Preseason college power rankings:
1. OKLAHOMA -
Okay, there is some bad news -- at this point, the Oklahoma Sooners don't have an established punter. Of course, with their offense, they might not need one very often. For while the offensive line may need some time to mature, with only tackle Chris Messner returning as a full-time starter, it doesn't take much of a hole to spring junior RB Adrian Peterson, one of two frontrunners (with Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn) for the 2006 Heisman. Peterson rushed for more than 3,000 yards in his first two seasons -- 1,108 in 2005 despite being hampered by injuries. If he stays healthy, he's a one-man running game, and the comfort level of talented QB Rhett Bomar has gone up markedly since he started as a freshman. Defensively, the Sooners are loaded -- DE's Calvin Thibodeaux and C.J. Ah You, LB Rufus Alexander and CB D.J. Wolfe are all among the best at their positions in the country.
2. OHIO STATE -
But say Peterson gets hurt again, or OU loses the Red River Shootout to Texas for the second straight year. In that case, the rest of the country's Division I-A teams might be looking up at the Ohio State Buckeyes. Sure, the Buckeyes lost nine starters off the defense, including four first-round draft picks. And early on, veteran D-linemen David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock will have to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks until a young secondary gets its feet wet. Linebacker shouldn't be a problem, though, despite what you may hear, because John Kerr, James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman have the potential to become, as a unit, just as good as A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schegel. Okay, almost as good. Offense? Forget about it. QB Troy Smith can beat you running or throwing, RB Antonio Pittman is one of the nation's best and wide receivers Ted Ginn, Jr. (think Reggie Bush as a wideout) and Anthony Gonzalez are as scary on the field as they are on game film. Add freshman RB Chris Wells, the 2005 High School Player of the Year whom coach Jim Tressel has compared to, ahem, Jim Brown, and three returning OL starters, and maybe the defense won't have to be out there all that much. Obviously, the September trip to Austin is huge.
3. WEST VIRGINIA -
The 2005 West Virginia Mountaineers exploded into the national consciousness in 2006, with a 38-35 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia that showcased freshmen stars Pat White (QB) and Steve Slaton (RB). Rich Rodriguez' team started slowly last season, barely beating Syracuse and losing to Virginia Tech in game five, but then White and Slaton kicked into a higher gear. They'll be running behind a brutish offensive line led by All-American candidate Dan Mozes (center) and dominating guards Ryan Stanchek and Jeremy Sheffey. White's scrambling (220 yards against Pitt) got all the attention, but the southpaw Michael Vick play-alike also has a strong and accurate arm and some swift receivers to throw to. Defensively, linebackers Kevin McLee and Jay Henry, DT Keilen Dykes and strong safety Eric Wicks have all been penciled in for All-Big East. It should all come down to a road game against Louisville on Nov. 2. Slaton scored six touchdowns in a 46-44 OT thriller over the Cardinals last year.
4. NOTRE DAME -
You could make an excellent case for Notre Dame as the No. 1 team in the country -- in fact, a lot of preseason football magazines have the Irish there. The problem is the '06 schedule -- at Georgia Tech to open the season, then an 11-game minefield that includes Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, an improving Purdue, and finishes with Southern Cal. Not that the Irish can't run the table, but the defense will have to do better than the 24.5 points it allowed in 2005. All eyes, Irish and otherwise, will be on QB Brady Quinn, who has thrown for over 8,000 yards thus far in his Notre Dame career. Running back Darius Walker rushed for 1,196 yards last season, and announcers around the country have had to learn how to pronounce the name of star wideout Jeff Samardzija. The offensive line is anchored by Ryan Harris, Dan Santucci and John Sullivan. There are plenty of playmakers for Charlie Weis to play with on defense -- DE Victor Abiamiri, DT's Derek Landis and Trevor Laws, linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. and two more tongue-twisters in the defensive backfield, Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe.
