It is upon us! Pigskin, pigskin, pigskin! Here are some thoughts I have on what I think are this year’s top 20 college football teams:

Sleepers: Texas A & M, Oregon State, Georgia, Houston, Washington

#20: PENN STATE (11-2, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning)- The Nittany Lions will have a big hole to fill at quarterback after losing leader Darryl Clark to graduation, but should still have a serviceable offense with sophomore Kevin Newsome running the show. Senior running back Evan Royster returns and will be the focal point after an 1100+ yard effort last season, and will get help on the line from senior guard Stefan Wisniewski. Six defensive starters will need to be replaced but there are veterans returning, and the Penn State defense is almost always a stout one even during rebuilding years.

#19: AUBURN (8-5, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning): This young squad began to hit their stride towards the end of last season, giving eventual champion Alabama all they could handle in the Iron Bowl game before winning an intense an exciting Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. The bulk of that team returns with more experience, but the Tigers will see new faces at the skill positions after losing running back Ben Tate and their quarterback to graduation. Still, Auburn is a sneaky pick to improve and surprise with this well-rounded team.

#18: NORTH CAROLINA (8-5, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning)- The question for the Tarheels will be how many points they are able to put on the board. They may not need many, as nine starters return to create what is arguably the nation’s strongest defense. The unit will be particularly strong in the middle and in the secondary as All-America candidates abound between linebacker Quan Sturdivant, senior cornerback Kendric Burney and senior safety Denuta Williams. The line won’t be shabby either, as star defensive tackle Marvin Austin returns for his senior season. Senior T.J. Yates returns at quarterback, and with a more experienced group returning, UNC fans are hopeful that the team will improve upon its dismal offensive production from a season ago.

#17: FLORIDA STATE (7-6, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)- Quarterback Christian Ponder was among the nation’s elite passers last season before a season ending injury, and his presence gives hope to the Seminoles as the post-Bowden era begins. He’ll have plenty of protection, as all five starters on the line return, led by senior guard Rodney Hudson, and will also have a strong target in junior Bert Reed. The defensive perils of last season are well-documented, but FSU brought in Mark Stoops as the new coordinator, who will try to turn it around with half of last year’s squad returning with more experience.

#16: PITTSBURGH (10-3, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning) Sophomore Dion Lewis was one of last season’s biggest surprises, as he finished one yard short of 1799 rushing yards as a freshman, which was good for third in the nation. He returns to lead an offense that will have to make a replacement at quarterback, but junior flanker Jonathon Baldwin should help newcomer Tino Sunseri’s transition. The defense should be especially strong up front, as a unit that led the nation in sacks last season returns its top two pass rushers in Greg Romeus (8 sacks) and Jabaal Sheard. Put it all together, and this looks like the best Pittsburgh team in many years.

#15: USC (9-4, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)- After the offseason that the Trojans had, it is hard to gauge their enthusiasm coming into a season that is devoid of potential reward. The talent is there, but will their heads be in it? We’ll call this a rebuilding year, but with sophomore Matt Barkley leading the offense, and with targets like senior receiver Ronald Johnson to throw to, something tells me they will be right in the hunt for a Pac-10 title, albeit with no roses at the end. The running game should find some strength with a massive offensive line led by center Kristopher O’Dowd and tackle Tyron Smith. This certainly won’t be a vintage USC squad, but the talent is there for Lane Kiffin to begin to rebuild the program amid a lot of controversy.

#14: MIAMI (9-4, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)- There is excitement in South Florida, as the Hurricanes will have an early opportunity to avenge their controversial 2003 loss to Ohio State that cost them a national title- and arguably sent the program into a freefall. Even if Miami can’t win that game, they still have a strong shot to win the ACC and earn a trip to a BCS bowl. Junior quarterback Jacory Harris showed moments of brilliance last season, but also had intermittent slippages in concentration that caused him to lead the ACC in interceptions. He’ll have experienced targets in LaRon Byrd and Leonard Hankerson at his disposal, and should make improvements this season. The defense isn’t flashy, but is well-rounded and deep, returning eight starters.

#13: OREGON (10-3, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning) The Ducks would have been a top five preseason pick if not for the dismissal of star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for legal reasons during the offseason. Star tailback LaMichael James had some offseason troubles of his own and will miss the first game, but should be poised for another 1500+ yard season after that. Oregon will be speedy and athletic as always, but one has to wonder about how their chemistry will be affected by these unfortunate issues. Nevertheless, a solid portion of last year’s team returns on both sides of the ball, so Oregon should definitely still expect to be in the hunt for a second straight Rose Bowl berth. The defense should be improved, led by a solid core of linebackers.

