Back-to-back for USC?

Maisel: Top 25 for 2004

Originally Published: January 9, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

If this sketch of next season were any rougher, it would be on tree bark. But without knowing some of the basics, such as which teams will be in the Big East and which in Conference USA, it's difficult to analyze the Boston Colleges, Connecticuts, Louisvilles and TCUs of the world. Until that gets straightened out, which should happen within the next 10 days, the list below will have to do. Some teams will benefit from the change in conference. Others, such as Virginia Tech and Clemson, won't.

1. USC
The offense and the defense are opposites. The defense is strong up the middle, but must replace its ends and corners. The offense has plenty of experienced talent handling the ball, but loses three starters on the line. Given the Trojans' dominance, their talent, and the lack of a challenger in the Pac-10, it's easy to assume that they will make it to the Orange Bowl for the BCS championship.

2. LSU
Eighteen starters return, as well as coach Nick Saban. (Sorry, SEC, looks like he's around for a while). The scary thing about the Tigers is that the defense loses only one starter each from the line, the linebackers and the secondary. The biggest question to be answered: will Matt Mauck play or will he enroll in dental school... or both?

3. Oklahoma
The offense returns virtually intact, and seven starters return on defense, eight if you include linebacker Lance Mitchell, who went out early last season with a knee injury. What's not to like? The Sooners also have the bitter memory of their last two games to fuel them through the winter.

4. Georgia
If end David Pollack and safety Sean Jones decide not to go to the NFL, this ranking may be too low. The Bulldogs went 11-3 last season despite an inexperienced offensive line and a tremendous number of injuries. Georgia gets LSU and Tennessee between the hedges this season, and dumps Clemson. It's all good.

5. Miami
The Canes defense loses at least three and maybe four first-round draft choices on defense (tackle Vince Wilfork, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma and free safety Sean Taylor), and the offense could use a transfusion. But the move to the ACC won't be as tough as you think. Florida State and Virginia Tech have trouble winning at the Orange Bowl. Clemson comes south, too. Miami's most difficult road trips are Virginia and North Carolina State. Very manageable.

6. Florida State
The Seminoles may lose at Miami on Labor Day night -- really going out on a limb with that one -- but the loss is early enough in the season to be largely irrelevant. However, the significant losses on defense are not. Florida State traditionally uses a lot of players, so new players aren't really that new. Still, the growing pains will be noticeable. The offense may be the strongest since the national championship team of 1999.

7. Michigan
The Wolverines must rebuild the offensive and defensive lines, which is never fun, as well as the entire offensive backfield. On the other hand, the linebackers and secondary remain solid. Junior Matt Gutierrez should step right into departing quarterback John Navarre's cleats, but the downside of Chris Perry's workhorse tendencies is that no one has proven that they can be dependable.

8. Maryland
One thing we know is that the Terrapins will be good at the end of the year, because they always are. They don't play Miami, and they get Florida State in College Park. They lose quarterback Scott McBrien, but when has Ralph Friedgen not been able to develop a quarterback? Biggest concern: the secondary will be new.

9. Texas
The Longhorns lose only four starters on each side of the ball, but three of the offensive players leaving are the outstanding wide receivers. Does Vince Young need anyone to catch the ball, or can he just run it? If the new receivers step up, and if tailback Cedric Benson is a weapon in his senior year, the Horns will score points. Until the defense learns a new scheme from its new coordinator, how Texas stops people will be a mystery. But a lot of talent on that side of the ball returns.

10. Iowa
The Hawkeyes went 10-3 in what looked like a rebuilding year. The offense must be reconstructed, and a new quarterback must be found, but Iowa should be pretty tough once it's on defense (which depends on recruiting), and it should be pretty tough once again on special teams (which depends on coaching).

11. California
The Bears went 8-6 and beat USC and Virginia Tech in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. It became a reloading year. Coach Jeff Tedford discovered quarterback Aaron Rodgers on tape while looking at a junior college tight end, and Rodgers will begin 2004 pushing USC's Matt Leinart as the best quarterback in the Pac-10. The defense, though it has eight returnees, must improve for the Bears to challenge USC for the Pac-10.

12. West Virginia
Odds are, the Mountaineers will only have to play Maryland once and won't get Miami at all, so things are looking up already. West Virginia may be the Big East favorite, depending upon whether Boston College plays in it or not. There won't be much experience at the skill positions, with the notable exception of quarterback Rasheed Marshall. The defense, which matured well during the season, will be the anchor of this team.

