Booty could return Trojans to No. 1 ranking
The 2006 college football season isn't even 48 hours behind us, but it's never too early to look ahead to this fall. This preview might be altered by the early exodus to the NFL, but we're fairly certain about a couple of things: The Trojans are No. 1 and Notre Dame isn't ranked.
1. USC Trojans
Why: Quarterback John David Booty's stellar performance (391 passing yards, four touchdowns) in the Trojans' 32-18 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl presented by Citi showed he's among the best passers in the country. The Trojans played a boatload of underclassmen this season; if junior defensive end Lawrence Jackson and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis return, they could have 10 starters back on defense.
Why not: Booty's two primary targets -- Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith -- will be gone next season. Are young receivers Vidal Hazelton and Patrick Turner ready to step up? Junior left tackle Sam Baker could join senior center Ryan Kalil in the NFL draft. The 2006 schedule flips in 2007 with road games at Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State.
2. Florida Gators
Why: Have you seen the talent Gators coach Urban Meyer has stockpiled in Gainesville? Florida's 41-14 annihilation of Ohio State in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game was no fluke. The Gators are in the top five to stay. Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen believe heralded quarterback Tim Tebow will run their offense better in his sophomore year than graduating quarterback Chris Leak. A national championship repeat isn't out of the question -- the 2007 schedule is more favorable with home games against Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State and additional nonconference games against I-AA Western Kentucky, Troy and Florida Atlantic.
Why not: The defense -- the Gators' strength during their run to the BCS national title -- will be hit hard with personnel losses. At least five starters will leave and star safety Reggie Nelson and linebacker Brandon Siler also could bolt for the NFL draft. The Gators still don't run the ball very well and leading rusher DeShawn Wynn is leaving.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Why: Quarterback Chad Henne, tailback Mike Hart and All-America left tackle Jake Long already have declared they'll be back, along with receiver Mario Manningham. The Wolverines play most of their tough games at home -- against Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State -- and don't play at Wisconsin until Nov. 10.
Why not: As many as eight defensive starters might be leaving, including junior tackle Alan Branch, who decided to enter the NFL draft. Defensive ends LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs and All-America cornerback Leon Hall also are gone. Three starters are leaving on the offensive line.
4. West Virginia Mountaineers
Why: Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez turned down a lucrative offer from Alabama to stay at his alma mater. Quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton, two of the most electrifying players in the country, return for their junior seasons. The road to the Big East title gets easier with Bobby Petrino leaving Louisville.
Why not: The Mountaineers lose center Dan Mozes, the heart and soul of their offensive line, and starting receivers Rayshawn Bolden and Brandon Myles, who were valued as much for their blocking as pass catching. Seven starters should be back on defense, but linebackers Kevin "Boo" McLee and Jay Henry are leaving. Three of West Virginia's toughest games in 2007 are on the road -- at Rutgers, South Florida and Maryland.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
Why: The Badgers should return 19 starters from a team that finished 12-1 in coach Bret Bielema's first season. Rising sophomore P.J. Hill ran for more than 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns, and speedy wide receiver Marcus Randle El returns from a knee injury. All-Big 10 cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu and outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas return to lead an improving defense.
Why not: The Badgers should lose only two starters on offense, but they're important ones -- quarterback John Stocco and All-America left tackle Joe Thomas. Tyler Donovan played well in two emergency starts for Stocco, but he'll have to hold off Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge for the starting job. The schedule gets tougher, as the Badgers trade out Northwestern and Purdue for Michigan State and Ohio State in the Big 10 rotation.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Why: The Sooners were among the youngest of the elite teams and still won the Big 12 Conference and played in a BCS bowl game. As many as nine starters could be back on offense and seven on defense. Rising senior Allen Patrick ran for 761 yards and four touchdowns in Adrian Peterson's absence, and proved he can carry the load in 2007 if Peterson leaves.
