College Football Preview 2009

It’s that time of year again and I can hardly wait. Opening weekend is a mere two weeks away, and there are a handful of huge games right off the bat. To get everyone ready for what is surely the best time of year, here is a brief roundup of my top 20 teams in the country and my top ten contenders for the Heisman Trophy.

#20: NORTH CAROLINA (8-5, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

Butch Davis has the Tarheel program heading in the right direction, and returns a large portion of a team that was one of last season’s biggest surprises. While the offense isn’t bursting with talent, there is experience on the line and at quarterback, where T.J Yates returns after two solid seasons. The well-rounded defense should keep the Heels in a lot of ballgames, as nine starters return from a squad that ranked 32nd nationally in scoring defense. All four starters return on the line, while the secondary is anchored by Kendric Burney. Nothing jumps out as scary on paper about UNC, but make no mistake, their depth and experience should win them a lot of ballgames.

#19: UTAH (13-0, 3 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

There were a lot of upset Utes fans last year after an undefeated season didn’t result in a national championship and actually ended up in a #4 final ranking from the AP. Now they are on the national radar in a big way, but they will have a lot of replacing to do on offense, beginning at quarterback, where junior Corbin Louks will have big shoes to fill as MWC Player of the Year Brian Johnson graduated. He’ll get help in the backfield from senior Matt Asiata, but there will be a whole new crew of receivers. Defensively, things shape up much better, as seven starters return from a squad that ranked 11th nationally in total defense last season.

#18: FLORIDA STATE (9-4, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning)

The anemic offense that has plagued the Seminoles the past two seasons seemed to make some strides in the second half of last year, and with starting quarterback Christian Ponder returning behind his entire offensive line, Bobby Bowden finally has his offense right where he wants it. The backfield is young but promising, while there still needs to be some more development at receiver. Defensively, the Noles lost some key players from a strong secondary, but should gain leadership in the middle from playmaker Dekota Watson. This probably isn’t the season for Florida State to make the leap back into national prominence, but they should certainly compete for a spot to play in the ACC Championship and could feasibly earn a BCS berth.

#17: GEORGIA (10-3, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)

Most of the key players from a pretty solid offense are gone now, and the burden of running the show will fall upon senior quarterback Joe Cox, who only threw fifteen passes last season. Luckily, he’ll have a dynamic target in sophomore A.J. Green, who could be ready for stardom. Offensively, the best news is that the line returns four starters, which should give Cox the opportunity to find his groove. Replacing All-American running back Knowshon Moreno will be a bit more of a challenge, but the defense figures to improve upon some confusing lapses last season, such as the 45-42 home loss to archrival Georgia Tech. The strength figures to be in the middle, with linebacker Rennie Curran leading all returning starters with 115 tackles last season.

#16: OREGON (10-3, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning)

The versatile Duck option running attack has been a beast for opponents for the entire decade, and this season should be no exception. Junior tailback LaGarrette Blount returns as one of the nation’s most dangerous ball carriers, and dual threat quarterback Jeremiah Masoli figures to improve upon his passing game and leave some question marks for opposing defenses. The main concern for the offense is protection, as the line lost three solid starters. Defense has never been a strong suit for Oregon, or in the Pac-10 outside of USC in recent years, and this again will be an area of weakness. However, if the line can improve enough to let the talented offense shine to its full potential, the Ducks could be scoring enough points to outweigh the defensive shortcomings.

#15: KANSAS (8-5, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

The Jayhawks are one of my sleeper teams for the year. I gained a new respect for quarterback Todd Reesing late last season after he led an astonishing comeback win against what seemed to be a vastly superior Missouri team. Reesing to me seems to be sitting on a breakout season, and will get assistance from one of the nation’s top wide outs in junior Dezmon Briscoe along with returning starters Kerry Meier and Jonathan Wilson. The passing game should certainly be the strongest aspect of the offense, but senior running back Jake Sharp is no slouch and should provide some balance. The key to the surprising 2007 run to the Orange Bowl was a stout defense, and this year’s Kansas team should make some strides back to that level as eight starters return.

