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January 25, 2006

2006 Pre-preseason Rankings
True National Title Contenders
These teams can seriously think about the national title

For now, these rankings are based on how good the teams look following the 2005 season, and not necessarily where they'll end up. Don't forget that a great team can look lousy when playing a nasty schedule, while an average team might be overrated after playing a bunch of cream-puffs.

There are six categories: 1) The teams that can go into the season honestly thinking about playing for the national title.
2) The teams that have an honest shot at getting to a BCS game (in other words, which teams should be in the hunt even if they don't win their conference title.)
3) Contenders for the Top 25.
4) Possible conference title contenders.
5) The probable also-rans.
6) The bottom 19.

Also, the teams are in three categories: 1) Should have a better team (but not necessarily have a better record) than last year, 2) should be about as good as last year, 3) should have a worse team than last year

10. West Virginia    2005 Record: 11-1
Why West Virginia could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: There isn’t a hotter team this off-season than West Virginia after its stirring 38-35 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia and with QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton, two of the nation’s most exciting young players, returning. Playing in the Big East, it’s a one game season for the Mountaineers needing to get by Louisville to have a serious shot at going unbeaten. In the non-conference schedule, West Virginia gets Maryland, Marshall and Buffalo at home and East Carolina and Mississippi State on the road.  That’s not bad.
West Virginia isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: One loss and it’s over for the national title hunt. Big East fans might disagree, but a team from the conference can’t play for the national title without going unbeaten, since it won’t get much respect from the BCS standings, and Louisville has more than enough firepower to pull off a win. The defense was a rock last year, but it loses several top players in the secondary along with NT Ernest Hunter off the line. The offensive line should be solid, but it has to replace good tackles Garin Justice and Travis Garrett.
West Virginia needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Handle the expectations. For all the hype and all the fanfare, the team only won two really big games hanging on for dear life against Georgia and beating Louisville in overtime. Now, everyone will have the Mountaineers in the top five based on the exciting skill players, but everyone also got excited about the 2004 team that became a major disappointment. No opponent will be taking this team lightly.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The BCS Championship Bowl. This isn’t one of the most talented teams in America from top to bottom, but it’s good enough at key spots, and the schedule is soft enough, to expect an unbeaten regular season.
The number one thing to work on is: Turn Pat White into a more dangerous passer. White isn’t Vince Young, but he needs to take the similar career path and go from being a devastating runner who happens to play quarterback to a consistent passer who can kill you at any time with his legs. White is an efficient passer, but he has to prove he can carry the offense with his arm if he has to.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Garin Justice
Biggest defensive loss: S Mike Lorello

9. Tennessee    2005 Record: 5-6
Tennessee could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: After being 2005’s biggest disappointment, there’s enough talent coming back to hope for a tremendous rebound. The addition of David Cutcliffe as the new offensive coordinator should be the shot in the arm needed to get the passing game going, while Arian Foster appears to be Tennessee’s next NFL great running back. The offensive line, in time, should be fine led by All-America-in-waiting Arron Sears at tackle. NFL ready defensive tackles Justin Harrell and Turk McBride also decided to come back for their senior seasons.
Tennessee isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: Is Erik Ainge ready to play up to his talent level? With a million-dollar arm and next level skills, Ainge has shown signs of being a star quarterback, but he hasn’t been consistent and hasn’t shown he can lead the team to big wins. The defense loses its top two tacklers, LBs Kevin Simon and Omar Gaither.
Tennessee needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Play like the NFL farm club it is. Few teams can touch the Vols on straight athleticism and next-level caliber talent, so now it’s up to the coaching staff to prove that last year was a total fluke. Playing in the SEC, the intensity level has to be there each and every week. Cal, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas are all on the schedule and all will spend time in the top 25, if not the top 15.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: SEC champions. The road schedule, considering Tennessee plays in the SEC, isn’t that bad with one killer (at Georgia), two nasty battles (at South Carolina and at Arkansas), and two games that have to be layups if this is a BCS caliber team (at Memphis, at Vanderbilt). This is too tough a schedule to get through unscathed, but 11-1 and an appearance in the SEC championship game would keep it in the BCS Championship Bowl hunt.
The number one thing to work on is: Hanging on to the ball. The addition of “Coach Cut” will turn around the offense, but the Vols can’t win the SEC unless they improve their turnover margin after finishing 95th in the nation by giving it away 27 times with only 20 takeaways.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Rick Clausen
Biggest defensive loss: DT Jesse Mahelona

