Commentary

Cupboard still full for Crimson Tide

Originally Published: January 8, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The 2009 college football season isn't even 24 hours behind us, but it's never too early to take a look at the country's best teams for 2010.

Alabama, which defeated Texas 37-21 in Thursday night's Citi BCS National Championship Game at the Rose Bowl, will enter the 2010 season ranked No. 1 in ESPN.com's Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25. The Crimson Tide will have to replace a few key players on defense, but there's no reason to believe they won't win the SEC again.

Ohio State, which had been the sport's punching bag in recent seasons, debuts at No. 2 in 2010. BCS busters Boise State and TCU aren't going away anytime soon, either. The Broncos and Horned Frogs could be in better position to challenge for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

Florida, which came within one victory of playing for a second straight BCS title, slips to No. 11 after losing quarterback Tim Tebow and a boatload of other players to the NFL draft. Traditional heavyweights Oklahoma and Southern California slipped to Nos. 12 and 20, respectively.

Of course, this list is subject to change as players decide to leave school for the NFL draft. For now, let the debates begin. The 2010 college football season begins in less than eight months.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

The Crimson Tide will suffer some heavy personnel losses on defense, including mammoth nose tackle Terrence Cody, cornerback Javier Arenas and possibly junior linebacker Rolando McClain. But nearly all of Alabama's firepower is coming back on offense, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and receiver Julio Jones. The schedule gets a little more difficult, with home games against Penn State on Sept. 11 and Florida on Oct. 2. With the way coach Nick Saban has recruited the past few years, though, the Crimson Tide should be in position to win their second consecutive BCS national championship.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes might finally earn some respect nationally after beating Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi. Terrelle Pryor finally looked like the quarterback everyone thought he would be, and coach Jim Tressel might finally be ready to open his playbook in 2010, Pryor's third season. Only two starters are leaving on offense: tight end Jake Ballard and left tackle Jim Cordle. Five starters, including end Thaddeus Gibson and safeties Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman, are leaving the defense. But it would have been worse if end Cameron Heyward and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa hadn't returned for their senior seasons. The Buckeyes play Miami at home on Sept. 11, but play road games at Wisconsin and Iowa.

3. Boise State Broncos

Voters won't have a reason to keep the Broncos out of the Citi BCS National Championship Game in 2010. Boise State finished its second unbeaten season and won its second BCS bowl game in four years by beating TCU 17-10 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos will bring back 21 of 22 starters on offense and defense, losing only star cornerback Kyle Wilson. Quarterback Kellen Moore will be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Boise State will have two chances to prove its mettle to voters: at home against Oregon State on Sept. 25 and against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Oct. 2.

4. Oregon Ducks

Chip Kelly's first season as Oregon's head coach had to be considered a success, even after the Ducks lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl to finish 10-3. All but three starters are expected back in 2010, including quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and tailback LaMichael James. Tight end Ed Dickson is the only offensive starter leaving, and defensive end Will Tukuafu and tackle Blake Ferras will have to be replaced on defense. Oregon's nonconference schedule isn't too grueling, with home games against New Mexico and FCS opponent Portland State sandwiched around a road game at Tennessee. But Oregon will have to play Pac-10 road games at USC, California and rival Oregon State.

5. Texas Longhorns

After losing to Alabama in the Citi BCS National Championship Game, the Longhorns will undergo a renovation of sorts in 2010. But few programs are as equipped as Texas to reload from year to year. Replacing quarterback Colt McCoy will be Texas' primary concern. Freshman Garrett Gilbert assumed control of the Longhorns' offense much earlier than expected after McCoy was forced to the sideline with an injury Thursday. He'll be the favorite to start at quarterback. Receiver Jordan Shipley and three starters on the offensive line also will have to be replaced. Three starters are leaving on defense, including end Sergio Kindle and tackle Lamarr Houston. All-American safety Earl Thomas also could turn pro. The Longhorns play three of their four nonconference games at home, including a Sept. 25 contest against UCLA, and play Big 12 rivals Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in Austin.

6. Virginia Tech Hokies

The Hokies are hoping their 37-14 rout of Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl is a springboard to bigger things in 2010. With quarterback Tyrod Taylor and one of the country's best stables of running backs coming back, there's plenty of reason for optimism. Tailback Ryan Williams was one of the country's best freshmen in 2009, and sophomore Darren Evans should be back from torn knee ligaments that caused him to miss all of the 2009 season. Taylor needs to continue to develop as a passer, but his receiving corps will be more experienced. Replacing guard Sergio Render and tackle Ed Wang are priorities on offense. The Hokies will lose seven starters on defense, including linebacker Cody Grimm, safeties Kam Chancellor and Dorian Porch, and end Jason Worilds, who declared for the NFL draft. The nonconference schedule is challenging, with home games against Central Michigan and East Carolina, along with the Oct. 2 contest against Boise State at FedEx Field.