#12: FLORIDA (13-1, 5 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning)- In my view, a #3 preseason ranking is setting expectations a bit high for a team that will have to replace arguably the best college quarterback of the century. Junior John Brantley will get his long awaited chance to fill those shoes, and will have a strong rushing option in Jeff Demps in the backfield. The talent is there on defense, but the Gators will be depleted from the standpoint of experience, as six starters must be replaced. This young team should improve as the season progresses, but it would take a lot for them to fight their way into the national title picture. However, the schedule seems fairly manageable, and if they can find a way to pull the upset on the road at Alabama, who knows?

#11: TCU (12-1, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 7 Defensive Starters Returning)- After coming one game short of a perfect season in 2009, the Horned Frogs have something to prove this season. Senior quarterback Andy Dalton is back running the show, and will have all three receivers back as targets. With nine starters returning from an offense that ranked fifth nationally in scoring a season ago, points shouldn’t be much of a problem for this team. Four key starters must be replaced on a defense that was the best in the nation last season, but the pieces are certainly there to duplicate that effort and give opposing offenses nightmares. The schedule looks pretty easy after an intriguing opening weekend game against Oregon State, and TCU could very easily find itself with another chance at an undefeated season.

#10: ARKANSAS (8-5, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning) Junior quarterback Ryan Mallett returns to lead what figures to be the nation’s most explosive passing attack, and he is my preseason pick to win the Heisman Trophy. The receiving corps are simply stacked, led by star junior Greg Childs, who will get support from Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and tight end D.J. Williams. Expect lots of points. The main issue the Razorbacks will face is on the other side of the ball, where six starters return from a unit that ranked last in the SEC in total defense a year ago. The good news is that they won’t have to be perfect to win a lot of football games, but they’ll need to tighten up considerably to take this team to the next level.

#9: WISCONSIN (10-3, 10 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning) Prepare for a ferocious ground attack this season from the Badgers, as senior Gabe Carimi, a 6-7, 315 pound tackle, anchors the nation’s toughest offensive line. This bodes well for the prospects of talented junior running back John Clay, last year’s conference player of the year. Quarterback Scott Tolzien came into his own as last season progressed, and he returns nearly the entire offense, including top target senior tight end Lance Kendricks as well as junior receiver Nick Toon. The defense will have some holes to fill, especially up front, and could be a work in progress, but they are likely to have plenty of support from the offense.

#8: TEXAS (13-1, 4 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)- Quarterback Garrett Gilbert should feel a bit more at ease this season than he did during his sudden appearance in the national title game last year. The offense will be a composed of a lot of new faces, but the running game should be able to find its footing behind talented sophomore Tre Newton. The departures of Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley will be noticeable offensively, but this year’s Texas team should succeed on the strength of its defense. The defensive unit is especially strong in the middle and in the secondary, led by free safety Blake Gideon, who had six interceptions last season. The line is strong as well, as defensive end Sam Acho returns from a ten sack season. The defense will still have some replacements to make, and will need to step up while the new offense finds a rhythm.

#7: NEBRASKA (10-4, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning)- The Bo Pileni era should move into full swing this season, as a team that played extremely well in the last half of the season returns a lot of familiar faces. Quarterback Zac Lee will have his top receiver back in Niles Paul, while star running back Roy Helu Jr. retrurns after an 1100+ yard season. The defense should again be very strong, especially in the secondary, as Prince Amukamara returns after leading the team with five picks last year. There is talent on the line as well, as leading tackler Jared Crick returns along with senior end Pierre Allen. The Huskers get Texas at home on October 16th, a date that could revitalize the program before it makes a big move to the Big Ten next season.

#6: IOWA (11-2, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 8 Defensive Starters Returning)- Stylistically, Iowa will try to win its games this year the same way it did last year- with defense. This unit is one of the nation’s toughest, as there is depth and talent across the board, but especially along the front line. Senior Adrian Clayborn returns after a domination 2009 campaign that saw him make 11.5 sacks, create four fumbles and return a punt for a touchdown, and senior tacks Karl Klug will add assistance on the line. If there is any gap at all defensively it is in the middle, but the secondary, led by strong safety Tyler Sash (team leading 6 interceptions last season), should pick up the slack. The offense should make improvements as well, as returning starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi has experienced options at the skill positions. Sophomore running back Adam Robinson could be poised for a breakout season, while top receiver Derrell Johnson- Koulianos should make a lot of noise as well.