Why not: Oklahoma will have an inexperienced quarterback with Paul Thompson leaving. Either junior college transfer Joey Halzle, redshirt freshman Sam Bradford or incoming freshman Keith Nichol will get the nod. Leading tacklers Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer and pass-rushing linemen Larry Birdine and C.J. Ah You are leaving.
7. Virginia Tech Hokies
Why: The Hokies played better than any ACC team down the stretch and might return eight starters on offense and eight on defense. Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall are as physically gifted as any linebackers in the country, and tailback Branden Ore emerged as the league's best runner.
Why not: Quarterback Sean Glennon struggled throwing the football in his first season as a starter, but the Hokies don't have a viable option behind him. Kicker Brandon Pace and punter Nic Schmitt, two of the country's best specialists, are leaving. Virginia Tech plays at LSU on Sept. 8 and picks up Florida State in the ACC rotation.
8. Texas Longhorns
Why: The Longhorns should score plenty of points with quarterback Colt McCoy and receivers Quan Cosby, Billy Pittman and possibly Limas Sweed coming back. Tailback Jamaal Charles might run for 1,000 yards when he's not sharing carries with Selvin Young anymore.
Why not: Three starters are leaving on the offensive line, including All-America guard Justin Blalock. There will be even more losses on a defense that got torched by Texas Tech and Kansas State: defensive ends Tim Crowder and Brian Robinson, safety Michael Griffin and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Aaron Ross, the Thorpe Award winner. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was named coach at Iowa State.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why: The Buckeyes were exceptionally young this past season, starting 10 sophomores and freshmen. If Antonio Pittman returns for his senior season, he'll form one of the country's top tailback tandems with rising sophomore Chris Wells.
Why not: For starters, Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith is leaving. Receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez also could bolt for the NFL draft, leaving fewer proven targets for the new quarterback, either Todd Boeckman or Rob Schoenhoft. Also, the schedule gets tougher with road games at Washington, Penn State and Michigan and a home game against Wisconsin. Was the BCS meltdown an aberration, or did Florida expose the Buckeyes' lack of speed?
10. Cal Bears
Why: Despite losing Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Marshawn Lynch, the Bears return a plethora of skill players on offense. DeSean Jackson is a big-play threat at receiver and punt returner. Quarterback Nate Longshore was much-improved in his first season as a starter, and Justin Forsett and freshman James Montgomery are in line to replace Lynch.
Why not: For starters, the Bears open the 2007 season against Tennessee and must fare better than in the '06 opener. Cal must replace all its key parts on defense -- tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Desmond Bishop and cornerback Daymeion Hughes. The transition will be easier if the NCAA grants another year of eligibility to cornerback Tim Mixon, who missed all of 2006 with a knee injury.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks
Why: Tailback Darren McFadden might be the Heisman Trophy favorite in 2007 after running for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore. Tailback Felix Jones was nearly as productive. The Razorbacks relied largely on freshmen and sophomores in winning the SEC West in 2006.
Why not: The Hogs won despite failing to throw the football consistently all season. Neither Casey Dick nor Mitch Mustain was very good, allowing opponents to focus on stopping McFadden and Jones. Coach Houston Nutt seemed reluctant to turn his offense over completely to new coordinator Gus Malzahn, which might cause more tension down the road. The Razorbacks struggled defending the pass, and cornerback Chris Houston and defensive end Jamaal Anderson both entered the NFL draft as juniors. Road games at Alabama, Tennessee and LSU are hazardous.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Why: All of the pieces are in place for coach Bill Callahan to return the Cornhuskers to their place among the country's elite teams. Arizona State transfer Sam Keller might be the perfect trigger man for Callahan's passing offense. Tailbacks Brandon Jackson and Marlon Lucky are both capable runners, and junior college transfer Maurice Purify was a big-play threat. Four offensive linemen return.
Why not: The Cornhuskers struggled to stop opponents, and all four defensive linemen and leading tackler Stewart Bradley must be replaced. The Cornhuskers can't go through another season without a capable kicker. The nonconference schedule will be more than demanding with home games against Nevada and USC and a road game at Wake Forest.
