Top 25 countdown

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Top 25 countdown: No. 5 Florida
August 9, 20

Florida won the 2006 national championship in coach Urban Meyer's second season. Now, he'll try to do it again -- with a new quarterback and nine new starters on defense. The nonconference schedule is easily navigable, but the SEC schedule is not. There's plenty of talent, but nine new starters on defense?

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
At its core,Meyer's version of the spread is simple: He tries to match his fast guys against the other team's slow guys and let them make big plays. Florida won it all last season without an every-down tailback and may not have one this season.

SKILL POSITIONS
Wideouts Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin are threats to score any time they touch the ball, whether it's on a flanker screen, crossing pattern, deep throw or end around. Cornelius Ingram is listed as a tight end, but he's really a slot receiver with great hands and toughness. Big things also are expected from speedy Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper, and several true freshmen could fit into the receiver mix as well. The guy in charge of getting them the ball is quarterback Tim Tebow, a phenomenon last season because of his running ability. Tebow has a strong arm but must show he can succeed in passing situations; his biggest pass plays last year came when opponents thought he was going to run.

The situation at tailback is a mess. Mon Williams has all the tools and was going to be the guy, but he blew out a knee in the spring and is expected to miss the season. It looks as if Kestahn Moore, a plugger, will be the starter. Redshirt freshman Chevon Walker also will be in the mix. True freshman Chris Rainey is a burner, but at 5-9, he's not an every-down back.

OFFENSIVE LINE
Last season's biggest question is this year's biggest strength. Four starters return, though Drew Miller might move from guard to center.Miller likely is the team's most consistent blocker. Tackles Carlton Medder and Phil Trautwein held up better than expected in their first seasons as starters and have all-league potential. Jim Tartt and Ronnie Wilson are the kind of rough-andtumble maulers Meyer wants in his guards, and if they stay healthy, Miller will be the center.Wilson has some legal issues that might result in him being sidelined for a while, but depth at guard is good.

DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong have meshed well. Strong calls the signals and generally puts all that speed at his disposal to good use. The coaches want to attack, but it'll be interesting to see how that works with so many first-time starters.

FRONT SEVEN
End Derrick Harvey was outstanding in the BCS title game against Ohio State, and that should carry over. But there are no returning starters among the front seven. Brandon Antwine appears to be set at one tackle spot, but the other two line positions won't be set until the fall. Javier Estopinan and Clint McMillan will battle for time at tackle, and Jermaine Cunningham and Lawrence Marsh are leading contenders at end. The Gators signed one of the best defensive line classes in the nation and expect several true freshmen to get playing time.

There will be three new starters at linebacker: Brandon Spikes in the middle with speedsters Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones outside. Florida is shallow at linebacker (only four scholarship players competed in the spring), and several true freshmen will play.

SECONDARY
Strong safety Tony Joiner is an all-conference candidate, but everybody else is new. Free safety Kyle Jackson has started before, so depth shouldn't be an issue at safety. Cornerback is a huge concern. Sophomores Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre- Louis, redshirt freshman Jacques Rickerson and true freshmen Ahmad Black and Moses Jenkins are the candidates. It's hard to imagine a title contender having corners this raw.

SPECIAL TEAMS
True freshman Chas Henry might handle punting duties, and either Joey Ijjas or Jonathan Phillips will be asked to improve a weak kicking game. Look for diminutive Brandon James (5-6) on punt returns and there is enough skill position talent to insure some explosive kick returns.

COACHING STAFF
Meyer and his staff surprised many by winning the national title last season. They followed that by winning the mythical recruiting title, too. This program is white-hot, especially considering the recent struggles of Florida State and Miami. Just don't expect another national title in 2007.Another SEC crown will be possible if the rebuilt defense comes through.

SN PROJECTION: 1st in SEC East, 11-1, Sugar Bowl.

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Top 25 countdown: No. 4 West Virginia
August 10, 200

For the third consecutive season, West Virginia has the talent -- and the schedule -- to win the Big East, finish undefeated and qualify for the national championship game. Defensive issues, particularly against the pass, have caused the Mountaineers to stub their toes in recent pursuits of those goals, but coaches believe they have addressed the problem and now are capable of finishing the job.

Trips to Maryland, South Florida and Rutgers will prove tricky, and a November game against a Louisville team that scored 88 points against WVU the past two seasons combined could have major ramifications. If the Mountaineers survive those four games, there's no reason to believe a trip to New Orleans for the BCS title game won't be on their itinerary.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Rich Rodriguez is one of the original spread offense gurus, but the Mountaineers use the formation to create mismatches for their running game, not their passing game. Rodriguez loves those dual threat, athletic quarterbacks and is perfectly content to call a majority of read-option plays and pound opponents on the ground.

SKILL POSITIONS
Quarterback Patrick White, the conference's offensive player of the year, already was considered one of the best running quarterbacks in the country. Now he's a dangerous passer, too. White totaled 2,874 yards running and passing last season and accounted for 31 touchdowns (18 rushing). If he continues to make strides throwing the ball, he will be virtually unstoppable.

As if White doesn't pose enough problems for defenses, tailback Steve Slaton is hearing Heisman whispers after rushing for a team record 1,744 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Receivers traditionally have been known for their blocking in Morgantown, but 6-8 Wes Lyons and Darius Reynaud have developed into dependable pass-catching options.