8. Florida State    2005 Record: 8-5
Why Florida State could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: Fine, so every year is supposed to be the season Florida State gets back to the elite superpower status, but year after year of solid recruiting, and the lumps taken last year fighting through freshmen and injuries, should pay off in a huge season. Think of it this way; if the Noles can win the ACC title last year with all of their problems, imagine what they can do now that QB Drew Weatherford knows what he’s doing, receivers Chris Davis, Greg Carr, and DeCody Fagg are back, RB Lorenzo Booker decided to return when he could’ve been a second round NFL draft pick, and the offensive line, a major problem all of last year because of injuries, is now experienced and relatively deep.
Florida State isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: The defense has to do a lot of hole patching losing human tackle for loss DT Brodrick Bunkley, linebackers Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson, and FS Pat Watkins. The linebacking corps should be in good shape with Buster Davis, Geno Hayes and Lawrence Timmons, but there’s no one to replace what Bunkley was able to do.
Florida State needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Fix up the defense and hope Weatherford can take a giant step forward. Considering he had to carry the entire offense as a freshman, Weatherford did a fantastic job. It needs to keep being said; Florida State won the ACC title. But to repeat, Weatherford has to cut down on his 18 interceptions and has to be even better and spreading the ball around to all of his weapons.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The ACC title. The losses on defense are too great to beat Miami in the opener, and the ACC might be too tough to get through without a loss even if the Noles upset the Canes, but winning another ACC title would be a major accomplishment.
The number one thing to work on is: Rediscovering the running game. Problems on the offensive line contributed to the abandonment of the ground attack, but it was still inexcusable how little Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker got the ball. The Noles finished dead last in the ACC, and 111th in the nation, in rushing offense averaging a mere 94 yards per game. That can’t happen again.
Biggest offensive loss: WR/PR Willie Reid
Biggest defensive loss: DT Brodrick Bunkley

7. Oklahoma    2005 Record: 8-4
Why Oklahoma could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: The common perception is that the 2005 Sooners were a major disappointment after playing in the previous two national championship games, but it was a solid season with the four losses coming to TCU, UCLA, Texas and Texas Tech, who combined to lose a total of six games. It was one of the toughest schedules ever played, yet OU still finished impressively with a Holiday Bowl win over Oregon. This year, there’s more than enough talent returning on both sides of the ball to expect a run for the Big 12 title, and maybe even more. The baby-young receiving corps of last year should be a strength, the linebacking corps should be among the best in the nation, and the secondary should be fantastic. Of course, Adrian Peterson returns and should be the nation’s best player.
Oklahoma isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: September 16th at Oregon. The Ducks should be just as good as last season, and it’ll have some extra motivation after the Holiday Bowl loss. There are some key losses on the offensive line, and FB J.D. Runnels will be sorely missed. The big question mark is still QB Rhett Bomar, who might have all the talent in the world but still has to prove he can be a consistent winner.
Oklahoma needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Get a big season out of Bomar. Every defense will load up to stop Peterson, so Bomar has to be a weapon with his arm as well as his legs after completing only 54% of his passes with ten touchdown passes and ten interceptions. He was every bit the big-time recruit Peterson was, and if he starts to play like it, the sky is the limit.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The BCS Championship Bowl. It’s not going to be a walk in the park, but the schedule sets up perfectly with the potential for a splashy opening day win at Oregon to set the tone, the Texas game to get the huge win needed to get high up in the rankings, and a relatively easy rest of the slate with the road games coming at Oklahoma State, Missouri, Texas A&M and Baylor.
The number one thing to work on is: The return game. OU was 11th in the Big 12 in both punt and kickoff returns averaging only 7.4 yards on punt returns and 18.18 on kickoff returns. Most importantly, as already mentioned, is to make Bomar a more efficient passer.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Davin Joseph
Biggest defensive loss: DT Dusty Dvoracek