13. LSU Tigers
Why: The Tigers played like one of the best teams in the country down the stretch, winning their last seven games and beating Notre Dame 41-14 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. LSU annually has stockpiled talent, starting with former coach Nick Saban and continuing with Les Miles.
Why not: The Tigers will be hit hard by defections: junior quarterback JaMarcus Russell has declared his intention of entering the NFL draft, and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey is expected to do the same. Senior wideouts Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe, defensive end Chase Pittman and safeties Jessie Daniels and LaRon Landry also are leaving. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher left for the same position at Florida State.
14. Penn State Nittany Lions
Why: The Nittany Lions' 20-10 win over Tennessee in the Outback Bowl showed they're not too far from returning to where they were two years ago. Quarterback Anthony Morelli showed signs of being able to lead the offense, and Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood are all playmakers. If junior linebacker Dan Connor returns, the defense should be just as good after allowing 14.4 points per game in 2006.
Why not: Penn State must replace tailback Tony Hunt, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. Left tackle Levi Brown also leaves. Three starting defensive linemen must be replaced, along with All-America linebacker Paul Posluszny, the school's all-time leading tackler.
15. Texas A&M Aggies
Why: The Aggies return a lot of firepower in quarterback Stephen McGee, tailbacks Mike Goodson and Jorvorskie Lane, and blossoming tight end Martellus Bennett. Texas A&M lost three games by a combined six points before beating Texas 12-7 in the regular-season finale, so perhaps the Aggies finally have learned how to win close games.
Why not: Coach Dennis Franchione, who finally seemed to be off the hot seat by finishing 5-3 in the Big 12 and beating Texas, lost a lot of momentum when the Aggies were thumped 45-10 by California in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. The Bears found plenty of cracks in defensive coordinator Gary Darnell's 4-2-5 scheme, and leading tackler Justin Warren and safety Melvin Bullitt are leaving.
16. Auburn Tigers
Why: Nick Saban's arrival at Alabama will light a fuse under Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville, whose team went 11-2 in 2006, but never found its rhythm on offense. Auburn is still very talented on defense, and end Quentin Groves and tackle Sen'Derrick Marks can become dominating players.
Why not: The Tigers lose four offensive linemen, including second-team All-America guard Ben Grubbs, as well as leading receiver Courtney Taylor and leading rusher Kenny Irons. Quarterback Brandon Cox was inconsistent throughout the season and didn't receive much help from his receivers.
17. Georgia Bulldogs
Why: The Bulldogs salvaged an otherwise mediocre 2006 campaign by finishing with victories over nationally ranked Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford improved throughout the season and showed great arm strength. The receiver corps improved and should be better with the return of senior Sean Bailey, who missed all of 2006 with a knee injury. Running backs Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown return, along with highly regarded freshman Knowshon Moreno.
Why not: Georgia will rely heavily on junior college transfers in rebuilding its offensive and defensive lines. The biggest losses will be defensive ends Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses and linebacker Tony Taylor. Road games at Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia Tech, along with playing Florida in Jacksonville, are daunting.
18. TCU Horned Frogs
Why: The Horned Frogs finished the 2006 season with a flourish, winning their last seven games and thumping Northern Illinois 37-7 in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. TCU outscored its last four opponents 172-35. All but two starters, including end Tommy Blake, an All-America candidate, return to a defense that should be among the best in the country. The defense will be tested early -- the Horned Frogs play at Texas on Sept. 8.
Why not: TCU loses quarterback Jeff Ballard, who threw 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 2006. He should be replaced by redshirt freshman Marcus Jackson, who has thrown 44 passes in his college career.
19. Tennessee Volunteers
Why: The Volunteers improved from 5-6 in 2005 to 9-4 this season, but coach Phillip Fulmer isn't satisfied, especially after a 20-10 loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl. Erik Ainge should return for his senior season after offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe transformed him into an SEC quarterback again. Tailback LaMarcus Coker showed signs of being the runner the Vols have needed the last few seasons.