OFFENSIVE LINE
Three starters return, including all-conference tackle Ryan Stanchek and guard Greg Isdaner, a freshman All-American last year. Tackle Jake Figner also should reclaim a starting job and, center Mike Dent and guard Eric Rodemoyer enjoyed excellent springs. The Mountaineers, primarily a zone blocking team, will mix in a few man-blocking schemes.

DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
The Mountaineers use a 3-3-5 stack formation that enables them to pressure the quarterback as well as drop into coverage without changing their formations. Although the defense is undersized, running teams don't often have success because of all the athletes who fly to the ball.

FRONT SEVEN
The Mountaineers have experience but must fill the significant shoes of linebackers Boo McLee and Jay Henry. Heralded freshman Pat Lazear could step into one of those spots, and there are a number of other options, starting with Bobby Hathaway, Marc Magro and Reed Williams. A potentially dominant front wall is built around all-conference tackle Keilen Dykes, tackle Johnny Dingle and end James Ingram. Coaches worked hard in the spring to get the front six to become more active because the pass rush was nonexistent at times last season. If the linebackers are productive, the Mountaineers could have big success.

SECONDARY
The secondary is loaded with athletes, but their play must improve if the Mountaineers are serious about winning a national title. WVU allowed 243 passing yards per game and 17 passing touchdowns last season. The leaders of this unit are the safeties -- Eric Wicks, an all-conference selection and potential All-American, Ridwan Malik and Quinton Andrews. Cornerbacks Antonio Lewis and Vaughn Rivers are returning starters.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Rivers is a big return weapon on punts and kickoffs. Pat McAfee was perfect on 62 extra point kicks and made 17-of-22 field-goal attempts. McAfee also shares punting duties with Scott Kozlowski. Neither has a big leg, but they seldom give up big returns because they kick the ball well directionally.

COACHING STAFF
Rick Trickett, widely considered to be one of the top offensive line coaches in the country, bolted for Florida State, so the pressure is on replacement Greg Frey to continue the team's recent run of dominant offensive fronts. Frey is one of three new coaches. He comes from South Florida, as does new quarterbacks coach Rod Smith. With Rodriguez calling plays, the coach on the hot seat could be defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel if that unit fails to show improvement.

SN PROJECTION: 1st in Big East, 11-1, Orange Bowl.

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Top 25 countdown: No. 3 Michigan
August 13, 2007

National championship or bust. It's that way every year in Ann Arbor. Some years, it's a crazy notion. But not this fall. The offense will have few peers, and the schedule is a coach's dream. Everything hinges on a retooled defense developing quickly and forgetting last year's late-season meltdown.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Mike DeBord didn't do anything fancy his first season back as coordinator. He knows the drill in Ann Arbor: establish the run to set up play-action passes. There's a variety of motion mixed with myriad personnel groupings. But it's mostly window dressing to create confusion for what's a classic NFL-style offense.

SKILL POSITIONS
Loaded. Chad Henne is the classic dropback, stand-in-the-pocket Michigan triggerman. Entering his fourth year as a starter, Henne should work with a confident know-how that augments his natural ability. Though the staff loves to take shots downfield, this program always will be about a strong ground game. Mike Hart is neither the biggest nor the fastest running back, but he's a workhorse who can move the chains and rip off a big gainer on occasion. He never fumbles. Kevin Grady (if recovered from a knee injury) and Brandon Minor are maturing into dependable forces who can run inside and outside.What looked like a loaded group of receivers has become an area of concern. Mario Manningham will be an All-American, but Adrian Arrington's status is iffy after a spring suspension. If he doesn't return, Michigan will be without a proven No. 2 receiver. LaTerryal Savoy is one option, but Greg Mathews is considered the team's best young wideout. Michigan frequently employs two-tight end sets, but the tight end spot looks troublesome because Carson Butler was kicked off the team following legal trouble. Mike Massey is capable but pedestrian.

OFFENSIVE LINE
The effort to slim down paid dividends last season, as the group became more nimble. Expect the line to be strong again with three starters back. The biggest hole is at center, but Michigan is buzzing about the potential of Justin Boren. That makes right tackle the biggest concern. A solid left side is anchored by Jake Long, a prototype tackle who tinkered with going pro, and guard Adam Kraus, a classic mauler.

DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Ron English was promoted to coordinator from secondary coach last season -- a brilliant move. English has mandated an aggressive, attacking defense that has unleashed the team's ample athletic ability. In short, this defense no longer is predictable.

FRONT SEVEN
The top priority for a defense that yielded 942 yards and 74 points in the last two games of 2006 after dominating the first 11 games is solidifying the line. Coaches feel squatty Terrance Taylor will be an effective run-stuffer. The other tackle spot is shaky. Converted linebacker Brandon Graham could surprise. Will Johnson just looks like a "guy." Who will rush the passer with LaMarr Woodley gone? The team hopes Tim Jamison will step up, but he struggles to stay healthy. The staff might slide Shawn Crable from linebacker to serve as a rush end. Stay tuned. The linebacker corps is being rehabbed. How desperate is Michigan? Carr signed just the second junior college transfer (Austin Panter) of his tenure to help fill the voids. Diminutive speedster Chris Graham will fill a spot.