6. Auburn      2005 Record: 9-3
Auburn could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: The best possible thing that could’ve happened to Auburn was the humbling 24-10 Capital One Bowl loss to Wisconsin. The media was making way too much about the Tigers possibly having the SEC’s best team at the end of last year, and the loss to the inferior Badgers showed what happens when overconfidence kicks in. Kenny Irons will be one of the nation’s best running backs, while QB Brandon Cox returns with a year of experience under his belt. The defense will continue to be a killer led by the secondary, which is helped by a sixth year of eligibility for CB David Irons.
Auburn isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: There’s major work to be done on both lines. Replacing OT Marcus McNeill and pass rushing terror Stanley McClover, even though he was dinged up and didn’t have the year expected of him, will be tougher than expected. While WR Courtney Taylor returns, four of the top six pass catchers are gone.
Auburn needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Beat Alabama and hold serve at home. The schedule is national title perfect with only four road games playing at Mississippi State, at South Carolina, at Ole Miss and at Alabama. The three nasty games (Florida, LSU and Georgia) are at home, as are the sleeper danger games against Washington State and Arkansas.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The SEC title. While there are several chances to make a big national splash, will the Tigers get hosed, like they were in 2004, by a horrendous non-conference slate? Washington State is certainly solid, but Tulane, Villanova and Temple might be just enough to drop in the strength of schedule compared to some of the other top teams. Just winning the SEC title would be a major accomplishment, and then everything else could fall into place.
The number one thing to work on is: Turnover margin. Considering the speedy, big-hitting defense, the turnover margin was relatively lousy with only 15 takeaways and 18 turnovers. In a league where the little things mean everything, a few turnovers here and there could be the difference between the SEC title and the Capital One Bowl.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Marcus McNeill
Biggest defensive loss: DE Stanley McClover

5. Ohio State     2005 Record: 10-2
Why Ohio State could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: While he’s not Vince Young, Troy Smith is a special, yeah, magical sort of player who is clutch when the pressure is on and the type of star who can carry the Buckeyes to a huge season. Antonio Pittman will finally start to get a little recognition as one of the Big Ten’s best running backs, Ted Ginn Jr. is one of the nation’s scariest players, and the line, in time, should be fine. Michigan and Penn State have to come to Columbus, but ...
Why Ohio State isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: … road trips to Texas and Iowa are rough. The top nine tacklers from last year’s D are gone. You don’t get better by losing a linebacking corps of A.J. Hawk, Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, and the early departure of Ashton Youboty and Donte Whitner from the secondary, along with FS Nate Salley and CB Tyler Everett, is significant enough to get opposing passing attacks salivating.
Ohio State needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Beat Texas. In the second game of the year, a win over the defending national champions on their turf will be enough to get Ohio State in the top two spot and keep it there unless there's a loss. The schedule isn’t all that bad, Iowa is certainly beatable this year in Iowa City, and the defense should come around by the end of the year. The offense will carry the D for a while.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The Big Ten title. This isn’t as good a team as last year’s killer, primarily because Mike D’Andrea and John Kerr can’t make up for the losses at linebacker. It’s asking too much to go unbeaten, but winning the Big Ten championship and getting to another BCS game shouldn’t be viewed as a disappointment of any kind.
The number one thing to work on is: Forcing turnovers. Considering all the NFL talent on the Ohio State defense last year, and considering the D finished number one in the nation in run defense, it’s amazing that it only took it away 12 times. That’s as many as Buffalo, and only Rice (11) and Illinois (8) forced fewer.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Santonio Holmes
Biggest defensive loss: LB A.J. Hawk