7. TCU Horned Frogs

TCU's loss to Boise State prevented it from finishing undefeated, but the Horned Frogs should be in position to make a run at another BCS bowl game in 2010. The Horned Frogs lose only two starters on offense: left tackle Marshall Newhouse and tailback Joseph Turner. Seven starters are coming back on defense, but defensive end Jerry Hughes, linebacker Daryl Washington, and cornerbacks Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest are big losses. TCU is expected to open its season at Dallas Cowboys Stadium against Oregon State on Sept. 4. The Horned Frogs also have a home game against Baylor and a road game at SMU in their nonconference schedule.

8. Nebraska Cornhuskers

After the Cornhuskers blasted Arizona 33-0 in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, coach Bo Pelini announced, "Nebraska's back and we're here to stay." Pelini might be right. The Black Shirt defense is definitely back, but Nebraska's offense will have to get better if it's going to contend for a Big 12 championship in 2010. All-American defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will be sorely missed, along with four other starters on defense. Center Jacob Hickman is the only offensive starter leaving. The Cornhuskers play nonconference games against Western Kentucky, Idaho and FCS foe South Dakota State at home and play Washington on the road. They play Big 12 games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, but play Texas, Missouri and Kansas in Lincoln, Neb.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

It would have been interesting to see how Iowa would have finished if quarterback Ricky Stanzi hadn't sprained his ankle in a 17-10 loss to Northwestern on Nov. 7. The Hawkeyes were undefeated before Stanzi was hurt, and they were really good when he returned in a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl. Iowa will have back six starters on offense, but the line must be rebuilt with center Rafael Eubanks, right guard Dace Richardson, left tackle Bryan Bulaga and right tackle Kyle Calloway leaving. Nine starters should return to a very stingy defense. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule isn't overly challenging besides a Sept. 18 road game at Arizona, and they play Big Ten heavyweights Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home.

10. Wisconsin Badgers

After a couple of so-so seasons, Bret Bielema has Wisconsin back on track. The Badgers beat Miami 20-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl to finish 10-3. With tailback John Clay coming back, and quarterback Scott Tolzien making big strides at season's end, the Badgers should be very good on offense in 2010. Tight end Garrett Graham is the only offensive starter leaving. Three starters will have to be replaced on the defensive line, along with linebacker Jaevery McFadden and safety Chris Maragos. The Badgers' nonconference schedule isn't especially challenging, with a road game at UNLV and home contests against San Jose State, Arizona State and FCS foe Austin Peay. Wisconsin will play Big Ten road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan, but it plays Ohio State at home.

11. Florida Gators

After falling just short of playing for its third BCS national championship in four seasons, Florida faces huge questions in 2010. First and foremost, Gators coach Urban Meyer is taking an indefinite leave of absence and isn't sure he'll coach his team next season. If not, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will serve as interim coach. Sophomore John Brantley, who has received high praise from Meyer, will replace record-setting quarterback Tim Tebow. Receivers Riley Cooper and David Nelson will be missed, along with tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is entering the NFL draft as a junior. Center Maurkice Pouncey and guard Mike Pouncey also are considering leaving a year early for the draft. The losses on defense might be even more severe. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper are seniors, and cornerback Joe Haden has already decided to leave as a junior. End Carlos Dunlap also is considering leaving for the NFL.

12. Oklahoma Sooners

If there was anything good to come out of Oklahoma's nightmarish 8-5 season in 2009, it was that several younger players had prominent positions replacing injured stars. Oklahoma's offense will be more equipped for success in 2010 with quarterback Landry Jones having taken most of the snaps in 2009. The running game will be solid if junior DeMarco Murray doesn't declare for the NFL draft. If Murray comes back, Oklahoma will return seven offensive starters. But offensive tackle Trent Williams and guard Brian Simmons will be key losses. The losses on defense will be heavy. All-America tackle Gerald McCoy and cornerback Dominique Franks have already declared for the NFL draft, and end Jeremy Beal and linebacker Travis Lewis are considering doing the same. If they leave, Oklahoma would have to replace as many as eight starters on defense.