SECONDARY
This was the fans' whipping unit last year, and the loss of cornerback Leon Hall doesn't help.Morgan Trent has experience but doesn't look like the answer. In fact, there's a good chance incoming freshman Donovan Warren could claim one corner slot. Brandon Harrison, a little guy who packs a big punch, is in the mix. Strong safety Jamar Adams is the star of the unit. He's a big hitter with instincts and speed. Veteran free safety Brandent Englemon, like Trent, could lose his job to a youngster.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Zoltan Mesko has the tools to become a top punter. But the kicking situation is muddled. Bryan Wright is the favorite, but everyone is holding their breath. It's doubtful Michigan will find another return man like Steve Breaston, but Carlos Brown, Mathews and Stevie Brown are promising.

COACHING STAFF
The changes Carr made before last season paid off, as the team came very close to playing in the BCS title game. There was one defection: Cornerbacks coach Ron Lee went to Minnesota. English is a head-coach-in-waiting who knows how to teach the details of the game.

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Top 25 countdown: No. 2 LSU

Another odd-numbered year, another schedule conducive to a national championship conversation. There are no Nick Saban hires remaining on Les Miles' coaching staff, so Miles will get more credit -- and more blame -- than ever. To win an SEC title and maybe even more, LSU needs one of the nation's best defensive lines to mind the store while trainees learn all layers of new coordinator Gary Crowton's spread offense.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Miles likes to set up the pass with the run. If Matt Flynn can hit the ground running (and throwing), Crowton could open better running lanes with a Gulf Coast Offense that puts a premium on delivering the ball quickly to playmakers in open space. Crowton will have fun getting the ball to explosive track star Trindon Holliday and incorporating some option into the offense.

SKILL POSITIONS
Miles and Crowton held back in the spring, but there's evidence that Flynn, a fifth-year senior, will alternate with sophomore Ryan Perrilloux if opponents seem vulnerable to such a rotation. A limited resume for both players means Crowton's biggest challenge could be preparing them to adjust to the speed of the game.

Keiland Williams will begin the season as the closest thing to a feature back. Richard Murphy's ability to make defenders miss also could play well in Crowton's spread attack. Early Doucet becomes the first option at wide receiver, and he'll affect field position as a return man, even when teams kick away from him. Brandon LaFell also is an option, but he sometimes needs mental Stickum. Tight end Keith Zinger is back to catch a few passes and assist a work-in-progress line.

OFFENSIVE LINE
Left tackle Ciron Black will be Flynn's best friend. Center Brett Helms and guard Herman Johnson are steady. A healthy Will Arnold and Ryan Miller could stabilize guard play, with Lyle Hitt and other hopefuls still not quite ready for full-time duty. Carnell Stewart will get first shot at replacing Peter Dyakowski at right tackle, though Johnson could step in if Stewart fails.

DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Bo Pelini doesn't just want to stop the offense -- he wants the ball. The law of averages says his emphasis on turnovers will pay off, a direct result of the pressure packages he employs.

This sets up for a run at the national championship. LSU can grab the nation's attention by beating Virginia Tech. Save for that emotional trip to Tuscaloosa, the SEC heavy-lifting will come at home. The visit from Florida holds the key in what looks like a preview of the SEC championship game. Even if the Tigers win, can they beat the Gators again if they meet in the SEC title game?

FRONT SEVEN
LSU has an embarrassment of riches up front. Tyson Jackson and Tremaine Johnson had highlight-video springs at the end positions. Still, Johnson could share one spot with Rahim Alem, who plays bigger than his modest frame. Then there's Glenn Dorsey, an All-American tackle who bypassed the NFL draft because of injury. Dorsey changes game plans -- and games. If Ricky Jean-Francois returns from a spring discipline problem, he, too, will be a force in an imposing group of inside-outside linemen. Darry Beckwith, who has wrested the middle linebacker spot from Luke Sanders, has the mobility and savvy for a breakout season. Ali Highsmith's sideline-to-sideline play is a concern for offensive coordinators, and his experience is even more valuable. Coaches are waiting for Danny McCray and Jacob Cutrera to make a move. The signature of this unit is its ability to run laterally and swarm to the ball.

SECONDARY
Cornerbacks Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson become the veterans of this group with the departure of safeties LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels. Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins are athletic enough to compensate for growing pains as their backups. Craig Steltz played enough in 2006 to make a seamless transition at strong safety. Curtis Taylor is less of a proven commodity at free safety, and a shoulder separation in the spring game could be a concern. Still, he has made enough big plays on special teams to earn his shot.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Patrick Fisher, the new punter, will need improved protection when Virginia Tech brings its block party to Tiger Stadium in Week 2. Colt David returns and will kick all field goals, but it's unclear if he has the leg for kickoffs, which now must be made from the 30- yard line instead of the 35.

COACHING STAFF
Miles had to replace three offensive coaches, including coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who will handle the same role at Florida State. LSU could be a good fit for Crowton and his offensive imagination. The best move might have been a no-move: Pelini stayed put. For better or worse, this now is a Miles staff top to bottom.

SN projection: 1st in SEC West, 12-0, BCS championship game

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Top 25 countdown: No. 1 USC
August 15, 2007

So star receivers Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are gone. Does anyone really think that's a problem for USC? The Trojans are as deep and powerful as ever with 18 returning starters. Anything less than serious national title contention would be a surprise.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
Quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian also will coordinate Pete Carroll's high-powered, balanced system. The Trojans might go to the shotgun formation, a favorite of quarterback John David Booty's, in some situations.