4. LSU     2005 Record: 11-2
Why LSU could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: All the concerns and worries about Les Miles have to be gone now. Not only did Miles finish with an 11-2 record, by far the best record in recent LSU history outside of the 2004 national title season, he did it with all the distractions around the program thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Oh yeah, and the team is, once again, really, really, really good with RB Alley Broussard returning from injury, the best, and fastest, receiving corps in America, and a quarterback situation that roughly 110 other teams would die for with JaMarcus Russell returning from injury, Matt Flynn a proven winner, and Ryan Perrilloux a superstar just waiting to bust out. The return of LaRon Landry at safety, when he could’ve been an early round draft pick, is a big boost to what should be a strong secondary.
Why LSU isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: All-America defensive tackles Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams were killers and won’t easily be replaced. The loss of sack machine Melvin Oliver off the line isn’t a plus. The offensive line has to undergo an almost complete overhaul.
What LSU needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Survive the SEC. The first five games of the season (UL Lafayette, Arizona, Northern Illinois, Tulane, and Mississippi State) is perfect to get all the pieces in place, but then things turn brutal with road trips ahead at Florida, Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas, along with a home date against Alabama to worry about.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The SEC title. With the SEC road slate the Tigers have to deal with, kiss all BCS Championship Bowl dreams bye-bye. Even so, this is one of the nation’s best teams with enough talent to not only get back to the SEC championship game, but to also win it.
The number one thing to work on is: Kickoff returns and turnover margin. The Tigers were 12th in the nation in punt returns thanks to Skyler Green, but they struggled on kickoff returns averaging 17.04 yards per try. Considering the speed and talent on the defense, it’s a big shocking that they only forced 14 turnovers.
Biggest offensive loss: OT Andrew Whitworth
Biggest defensive loss: DTs Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams

3. USC       2005 Record: 12-1
Why USC could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: There’s no need to shed too many tears for the Trojans. There’s still enough talent to keep the NFL stocked for years to come, the recruiting class appears to be another killer, and this is still the star program of the Pac 10. Dwayne Jarrett will be one of the finalists for the Biletnikoff Award and the offensive line will be tremendous even after the loss of OT Winston Justice and OG Taitusi Lutui, but the real stars will be at linebacker. Dallas Sartz, Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers form the nation’s best linebacking corps with Brian Cushing in the mix somewhere. Yes, new QB John David Booty is that good.
Why USC isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: Hershel Dennis is a talented running back, but there’s still no replacement for LenDale White with Chauncey Washington’s eligibility still in question. As good as Booty is, he’s not Matt Leinart, and you don’t replace Reggie Bush. The secondary was never a rock last year, and now it has to replace three starters including SS Darnell Bing.
What USC needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Break the trend. USC’s path is eerily similar to Miami’s of a few years ago. If you remember, everyone assumed the Canes would simply reload again after seeing its long losing streak broken in a classic national championship, and then was never the same. USC was at an all-time high level, and that’s impossible to maintain. There’s a reason teams don’t go on long winning streaks all the time. USC has to find an edge and a hokey “no one believes in us” attitude.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: The BCS Championship Bowl. At this point, anything less is a major disappointment for this program. Starting out the season at Arkansas and against Nebraska will be rough, but things ease up considerably after that with the toughest games (Arizona State, Cal and Notre Dame) at home. The Pac 10 road games (at Arizona, at Washington State, at Oregon State, at Stanford and at UCLA) aren’t all that bad.
The number one thing to work on is: The punting game. Tom Malone was an All-America caliber punter who didn’t get a whole bunch of work last year, and struggled in his net average. Now he’s gone, and the Trojans will need the punting game to be a plus again after finishing 117th in the nation averaging 29 yards per boot.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Matt Leinart and RB Reggie Bush
Biggest defensive loss: SS Darnell Bing

