1. Florida – Do I really need to explain? Probably not, but too bad. Bear with me. Florida has seven players with legitimate arguments for being the best in the nation at their respective positions. Read that sentence one more time and really soak it in. Seven players, each perhaps the best in the nation. I’m not talking All-Conference consideration; I’m talking All-American consideration, and Florida has seven of them.
Tim Tebow at quarterback
Carlos Dunlap at defensive end
Brandon Spikes at linebacker
Joe Haden at cornerback
Janoris Jenkins at cornerback
Anthony Hernandez at tight end
Brandon James at special teams returner
The remaining roster seems to be filled with All-SEC candidates, 4.3 speedsters, and freak athletes, all of whom are experienced; the dominant ’08 defense, which was the pothole to the prolific Oklahoma offense’s Ferrari, returns every single starter. This team is more loaded than a baked potato. And did I mention they have one of the best coaches in the country in Urban Meyer? But if that weren’t enough, their road towards Pasadena is painted with gold. Without having to face Alabama or Ole Miss, Florida’s schedule is as comfortable as can be expected in the SEC. But be wary of October 10, Gator fans, when Florida travels to LSU for a night game. After a lackluster ’08 campaign, the Tigers are gearing for a big season. However, Florida has a bye just before, giving Urban Meyer two weeks to prepare for anything Les Miles has to offer. I don’t expect Florida to lose, and if I were so brazen, I might even say they won’t be challenged in the regular season.
2. Texas – Colt McCoy may be the most indispensable player in the country. No one, including Tim Tebow, does more for his team. But this year, expect his running back committee to step up. Them doing so would not only add another dimension opposing defenses must account for but would save McCoy from having to run so much himself. So expect big passing numbers. Wideout Quan Cosby will be missed, but that just gives opportunity to sophomore Malcolm Williams, a big and speedy receiver, who should emerge as a deep threat.
The schedule is manageable, not quite as daunting as last season’s slate. Though away games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma and especially Oklahoma State would worry even the most faithful, the Longhorns begin the season against comfy non-conference foes. And Texas should be relieved to find Texas Tech and Oklahoma not as formidable as last year, and Oklahoma State’s explosive offense should be mitigated just enough by a defense led by senior DE Sergio Kindle, who will do his best Brian Orakpo impression. A possible trap game comes late when Kansas comes into Austin. Big things are expected of the Longhorns. I believe they’ll meet these expectations.
3. USC – The Southern Cal roster has more collective talent than any team in the country, even Florida. I’d give you a quarter for every three-star recruit you find on the first-team, and you wouldn’t have enough to eat off the McDonald’s Value Menu; USC is all four- and five-star blue chippers. But as highly regarded as they are, many are under-experienced and unproven. Matt Barkley will take the snaps as an 18-year-old, and as should be expected from a true freshman, especially a true freshman quarterback, mistakes will be made. And an entirely new linebacker corp will be introduced.
History shows that the Trojans will trip up somewhere in conference play, and this year, they might stumble twice or thrice. Their schedule is brutal, with perhaps the toughest non-conference games of any title contender (at Ohio State, at Notre Dame) and the conference lineup isn’t much of a rest either (at Cal, at Oregon, finishing off against improved Stanford, UCLA and Arizona).
Cal and perhaps Oregon will be breathing down USC’s neck in the conference race, but the Trojans will once more be Pac-10 champions. I can’t see any other team winning it. Not while Pete Carroll is coaching USC. They boast the best offensive line and secondary (hello, Taylor Mays) in the country. Their famed stable of running backs will relieve Barkley of pressure and defensive attention, and look out for Joe McKnight, now fully healthy, to finally have his breakout season. What about the linebackers, you ask. The faces may be new to the common fan, but they all have game experience, some even with starting experience. And though they aren’t as rugged and punishing as the Maualuga-Cushing-Matthews triumvirate, coaches assure the current crop is faster and keener to creating turnovers. Still, as history dictates, one Pac-10 loss will keep them from hoisting the crystal football.
4. Ohio State – As a true freshman Terrelle Pryor flashed Vince Young-level running ability, but for all the talk of rawness, he also displayed an adequate throwing game (1,311 yards with 12 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions, hitting 60.6 percent of throws). With one year of games under his belt, I’m expecting a second-year improvement similar to what was seen in Tim Tebow. That means immediate control of every facet of the offense: 25 passing touchdowns, plus 15 more on the ground. He’s my dark horse for the Heisman.
The defensive line is deep and talented, particularly at the ends, and should be tops in the Big Ten. But green linebackers attempting to replace James Laurinitis and Marcus Freeman will require an adjustment period. Overall, however, this is a formidable defense.