SKILL POSITIONS
Here's a surprise: USC has another Heisman candidate at quarterback. Booty, with his near-flawless combination of arm strength, mobility and poise, will force strong-armed backup Mark Sanchez to sit again. USC has 10 -- yes, 10 -- highly regarded tailbacks who hope to improve that 128-yard team rushing average from last season. C.J. Gable appears to have the inside track, but veteran Chauncey Washington and hopefuls Allen Bradford and Stafon Johnson will be lurking. Incoming talent is scary, too. There's a Reggie Bush clone in Joe McKnight; a LenDale White-type in Broderick Green, and an all-around weapon in Marc Tyler. Fullback Stanley Havili could be pushed by Bradford, Michael Coleman and freshman Jordan Campbell. Patrick Turner has the stuff to become a big-play receiver, and David Ausberry was impressive in the spring. Redshirt freshman Jamere Holland offers breakaway speed and, as always, there's superb incoming talent in Brandon Carswell and Ronald Johnson. Fred Davis returns at tight end.

OFFENSIVE LINE
Tackle Sam Baker is the foundation of a line that returns three starters. The Trojans are considering several scenarios, including one in which versatile Drew Radovich moves from guard to tackle to make room for tenacious Jeff Byers, who was injured most of the past two seasons. Right guard Chilo Rachal is sure to reclaim his starting job, while coaches look for ways to get mobile Alatini Malu into the rotation. Matt Spanos might win the center job if he is eligible, but sophomore Nick Howell and freshman Kris O'Dowd are other options.

DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY
The Trojans will run a truer 4-3 with Brian Cushing moving from end back to his more natural linebacker spot. A veteran look inspires hope that the defense can improve last year's uncharacteristically low turnover ratio.

FRONT SEVEN
The Trojans have the best linebacker trio in the nation with Rey Maualuga, Keith Rivers and Cushing, who led USC in tackles for loss last season. Rivers is fast on the weak side, and Maualuga brings ferocity to the middle. The line returns almost intact with Kyle Moore, Alex Morrow and super recruit Everson Griffen fighting it out for Cushing's vacated end position. Explosive end Law-rence Jackson and dominant tackles Sedrick Ellis and Fili Moala are locked in at the other three spots.

SECONDARY
Here's another nice problem: The Trojans must make room at safety for Josh Pinkard, a 2005 starter who missed most of last season with a knee injury. The problem is that two outstanding safeties, Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays, also return. Cornerback is similarly stacked. Returning starters Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris are solid but still must ward off such challengers as Kevin Thomas and Mozique McCurtis, who played nickel back last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS
With the death of kicker Mario Danelo, this unit might be USC's weakest. The unenviable task of following Danelo, who connected on 26-of-28 field goal attempts in his two seasons, goes to David Buehler, who has kicked one career field goal. Buehler also will handle kickoffs. Walk-on punter Greg Woidneck returns after an unspectacular 2006 performance. Desmond Reed is a sure-handed and shifty punt returner, and Gable is tough to bring down returning kickoffs. Other return options are Harris and Vincent Joseph.

COACHING STAFF
Even with the loss of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who left to become coach of the Oakland Raiders, change is minimal. Sarkisian already was the assistant head coach and steps naturally into the coordinator job, and Kiffin's recruiting coordinator tasks have been taken over by tight ends coach Brennan Carroll. Kiffin's other job as receivers coach will be handled by NFL-tested John Morton.

SN PROJECTION: 1st in Pac-10, 12-0, BCS championship game.

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Re: Top 25 countdown

THE GOLD SHEET PRESEASON TOP 25
by Bruce Marshall

1-SOUTHERN CAL...Are the Trojans about to return to “untouchable” territory as they were in the Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush days? Maybe not, but there’s still more reasons to rank SC on top of the pile than anyone else. Ten of them, in particular, that being the number of defensive starters HC Pete Carroll has returning from a voracious, talent-laden stop unit that found its sea legs late last season when Carroll mostly abandoned the 3-4 looks and went back to a more traditional 4-3. And, presto, the “D” suddenly began to terrorize enemy QBs again, and DL studs Lawrence Jackson & Sedrick Ellis, plus arguably the nation’s best LB corps, are back to wreak more havoc in the fall. Of course, the offense figures to be okay, too, with QB John David Booty (left) on a short list of serious Heisman contenders, and a plethora of high school A-A RBs itching for a chance to shine. Meanwhile, WRs Patrick Turner & Vidal Hazelton figure to be the next in the assembly line of NFL-bound Trojan wideouts. Expect to hear more late-season chatter about Carroll moving to the NFL, but as long as that doesn’t become a distraction (and it hasn’t the past few years), a third BCS title game in four years beckons.

2-WEST VIRGINIA...As long as the Big East champion still qualifies for the BCS (and the last time we checked, it still did), we’re going to pencil the Mountaineers into the title game at New Orleans. Not one, but two legit Heisman threats (QB Pat White & RB Steve Slaton, left) highlight what should be another prolific Rich Rodriguez attack, capable of outscoring anyone on this year’s schedule. Although potentially tricky road trips to South Florida (an upset winner at Morgantown last year), Maryland, and revitalized Rutgers await, the schedule is still built for a BCS run. Even slight improvement from a defense that returns seven starters should get the WVU into the thick of the national title discussion.

3-FLORIDA...SEC insiders tell us that HC Urban Meyer isn’t worried in the least about Tim Tebow taking over full-time at QB after Chris Leak’s graduation. If anything, Tebow might be a better fit for the Meyer”spread” that made Alex Smith the NFL’s number one draft choice a few years ago. There is, however, a bit more concern about filling in the gaps on a Gator defense that had an awful lot to do with last year’s national championship (just ask Troy Smith) and lost several members of that stop unit to the NFL. But, remember, the stockpile of talent runs deep in Gainesville these days, and the schedule breaks well, with Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida State all visiting The Swamp, and a visit to LSU the only daunting true road trip.