#14: VIRGINIA TECH (10-4, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

The Hokies suffered a massive blow last week as standout running back Darren Evans tore his ACL and is out for the season. Losing Evans dropped the Hokies more than five spots on my preseason list, as there are now big questions as to where any offensive production will come from. Junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor is unproven but shows potential, and he has two returning starters at receiver who may have to pick up some slack for the suddenly depleted options to run the football, which won’t benefit from an offensive line that figures to be shaky at best. The good news, as usual, is on defense, especially up front, where defensive end Jason Worilds will lead a strong unit. There is talent and depth in the secondary as well. This is good news, as the Hokies may need the defense to carry the load early in the season as the offense attempts to find its stride. A huge opening weekend game in Atlanta against a tough Alabama team will be telling.

#13: IOWA (9-4, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

The improving Hawkeyes could be a major surprise in the Big Ten on the strength of their defense, which returns eight starters from a squad that ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense last season. The linebacking corps will be led by returning tackle leader Pat Angerer, while the strong secondary returns three starters led by Amari Spievey. Offensively, Iowa will sorely miss Shonn Greene’s production in the backfield, but junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi looks poised to be a star in the Big Ten and is likely the best pure passer in the conference. Sophomore Jewel Hampton will have big shoes to fill at running back but should benefit from one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Iowa faces its toughest conference opponents on the road, but a 10-2 finish isn’t unthinkable.

#12: GEORGIA TECH (9-4, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

Two simple observations stood out to me about Georgia Tech’s finish last season. First, they rumbled into Athens and shocked a tough arch rival Georgia team by exploding offensively. They then proceeded to get decimated by a rebuilding and defensively challenged LSU team, losing 38-3 in the Peach Bowl in what was surely the most shocking score of the postseason. It’s tough to tell which offense is going to show up in what has become a patented option spread attack, but behind a deep backfield that boasts 1400 yard rusher Jonathan Dwyer and the explosive Roddy Jones, the Yellow Jackets should continue to put points on the board. Starting quarterback Josh Nesbitt returns to lead the offense, but he’ll need some help from his line, which lost two starters (the only two starters that the offense lost, though). The defense was generally strong last season and should continue to improve, and Georgia Tech should be battling for a conference championship and BCS berth if they can keep opposing defenses guessing a bit more effectively than they did in that Peach Bowl performance.

#11: LSU (8-5, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)

Last year’s rebuilding season ended on a positive note on the aforementioned Peach Bowl blowout over a hot Georgia Tech team, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers carry that momentum into the 2009 season. The offense should be more experienced, and has a sure playmaker to fall back on in tailback Charles Scott, who finished just shy of 1200 yards rushing last season. Sophomores Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will battle it out for the starting quarterback position, with the former appearing to have won the job for the time being. Either way, top target Brandon LaFell should make life a bit easier, and the LSU offense should make noticeable improvements from a season ago. Defensively, improvements need to be made, especially in the secondary, and the defensive line is also being rebuilt after losing three key starters.

#10: CALIFORNIA (9-4, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

There is excitement in Berkley as the Golden Bears get USC at home this season, and this might be the year that Cal can finally knock the Trojans off. The key is junior running back Jahvid Best, who is arguably the most explosive player in the country. Coming off a season in which he rushed for 1580 yards (third in the nation), look for him to dominate opposing defenses on the ground. Junior Kevin Riley will take the snaps, and if Best can scare his opponents as much as he should, Riley should have opportunities to take the passing game to new levels. The experienced defense returns eight starters from a squad that ranked in the top 25 in scoring, rushing, and total defense last season, and the secondary should dominate as well as all four starters return from a unit that allowed only twelve touchdown passes last season. All-American candidate Syd’Quan Thompson anchors that unit at cornerback and is a dangerous threat to return interceptions for major yardage.