13. Clemson
The Tigers were the best team in the ACC over the last month of the season. Sixteen starters return, including junior-to-be quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who finished as a much better player than the guy shut out against Georgia. How well will the '03 finish transfer from November to August? The schedule is a problem. Clemson plays at Miami, at Florida State and at Virginia.

14. Utah
Seventeen starters (eight offense, seven defense, both kickers) return from the team that went 10-2 in 2003. The Utes improved markedly over the course of the season, which is a tribute to coach Urban Meyer (career record: 27-8). Junior-to-be Alex Smith is the best returning quarterback in the Mountain West.

15. Ohio State
The core of the team that went 25-2 over the last two seasons has graduated. When the number of departing seniors reaches the teens, it's time to rebuild. The Buckeyes do have depth at tailback, especially if Maurice Clarett is welcomed back. The linebackers and secondary will give the inexperienced defensive line time to grow.

16. Oregon State
The Beavers endured growing pains, as a young defense crumbled down the stretch, giving up an average of 40 points in the four losses Oregon State suffered in its last six regular-season games. However, Oregon State has a secondary that got better every week, a veteran offensive line and solid, if unspectacular, veteran starter in quarterback Derek Anderson. They also get all of the major Pac-10 contenders -- USC, Cal, Washington State and Oregon -- coming into Corvallis.

17. Tennessee
Five of the front seven return on defense and the Vols will need them, because the offense must be rebuilt. Quarterback Casey Clausen is gone, as is virtually the entire offensive line. But with a defense, and a pair of talented senior running backs in Cedric Houston and Jabari Davis, the Vols will be tough. The schedule eases, with Miami going off, and Florida and Auburn coming to Knoxville.

18. Auburn
In an SEC West that loses a lot of steam (Eli Manning of Ole Miss and All-American OT Shawn Andrews of Arkansas gone to the NFL), no one loses more than the Auburn defense. Five of the front seven, all of them good players, are gone. But with tailbacks Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown coming back, as well as four returning starters on the offensive line, coach Tommy Tuberville may make it through the season without turmoil.

19. Missouri
So who wins the Big 12 North? Kansas State lost a lot of seniors, Nebraska has a new head coach, and Colorado isn't ready yet. That leaves the Tigers, who had a disappointing 8-5 season, but return nearly the entire defense as well as outstanding quarterback Brad Smith. If Missouri finds a productive tailback, watch out.

20. Virginia
The Cavs will have one of the best defenses in the ACC, with eight starters returning on defense. Seven return on offense, including the best returning tight end in the nation in Heath Miller, and running backs Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman. The big question is whether Marques Hagan can run the offense at a championship level.

21. Florida
Florida has a number of skill players returning, chief among them quarterback Chris Leak. The offensive line must be rebuilt. The Gators better hope that they generate a pass rush, because only nickel back Corey Bailey returns. The schedule should help. Miami, the 12th opponent, is gone. LSU must come to the Swamp, and Florida swaps Ole Miss for Mississippi State. The Gators will be a paradox: younger than in 2003, but the young players will be experienced.

22. Nebraska
With former Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan finally signed on and bringing a new system with him, the Huskers are the most difficult to predict. But there's a lot of experience on offense looking for a system, and the defense returns its strongest piece -- the secondary.

23. Toledo
The Rockets aren't used to going "only" 8-4, as they did in 2003, but after getting a year of experience for quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Toledo has the best returning passer in the MAC. The Rockets must develop a pass rush, but the linebackers and secondary return nearly intact.

24. Purdue
The Boilermakers lost two games in overtime and another by one point, so don't be fooled by their 9-4 record. However, you can't ignore the eight starters departing from the defense, either. Quarterback Kyle Orton loses his favorite target, wideout John Standeford, but he gets back Taylor Stubblefield, as well as four starters on the offensive line. If the Boilermakers show any signs of playing good defense, move them up at least 10 spots.

25. Colorado
A bit of a longshot, but the Buffaloes began to improve on defense over the last month of the season. No, it couldn't have gotten any worse. The offense remains potent, save at wide receiver. More important, Colorado sends UCLA and Florida State off the schedule and welcomes North Texas.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com