4-MICHIGAN...Are the Wolverines going to win the national title? Probably not, especially if they eventually have to run into USC as they did in last January’s Rose Bowl, or the sort of SEC powerhouse (such as Florida) that dominated last year’s Big Ten champ Ohio State in the 2006 title game. But the Big Ten might prove the easiest path to the title game of all the BCS conferences this season, and the schedule is tailor-made for the Wolverines to be at or near the top of the polls by the time season-ending showdowns vs. Wisconsin and the Buckeyes (this year at Ann Arbor) roll around. HC Lloyd Carr has as much seasoned offensive firepower as anyone in the country with QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, & WR Mario Manningham (right) back for one more hurrah.

5-TEXAS A&M...Looking for a BCS sleeper? Try A&M, which, after briefly experiencing life as a basketball school during Billy Gillispie’s hoop tenure, should again become a football school this fall. That’s because excitement is cresting in College Station with the return of practically all of HC Dennis Franchione’s skill-position performers (including clutch QB Stephen McGee and the “thunder and lightning” backfield of Jorvorskie Lane & Mike Goodson) from an offense that learned how to win close games last season, plus another seven starters on Gary Darnell’s defense. The pain of last year’s Holiday Bowl blowout loss vs. Cal (when the Aggies were still on cloud nine after their regular-season ending win over Texas) provides plenty of motivation.

6-LSU...Life “A.J.” (After JaMarcus) begins this fall in Baton Rouge, but don’t feel bad for HC Les Miles and the stockpile of talent he has amassed for his Tigers. And the QBing shouldn’t be too bad in the wake of Russell’s early departure, either, with reliever Matt Flynn having waited more patiently for his chance than Bob Dole did for the ‘96 GOP nomination, and once-ballyhooed Ryan Perrilloux still clamoring for his own shot at glory. Meanwhile, the defense figures to be nasty once more, especially in a deep and potentially-overwhelming front 7, although graduated safeties LaRon Landry & Jesse Daniels have left a leadership void in the 2ndary. Still, the SEC remains a rough neighborhood, and LSU is also going to have to also deal with an unusually difficult non-league game when Virginia Tech visits Tiger Stadium September 8.

7-OKLAHOMA...They’re still shaking their heads in Norman after the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State (did that stuff really happen in the final moments?). And HC Bob Stoops needs to find a new QB and a RB to replace Adrian Peterson, who will instead be wearing a Minnesota Vikings uniform instead this fall. But almost everything else is in place, with 17 starters back plus PK Garrett Hartley, one of the nation’s best. Watch the QB situation, and how quickly jr. Joey Halzle can get comfy running the attack; Sooner fans are hoping it’s in time for the annual Red River Shootout vs. you-know-who at the Cotton Bowl October 6.

8-GEORGIA...That might have been a preview of coming attractions we saw down the stretch last season from Georgia when the Bulldogs closed with a rush, then stunned Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl. Moreover, it was a coming out party of sorts from then-frosh QB Matthew Stafford (left), who finally began to flash the sort of potential he promised as one of last year’s most highly-regarded recruits. True, HC Mark Richt has gone the unconventional route (JC transfers) to fill gaps on the offensive and defensive lines, but hey, whatever works. As usual, there are plenty of landmines to avoid in the SEC, and, like always, overcoming Florida in the “We can’t call it the world’s biggest cocktail party anymore” at Jacksonville will be the biggest hurdle.

9-VIRGINIA TECH
...Suddenly, football doesn’t seem as important in Blacksburg, but we suspect Frank Beamer’s Hokie gridders will do their best to aid to the campus healing process this fall. The defense should be another “Bud Foster special” with 8 starters returning from the latest Tech big-play platoon, and Beamer’s renowned special teamers will again distort proceedings, but can the offense pull its weight? We have no doubts RB Brandon Ore can do his part, and the receivers are top notch, but neither Sean Glennon nor Ike Whitaker has yet to make anyone forget about Michael Vick at QB. Still, this looks like the team to beat in the ACC.

10-WISCONSIN...Has any rookie made a better debut since Fernando Valenzuela? We’re talking about Wisconsin HC Bret Bielema, whose first Badger team rolled to a 12-1 mark and number 5 ranking in the final USA Today Poll a year ago. Of course, a cupcake non-league schedule and soft Big Ten slate (which didn’t include Ohio State) helped a lot, but let’s not get picky. Bielema returns almost everybody (19 starters) from last season, including the latest star Badger RB, P.J. Hill (left). And even though efficient QB John Stocco has graduated, Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge might prove a more-exciting alternative. By the way, the Buckeyes are on this fall’s slate, hosting the Badgers November 3.

11-TEXAS...Well, he might not be quite the second coming of Vince Young, but we sure found out how much Texas missed a healthy QB Colt McCoy in late-season losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M a year ago. And a full-strength McCoy will be needed to reverse those two defeats and clear some other tricky hurdles on this year’s schedule. But don’t expect too much dropoff from the “D” despite defensive coordinator Gene Chizik leaving for Iowa State, and the departure of three top-tier DBs (although they didn’t bother to play much pass defense a year ago). Rest assured that Mack Brown’s talent spigot will continue to flow.

