Commentary

Tide, Broncos, Buckeyes lead the pack

Originally Published: May 3, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Spring practice has ended on most college campuses across the country.

Depth charts are being formulated, and offseason programs are about to begin.

It's time to unveil the third edition of the way-too-early Top 25 for 2010.

Defending BCS national champion Alabama remains No. 1, but Boise State moves ahead of Ohio State for No. 2. Oregon fell several spots after losing quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who is suspended for the entire 2010 season.

After further review, Texas, TCU and USC are moving up, and Cincinnati and North Carolina are moving down.

Say hello to Stanford and Texas A&M, which weren't included in the post-signing-day Top 25. Say goodbye to Oregon State and BYU, which weren't included in this version.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide The defending BCS national champions have to replace seven players who were selected in the NFL draft, including linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson, who were picked in the first round. But linebacker Donta Hightower, who is coming back from a surgically repaired knee, and defensive tackle Marcel Dareus will help Bama fill several holes on defense. The offense will again be built around reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the best running back duo in the country. Quarterback Greg McElroy, who hasn't lost a game as a starter since the eighth grade, should be better in his second full season as the Tide's starter.

2. Boise State Broncos If the Broncos can beat Virginia Tech on Labor Day night at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., there's a good chance they'll finish unbeaten for the second season in a row. And with a Sept. 25 home game against Oregon State looming on the schedule, Boise State could very well be in the BCS title game hunt at season's end. The Broncos return 23 of 24 players who started against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl; cornerback Kyle Wilson, a first-round pick in the NFL draft, was the only starter who departed. Quarterback Kellen Moore might be in the Heisman Trophy mix, and the offensive line should be more stable, with 10 players who started at least one game in 2009 returning. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left for Tennessee, and defensive line coach Pete Kwiatkowski was promoted to replace him.

3. Ohio State Buckeyes Ohio State fans can only hope quarterback Terrelle Pryor's performance in the Buckeyes' 26-17 victory over Oregon in the Rose Bowl was a sign of good things to come. Pryor completed 23 of 37 passes for 266 yards in his best college game. He should be even better during his junior season, after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in February to repair his right knee, which bothered him throughout the 2009 season. With tailbacks Dan Herron and Brandon Saine coming back, Ohio State should be much more explosive on offense. The defense must replace departed safeties Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman, but linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle and defensive lineman Cameron Hayward are budding stars. If the Buckeyes can survive road trips at Wisconsin on Oct. 16 and at Iowa on Nov. 20, they should win their seventh consecutive Big Ten title.

4. Texas Longhorns The Longhorns have several pieces to replace from the team that lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, but replacing quarterback Colt McCoy doesn't seem as daunting after Garrett Gilbert's performance this spring. Gilbert proved his moxie when he was forced into action against the Crimson Tide, and he showed his accuracy in the Longhorns' spring game, completing 10 of 13 passes for 165 yards with three touchdowns. Coach Mack Brown's top priority is establishing a running game to take the pressure off Gilbert, and Fozzy Whittaker and Tre' Newton might be good enough to do it. The defense has to replace several departed stars, including safety Earl Thomas and linebackers Roddrick Muckelroy and Sergio Kindle. But returning cornerbacks Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown should flourish in defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's aggressive scheme.

5. Virginia Tech Hokies It's hardly a dilemma, but Hokies coach Frank Beamer might not have enough carries to spread among his team's running backs this coming season. Ryan Williams is coming off a record-setting freshman season, and Darren Evans is coming back from a torn ACL that caused him to miss all of last season. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor continues to develop as a passer, but still figures to do most of his damage by running. The left side of the offensive line will have to be replaced, after guard Sergio Render and tackle Ed Wang left. The defensive front will have to be rebuilt, but coordinator Bud Foster reconstructs defenses as well as anyone in the country.