#9: PENN STATE (11-2, 4 Offensive Starters Returning, 4 Defensive Starters Returning)

While Penn State lost a lot of manpower, this season doesn’t exactly have the look of a rebuilding year, as the Nittany Lions should still be right in the thick of the Rose Bowl race. Senior quarterback Daryll Clark returns after a stellar 2008 campaign in which he demonstrated his versatility, passing for 19 touchdowns while running for 10. He’ll be challenged as the group of receivers will all be new faces, but he’ll have a strong option in the backfield in tailback Evan Royster, the leading returning rusher in the conference coming off a 1200+ yard season. The secondary lost all four starters and that is certainly an area of concern. However, the defensive line figures to be in good shape, with two key starters returning from unit that was eighth nationally in rushing defense a year ago. And besides, no matter how many athletes they lose, Penn State always seems to still maintain its status as a defensive juggernaut.

#8: OLE MISS (9-4, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

Houston Nutt has the Rebel faithful in a frenzy, as this year’s team has a chance to be the best Ole Miss squad in decades. Star quarterback Jevan Snead showed his stuff in that surprising Cotton Bowl upset over Texas Tech to end last season, and don’t forget, this was the only team to knock off the eventual national champion Florida Gators, and they did it in the Swamp. The key to the offense will be the passing game, as Snead gets two starting receivers back from last year’s team. The question will be whether the offensive line, which lost three starters, will be able to provide him with the same amount of protection as last season. Defensively, Ole Miss looks to be all set, as eight starters return, including four from a line that ranked fourth nationally in rushing defense last season. Senior Greg Hardy will lead that unit, and returns from a conference leading 8.5 sacks.

#7: OHIO STATE (10-3, 4 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

Last year’s season was probably a bit of a disappointment overall for Ohio State, and they’ll have their hands full rebuilding the offense as seven starters must be replaced. The good news is that a mature Terrelle Pryor will be at the helm, and his athleticism which combines passing with a potent running attack will play a key role and will allow the incoming talent to develop around him. Hopes are high for sophomore running back Daniel Herron, and he should find his niche quickly behind an experienced offensive line. There are some big names to replace on defense, but Jim Tressell’s teams always come loaded on the other side of the ball. Still, most of the experience from the secondary and the defensive line returns, and this defense ranked sixth nationally in scoring last season and only allowed seven rushing touchdowns. Again, we will get to see just how good these Buckeyes really are when they match up with USC on the second weekend of the season, except this time, the Trojans come to the Horseshoe.

#6: OKLAHOMA STATE (9-4, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)

As explosive an offense as the three-headed monster of quarterback Zac Robinson, running back Kendall Hunter and wide out Dez Bryant was last season, the year ended in two frustrating losses in which the opposition posted a total of 103 points. The offense will again put points on the board in large amounts, but if Oklahoma State is to challenge for the Big 12 Championship, they’ll have to make some serious strides defensively if they hope to stop teams like Oklahoma from scoring on even a single possession. The defense has a new look this season as veteran Bill Young joins as coordinator, and we all remember what he did at Kansas a couple of years back. He’ll have his work cut out for him, but I for one expect improvement. Offensively, there shouldn’t be any problem. Robinson is a strong passer and has perhaps the most exciting player in the nation as his top target in Bryant. Hunter returns from a solid season in which he rushed for over 1500 yards, and he should continue to add balance to the attack. Whether or not they can compete with the likes of Texas and Oklahoma will defend solely on the defense, but the Cowboys are the type of team that has a shot to knock off anyone simply due to the amount of points they are capable of producing.

#5: USC (12-1, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 3 Defensive Starters Returning)

There’s often a quarterback controversy brewing at USC, and this season should be no exception, but that’s what happens when all of the top quarterbacks in the country want to play for your school. As of the end of the summer, it appeared that sophomore Aaron Corp and freshman Matt Barkley were in a virtual dead heat for the starting job, and that doesn’t even include the likes of highly touted Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain. Whatever the result, the heir to the job should provide the Trojans with plenty of production as long as the battle doesn’t cause team chemistry issues. In typical USC fashion, there’s deep talent at receiver, led by junior Damian Williams. In the backfield, USC has several options as well, including Joe McNight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable, and all of this behind the nation’s toughest offensive line. What worries me a bit about this year’s team is the defense, which returns only three starters from last season’s virtual iron curtain. Free safety Taylor Mays returns to lead a strong secondary, but there are holes elsewhere- from an experience standpoint, rather than a talent standpoint, that is.