12-UCLA...This is the season HC Karl Dorrell has been aiming for in Westwood, with 20 starters returning from last year’s team that managed to stun hated USC (and keep the Trojans out of the BCS title game) despite an offense that at times resembled a fire drill. Expect more organization now that o.c. Jay Norvell has been imported from Nebraska to streamline the attack, and now-healthy southpaw QB Ben Olson (left) could be ready to dominate after winning a spirited duel over SC game hero Patrick Cowan in spring. Getting the “O” in gear will be key, because the transformation a suddenly-snarling“D” made under d.c. DeWayne Walker last season was nothing short of amazing.

13-TCU...This year’s potential BCS gate crasher, with the best chance to emulate recent Utah and Boise State examples? Try TCU, which returns almost everyone from a hot-pursuing defense that was playing as if it belonged in the NFL late last season. That should at least be enough to help the Frogs reclaim the Mountain West title they surrendered to BYU last fall. HC Gary Patterson will need RS soph Marcus Jackson to grab hold of the QB position when camp reconvenes in August, but RB Aaron Brown might be ready for a huge year now that he won’t be sharing carries with graduated Lonta Hobbs. The BCS talk might begin early if TCU wins at Texas September 8. Remember, the Frogs are well-versed at giant-killing, as Oklahoma found out in the opener two years ago.

14-LOUISVILLE...Sure, HC Bobby Petrino moved to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and RB Michael Bush left early for the NFL. But QB Brian Brohm decided to return for another year, Bush missed almost all of last season, anyway, and new HC Steve Kragthorpe will have to think the Cardinal job is a piece of cake after reviving a moribund Tulsa program the past few years. Don’t forget that Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia provide Brohm with perhaps the best WR targets in the land, and RB Anthony Allen does a pretty good impression of Bush. If some playmakers emerge on defense, the Cards could get back into the BCS.

15-NEBRASKA...There are some Big XII scouts who suggest that Nebraska could be poised for a real breakthrough campaign and BCS challenge. But, sorry, we’re not quite ready to bite on that bait until the Huskers prove they can win a big game (we’re not counting that Alamo Bowl win over a 7-5 Michigan team in 2005) under HC Bill Callahan. Still, things could get interesting in Lincoln this fall with Arizona State transfer QB Sam Keller now operating Callahan’s version of the West Coast offense, and a mostly-veteran lineup back from last year’s Cotton Bowl team. The Huskers are a clear choice to prevail again in the Big XII North and will have their chance to get involved in early BCS discussion if they can beat visiting USC September 15.

16-OREGON STATE...In case you don’t recall, one of the nation’s hottest teams down the stretch last season was OSU. And most of the playmakers (including RB Yvenson Bernard, right, & electrifying WR/PR Sammie Stroughter) return from a team that won 8 of its last 9, and inflicted the first Pac-10 defeat since 2003 upon USC in the process. Watch a veteran, hot-pursuing Beaver defense (and LB Derrick Doggett in particular) that led the nation with over 500 yards worth of tackles for losses in ‘06. More than a few Pac-10 sources also believe new QB Sean Canfield will prove an upgrade over the graduated Matt Moore.

17-RUTGERS...How far has Rutgers progressed under HC Greg Schiano? Most Big East observers believe the fact Schiano turned own a chance to coach Miami (from whence he came to New Brunswick) to stay with the Scarlet Knights might be more significant than last year’s breakthrough 11-2 campaign. And the encore might be just as good or better, with star RB Ray Rice getting some peripheral Heisman mention, QB Mike Teel a year wiser running the attack, and the defense off a season in which it consistently stuffed the run. Could Rutgers find itself in the BCS queue if it can beat Louisville in the regular-season finale?

18-HAWAII.
..They’re thrilled in Honolulu that QB Colt Brennan has decided to stick around for another year after breaking a slew of NCAA passing records as a junior. (Not thrilled enough, apparently, to have soap in the locker room and to spare him parking tickets at the practice facility, but that’s another story.) And with most of Brennan’s squadron of receivers back in the fold, who knows what kind of records June Jones’ prolific Red Gun offense might set in the fall? Replacing a couple of playmakers on defense will be key, but the WAC title this year probably runs though Honolulu (where Boise State must visit). Since Michigan pulled out of a game with the Warriors, will a couple of dates vs. I-AA opposition hamper a longshot BCS bid and Brennan’s Heisman candidacy?

19-TENNESSEE...Tennessee fans are a demanding bunch, and they’re not cutting HC Phil Fulmer much slack these days after a rare losing season in ‘05, and the memory of the 1998 national title becoming harder to recall. The Vols rebounded to 9-4 in ‘06, but failures in key games grated, and the recovery of QB Erik Ainge (left) from a spring MCL tear will be watched closely with early games at Cal and Florida capable of scuttling UT’s BCS hopes by mid-September. Ainge, however, made remarkable progress under o.c. David Cutcliffe’s tutelage last fall, although the infantry (paced by explosive RB LaMarcus Coker) might be featured early with a new set of wideouts on hand.

20-OHIO STATE...Don’t tell us that Florida just scored another touchdown! The Gators might have, however, in Ohio State’s nightmares about that BCS title game humiliation. And coupled with the loss of key weapons such as Heisman-winning QB Troy Smith & Dolphins 1st-round pick WR/KR Ted Ginn, Jr., it’s understandable why there’s less buzz in Columbus than at this time a year ago. As much as HC Jim Tressel has filled the talent pipeline, weapons such as those don’t grow on trees, although a manageable early slate should allow the new-look offense to settle in before the schedule begins to pick up considerably around Halloween.

