Preseason Top 40

The season starts tomorrow, so I guess it's time to finally unveil my preseason top 40. I'll go the annoying route and start from 40 and count down. Luckily my top 25 can be found in a more traditional format on the sidebar over there...

40. PITTSBURGH - Big hole to fill at running back, but the Panthers are still a bowl team.

39. GEORGIA TECH - I think reality catches up with Paul Johnson in Year Two. The ACC is more prepared for his triple option offense and he doesn't have the same great defensive line he could rely on last year when the offense stalled.

38. VIRGINIA - The Cavaliers will surprise some folks this year thanks to the addition of offensive coordinator Gregg Branndon and the return of quarterback Jameel Sewell. Keep your eye on all purpose playmaker Vic Hall too.

37. UTAH - After another undefeated season that ended in a BCS Bowl win over Alabama, the Utes must find a quarterback. Brian Johnson won't be easily replaced.

36. AUBURN - Gene Chizik isn't nearly as bad a coach as many are making him out to be. There's still talent on this roster and nobody is talking about the Tigers. Watch out for an upset or two this season.

35. TEXAS TECH - Sure, Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell are gone. But since when has Texas Tech not been able to score points?

34. CINCINNATI - Bo Jackson Trophy candidate Tony Pike gets the quarterback for a full season. But will he and Mardy Gilyard be able to compensate for the heavy losses on defense?

33. BYU - Arizona exposed the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, and I expect Oklahoma to expose them in week one this season.

32. ARIZONA STATE - Dennis Erickson leads an under-the-radar Sun Devil team that will actually play decent defense while Danny Sullivan adjusts to the starting QB role.

31. WEST VIRGINIA - I expect the Mountaineers to improve their consistency in Bill Stewart's second season as the head coach. Jarrett Brown is no Pat White, but he's a good player that will keep the offense moving.

30. OREGON STATE - The Rodgers brothers (Jacquizz and James) have speed to spare. I'm still not sold on the quarterback position, though.

29. KANSAS - Todd Reesing should continue to pile up the passing yards with leading receivers Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier back. But the Jayhawks will take a step back on defense due to the loss of their three productive linebackers.

28. MICHIGAN - What? Really? Sure, I guess. I'm going out on a limb here, but with players like Brandon Graham and Obi Ezeh on defense the Wolverines should be able to shut down most of the Big Ten offenses they will match up with. And the offense has nowhere to go but up, which is usually does in a big way in Rich Rodriguez's second season as head coach. Stay tuned to this soap opera all season.

27. ARKANSAS - Bobby Petrino quietly got significant improvement out of the Razorbacks as the 2008 season progressed. With players like RB Michael Smith and DT Malcolm Sheppard returning, don't be surprised to see Arkansas crack the top 25 at some point.

26. NORTH CAROLINA - Despite the absence of any real "name" players on the Tar Heels, Butch Davis will make sure his team continues to improve.

25. TENNESSEE - Lane Kiffin's Vols grab the last spot in the top 25 thanks to All-World safety Eric Berry. I don't care about the recruiting class - I simply think there is enough talent on hand here to win now. And now that the offense finally seems stable for the first time in several years, I feel like Tennessee might be a dark horse in the SEC.

24. OKLAHOMA STATE - After an embarrassing beat-down handed out by Oregon in the Holiday Bowl, I'm not sure why Oklahoma State is getting so much preseason love. The Ducks return just as much as the Cowboys, yet in just about every pre-season poll Oklahoma State is ranked much higher. That only means Mike Gundy's team has farther to fall - reality will probably rear it's ugly head when Georgia comes to town.

23. EAST CAROLINA - The Pirates proved their mettle early last season when they knocked off Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Basically the same team returns this year and gets to play West Virginia and North Carolina early, as well as the rematch with Virginia Tech later to prove their worth. I have a feeling they'll end up winning two of those three games.

22. COLORADO - How are the Buffs going to go from a sub-.500 team in 2008 to a top 25 team in 2009? By staying healthy (particularly on the offensive line and at running back); by staying aggressive (many fast starts in 2008 were tempered when Dan Hawkins pulled his foot off the accelerator); and by giving the ball to Rodney Stewart (a lot).

21. FLORIDA STATE - I'm giving the Seminoles the benefit of the doubt for the first time in several seasons. Although they have done nothing to impress me, I'll admit that Christian Ponder is a step up at quarterback, and Jimbo Fisher is generally a capable offensive coordinator. The 'Noles are just as likely to slide back into obscurity, though.

20. ILLINOIS - I'm a Juice Williams fan. I'm also a fan of Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson. Between the three of those guys and the fact that the rest of the Big Ten isn't all that good, I'm going to say Ron Zook has another big year with the Illini.

19. NOTRE DAME - Jimmy Clausen and company are now starting to get the hang of Charlie Weis' offense. Combine that with the weak schedule and there's no way the Irish don't get to at least 9 wins this season.