6. TCU Horned Frogs The Horned Frogs might rely on their offense more than their defense this coming season, which will be a change of pace in Fort Worth, Texas. TCU has nearly everyone coming back on offense, although All-Mountain West Conference guard Marshall Newhouse will be sorely missed. The holes on TCU's defense are more glaring after linebacker Daryl Washington, defensive end Jerry Hughes and cornerback Rafael Priest left. The linebacker corps might be a big problem area if projected starter Tank Carder doesn't recover quickly from shoulder surgery. Quarterback Andy Dalton and running backs Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley lead what should be a very potent running attack. TCU must survive a Sept. 4 opener against Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium, as well as MWC games against BYU at home on Oct. 16 and at Utah on Nov. 6, to match last season's success.

7. Nebraska Cornhuskers If the Cornhuskers are going to repeat as Big 12 North champions and have a chance to unseat Texas or Oklahoma as the best team in the conference, their offense is going to have to make tremendous strides. Quarterback Zac Lee missed the spring after undergoing surgery on his right elbow, allowing Taylor Martinez to unveil his running ability from the pocket. The running game should be better with Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead coming back, but the Cornhuskers need much more from the passing game. Replacing All-America defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh certainly won't be easy, but Nebraska should again be very stingy on defense.

8. Florida Gators Perhaps no team will undergo more of a makeover than the Gators, who have to replace nine players who were selected in the NFL draft, including record-setting quarterback Tim Tebow and cornerback Joe Haden. But coach Urban Meyer has assembled so much talent in Gainesville that it's impossible to believe the Gators will slip very far. Quarterback John Brantley gave Florida fans plenty of hope in the spring game, completing 15 of 19 passes for 201 yards with two touchdowns. If receivers Deonte Thompson, Carl Moore and Andre Debose can improve, the passing game might be more potent than it was with Tebow directing the show. Finding a No. 1 tailback -- and a runner who can pound defenses -- remains the No. 1 priority heading into the preseason.

9. Wisconsin Badgers Wisconsin football fans have grown accustomed to watching the Badgers' prodding and methodical offense, but that approach might change this coming season. With quarterback Scott Tolzien and running back John Clay returning, Wisconsin figures to have one of the Big Ten's most explosive offenses. Clay missed spring practice after undergoing surgery on both his ankles, but he's expected to be fine for the start of the season. Linebacker Chris Borland missed the spring after having shoulder surgery, and defensive end Louis Nzegwu was a big surprise as a pass-rusher during the spring.

10. Oregon Ducks If the Ducks can't find a suitable replacement for suspended quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, they might have to wait another year to make a serious run at a BCS national championship. Masoli will miss all of the 2010 season after he was suspended following a burglary conviction. Senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas are battling for the starting job during spring practice. Costa attempted 33 passes as Masoli's backup last season, while Thomas redshirted after playing as a freshman in 2008. Even without Masoli, the Ducks have plenty of firepower on offense, including tailback LaMichael James. The defense must replace safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Walter Thurmon III, and converted tight end Dion Jordan emerged as a potential pass-rusher during spring practice.

11. Iowa Hawkeyes If Iowa can rebuild its offensive line, and if quarterback Ricky Stanzi can cut down on the mistakes that plagued him at times last season, it might be good enough to unseat Ohio State as Big Ten champion. The Hawkeyes must replace four starting offensive linemen, including left tackle Bryan Bulaga, an NFL first-rounder. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn probably would have joined Bulaga as a first-round selection if he hadn't kept his promise to return for this coming season. With tackle Karl Klug emerging as a dominant force this spring, the Hawkeyes might have the best defensive line in the country.

12. Oklahoma Sooners Watching four former Sooners being picked in the first round of the NFL draft, including three of the first four selections, had to be a double-edged sword for Oklahoma fans. More than anything else, it showed how truly talented the Sooners were heading into last season. But injuries and other problems turned Oklahoma into an 8-5 team in 2009. Now the Sooners will have to replace those departed stars, including quarterback Sam Bradford, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and left tackle Trent Williams. Quarterback Landry Jones played very well in Bradford's absence last season, and DeMarco Murray might be poised for a breakout season. Freshman Kenny Stills showed big-play ability at receiver during the spring, which can only help the passing game.