Dare I say, I can see an undefeated regular season … if the Buckeyes get past USC. That’s a big if, but not a huge one, considering USC must break in a new quarterback and an overhauled defense, not to mention the game is at the Horseshoe. If USC quarterback Matt Barkley plays like his true freshman status, committing two or three costly turnovers, expect the Buckeyes to squeak by the Trojans and then run the table the rest of their schedule.
5. Oklahoma – Sam Bradford is the nation’s purest passer — 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns (!) to 8 interceptions, on 67.9 percent passing — and because of this, he sits atop most NFL big boards. But I don’t envision Bradford being as prolific with Oklahoma breaking the seal on a new offensive line. Trent Williams is a stud at tackle, an All-American, but he alone can’t protect the quarterback. In 2008, Bradford was untouchable behind an experienced line, possibly the best in college, allowing him ample time to dissect any coverage. He won’t have that luxury this year. And say goodbye to Bradford’s most reliable receiver, tight end Jermaine Gresham, who went down with a knee injury.
But, boy, are they talented. The Sooners boast four, possibly five, future first-round draftees:
QB Sam Bradford
DT Gerald McCoy
TE Jermaine Gresham
OL Trent Williams
RB DeMarco Murray
And there are a slew of four-star prospects at every position.
With one of the best backfields in the nation and a murderous defensive line headlined by Gerald McCoy, I would normally have them in title contention. But the schedule, laden with mines, just won’t allow it. The season starts at home against BYU, a game the Sooners could lose, then away games at Miami, Texas, Kansas, Texas Tech, and finishing against volatile Oklahoma State in Norman. The rough terrain in addition to the new O-line doesn’t foresee a good future. My guess: 11-2 with losses to Texas and Oklahoma State, and a third place finish in the Big 12.
6. Oklahoma State – Spread, spread, spread. Talent, talent, talent. The Cowboys run a high-gear spread offense, which also atypically boasts production from the halfbacks. With quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and wideout Dez Bryant — perhaps the best scoring trio in the nation — Oklahoma State won’t often be kept below 45 points. And there may not be a better tackle than senior Russell Okung.
Ultimately, no matter their drop-jaw offense, Oklahoma State’s success will depend on their experienced but unspectacular defenders. They’ll be tested right off the bat against Georgia, setting the tone for the rest of their season. With all but one tough game (versus Oklahoma) at home, however, the Cowboys will be in position to make national noise.
7. Alabama – Gone are competent quarterback John Parker Wilson, running back Glen Coffee and stud lineman Andre Smith. Yikes. Good thing they have the scariest defense this side of Gainesville. Eight defensive starters return, most notably All-American nose tackle Terrence Cody and junior linebacker Rolando McClain. I see no discernible weak spot on this front.
On the other side of the ball, Greg McElroy has only twenty career passes, but ‘Bama coaches are confident that his IQ and mental toughness will prove him to be a solid game manager. And All-Nation wideout Julio Jones, CFB’s version of Calvin Johnson, may be the easiest target in the SEC. Throw it anywhere in his vicinity, and there’s a good chance he scores.
The schedule needs to be tip-toed, as it’s daunting. The first game is against ACC favorite Virginia Tech and with their usually stout defense, I expect the new Alabama line to struggle, eventually losing. And conference games at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn and home games against South Carolina, Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee and LSU are difficult to navigate. But I love that defense. And, with apologies to Urban Meyer, Nick Saban is my choice for best coach in the SEC. The Tide should take the SEC West once again.
8. LSU – After a disappointing 8-5 (3-5 in the SEC) season, the Tigers, this year, have the form of national contenders. Charles Scott should be a finalist for the Doak Walker, which is awarded to the country’s best running back. And a bundle of true freshman are waiting to make an instant impact. Receiver Rueben Randle, the number-two overall prospect in last year’s class, and quarterback (sometimes wideout) Russell Shepard are too dynamic to warm the bench.
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson is serviceable, but Shepard could make a few cameos, if he doesn’t take the starting role outright.
As usual, LSU faces little challenge in non-conference play. But with that SEC schedule, a lot of Tiger fans have slumped shoulders and bowed heads. Away games at Alabama and Ole Miss would worry even the best of teams. Speaking of which, LSU must also face Florida, Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia in Athens.
9. Penn State – QB Daryll Clark could be in the Heisman conversation if Penn State gets by Ohio State. Not only that, they could have the inside track to the BCS championship. That’s the beauty of playing in the Big Ten. If you’re Penn State or Ohio State, you need only worry about the other. Illinois and Michigan State are, come on, Illinois and Michigan State. They never step up when needed. Michigan is on the rise, but they had nowhere to go but up. That leaves Ohio State and Penn State, both of whom can finish unscathed. And an undefeated Big Ten team, despite the conference’s ailing prestige, will not be kept out of the championship game, unless an SEC and a Big 12 team go undefeated — which won’t happen.