21-BOISE STATE...Sorry, Boise State, you simply can’t top that dream-like unbeaten run a year ago and hard-to-believe Fiesta Bowl triumph over Oklahoma. But we don’t expect the Broncos to fall off the map, either. Remember, this program didn’t just arrive on the scene (86 wins the last 8 seasons!), and HC Chris Petersen has signed a big bucks extension to keep him in Boise for the foreseeable future. Ultra-competitive QB Jared Zabransky will be hard to replace, but TD-machine RB Ian Johnson returns, and a vastly underrated defense should be ornery again this fall.

22-SOUTH CAROLINA
...The Gamecocks were close to a breakthrough for Steve Spurrier a year ago, losing 4 games by 7 points or fewer. Although star WR Sidney Rice has moved to the Minnesota Vikings, SC returns an experienced QB in Blake Mitchell, and the defense (led by a veteran front 7) could be particularly nasty. Still, the schedule is a bear, with no easy games any longer in the SEC East (including Vanderbilt), and the few dates vs. SEC West foes including road trips to LSU and Arkansas. Ouch, indeed!

23-SOUTH FLORIDA...A new beast in the Big East? Don’t be surprised if USF picks up where it left off last season, beating West Virginia and then dominating East Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl. More consistency is needed from the offense, but soph QB Matt Grothe displayed plenty of potential a year ago, and perhaps heralded RB Mike Ford will add some extra zip to the attack. Overall, only 6 have departed from the season-ending 2-deep. We’ll see how far the Bulls have progressed after their September 8 date at Auburn.

24-CALIFORNIA...Never underestimate a Jeff Tedford-coached team! And even with RB Marshawn Lynch off a year early to the NFL, Tedford has plenty of toys to play with on the Bear offense, including perhaps the most-dangerous set of wideouts in the country. Yet we need a bit more convincing about QB Nate Longshore, who inconveniently disappeared in last year’s losses to Tennessee & USC, and several playmakers must be replaced from an underrated defense. The Bears do, however, get both the Volunteers and Trojans in Berkeley this fall.

25-KENTUCKY...Are we going to make room for Vanderbilt in the Top 25, too? Not yet, but we have no problem squeezing another SEC East entry, the Wildcats, into the list. After all, vet HC Rich Brooks is doing his best to make UK a football school, and SEC sources raved about the creative schemes on last year’s Wildcat attack that some said were the most sophisticated in the league. The good news is that QB Andre Woodson (left; 31 TDP and only 7 picks in ‘06) returns for his senior season, and just a little bit of improvement from a veteran “D” that ranked 118th (that’s second to last) in ‘06 could push the Cats into more-glamorous bowl territory.

www.goldsheet.com

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Re: Top 25 countdown

Preseason Top 25

USC and LSU remain on top, Florida and Virginia Tech move up

With the season less than three weeks away and the Coaches' Poll out, it was time to update the Post-Spring, Pre-Preseason Top 25 that we put out May 2.

But four months later, things haven't changed a whole lot at the top. It's still USC, LSU and Michigan as the top three teams and Boston College and Florida State making big jumps up the rankings. Two SEC teams dropped out and the ACC picked up another one as well.

So, with the regular season set to kickoff Aug. 30, here's a look at how the best teams in the nation stack up against each other with camps now open across the country.

   
1. USC - When you can go nine or 10 deep at running back, that pretty much says it all. The Trojans will feature the most loaded team in the country and one of the top defenses, as well. There's John David Booty and quite possibly the best linebacking corps in the nation that makes them an overwhelming favorite to win a third national title in Pete Carroll's tenure. Previous: 1


2. LSU
- It's all about the Tigers' defense with another stellar group expected. Glenn Dorsey will lead the charge on the defensive line that's ridiculously athletic. If you're the most talented team in the SEC, chances are you're one of the best in the country. Previous: 2


3. Michigan - Just how good will the Wolverine offense be? By far the Big Ten's best and one of the best in the nation with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Mario Manningham and Jake Long all returning. Questions remain as to how good the defense can be after all its losses from last season, but signs point to the Wolverines being more than capable of holding their own. Previous: 3


4. Texas - Offensively, the Longhorns could be a beast. After his sensational freshman season, Colt McCoy goes back to work with Jamaal Charles at running back and Limas Sweed as his go-to wide out. And after last season's dreadful performance against the pass, there's no way the Texas defense will be that bad this fall. Previous: 6


5. West Virginia - Two players, two speedsters, and one's a quarterback, make the Mountaineers as dangerous an offensive team as there is in the country. Pat White and Steve Slaton are two Heisman Trophy candidates who run like the wind right past defenses. With a line that's expected to be even better than last season, the defense should be quite good. Previous: 4


6. Florida - There are defensive losses galore, but with the talent stream that's now roaring through Gainesville, the Gators shouldn't fall down too far. Figure they'll experience a few growing pains, but should be just fine when it's all said and done. And as for the offense, we'll really get a chance to see what Tim Tebow is all about and Urban Meyer finally has his prototypical quarterback to run the spread offense for the first time in his two seasons at Florida. And Tebow's got plenty of weapons to unleash on the SEC. Previous: 8


7. Virginia Tech - The No. 1 ranked defense the last two years will be the favorite to win up as the best for a third straight season. Stacked on the defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, scoring's going to be at a premium against Tech and the offense shouldn't be half bad, either. Previous: 10