#4: ALABAMA (12-2, 4 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)

The word on the street is that new quarterback Greg McElroy looked like the real deal over the summer against top competition, and if that rumor translates to the gridiron on Saturdays this fall, watch out for Alabama. With dynamic receiver Julio Jones coming off a fantastic freshman season, he’ll have an experienced target. Sophomore Mark Ingram returns in the backfield after a productive campaign, and should be ready to step up and handle more carries after the departure of fullback Glen Coffee. There are some questions on the offensive line but I expect Nick Saban to get a handle on that situation quickly. The best news for the Crimson Tide is on the other side of the ball, as nine starters return from a unit that ranked third nationally last season in total defense. Massive nose tackle Terrence Cody checks in at 365 pounds and will lead a strong defensive line, while all four linebackers return led by team tackle leader Rolando McLain. If the offense is able to gel even a little bit, and it certainly has the playmakers to do more than just that, Alabama will be a very tough team to beat.

#3: TEXAS (12-1, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)

Longhorn fans still haven’t accepted the fact that they had to miss out on playing for a national title in lieu of a team they beat on a neutral field. Star quarterback Colt McCoy returns for his senior season after an amazing 2008 season in which he completed over 75% of his passes, and the goal is clear this time around. He’ll have his best friend Jordan Shipley as his top target, and those two were a deadly combination a year ago. The running game lacks experience and they will need to develop in order to make McCoy as effective as he was last season, but sophomore tailback Cody Johnson is expected to blossom behind one of the nation’s strongest offensive lines, and if he doesn’t, McCoy himself can be dangerous on the ground. The defensive line has some holes to fill after losing Lombardi award winner Brian Orakpo, but should still be solid. More concerning is a secondary that ranked 104th nationally against the pass. As usual, the Red River Rivalry game against Oklahoma in Dallas will be the showdown of the year, and could serve as an elimination game for title contention in the proper direction this season.

#2: OKLAHOMA (12-2, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)

Half of the most potent offense that college football has ever seen must be replaced, but those spots are mostly on the line, as the key skill position players all return and should be explosive yet again. Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford is back and will have new targets at receiver, but will have All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham to fall back on. The backfield is among the nation’s deepest, as dual threats DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown return after both posted 1000+ yards rushing last season. Defensively, the Sooners return the core of last year’s team, and while there are questions in the secondary, the defensive line and linebacking corps should be among the nation’s elite, led by defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and DeMarcus Granger along with linebacker Travis Lewis. If Oklahoma can get the same kind of protection for Bradford to work his magic, they should be in line for another shot at a national title.

#1: FLORIDA (13-1, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 11 Defensive Starters Returning)

The Gators are the pick to repeat, and it is pretty easy to see why. Everyone returns from a much improved defense that should be the nation’s best all-around. Senior linebacker Brandon Spikes anchors that unit, and gets help up front on the line from defensive end Carlos Dunlap, while speedy corner Joe Haden leads a strong secondary. Offensively, Florida has the nation’s most dynamic all-around player in Tim Tebow, who returns for his senior season prepared to cap off one of the greatest careers in college football history. Even without top target Percy Harvin, Tebow will still be surrounded with talent, and senior wide out Riley Cooper shouldn’t have much trouble stepping up into the starting role. The backfield is average but improving, and Tebow will have dual threat options in Emmanuel Moody and Chris Rainey, although Tebow himself is the team’s leading returning rusher. With a Heisman Trophy and a national championship already on his resume, Tebow has one last goal, something that Florida has never achieved: an undefeated season. With few discernible holes and a workable SEC schedule, the Gators have a strong chance to achieve just that.


1. Tim Tebow, Florida

2. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma

3. Colt McCoy, Texas

4. Jahvid Best, California

5. Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State

6. Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma

7. Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech

8. Brandon Spikes, Florida

9. Evan Royster, Penn State

10. Todd Reesing, Kansas

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