5. TEXAS -
The world will know how good Mack Brown's latest team will be by the time the leaves start falling in the Northeast. The Longhorns host Ohio State in the second game of the season and face Oklahoma in the annual State Fair bash on October 7. The Longhorns could win both, but that's a tall order with an inexperienced quarterback (either Jevon Snead or Colt McCoy) behind the wheel. The loss of Vince Young leaves a hole the size of, well, Vince Young in the offense; It didn't help that double-threat RB Ramonce Taylor got busted for drugs and left the team. Still, if Snead or McCoy can handle the driving, running backs Jamaal Charles and Selvin Young are explosive, the receiving corps is stellar, and All-America candidates Justin Blalock (T), Kasey Studdard (G) and Lyle Sendlein (G) will give the rookies some breathing room. On defense, an already frightening linebacking corps has been augmented with the addition of Sergio Kindle, the top prep linebacker in '05, and the defensive line and secondary are solid.
6. LSU -
With luck, there will be no hurricane subplots this year -- just a lot of good, hard-hitting bayou football. Coach Les Miles can pull out three aces at quarterback -- lineman-sized (6-6, 252-pound) JaMarcus Russell, who started through most of an 11-2 season and threw for 2,443 yards, backup Mattt Flynn, who led the Bengals to a 40-3 rout of Miami in the Peach Bowl when Russell got hurt, and redshirt freshman Ryan Perriloux, the national prep player of the year in 2004. Running back is almost as stacked, with Alley Broussard, Justin Vincent and prized freshman Keiland Williams. Wide receiver? Yup, three stars there, in Craig Davis, Dwayne Bowe and Early Doucet. And completing the triplicate theme, three starters return on the offensive line, including All-America candidate Will Arnold at guard. The defensive line will have to be rebuilt, but DB returnees Chevis Jackson, Jessie Daniels and LaRon Landry (coveted by pro scouts) should make the Bengals hard to throw on. So why aren't they ranked No. 1? The Southeastern Conference, baby.
7. FLORIDA STATE -
There is no truly dominant team in the ACC this year, and the Seminoles appear to be the class act. Spring ball was encouraging for ancient FSU coach Bobby Bowden, as sophomore QB Drew Weatherford appeared cured of his rookie problems with decision-making and sophomore RB Antone Smith looked like someone who will challenge Lorenzo Booker for playing time, if not the starting role. The Seminoles' receiving corps is deep and intimidating, including Chris Davis, De'Cody Fagg and 6-6 Greg Carr, and four starters are back on the offensive line. The defense took a hit through graduation or the lure of the NFL, but five starters hung around. 240-pound DE Darrell Burston is as fast as a lot of the backs he'll be chasing, and freshman strong safety Myron Rolle showed up for spring drills and proved even better than expected.
8. CALIFORNIA -
This season offers a window of opportunity for somebody to finish ahead of Southern Cal in the Pac 10 -- a small window, to be sure, but it's there. And the California Golden Bears, beloved of thousands of "Tedheads" (for coach Jeff Tedford) could be just the guys to do it. If the quarterback position can get sorted out (neither Nate Longshore or Joe Ayoub, while talented, have been able to put a lock on first string), RB Marshawn Lynch is perhaps the No. 3 Heisman possibility and WR DeSean Jackson is electric. It is the defense, however, that really looks bearish -- DT Brandon Mebane, DE Nu'u Tafisi, LB Desmond Bishop as well as CBs Daymeoin Hughes and Tim Mixon provide a senior corps quite capable of shutting down USC's young offense. The opener at Tennessee will be a challenge, but a necessary one.
