- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Signing day has come and gone, and underclassmen have officially decided whether they're staying in school or going into the NFL draft.
There's no better time to update the way-too-early preseason Top 25 for 2009, which figures to be revised at least a half dozen additional times before the games begin in September.
Florida, which will seek its third national championship in four seasons, is still No. 1. Oklahoma is No. 2, moving ahead of Big 12 South rival Texas. Alabama also moved up, and Southern California moved down.
BYU and Texas Tech are out. Michigan State and Rutgers are in.
1. Florida Gators
The Gators not only kept quarterback Tim Tebow, who will return for his senior season, they also persuaded star linebacker Brandon Spikes to return to school. With Spikes back, the defending national champions will return their entire starting defense from the 2008 season. In fact, Florida will return every player from its two-deep depth chart on defense. Replacing three offensive linemen and speedy receiver Percy Harvin won't be easy, but coach Urban Meyer has help coming from a top-five recruiting class. With so few questions heading into the offseason, Meyer can spend even more time contemplating how many points his team will score against Tennessee in the fall.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners lost to Florida 24-14 in the 2009 FedEx BCS National Championship Game, but they've probably been college football's biggest winners since then. Oklahoma persuaded Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford to return for his junior season and also kept star tight end Jermaine Gresham, which might have been a bigger surprise. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and offensive tackle Trent Williams also passed up entering the NFL draft as underclassmen, leaving the Sooners poised to battle Texas in the Big 12 South once again.
3. Texas Longhorns
Quarterback Colt McCoy and four offensive linemen will be back to lead a high-octane passing offense, but the Longhorns have to run the football better in the coming season. Incoming freshman Chris Whaley, the only running back the Longhorns recruited this year, might be counted on to shore up the running game. The 6-foot-3, 239-pound runner will battle Fozzy Whittaker and Vondrell McGee to become Texas' featured back in the 2009 season. The losses on defense are significant -- four starting defensive linemen will have to be replaced, including All-American end Brian Orakpo. Cornerback Ryan Palmer also is leaving, but three defensive backs return to what was a much-improved secondary in 2008.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama fans probably realized how difficult it will be to replace All-American left tackle Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell during the Sugar Bowl, when Utah's defense whipped the offensive line in the Tide's 31-17 loss. Quarterback John Parker Wilson and All-SEC safety Rashad Johnson also will have to be replaced, but most of Alabama's stingy defense will return. The schedule will be a little easier than it was last season, as the Crimson Tide will play South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU at home but won't play Florida or Georgia during the regular season.
5. Virginia Tech Hokies
The 2008 season was supposed to be a rebuilding one for the Hokies, but they finished 10-4 and won the ACC championship. After beating Cincinnati 20-7 in the FedEx Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech will be a big favorite to win its fourth ACC title in only its sixth season in the league. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor must become a better passer, but tailback Darren Evans should be even better after running for 1,265 yards with 11 touchdowns as a freshman. The Hokies were one of the youngest teams in the country last season and were aiming toward 2009 to become national title contenders.
6. USC Trojans
By blasting Penn State 38-24 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, the Trojans improved to 6-1 in BCS bowl games during the Pete Carroll era. USC also won at least 11 games (by finishing 12-1) and won the Pac-10 championship for the seventh consecutive season. To match those feats in 2009, the Trojans will have to replace most of their defense -- their entire linebacker corps and standout defensive ends Clay Matthews and Kyle Moore -- and find quarterback Mark Sanchez's successor. Sanchez surprised USC coaches by bypassing his senior season for the NFL draft, but there are three capable candidates to replace him on campus. Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain, sophomore Aaron Corp and freshman Matt Barkley will compete for the starting quarterback job. Barkley, the top-rated player in the ESPNU 150, has already enrolled at USC.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes suffered heavy personnel losses from the team that lost to Texas 24-21 in the Fiesta Bowl. Linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, receiver Brian Robiskie and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins were seniors last season. Then tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells and receiver Brian Hartline decided to skip their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft. Terrelle Pryor should improve in his second season as a starting quarterback, and the Ohio State coaches feel confident about tailback Dan Herron, who filled in well when Wells was hurt in 2008. Pryor must become a better passer during the offseason, and the receiver corps will have to be rebuilt. There won't be much time for the Buckeyes to jell, however, as USC will play in the Horseshoe on Sept. 12.