2. Florida    2005 Record: 9-3
Florida could be the Pre-preseason No. 1: It’s year two of the Urban Meyer era, and if recent history means anything, that means it’s time for the program to become a monster again. He turned the offense into a killer in his second year at Bowling Green and Utah, and he should do the same at Florida with QB Chris Leak working with a tremendous backfield with DeShawn Wynn, Kestahn Moore, and Markus Manson. While the offense will get all the pub, the defense will carry the team early on with most of the front seven returning and Reggie Lewis and Reggie Nelson back in the secondary. By all accounts, this years recruiting class is either at or near the top spot with several new players ready to provide instant depth.
Florida isn’t the Pre-preseason No. 1: The offense isn’t expected to be an issue as the season goes on, but it might be early on until the offensive line can get its feet wet. Four starters are gone from the Outback Bowl squad including anchor Mike Degory. The receiving corps, even with Dallas Baker back, could also use some freshening up after losing top receiver Chad Jackson.
Florida needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Get the offense rocking and rolling right away. With the SEC opener at Tennessee coming up on September 16th, that gives Meyer two games to get everything in place with home dates against Southern Miss and UCF. The defense will be more than fine, but the offense has to be a 35-point-per-game juggernaut to navigate its way through a nasty schedule.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: SEC champions. The Gators will have the talent to get to Tempe, but will likely fall short thanks to road trips to Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State along with the Cocktail Party vs. Georgia. Considering the Gators lost three of their four true road games last year, Meyer has to figure out something different when his team gets away from The Swamp. If that wasn’t bad enough, Alabama and LSU come to Gainesville.
The number one thing to work on is: QB Chris Leak. Now that Meyer will have more time on his hands since he doesn’t have to send his daily text messages of love to superstar quarterback recruit Tim Tebow, he can fully focus on figuring out how Leak fits into the offense. Tebow is the perfect player for Meyer’s spread attack, but any and all national title hopes are kaput if a true freshman has to navigate this schedule. Leak is a fantastic talent, but he’s not a runner. That’s O.K. as long as the offense is still producing. If Leak struggles out of the gate, the Tebow whispers will get louder and louder.
Biggest offensive loss: WR Chad Jackson
Biggest defensive loss: CB Dee Webb

1. Texas     2005 Record: 13-0
Texas is the Pre-preseason No. 1: Vince Young is gone so the program will go into the tank, right? Nope. Fine, so Texas is here mostly because there’s absolutely no one else truly worthy of the top spot, but there’s a lot to get excited about from Jamaal Charles and the nation’s best stable of running backs to an experienced and underrated receiving corps to a fantastic defense that should survive the loss of Thorpe Award winner Michael Huff and big-hitting LB Aaron Harris just fine. The offensive line is still loaded with big-time run blockers even after the loss of two Rose Bowl starters.
Texas shouldn’t be the Pre-preseason No. 1: Vince Young was the difference. Texas would've needed some luck to find its way to the Rose Bowl without him. It likely would've lost to Ohio State and certainly wouldn’t have beaten USC if there was an upset in Columbus. Young is an irreplaceable talent who took the program to another level, and now it’ll be up to redshirt freshmen Colt McCoy and true freshmen Jevan Snead and Sherrod Harris to try to fill the enormous void. In other words, the nation’s best team is walking into the season with no experience whatsoever at quarterback.
Texas needs to do to get to the BCS Championship Bowl: Let the rest of the talent shine through. The new quarterback, likely McCoy, can’t carry things the way Young did, but he’ll have a fantastic supporting cast around him. As long as the new starter doesn’t make mistakes, Charles and the ground game should be good enough to get through the Big 12. The defense could be good enough to slow down Ohio State and get the win that’ll pave the way to Arizona.
Realistic, feet-on-the-ground, goal to shoot for: BCS Championship Bowl. Ohio State has a ton of defensive holes that likely won’t be adequately filled by September 9th, and the one true road game before the October 21st trip to Nebraska is at Rice. Unless there’s an epic upset, it’s a four game season playing Ohio State, Oklahoma, at Nebraska and at Texas Tech before the Big 12 title game.
The number one thing to work on is: The passing game. No matter who’s under center, the ground game will roll out of bed and average 250 yards per game. Texas became national title good because Young turned into a fantastic passer. McCoy threw for 116 touchdowns in his high school career, but he doesn’t have to be Peyton Manning. All he has to do is be efficient and keep the chains moving. If that happens, the offense will be just fine.
Biggest offensive loss: QB Vince Young
Biggest defensive loss: LB Aaron Harris


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