9. MICHIGAN -
Two pivotal games loom on the Wolverines' schedule this season -- Notre Dame and Ohio State -- and both of them are on the road. And even two victories wouldn't preclude Michigan from getting knocked off by any one of several pretenders to the throne in the Big Ten. So Lloyd Carr's men have their work cut out for them -- fortunately, they have a team that might be up to the challenge. Quarterback Chad Henne threw for 2,526 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, even though Wolverine fans complained about his "sophomore slump." Wideouts Mario Manningham and Steve Breaston, as well as tight end Tyler Eckert are ready to grab all the footballs Henne wants to feed them. Tailback Mike Hart is one of America's best runners if he can keep from getting hurt, and Kevin Grady is almost as good. The offensive line is led by All-America candidate Jake Long, the defense has eight starters back and four preseason all-conference choices in LB Prescott Burgress, DE LaMarr Woodley, free safety Willis Barrington and cornerback Leon Hall.
10. SOUTHERN CAL -
Okay, we know all about the players Southern Cal lost -- six first-round draft choices, including a backfield for the ages in Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White. But let's look at who's back, starting with WR Dwayne Jarrett (1,264 yards and 16 touchdowns), fellow deep-threat Steve Smith, two All-American hopefuls (T Sam Baker and C Ryan Kalil) on the interior line and another (Lawrence Jackson) at defensive end. And while no one knows how new QB John David Booty will perform, they said the same thing when Leinart replaced Carson Palmer. Coach Pete Carroll might go to a 3-4 defense to make use of numerous talented linebackers, but the Trojans' defense will be young overall. And nobody can accuse USC of padding its schedule -- instead of non-conference dogs, they've set up dances with wolves (Arkansas, Nebraska and Notre Dame).
11. AUBURN -
Nobody talks much about Brandon Cox, but the Auburn junior was the second-rated passer in the SEC last season and has led his team to victories in 16 of the last 17 conference games. He'll have Kenny Irons, one of the most backs in the league, to hand the ball to and Courtney Taylor to throw at. Senior bookend guards Ben Grubbs and Tim Duckworth will provide a shield for Cox; and a fast, aggressive defense will try to present their QB with a stream of turnovers. Plus, Tommy Tuberville's team has Florida, Georgia and LSU at home.
12. CLEMSON -
If you liked last year's Tiger squad, you'll love the '06 model -- with the exception of quarterback, it's virtually the same team. Every good offense starts with a strong offensive line, and Clemson returns four senior starters and enormous (6-7, 365) junior tackle Barry Richardson, considered perhaps the best of the lot. James Davis came on late last season as a freshman, and Reggie Merriweather and freshman C.J. Spiller will either challenge or spell him at tailback. True, Charlie Whitehurst is gone, but new QB Will Proctor won't be asked to do as much. The Tigers will also be toothy on defense, featuring All-America candidate Gaines Adams at DE and three pro-prospect linebackers in Anthony Waters, Nick Watkins and Tramaine Billie.
13. FLORIDA -
Urban Meyer's teams traditionally break out in their second year, although the Gator coach grumbled all the way through spring practice about too many mistakes and the lack of a running game. Senior quarterback Chris Leak will be good (2,639 passing yards, 20 touchdowns in '05.) He'd better be, because freshman hotshot Tim Tebow outplayed him in the spring. There is also the usual cast of fleet wide receivers and DB's, and one of the nation's best linebacker duos in Earl Everett and Brandon Siler. The offensive line looks like a big problem, though (literally), with no returning starters.
14. LOUISVILLE -
This is a hard team to pick. It doesn't seem logical to rank the Cardinals ahead of No's 1-13, but if Bobby Petrino's team beats West Virginia at home on November 2, it could mean an undefeated season. The rest of the Big East is better, but still no SEC; Most of the non-conference schedule (except for Miami at home on Sept. 16) is cupcake. The UL sports information department is pushing both QB Brian Brohm (coming back from serious knee surgery) and Earl Campbell-sized RB Michael Bush for the Heisman, and the wide receivers (Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas, primarily) are excellent. Nine starters return on defense, and placekicker Art Carmody has hit 13 field goals in a row.
15. GEORGIA -
This year, the stars are on defense in Athens -- defensive end dominator Quentin Moses, linebacker Jarvis Jackson, and rover Tra Battle. Moses and linemate Charles Johnson combined for 15 1/2 sacks last year, and their unit will be asked to keep the Bulldogs in games early on until either hometown favorite Joe Tereshinski or freshman Matthew Stafford gets comfortable as the post-D.J. Shockley quarterback.