8. LSU Tigers
The 2007 national champions will look to bounce back from a disappointing 8-5 finish last season. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson looked like LSU's quarterback of the future in the Tigers' 38-3 rout of Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, who inherits a unit that surrendered 30 points or more in four games in 2008. Tackle Charles Alexander, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, will be the only returning starter on the defensive line. Coach Les Miles might turn to incoming freshmen Sam Montgomery and Josh Downs for immediate help. They were part of a recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN.com. LSU lost two offensive linemen and receiver Demetrius Byrd, but Brandon LaFell will return after initially saying he would enter the NFL draft. LSU's 2009 schedule includes potential road traps at Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions
The Nittany Lions expect to return only 11 starters from the team that lost to USC in the Rose Bowl, but quarterback Daryll Clark and tailback Evan Royster will give them a chance to compete for the Big Ten championship in 2009. Three very good offensive linemen, including All-Big Ten center A.Q. Shipley, will have to be replaced. So will standout receivers Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. Coach Joe Paterno probably isn't counting on incoming freshmen Justin Brown and Shawney Kersey to help right away, but they might have to play immediately. Losing All-Big Ten defensive end Aaron Maybin to the NFL draft will hurt the defense, but linebacker Sean Lee will return from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Will the Cowboys take the next step and become legitimate contenders in the Big 12 South? Oklahoma State has one of college football's best three-headed monsters in quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and receiver Dez Bryant. Two offensive linemen and tight end Brandon Pettigrew will have to be replaced. Three starters are gone from the secondary, which might not be a bad thing because Oklahoma State's defense was scorched by many of the Big 12's best offenses in 2008. Coach Mike Gundy lured Miami defensive coordinator Bill Young back to his alma mater. Oklahoma State will open the season Sept. 5 against Georgia in Stillwater, Okla.
11. Ole Miss Rebels
In head coach Houston Nutt's first season at Ole Miss, the Rebels beat Florida and LSU, the past two national champions, and blasted Texas Tech 47-34 in the Cotton Bowl. The Rebels will again have a lot of firepower on offense, as quarterback Jevan Snead and leading rusher Dexter McCluster will return. Mammoth offensive tackle Michael Oher and nose tackle Peria Jerry will be sorely missed. Eight starters are expected back on defense, including top pass-rusher Greg Hardy, who opted to return for his senior season. The Rebels will play Alabama, Tennessee and LSU in Oxford, Miss.
12. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks will have to replace a lot of firepower on offense after losing tailback Jeremiah Johnson and receivers Jaison Williams and Terence Scott. Center Max Unger and tackle Fenuki Tupou also will be big offensive losses. But quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and tailback LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 1,002 yards with 17 touchdowns last season, are capable of carrying the offense. The personnel losses on defense are significant, too, with end Nick Reed, safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Jairus Byrd moving on. Still, the Ducks might challenge USC for the Pac-10 championship in what might be Mike Bellotti's last season as coach.
13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Paul Johnson proved a lot of people wrong in his first season as Georgia Tech's coach, using his triple-option spread offense to finish the season with a 9-4 record. The Yellow Jackets might return all 11 starters on offense, and they'll have a better understanding of Johnson's system. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt needs to become a more polished passer and eliminate some of the turnovers that plagued him last season. Tailback Jonathan Dwyer is one of the country's best running backs. The Yellow Jackets will have to rebuild their defensive line, and tackles Vance Walker and Darryl Richard will be difficult to replace. Georgia Tech will play many of its toughest ACC opponents (Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia Tech) at home.
14. Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs struggled after being ranked No. 1 in the 2008 preseason, losing badly to Alabama and Florida before finishing 10-3. Georgia won't face the same expectations in 2009 after quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno each turned pro. The Bulldogs are confident senior Joe Cox can handle the job at quarterback. Sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel, who will miss the spring because of a wrist injury, will try to replace Moreno's vast production. Sophomore A.J. Green has the potential to be the best receiver in Georgia history, and the offensive line should be better after battling a myriad of injuries last season. Georgia's defense struggled mightily in 2008, and the Bulldogs will have to find capable pass-rushers to improve.
15. TCU Horned Frogs
The Horned Frogs flew under the radar in 2008 after losing at Oklahoma 35-10 in their fifth game. A 13-10 loss at Utah cost TCU the Mountain West championship, but it rebounded to beat previously unbeaten Boise State 17-16 in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. Eight starters are expected back on offense, including quarterback Andy Dalton. Three starting defensive linemen will have to be replaced, along with two linebackers and two defensive backs. But defensive end Jerry Hughes, who led the country with 15 sacks last season, will return to school for his senior season. TCU will travel to BYU in the 2009 season, but it will play Utah at home.
16. Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes will sorely miss running back Shonn Greene, who bypassed his senior season for the NFL draft, but enough defensive talent will return to sustain the momentum from the 2008 season. Iowa's defense is what helped it get back on track last season, and three linebackers and three defensive backs will return. The Hawkeyes will have to replace defensive tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King, who were two great run-stuffers. If quarterback Ricky Stanzi continues to play well, Iowa might again be a big surprise in 2009. The Hawkeyes will play four potentially difficult road games -- at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
17. Boise State Broncos
The Broncos continue to play well enough to be in the BCS bowl discussion each season. Last season, Boise State finished the regular season with a 12-0 record before losing to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. Quarterback Kellen Moore is one of the country's best quarterbacks, but he'll miss most of his top targets in 2009. Tailback Ian Johnson and receivers Jeremy Childs and Vinny Perretta are key losses. On defense, only two starters will return to the front seven. The Broncos will open the season with a home game against Oregon, but they'll face tough road games at Tulsa and Fresno State.
