A little spring cleaning of the Top 25
Maisel: Top 25 for 2004
Trying to pick a Top 25 in January is about like looking out the window in Bristol and predicting the weather in Baton Rouge. You have a general idea, but the details are lost in the distance. Some of the picks I made in January, amid the heat and emotion of the season concluded a couple of days earlier, don't hold up well in the cold light of March.
For instance, Clemson finished the season as the hottest team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tigers won their last four games, including decisive victories over Florida State and Tennessee, and they had 16 underclassmen among their starters. But wide receiver Derrick Hamilton and defensive tackle Donnell Washington left early for the NFL draft. Instead of losing one top receiver, Kevin Youngblood, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst has lost two wideouts who combined to catch 124 passes and 12 touchdowns.
Clemson also has the smell of Auburn about them. When Auburn finished strong in 2002, upsetting highly ranked Alabama and Penn State, and had so many top players returning in 2003, it seemed logical that the Tigers would pick up where they left off. Auburn did pick up where it left off -- in mid-2002, before the strong finish.
Iowa was one of my favorite teams last season, because week after week, the Hawkeyes used defense and special teams to find a way to win. Iowa embarrassed Florida, 37-17, in the Outback Bowl, closing with victories over three ranked teams. That said, the Hawkeyes lost a lot of important seniors, including tackle Robert Gallery, who may be the first player taken in the NFL draft, safety Bob Sanders, kicker Nate Kaeding and linebacker Grant Steen. A third consecutive top-10 finish may be too much to ask.
And don't get me started on the Big 12 North. Since the end of the bowls, Colorado has become the Typhoid Mary of college football, while Nebraska hired a coach, Bill Callahan, who will attempt to recast everything as he sees fit. That's not unusual for new coaches, but the reality of it will impact the Huskers for this fall.
If Husker fans believe they have the next Bob Stoops or Jim Tressel, more power to them. Say all you want about the sudden success of Stoops at Oklahoma and Tressel of Ohio State, each of whom won national championships in their second season on campus, but both coaches won seven games in their first season.
Kansas State fans didn't like my decision not to rank them in the Top 25. As I replied to many, the loss of quarterback Ell Roberson spooked me. As talented as tailback Darren Sproles is, he and the Wildcats performed much more effectively with Roberson threatening defenses than they did when Roberson didn't play. My doubts about Kansas State remain, but given the shape of the rest of the Big 12 North, the Wildcats look much better.
Oregon State lost me when they replaced Temple on their schedule with LSU. The Beavers now have only five home games, and open with road games at LSU and at Boise State. That's the kind of start that can have an effect on the rest of the season.
As always, the legal disclaimer: anything written here can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion. I have the right to redo it, and if I choose not to, my editors will appoint a Top 25 for me, and that's something none of us (especially you) want to have happen. Look for an update after spring practice. But, for now, here's the latest Top 25 with a comments on the top 10.
Losing Mike Williams is big, but hearing before spring practice will help sophomore wideouts Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis adjust. The Trojans also signed one of the best recruiting classes in years. Given Pete Carroll's philosophy about playing freshmen, they should help bolster what is already a very talented team.
The Bulldogs lost safety Sean Jones to the NFL draft, but the decision by defensive end and spiritual leader David Pollack to return for his senior season means a great deal to what is still a young team.
Yes, the Longhorns woo all of us every spring, then disappear at crucial moments in the fall. But Mack Brown gets four stars for hiring veteran defensive minds Greg Robinson and Dick Tomey to overhaul the defense. They will make a difference.
Wolverine fans celebrated when none of the celebrated juniors left early, but the decisions by wideout Braylon Edwards, defensive back Marlin Jackson and offensive lineman David Baas came as no surprise. They will form the backbone of another formidable Michigan team.
A lot of readers disagreed with my decision to rank the Utes 14th in my January poll. I think they missed an important component of polling. The champions of the Mountain West and Mid-American Conferences, if they are one-loss teams, will rise this high in the polls. Utah is good enough to be 10-1 this year.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.
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