13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

It's hard to figure out the Yellow Jackets, who used coach Paul Johnson's triple-option spread attack to run through the ACC in each of the past two seasons, only to then play poorly in each of their past two bowl games. Georgia Tech should be favored to win its second consecutive ACC championship in 2010 if it returns a couple of juniors -- tailback Jonathan Dwyer and defensive end Derrick Morgan. Junior receiver Demaryius Thomas will enter the NFL draft. If Dwyer and Morgan return, Tech will have back eight starters on offense and 10 on defense. Georgia Tech must get better on defense in 2010, and quarterback Josh Nesbitt must become a better passer for Johnson's offense to truly flourish. The Yellow Jackets play nonconference road games at Kansas and Georgia.

14. Cincinnati Bearcats

Even without coach Brian Kelly, quarterback Tony Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, the Bearcats should be the class of the Big East in 2010. New Bearcats coach Butch Jones had a lot of success at Central Michigan, and his offense should be a perfect fit for quarterback Zach Collaros, who played awfully well when Pike was hurt in 2009. Seven starters are expected back on offense, but left tackle Jeff Linkenbach and center Chris Jurek must be replaced. Only five starters are coming back on defense. Here's one reason Kelly might have left for Notre Dame: Cincinnati plays nonconference games in 2010 against Miami (Ohio) at home, Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, and road contests at NC State and Fresno State.

15. Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt finally got over the hump under coach Dave Wannstedt, who led his alma mater to its first 10-win season since 1981. The Panthers will have to replace quarterback Bill Stull and three starting offensive linemen, but they'll have two of the country's best playmakers in tailback Dion Lewis and receiver Jonathan Baldwin. At least five starters will have to be replaced on defense, too, including All-Big East defensive tackle Mick Williams, linebacker Adam Gunn, and cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel. Wannstedt hopes junior defensive end Greg Romeus is coming back for his senior season. Pitt plays an aggressive nonconference schedule, with road contests at Utah and Notre Dame and a home game against Miami. The Panthers will play Big East road games at Connecticut and Cincinnati and will play Rutgers and West Virginia at home.

16. Arkansas Razorbacks

With quarterback Ryan Mallett returning to school, the Razorbacks could be the sleeper team in the SEC. The Hogs won five of their last six games in coach Bobby Petrino's second season, and their only loss down the stretch was a 33-30 overtime defeat at LSU. Nine starters might be coming back on offense, including all of Mallett's favorite weapons. Four starters must be replaced on defense, including tackle Malcolm Sheppard and linebacker Wendel Davis. The Hogs play a relatively soft nonconference schedule (they play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas), but they'll face SEC heavyweights Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU at home.

17. Miami Hurricanes

Miami's promising season, which included a 5-1 start and early victories over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, ended with a thud in its loss to Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl. There are still reasons to be optimistic about Miami's future under coach Randy Shannon. Jacory Harris will be a very good quarterback if he eliminates mistakes. He'll have to play better in 2010, with tackles Jason Fox and Matt Pipho leaving. Also, tailback Graig Cooper injured his right knee in the bowl game and might not play next season. Seven starters will be back on defense, but linebacker Darryl Sharpton, cornerback Sam Shields and safety Randy Phillips will be missed.

18. LSU Tigers

Is it possible that coach Les Miles, who led LSU to a BCS national championship in 2007, could be on the hot seat in 2010? LSU fans are growing restless after the Tigers went 8-5 in 2008 and 9-4 in '09. Miles' clock management was questionable at times this season, and his team's offense seemed to have no direction. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson struggled with his confidence, and the Tigers never really got highly regarded freshman Russell Shepard involved in the game plan. The Tigers face some heavy personnel losses with four starters leaving on offense and six leaving on defense. Left tackle Ciron Black will be missed on offense, and three starting defensive linemen and two linebackers will have to be replaced. LSU plays a tough schedule, starting with the season opener against North Carolina in Atlanta. The Tigers also will play West Virginia at home and will play SEC road games at Florida, Auburn and Arkansas.

19. Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State coach Joe Paterno needs six more wins to reach 400 career victories, but he'll have to rebuild his team's defense to match this season's 11-2 record. The Nittany Lions will lose six starters on defense, including star linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee and tackle Jared Odrick. Penn State also will have a quarterback competition entering spring practice. Freshmen Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin will battle for the job, along with incoming prospect Paul Jones, who enrolled in classes early. Two starters will have to be replaced on the offensive line, too. The Nittany Lions will play three difficult road games in 2010: at Alabama, Iowa and Ohio State.