Clark is possibly the conference’s best pure passer, and the fact that he’s a duel threat is icing on the cake. The backfield is strong, but the receivers are depleted as well as the defensive secondary. All other positions appear strong.
The fact that Ohio State comes to Happy Valley is a huge plus. And traveling to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State is a mere nuisance, not a backbreaker.
10. California – Jahvid Best is CFB’s Albert Pujols, a home run threat every time he suits up. But quarterback Kevin Riley needs to show consistency and must learn how to not lose games. That’s it. No need to throw it deep or thread the needle. His job is to check passes to the backs, hand it off to Best and not throw interceptions. If Riley can do just that, and his receivers make a leap, the Bears will threaten USC for the conference title. Cal returns one of the conference’s top secondaries, which had 24 goddamn interceptions in 2008. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson is the Pac 10’s best.
11. Ole Miss
13. Virginia Tech
14. Boise State
15. Georgia Tech
Notre Dame will go 10-2. I want to be bold and say 11-1, but I don’t trust Charlie Weis or that sparse D-line. The offense, aside from the running back position, is stacked. Their passing game should make them look like a Big-12 team. A lot of pundits are sporting wood over Jimmy Clausen, and with the threat of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, perhaps the most formidable group of receivers in football, Clausen will be in the Heisman hunt. But, Jimmy, whatever happens this year, please cut your hair.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: A quick study with pure mechanics and enough zip to perform all necessary throws, Barkley not only has the look of a first-string quarterback but a future number-one draft pick. The size (6’3”, 230 pounds) and talent are there; Coach Pete Carroll has noted that neither John David Booty, Mark Sanchez nor Matt Leinart, the latter two being former first-round draftees, were as developed as Barkley at such a young age. But it isn’t Barkley’s rocket arm or knowledge of the playbook alone that won the nation’s most glamorous position. Barkley carries himself with aplomb and has a work ethic that garnered respect the moment he stepped onto campus last spring. Already, as an 18-year-old, he commands the huddle, and upperclassmen take his orders without qualm. He’s Tom Brady in cardinal and gold. Barkley may or may not lead USC to a national title this year, but I guarantee he will in the future.
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame — When it comes to football, Notre Dame doesn’t often beat USC. But last winter, Coach Charlie Weis and company snatched presumed USC commit Manti Te’o (not to mention once-USC verbal commit WR Shaquelle Evans) from the Trojans’ grasp, with Weis snubbing his nose all the while. The coup was a double-victory, not only adding to the Notre Dame roster a top shelf recruit on defense, which the Irish have lacked in recent years, but grating Pete Carroll in the process, robbing the Trojans of a body on their depleted linebacker depth chart. Te’o’s nose for the ball and physicality might’ve earned him a starting spot on the vaunted USC defense as a true freshman, which is in itself unfathomable, but it also means the super recruit should already be a stalwart on an underwhelming Irish defense. On the open field, he’s a sure tackler, a heat-seeking missile and he batters foes with the equivalent force — a true anchor around which a defense can build. But Te’o has been hampered by injury this summer. Still, he’s too talented to keep off the field.
Vontaze Burfict, LB, ASU — Speaking of supposed USC commits, it is believed Burfict would be wearing cardinal and gold were it not for his academics. USC or not, however, Burfict’s grades are still haunting him, as he and ASU await his approval by the NCAA Clearing House. If Burfict clears, he’ll make an immediate impact on the ASU defense, and not to mention on helpless receivers who dare come down the middle. Burfict’s collisions are imprinted on opponents like a Southern grandmother’s discipline. In other words, Burfict hits really, really hard. But violent as his blows are, his greatest strength may be his coverage skills. From what I’ve seen of Burfict in camp videos, he’s got the recovery speed and instincts to defend the pass, making him an invaluable three-down backer. There aren’t many weaknesses in Burfict’s body or his game.
Heisman Winner: Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
Improved running back production will take away some of McCoy’s numbers. Will diminished rushing yards and touchdowns hurt McCoy’s Heisman chances? My magic eight ball says no. McCoy has enough ability as a passer to win on his arm alone. In 2008, he ranked third nationally in quarterback rating (173.8) for 3,869 yards, with 34 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions, and an eye-bulging pass completion of 76.7 percent.
Ballot: 1. Colt McCoy 2. Tim Tebow 3. Terrelle Pryor 4. Zac Robinson 5. Jimmy Clausen
Damn, year of the quarterback, part II.
BCS Championship: Florida over Texas.
Florida makes it three BCS championships in four years. Urban Meyer is recognized as the best coach in the country. Florida is lauded as the team of the decade. Tim Tebow becomes the greatest player ever.