18. California Bears
Will quarterback Kevin Riley perform better without departed senior Nate Longshore breathing down his neck? Riley's performance in 2009 will go a long way toward determining whether the Bears build on the momentum from last season's 9-4 finish. He completed only 51 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2008. Riley doesn't have to throw for 3,000 yards, but he needs to play well enough to keep defenses honest. Opponents will continue to focus on running back Jahvid Best, who ran for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Best, who will enter the 2009 season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, will miss spring practice after undergoing surgery on his left foot and left elbow. The Bears will have to replace two starting offensive linemen, including All-Pac-10 center Alex Mack, and tight end Cameron Morrah, who entered the NFL draft as a junior. Three very good linebackers will have to be replaced on defense, too.
19. Nebraska Cornhuskers
In his first season as Nebraska's coach, Bo Pelini went a long way toward restoring the pride in the Cornhuskers' defense. Nebraska will have to worry more about its offense going into the 2009 season after losing quarterback Joe Ganz, tailback Marlon Lucky and receivers Todd Peterson and Nate Swift. Patrick Witt and Zac Lee will battle to replace Ganz, and Roy Helu looked like Nebraska's best running back at times during the 2008 season. Seven starters should be back on defense, including Ndamukong Suh, who returned to school instead of entering the NFL draft. The Big 12 schedule might set up nicely for the Cornhuskers, who will play Texas Tech and Oklahoma at home and won't play Texas during the regular season.
20. Kansas Jayhawks
After a breakthrough season in 2007, the Jayhawks slipped to an 8-5 finish in the rugged Big 12 last season. But with quarterback Todd Reesing, tailback Jake Sharp and receiver Dezmon Briscoe returning, Kansas should challenge Nebraska for the Big 12 North title in 2009. The Jayhawks will have to replace each of their starting guards and center on the offensive line, and departed starting linebackers James Holt, Mike Rivera and Joe Mortensen won't be easy to replace. Kansas' schedule will be demanding, with road games at Texas Tech and Texas and home games against Oklahoma and Nebraska.
21. Utah Utes
Utah proved it belonged among college football's elite teams in 2008 by finishing 13-0 and stunning Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Staying there might be an even bigger feat for the Utes in 2009. They must replace many of their star players, including quarterback Brian Johnson, defensive end Paul Kruger and cornerback Sean Smith. Utah also will have to replace Louie Sakoda, one of the country's best punters and kickers. Corbin Louks is the favorite to start at quarterback, and he'll get plenty of help from tailback Matt Asiata. It will be difficult for Utah to finish unbeaten again because of road games at Oregon, TCU and BYU.
22. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
The Fighting Irish salvaged a pretty disappointing season by blasting Hawaii 49-21 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis can only hope quarterback Jimmy Clausen continues to play that well in the 2009 season. The Fighting Irish have a couple of good playmakers in receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. Nine starters are coming back on offense, including four offensive linemen. Six starters are coming back on defense, but linebacker Maurice Crum and cornerback Terrail Lambert will be missed. Weis showed he still can recruit under pressure, signing a class that ESPN.com ranked No. 14 in the nation. Linebacker Manti Te'o and receiver Shaquelle Evans could be difference-makers right away. Notre Dame's 2009 schedule won't be nearly as difficult as it has been in the past, but the Irish still will play seven teams that played in bowl games last season.
23. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles gave legendary coach Bobby Bowden a little bit of hope in 2008, finishing with a 9-4 record and beating Wisconsin 42-13 in the Champs Sports Bowl. It might not be easy for FSU to match that success in 2009, though. Tailback Antone Smith and receiver Greg Carr departed, along with kicker Graham Gano. Last week, receiver Preston Parker, one of the team's best playmakers, was dismissed after being arrested for DUI. Only five starters will return on defense, and top pass-rusher Everette Brown gave up his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to continue to improve. At least he'll play behind an experienced offensive line.
24. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans will miss bruising tailback Javon Ringer and quarterback Brian Hoyer, but eight starters from a pretty good defense will return. If coach Mark Dantonio can find a capable quarterback (sophomore Kirk Cousins is the early favorite), the Spartans' offense has the potential to be pretty good. Three starting offensive linemen will return, along with both starting receivers and one tight end. All three linebackers and two defensive backs will return, but the defensive line will have to be rebuilt. The Spartans will play Michigan, Iowa and Penn State at home and won't play Ohio State.
25. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Scarlet Knights were a major disappointment at the beginning of the 2008 season, losing five of their first six games. But Rutgers somehow rallied to win its last seven games, including a 29-23 victory over NC State in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Coach Greg Schiano will have to reload on offense after losing quarterback Mike Teel and receivers Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt (who entered the NFL draft as a junior). Rutgers has some areas of concern, but so does every other team in the Big East.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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