8. Wisconsin - They're the Big Ten favorites in my opinion, but get slotted five spots lower than Michigan because of the quarterback situation right now. Other than that, the Badgers are loaded for another stellar season with P.J. Hill back and an underappreciated set of receivers. Plus, that defense is going to be pretty tough with a number of starters retuning from last year's squad that allowed only 12 points per game. Previous: 6


9. Louisville
- Arguably the best quarterback/wide receiver combo in the country just may be Brian Brohm and his two polar opposite pass catchers: Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia. One's small, the other's a tree, and both spread the field. The Cardinals should feature a better-than-advertised defense. If the offensive line protects Brohm all season, then look out. Previous: 9


10. Oklahoma - No Adrian Peterson? No returning quarterback? No problem for Bob Stoops and his Sooners. With an experienced offensive line, running backs Allen Patrick and DeMarco Murray, the yards are going to come easy and whoever he settles on for a quarterback has Malcolm Kelly to throw to. The defense should be very good. Previous: 11


11. Cal - The best quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the Pac-10 will make the Bears' offense go. Nate Longshore and DeSean Jackson are studs and Jackson is the premier punt returner in the nation. Justin Forsett should fill in quite nicely for the departed Marshawn Lynch. There are questions regarding the defensive line, but it's the offense that makes this team so good. Previous: 7


12. Auburn - Tommy Tuberville just seems to get the job done with his Tigers and this year they'll feature another tough defense and a much healthier Brandon Cox behind center. All Tuberville has to do is sufficiently fill in the questions marks at the other offensive skill positions. Previous: 16


13. Boston College - There's a whole lot of change in Chesnut Hill with new coach Jeff Jagodzinski taking over. He's already instituted a new zone-blocking scheme and the offense has been tailored around the skill sets of the most talented quarterback in the ACC, Matt Ryan, which should make the Eagles a heck of a lot more dynamic. Plus, they're going to feature a defense that's will surprise some people. Previous: 18


14. Florida State - After revamping his coaching staff, Bobby Bowden is getting ready for his "last run" at a national championship. Quarterback is still a question mark with Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee, but if anyone can right the two it's new offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. Plus there's talent at receiver and running back and the defense will be stout, especially up front. This is a team that's going to get better as the season goes on - if they can survive the brutal schedule. Previous: NR


15. Rutgers - The Scarlet Knights are going to feed opposing defenses a healthy dose of Ray Rice and ride their star running back to wins. Mike Teel needs to be more consistent, but he has weapons to use. The defense has questions at linebacker, but it's still going to be the best in the Big East. Previous: 12


16. Ohio State - There are so many losses on offense - quarterback, running back, wide out and the offensive line - yet Jim Tressel doesn't seem too worried about how it will perform, especially with that backfield featuring the two Wells. There are losses on defense as well, but are we to expect any drop-off from this unit? Remember last season when everyone predicted the defense would struggle? So much for that. Previous: 21


17. Tennessee - Phil Fulmer thinks Erik Ainge is the best quarterback in the country. He's definitely in the discussion, but it hurts he doesn't have his favorite targets to throw to. The Vols should have a much better running game this season after a dreadful 2006, but their defensive line has some issues. Previous: 22


18. Texas A&M - The Aggies are going to run it right down other teams' throats and with Stephen McGee under center, and a very good offensive line, they're going to be a tough team to beat. The defense should be much improved as well. Previous: 13


19. Georgia
- Matthew Stafford is firmly entrenched as the starter after distinguishing himself as the Bulldogs' best option. So no more quarterback controversy in Athens where Mark Richt will have to deal with some big losses on defense. Previous: 17


20. Nebraska - Bill Callahan's Cornhuskers are once again the team to beat in a very weak Big 12 North. Sam Keller takes over the offense that should be one of the better units in the conference. Defensively, Nebraska seems to be set at linebacker and in the secondary. But how are they going to replace those losses on the defensive line? Previous: 20


21. Georgia Tech - Here's another ACC team - like Boston College - not getting the kind of credit it deserves. So what if there's no Calvin Johnson? How about having the conference's leading rusher back in Tashard Choice and Taylor Bennett behind center, who takes over for the departed Reggie Ball. And then there's the defense that's going to be very good. Previous: NR


22. TCU - The Horned Frogs are going to be a beast on defense yet again with nine starters returning, none better than Tommy Blake. Only a handful of starters return on offense, but TCU will feature a top notch running game as always with an offensive line that will be as solid as ever. Previous: 19


23. Arkansas - Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are the best running back duo in the country and if Casey Dick can get the ball to his considerably talented wide receivers, then Arkansas really could have something going. But the one thing that makes you take a step back with the Razorbacks is the fact that there are some big holes to fill in defensively. Previous: 15


24. Penn State
- For the second straight year, others are sold on the Nittany Lions while I'm not. They're very young, need Anthony Morelli to find some consistency fast and are rebuilding the defensive line. Things aren't looking as rosy red as some might have you believe. Previous: 13


25. Hawaii - Colt Brennan and the Warriors are going to throw the ball at a prodigious pace this season, especially considering the wide receiving corps that's coming back. Defensively, they should be better against the pass than they were last season with a much more experienced secondary. Previous: NR

Dropped Out: South Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA

Right On The Cusp: South Carolina, Boise State, UCLA, Alabama, Oregon State, Kentucky, Miami 

www.cstv.com

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