13. Pittsburgh Panthers With former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly moving to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh might be the team to beat in the Big East. The Panthers were close to winning the last two Big East championships, but they couldn't beat the Bearcats. With tailback Dion Lewis and receiver Jonathan Baldwin coming back on offense, and end Greg Romeus returning to harass opposing quarterbacks, Pittsburgh might be poised to clear the last hurdle. Tino Sunseri beat out Pat Bostick for the starting quarterback job during the spring, and he'll replace departed fifth-year senior Bill Stull. The Panthers play an aggressive nonconference schedule, including a Sept. 2 opener at Utah.

14. Arkansas Razorbacks The Razorbacks are facing sky-high expectations because of quarterback Ryan Mallett's right arm and coach Bobby Petrino's high-scoring offense. But if the Hogs are going to improve on last season's 8-5 finish, they have to get much better on defense. Arkansas ranked last in the SEC and 99th nationally against the pass and allowed 22 touchdown passes. Mallett missed the spring while recovering from a broken bone in his left foot, but he'll enter the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. 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.

15. USC Trojans Were the early signs of a crumbling dynasty the real reason Pete Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks? We'll begin to find out in new coach Lane Kiffin's first season, as the Trojans try to rebound from a disappointing 9-4 finish in 2009. Quarterback Matt Barkley lost weight during the offseason, which he hopes will make him more mobile and confident throwing on the run. Ronald Johnson and Brice Butler are good enough to replace departed star receiver Damian Williams, but the offensive line has to play better. The entire secondary must be replaced, but USC might have one of the country's best defensive fronts. The Trojans will play nonconference road games at Hawaii and Minnesota and will play Pac-10 road games at Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona.

16. Florida State Seminoles If the Seminoles are going to be better in Jimbo Fisher's first season as head coach, they'll have to improve on defense after allowing 30 points or more five times in 2009. Quarterback Christian Ponder, who underwent shoulder surgery in November, proved to be a quick healer this spring. He completed 16 of 34 passes for 266 yards with two touchdowns in the spring game. With Ponder coming back, the Seminoles might have the ACC's most explosive offense in 2010. Former Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops takes over FSU's porous unit, and he'll rely on young players such as linebacker Jeff Luc and cornerback Greg Reid to get better. The Seminoles play an arduous schedule, including road games at Oklahoma and Miami and home games against Florida and BYU.

17. LSU Tigers LSU coach Les Miles won a BCS national championship in 2007 and led the Tigers to 51 victories in five seasons. But after losing nine games the past two seasons combined, Miles might be feeling a little heat on the bayou. The Tigers went 9-4 a year ago but never seemed to get the most out of their talent. LSU fans can't be encouraged that quarterback Jordan Jefferson didn't seem to improve during spring practice -- so much so that Miles proclaimed that 2008 starter Jarrett Lee was pushing Jefferson for the starting job. One thing is clear: LSU needs to get Russell Shepard more involved on offense, which it plans to do now that he has moved from quarterback to receiver. There's too much talent at LSU for the Tigers to fall far behind Alabama and Florida, but they seem to be slipping in the SEC.

18. Cincinnati Bearcats The Bearcats won't fall off the map even though Kelly has left for Notre Dame and quarterback Tony Pike and receiver Mardy Gilyard have moved on. New Cincinnati coach Butch Jones ran a fast-paced offense at Central Michigan, and he figures to do the same with the Bearcats. Quarterback Zach Collaros was spectacular while filling in for Pike last season, and Armon Binns and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton are both capable of becoming big-time receivers. The defense will once again undergo major changes. Cincinnati plays one of the country's most difficult nonconference schedules, including Miami (Ohio) at home, Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and road contests at NC State and Fresno State.