20. Southern California Trojans

Was the stunning 9-4 finish in 2009 an aberration or just a blip on the radar? USC has some concerns heading into 2010, but the offense should be better with quarterback Matt Barkley having a full season of experience -- though he'll be without tailback Joe McKnight, who declared for the NFL draft. The Trojans are also waiting to see whether receiver Damian Williams will return for his senior season. The left side of the offensive line will have to be replaced, along with tight end Anthony McCoy. Seven starters are expected back from a defense that struggled mightily in 2009. End Everson Griffen is leaving for the NFL draft, and safety Taylor Mays also will be missed. The Trojans will play nonconference road games at Hawaii and Minnesota and will play Pac-10 road games at Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona.

21. Florida State Seminoles

The Jimbo Fisher era begins in Tallahassee, where Bobby Bowden was forced to retire after a 7-6 finish in his 34th season at the school. If Fisher can fix the problems on defense -- the Seminoles allowed 30 or more points five times in 2009 -- FSU will have a chance to improve a lot in his first season as head coach. Fisher hired former Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to address the defensive deficiencies. Quarterback Christian Ponder might emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate if he recovers from shoulder surgery. FSU has plenty of offensive weapons to be successful, and all five starters are coming back on the offensive line. Fisher's team will be tested early and often in 2010 -- the Seminoles' schedule includes road games at Oklahoma and Miami and home games against Florida and BYU.

22. Oregon State Beavers

After missing out on a chance to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1964, the Beavers were demolished by BYU 44-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl. But Oregon State could again be in position to win a Pac-10 championship in 2010 if coach Mike Riley can find a capable replacement for quarterback Sean Canfield. The Beavers will bring back just about everything else, especially if All-Pac-10 defensive tackle Stephen Paea returns for his senior season. Tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and his brother, receiver James Rodgers, will be back; between them, they accounted for more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 32 of the team's 49 touchdowns in 2009. Riley won't have much time to break in his new quarterback, which is expected to be freshman Ryan Katz. The Beavers are expected to open their season against TCU on Sept. 4 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. They also host Louisville on Sept. 18 and play at Boise State on Sept. 25.

23. Georgia Bulldogs

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt salvaged one of his worst seasons at Georgia by beating rival Georgia Tech 30-24 in the regular-season finale and Texas A&M 44-20 in the Independence Bowl. The Bulldogs will have to find a new starting quarterback, and junior Logan Gray or freshmen Aaron Murray or Zach Mettenberger will battle for the job in the spring. Tailbacks Caleb King and Washaun Ealey are coming back, along with All-SEC receiver A.J. Green. All five starters on the offensive line also will return. Richt still hasn't hired a defensive coordinator to fix a unit that allowed 30 or more points five times in 2009. Tackles Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens will be missed on defense, and safety Reshad Jones entered the NFL draft. Junior linebacker Rennie Curran also is considering leaving school early. Along with the annual contest against Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., Georgia's schedule includes road games at Colorado, South Carolina and Auburn and home games against Arkansas and Tennessee.

24. Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal made tremendous strides under coach Jim Harbaugh in 2009, beating Oregon and USC in consecutive weeks. There's no reason to believe their momentum won't continue next season. Stanford loses Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart, but brings back eight starters on offense, including quarterback Andrew Luck. Seven starters are coming back on defense, but linebacker Will Powers, safety Bo McNally and cornerback Richard Sherman will be missed. The Cardinal's nonconference schedule includes a home game against Wake Forest and a road game at Notre Dame. Stanford's Pac-10 slate includes road games at Oregon, Washington and California and home games against USC and Oregon State.

25. Navy Midshipmen

The Midshipmen didn't miss a beat in 2009 under second-year coach Ken Niumatalolo, who led them to a 10-win season for only the third time in school history. Navy pulled off a trifecta of impressive feats, sweeping service academy rivals Air Force and Army, winning at Notre Dame for the second time in a row and blasting Missouri 35-13 in the Texas Bowl. With seven starters expected to come back on offense and eight on defense, Navy could be even better in 2010. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs is one of the country's most unheralded players, running for 1,192 yards and 27 touchdowns (an NCAA single-season record for a QB) last season. Navy's 2010 schedule opens with a matchup against Maryland in Baltimore and includes a visit to Wake Forest and a home game against SMU. The Midshipmen also will play Notre Dame at Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Oct. 23.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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