average home attendance: 72,795) This is kind of an odd pick for a team that went 4-8 a year ago. But I honestly believe that Coach Rick Neuheisel is the real deal, and now back at his alma mater, he will turn things around. Are they top 15? Who knows. But this team has talent and is capable of making a run with a pretty easy schedule. Sixteen guys come back that are starters, nine on offense. This is my shot in the dark, that's for sure, but keep your eye on this Bruin program. I have them in my top 25 if for no other reason than those uniforms - dang those are sweet!
16. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS - BIG 12 (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 85,071) The Huskers are trying to return to the glory days of Tom Osborne, when they were fixtures in the top five, and were challenging annually for national titles. Bo Pelini, in just his first season at the helm, put the life back into the Nebraska program. The strength for Nebraska this year will be its defense behind the return of seven starters. The loss of Joe Ganz to graduation will see Nebraska having a new body leading the offense. Zac Lee's play will have a heavy impact on whether the Husker's can take the Big-12 North. My prediction is that Nebraska will play Texas for the Big 12 title come December.
17. BOISE STATE BRONCOS - WAC (2008 record: 12-1, average home attendance: 32,275) The Boise State Broncos are a mystery team. Year after year they post very strong records. But the debate will always go on of whether those records are boosted by a weak schedule. We all know the Broncos beat Oklahoma, and Utah beat Alabama, but the 12 game grueling schedule is a different matter. I didn't plan on going down that path in this capsule, but as I look at their schedule, outside of the opener, at home with Oregon, there isn't a tough game on there....Seriously! I like Boise State, that is the only reason they are in my top 17. I think if they had to get up for one big game - just one week - against anyone in the nation (and I mean anyone), they could do it, and perhaps win, but week in and week out, well, I just don't know....
The rest of my preseason top 25 teams is made up of teams that are just not quite to the level to be considered, at this point, national contenders. Will they be national factors? Yes. Will they be national contenders? No.
18. FSU SEMINOLES - ACC (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 77,968) Controversy surrounds this program, but still they go on with good football. The 'Noles fell off of the national radar a few years back after going fourteen straight seasons in the top five or better. Now, after a few rough years in Tallahassee, Bobby Bowden appears to have a pretty decent squad assembled once again. Quarterback Christian Ponder returns, with eight total starters back on offense. The only problem now is the brutality of the schedule: Miami, Georgia Tech, South Florida, at BYU, at Clemson, at North Carolina, at Florida.
19. RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS - BIG EAST (2008 record: 8-5, average home attendance: 42,378) I don't know what it is about Rutgers that makes me not like them, but there is something for sure! Maybe it is that they are so close to New York City, and New York City and college football don't seem to go together to me. Or maybe it is the huge fuss everyone made out of Ray Rice a few years ago. Anyway, despite whatever it is that rubs me wrong about the Knights, they must be pretty good. They are ranked in nearly everyone's top 25, and with a good coach in Greg Schiano, and seven offensive starters returning, then I figured I would give them a shot. So here they are, Rutgers, at number 19.
20. IOWA HAWKEYES - BIG 10 (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 70,169) Iowa reminds me a lot of my Clemson Tigers at times. We sell out our place, and get so pumped up for big seasons, but we always tend to hover right around the number 25 spot or so, sometimes flirting with the top 15. This is the same with Iowa. Once again, they enter 2009 ranked decent, only this year they could do some damage. With Michigan down (and no signs of surfacing in sight), Iowa has a chance to move up the Big 10 ladder if they can stay disciplined and win the games they are supposed to win. The bad news is that Ohio State and Penn State are both away from home.
21. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS - SEC (2008 record: 5-7, average home attendance: 66,784) Bobby Petrino is entering his second season as Head Coach at Arkansas. Last year things could have gone better to say the least. But Petrino is good on the college level, and I have confidence his Arkansas teams will be as good as his Louisville teams. With eighteen starters coming back for 2009, expect much more from the Hogs. Ryan Mallett, who is a Michigan transfer will start at quarterback. The schedule will be brutal, but expect Arkansas to be a surprise team in the SEC this season.
22. ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI - BIG 10 (2008 record: 5-7, average home attendance: 61,707) The pressure will be on Coach Ron Zook big time this fall in Champaign. After a promising 9-3 record in 2007, 2008 was a disaster. Senior quarterback Juice Williams will have to lead the Illini and save Zook's job. Eight starters are back on offense, so the man power will be there. If Zook doesn't win nine games this season, do not be surprised if he is shown the door (he was just 2-10 in his second season).
23. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH - IND (2008 record: 7-6, average home attendance: 80,795) I really do not know what to think of ND. Yes, they have more than their share of "haters" out there, that is for sure. But I try to look at them through non-colored glasses and see what they have. What they have, for starters (no pun intended) is nine offensive starters coming back on offense, and another six on defense. This is Coach Charlie Weis' fifth season - so those are all his guys now. This needs to be a big year in South Bend or Weis could be history, and often times pressure leads to wins. Outside of a home date with USC, the schedule is a joke.
24. WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS - BIG EAST (2008 record: 9-4, average home attendance: 58,085) I think it is safe to say that the jury is still out on Bill Stewart as head coach in Morgantown. He hasn't done too much wrong, but he didn't exactly set the world on fire a year ago either in record-setting quarterback Pat White's senior season. Of the four losses, the one that hurt the most was probably the road thumping they took to East Carolina, 24-7, which sort of put a damper on the rest of the season there after. The 'Neers did however have a nice home win over Auburn, and won a Meinike Car Care Bowl for the ages in a shootout with UNC. Only twelve starters return for WVU this season, but I get the feeling they will find a way, once again, to reach the nine-win mark. A trip to Auburn early will tell a lot about this team, and new (but a senior) quarterback Jarett Brown.
25. CLEMSON TIGERS - ACC (2008 record:7-6, average home attendance: 79,164) With my thinking that my favorite team will be on the verge of the AP top 25 when it comes out in a few weeks, the last thing you could ever expect me to do is sell them short on here! So I will look at the positives of why my Tigers are a top 25 team. Everyone knows Clemson has inexperience at head coach and at quarterback. However, the Tigers also return a stout offensive line and a nasty defense. Team energy will also be a positive, as is highlight reel running back CJ Spiller. Clemson's schedule is semi-tough, with an early date at Georgia Tech, a mid-season game at home vs. TCU, and a home game with Florida State in November as highlights.
* attendance figures from Phil Steele's college football magazine.
And finally, here are ten teams that could quickly find themselves in the top 25 with a little luck (in order):
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