19. Miami Hurricanes The Hurricanes seem ready to take the next step under coach Randy Shannon, as they're finally starting to look like the Miami teams of old. The bad news for Miami during spring practice? Quarterback Jacory Harris didn't participate while recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb. The good news: Shannon is somewhat optimistic that running back Graig Cooper might be healthy enough to play this coming season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during the Champs Sports Bowl. The Hurricanes will need all the help they can get during a brutal start to the season. After opening against Florida A&M, the Canes play consecutive road games at Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson.

20. Georgia Bulldogs Georgia's recipe for 2010: keep quarterback Aaron Murray healthy and play better defense. Georgia might go into the season without a proven backup quarterback if junior Logan Gray decides to transfer. Murray beat out Gray and freshman Zach Mettenberger for the starting job before Mettenberger was dismissed from the team after his arrest during spring break. Georgia figures to rely on its running game to take the pressure off Murray, and it needs to find a consistent receiver to complement A.J. Green. The defense will be more aggressive in new coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, but the Dawgs have to find more defensive linemen. Cornerback Vance Cuff was a pleasant surprise during spring practice, easing Grantham's concerns about the secondary. With the SEC's best punter and kicker coming back, Georgia could be a surprise depending on how quickly Murray gets comfortable at quarterback.

21. North Carolina Tar Heels Are the Tar Heels ready to climb the ACC ladder under coach Butch Davis? North Carolina will certainly have the defense to do it, but it will have to get more out of its offensive line, running backs and quarterback T.J. Yates to make serious noise in 2010. With defensive end Robert Quinn, linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter and cornerback Kendric Burney coming back, the Tar Heels figure to be very stingy on defense. But UNC struggled behind a porous offensive line last season, and it struggled to score. The line was plagued by injuries during the spring, leaving it as a potential problem area heading into the fall.

22. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Coach Paul Johnson has never had problems plugging players into his triple-option spread offense. He did it every season as Navy's coach, and he'll try to do it again this season at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lost receiver Demaryius Thomas and defensive end Derrick Morgan, a pair of NFL first-round picks, and star running back Jonathan Dwyer. But Johnson is confident his offense won't slip much with quarterback Josh Nesbitt coming back. The defense should get better under new defensive coordinator Al Groh, the former Virginia coach. Georgia Tech's schedule is more difficult than last season's -- the Yellow Jackets play road games at Kansas, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia -- but it is capable of winning a second consecutive ACC title.

23. Penn State Nittany Lions The Nittany Lions' youth on offense showed during spring practice, which isn't a good thing considering they play defending national champion Alabama in their second game. Sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin, who were the favorites to replace departed quarterback Daryll Clark, were outplayed by freshman Paul Jones during the spring game. The offensive line also was shaky after undergoing major changes. Center Stefan Wisniewski moved to right guard, and junior Quinn Barham emerged as the new left tackle. The defense must replace three linebackers, and tackle Jared Odrick is gone. There's enough talent for Penn State to win nine or 10 games, but it will have to survive road contests at Iowa and Ohio State to challenge for a Big Ten championship.

24. Stanford Cardinal Stanford loses Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart, but quarterback Andrew Luck seems ready to carry the offense on his shoulders next season. Luck showed no signs during spring practice of the broken finger that caused him to miss the Sun Bowl at the end of the 2009 season. Coach Jim Harbaugh was trying to find a replacement for Gerhart during spring practice, but neither Jeremy Stewart or Stepfan Taylor pulled away in the competition. Seven starters are coming back on defense, which is being switched to a 3-4 scheme, 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.

25. Texas A&M Aggies It might be a leap of faith, but the Aggies could be one of the country's most improved teams this coming season. The offense will again be very explosive with quarterback Jerrod Johnson and running backs Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray coming back. Nine starters return on defense, including end Von Miller, who led the country in sacks with 17 last season. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter installed an aggressive 3-4 scheme during the spring as he tries to improve a defense that surrendered too many big plays last season. Improving A&M's special teams also was a priority during the spring.

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

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