#5: VIRGINIA TECH (10-3, 7 Offensive Starters Returning, 3 Defensive Starters Returning) The composition of this Hokie team should give head coach Frank Beamer something to scratch his head about- when was the last time that Virginia Tech relied on its offense instead of its defense and special teams? That will be the case this year, as Darren Evans returns from injury along with star running back Ryan Williams (1655 yards rushing last season, a school record, and as a freshman no less) to form the nation’s strongest backfield. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has had his struggles over his three seasons leading the offense, but he’s nothing if not experienced, and will have his top three receivers back. There will be lots of work to on the other side of the ball, but without getting too over dramatic, I’ll assume that Beamer can get things sorted out- he always seems to.

#4: OKLAHOMA (8-5, 6 Offensive Starters Returning, 5 Defensive Starters Returning) The Sooners look to be a cut above the rest of the Big 12 this season, and they will try to turn the tables on last year’s nightmarish campaign. Sophomore quarterback Landry Jones gained a slew of unexpected experience last season as he filled in for injured star Sam Bradford, and he wasn’t half bad. Junior Ryan Broyles is among the nation’s very best receivers, while running back DeMarco Murray has always been a force when healthy, and is likely sitting on a career-defining season as a senior. There is serious star power on defense in linebacker Travis Lewis and defensive end Jeremy Beal, and their experience should help develop some of the young talent who will have big shoes to fill in the middle-the Sooners lost all-world tackle Gerald McCoy to the NFL as well.

#3: OHIO STATE (11-2, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 6 Defensive Starters Returning) If quarterback Terrelle Pryor can duplicate his Rose Bowl performance another 12 times over the course of the season, the Buckeyes could be right back in the national title picture. Pryor will benefit from a deep offensive line, led by center Mike Brewster and lineman Justin Boren. They should help create offensive opportunities with new faces in the backfield, while Pryor will have returning starter DeVier Posey as his main target at receiver. The defense will be stout as always, with experienced end Cameron Heyward on the line and Ross Holman leading the linebacking corps, and should be able to overcome the loss of five starters. A huge rematch of the 2003 National Championship against Miami looms large on the second weekend of the season.

#2: BOISE STATE (14-0, 9 Offensive Starters Returning, 9 Defensive Starters Returning) It is nothing short of a travesty that Boise State begins the season ranked as low as #5 in the Coaches Poll. This is a team that has posted two undefeated seasons in the past three years, and returns more combined starters on both sides of the ball than any other team on this list. Junior quarterback Kellen Moore is the real deal, and star running back Jeremy Avery returns after rushing for 1150 yards last season. Moore will have lots of options downfield, including receiver Titus Young and tight end Kyle Efaw. What could separate this team from Boise State teams of the past is the strong defense, as nine starters return from a unit that ranked 14th in total defense a year ago. The Labor Day matchup against Virginia Tech is a national title elimination game right out of the gates, but if they can win that one, get past Oregon State and then run the table, they deserve to be in the championship.

#1: ALABAMA (14-0, 8 Offensive Starters Returning, 1 Defensive Starters Returning)- The Tide lost their entire defense, and this is certainly a cause for concern, but Nick Saban has pulled in a class of recruits that could be even better. Defensive end Marcell Dareus earned MVP honors in last year’s championship, even with that star-studded defense, while linebacker Dont’a Hightower should return from injury in top form. The offense remains absolutely stacked. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram will trade carries with dynamic sophomore Trent Richardson to keep defenses guessing, while the line returns enough manpower to continue to create holes. Quarterback Greg McElroy is still undefeated as a starter, and the incredibly athletic receiver Julio Jones continues to be underrated on the national spectrum. His explosive speed is even more dangerous on special teams. With a manageable preseason schedule and Florida and Auburn both at home, Alabama already has repeat on the brain.

Heisman Picks:

1) Ryan Mallett, Arkansas

2) Mark Ingram, Alabama

3) Kellen Moore, Boise State

4) Terelle Pryor, Ohio State

5) John Clay, Wisconsin

6) Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State

7) A.J. Green, Georgia

8- Julio Jones, Alabama

9) Jake Locker, Washington

10) Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech

BCS Predictions:

BCS National Championship: Alabama vs. Boise State

Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oregon

Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Nebraska

Sugar Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Arkansas

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Iowa

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