16. ARIZONA STATE -
If there was any way coach Dirk Koetter could come up with a two-quarterback offense, he would. Senior Sam Keller and sophomore Rudy Carpenter combined for over 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, with Carpenter leading the nation in passing efficiency after stepping in for the injured Keller in game seven. The Sun Devils also feature perhaps the nation's top tight end in Zach Miller, fleet wideout Terry Richardson, and "all-purpose athlete" Rudy Burgess, perhaps the closest thing the conference will have this year to Reggie Bush. Defense, however, could be a problem, and a lot of 45-37 games are a strong possibility. ASU fans can only hope they'll always be the ones with the 45.
17. PENN STATE -
One of the feel-good stories of last year, as movie reviewers always say, was the discovery that maybe Joe Paterno wasn't ready for the dustbin of college football history quite yet. It's amazing how good players can make a coach seem smarter, and Paterno has a lot of them back this year. Wide receiver Derrick Williams may be Papa Joe's fastest player ever, and fellow wideout Deon Butler isn't exactly a slowpoke. The offense will have a different look with dropback artist Anthony Morrelli at quarterback instead of the elusive Michael Robinson and tailback Tony Hunt probably getting the ball more, but the key could be the Nittany Lions' ability to reload on the offensive line. Linebacker Paul Posluszny, a first-team All-American last season, returns at linebacker, but the rest of the defense will be somewhat inexperienced. Will the Paterno Revival Tour continue?
18. VIRGINIA TECH -
Virginia Tech, led by quarterback Sean Glennon. Or, led by quarterback Cory Holt. Either way, it doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? But not even the notoriously tolerant Virginia Tech athletic administration could tolerate the off-field shenanigans of Marcus Vick anymore, so the team's pivotal position remains a mystery. (There apparently are no more football-playing Vick brothers back in Hampton). Running back is also a puzzle, with Brandon Ore and George Bell having shown flashes of brilliance and times where they were considerably less than brilliant. The O-line needs to be partially rebuilt. So why put Virginia Tech in the Top 20? Because Frank Beamer's defense and special teams always provide a good part of the offense; They'll be as fast and furious as always. Linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi are two of the fastest in the country, DE Chris Ellis could become a sack machine, and the defensive backfield is experienced and hard-hitting.
19. UTAH -
Remember that great line in the movie "My Cousin Vinnie" where Joe Pesci kept referring to his clients as "utes" (youths) and the judge (played by the late Fred Gwynne) kept asking: "What's a ute?" That's what a lot of college football fans were asking last season, especially given Utah's 6-5 record entering bowl time. But then the Utes dismantled Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl, and the lights went on. This season, coach Kyle Whittingham can decide between two excellent quarterbacks in Brett Ratliff and Brian Johnson; Whoever emerges as the starter will have a whole flock of gifted wide receivers sprinting downfield for him. The defense will be led by cornerback Eric Wedle, an All-American type guy. The Mountain West could produce two "bracket busters" in Utah and TCU, and I'll give the edge to the Utes because they play the Horned Frogs at home.
20. MIAMI -
I dunno, maybe it was that dreadful loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Still, the Hurricanes (could that name be what got the Louisiana school so fired up?) are always a threat to finish in the Top 10, and Larry Coker always stockpiles talent. Junior QB Kyle Wright made his share of mistakes last season but seems to be developing into a Gino Torretta/Vinny Testaverde type, TE Greg Olsen is the apparent heir to Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow Jr., and yet another Miami Moss, Tyrone, could be one of the ACC's better running backs if he's fully healed from a torn ACL. The usually surly Hurricane defense will be upheld primarily by DE's Baraka Atkins and Bryan Pata, DT Kareem Brown and DB's Kenny Phillips and Brandon Meriweather. The offensive line remains a major question mark, though.
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