Why not: All three of Ainge's main weapons -- Robert Meachem, Bret Smith and Jayson Swain -- are leaving. Center David Ligon and Arron Sears also are departing. The Volunteers open the season at California and play at Florida and Alabama. Tennessee plays Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas at home.
20. UCLA Bruins
Why: The Bruins won their last three regular-season games, including a 13-9 upset of USC, before losing to Florida State 44-27 in the Emerald Bowl. UCLA could start 10 seniors on defense next season, and coordinator DeWayne Walker proved to be a great tactician in the upset of the Trojans. Likewise, the Bruins should lose only one starter on offense -- center Robert Chai -- and two experienced quarterbacks, Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, will battle for the starting job.
Why not: This will be a very important season for coach Karl Dorrell, who seemed to be on his way out until UCLA upset rival USC. The Bruins lose only three regulars, but two of them were All-Americans: first-team kicker Justin Medlock (28-for-32 field goals) and second-team defensive end Justin Hickman (12½ sacks).
21. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Why: The Scarlet Knights will keep chopping away in Piscataway, N.J., after coach Greg Schiano turned down Miami to stay at Rutgers. Tailback Ray Rice should be among the leading contenders for the 2007 Heisman Trophy, and quarterback Mike Teel continued to progress throughout the 2006 season. Wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are emerging big-play threats.
Why not: The loss of senior running back Brian Leonard can't be understated. He was a bruising blocker, a fabulous receiver out of the backfield and formed a great running tandem with Rice. The Scarlet Knights also must replace five starters on defense.
22. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Why: The Demon Deacons figure to stay near the top of the ACC as long as Clemson, Florida State and Miami continue to underachieve. Remarkably, Wake Forest was able to keep coach Jim Grobe after he led the Demon Deacons to an 11-3 record, ACC title and BCS bowl game.
Why not: Wake Forest won't sneak up on opponents this season. The Demon Deacons will have eight starters back on offense and seven on defense. But cornerback Riley Swanson and safeties Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis will be missed from a secondary that helped the Demon Deacons intercept 22 passes in 2006. The passing game must get better, and Ben Mauk will challenge Riley Skinner for the starting job.
23. Boise State Broncos
Why: Who can doubt the Broncos after they finished 13-0 and beat Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl with a heavy dose of razzle dazzle at the end? Tailback Ian Johnson returns after leading the country with 25 rushing touchdowns and 1,714 rushing yards in 2006. He'll have four offensive linemen back in front of him. Quarterback Jared Zabransky leaves, but coach Chris Petersen will have four quarterbacks competing to replace him, including Nick Lomax, son of former NFL quarterback Neil Lomax.
Why not: A big reason Boise State finished unbeaten was its defense, which improved to 14th in Division I-A in total defense and 21st in scoring defense (compared to 51st in each category in 2005). Star linebacker Korey Hall, the heart and soul of that defense, is leaving, along with three starting defensive linemen.
24. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why: It won't take Nick Saban long to turn the Crimson Tide into a winner, but it won't happen overnight. Alabama should return nine starters on offense, including promising tackle Andre Smith and guard B.J. Stabler. Receiver DJ Hall is coming back, along with quarterback John Parker Wilson, who must improve for the Tide to be effective on offense.
Why not: The Crimson Tide loses six starters on defense, including linebacker Juwan Simpson and tackle Jeremy Clark. The schedule is difficult with home games against Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU and road games against Florida State (in Jacksonville) and Auburn.
25. Louisville Cardinals
Why: Before coach Bobby Petrino bolted for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, the Cardinals were hoping junior quarterback Brian Brohm would return. If Brohm leaves for the NFL draft, Hunter Cantwell is ready to take over. Petrino said he believed Cantwell could develop into an NFL prospect. Anthony Allen showed he's ready to replace Michael Bush, who announced Tuesday that he will leave for the NFL draft.
Why not: Maybe this is why Petrino left. Besides Bush, Brohm amay also enter the draft. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, cornerbacks William Gay and Gavin Smart and linebacker Nate Harris are definitely leaving the defense.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.