18. TCU - Defense will once again be the name of the game in Fort Worth. Gary Patterson can lean on All American defensive end Jerry Hughes, who also happens to be the front-runner for the 2009 Faulk Trophy.

17. OREGON - Even though Mike Bellotti retired, there is continuity in the Ducks program. Offensive coordinator Chip Kelly was promoted to head coach and he has weapons like LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Masoli at his disposal.

16. N.C. STATE - The rebuilding job for head coach Tom O'Brien got a lot easier with the emergence of freshman quarterback Russell Wilson in 2008. 2009 should find the Wolfpack in the thick of the ACC Atlantic Division race.

15. BOISE STATE - Could it be? Are the Broncos a legitimate defensive force now too? A good defense, including one of the best secondaries in the land, is now a year older, and so is quarterback Kellen Moore.

14. NEBRASKA - Bo Pelini has the Huskers on the right track which means that despite some heavy losses on offense, Nebraska will continue to improve.

13. MIAMI - Randy Shannon played a wealth of talented true freshman a year ago, and that should begin to pay dividends in 2009. The defense has size and speed and will be an imposing group that improves every week. The offense will be fine despite the transfer of quarterback Robert Marve. In fact, I like Jacory Harris even better.

12. CALIFORNIA - The challenger to USC in the Pac-10 boasts one of the best running backs in the nation in Jahvid Best.

11. OLE MISS - The Rebels have been getting loads of acclaim heaped on them this pre-season thanks to the turnaround job Houston Nutt performed in his first season in Oxford (are you paying attention Arkansas fans?). I'm not sure Ole Miss has a legit shot at overtaking Alabama and LSU in the SEC West, but they should be very good with players like Dexter McCluster, Jevan Snead, and Greg Hardy.

10. GEORGIA - That's right. Don't count out the Dawgs just because they lost Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno to the NFL. Joe Cox is unspectacular, but he should be consistent - especially with sophomore WR A.J. Green catching his passes.

9. OHIO STATE - Terrelle Pryor is the new sherriff in Columbus, and he appears to have all the tools to take the Buckeyes to great heights. I actually think the receiver play will improve this season after losing Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.

8. LSU - Les Miles took some lumps last year, but he finally found his quarterback in Jordan Jefferson. Look for the Tigers to jump back into the national spotlight in a big way in 2009.

7. PENN STATE - Evan Royster is one of the most underrated players in the nation. Combine him with returning senior quarterback Daryll Clark and you have an offense that shouldn't skip a beat despite losing its top three receivers. The defense will once again be anchored by a fantastic pair of defensive tackles and a solid group of linebackers.

6. ALABAMA - I have no doubt that Alabama will continue to be a physical team that can run the football. Throw in mega-talent Julio Jones at wide receiver and you have what should be a very capable offense to go along with a veteran defense that will beat up most opposing offenses it faces.

5. VIRGINIA TECH - Frank Beamer is one of the best coaches in the nation. His Hokies won the ACC title a year ago with very little returning experience. This year many of those key pieces are back. Look for quarterback Tyrod Taylor to have a breakout season and keep Virginia Tech in the national title hunt deep into the season.

4. OKLAHOMA - Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham gave up millions of NFL dollars to return for another shot at the title. Unfortunately only one starter is back on the O-Line. The Sooners are talented and should be very good, but the defense has yet to step back up to the elite level they were at in the early part of this decade. That will once again keep them from winning Bob Stoops crystal football number two.

3. USC - For some reason the fact that freshman Matt Barkley won the quarterback job coming out of fall camp makes me more confident in the Trojans. USC's biggest weakness the past three seasons has been the quarterback spot, so if a freshman is good enough to unseat Aaron Corp, a guy the coaches were high on a year ago, I get the feeling we might be seeing the early stages of another Carson Palmer/Matt Leinart type. The defense loses everybody, but this is USC - they've got plenty of guys ready to step in and play.

2. FLORIDA - Go ahead and ban me from the college football world. I don't think Florida is the best team coming into the 2009 season. Sure, they won the 2008 national title and return the bulk of the roster. But I'm not convinced they played against the best team a year ago, and that team returns the bulk of a loaded roster as well. That team is...

1. TEXAS - The Longhorns played like national champions throughout the 2008 season, including a convincing victory over an Oklahoma team that wound up playing for the Big XII and National Championships. I still feel like the nation was robbed by not getting to see the two best teams duke it out for the national title.

Colt McCoy returns, moustached, to continue his tear through opposing offenses. Jordan Shipley and emerging star Malcolm Williams headline a deep receiving corps that should make up for an injury-depleted set of tight ends. Will Muschamp's defense should be among the finest in America. Sergio Kindle is the star, but the secondary is actually the strongest unit. They run two deep at every position in the back four, and all eight of those guys are capable of big things.

The Longhorns are my pick to win the 2009 National Championship.

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