- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Spring practices have wrapped up, so it's time to take another look at the preseason top 25. Injuries, suspensions and dismissals littered the spring, but how did they affect the rankings? Well, to start things off, there's been a change at the top.
Raise your hand if you want to see the Buckeyes back in the BCS title game didn't think so. But with an extraordinary number of juniors and seniors returning, Ohio State seems poised to become the first team in the 112-year history of the Big Ten to win three straight outright league titles. Even if the Buckeyes lose at USC on Sept. 13, they might end up playing in the BCS title game in Miami on Jan. 8.
Georgia might be more explosive and talented than Ohio State, but the Bulldogs' schedule is much tougher. The Bulldogs play consecutive road games at South Carolina and Arizona State, then play at LSU and against Florida in Jacksonville. Throw in back-to-back home games against Alabama and Tennessee and a road game at Auburn, and it might be the toughest schedule in the country. If Georgia can navigate its way through the schedule with only one loss (or maybe two), Ohio State could be waiting for the Bulldogs in Miami.
It's all about what's up front for the Sooners. Oklahoma has the country's top offensive line, led by Duke Robinson and Phil Loadholt, and one of the better defensive lines in the Big 12. With coach Bob Stoops switching to a no-huddle offense, the Sooners could be even more explosive than last season, when they led Division I-A with 80 touchdowns. Oklahoma doesn't have to play Missouri and gets Kansas and Texas Tech at home.
4. USC Trojans
Even after losing 10 players to the NFL draft, the Trojans still have future draft picks stacked up like cordwood. Quarterback Mark Sanchez might be better than the departed John David Booty, and Arkansas transfer Damian Williams will become a big-play threat at wide receiver. Trojans coaches believe Allen Bradford has a chance to become the next great USC tailback. The Trojans will be even better on defense than they were last season.
Last year's 9-4 record was pretty humbling for the Gators, especially after they won the BCS title in coach Urban Meyer's second season in 2006. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow won't be the only Gator running the football in 2008. USC transfer Emmanuel Moody and speedy freshman Chris Rainey will help alleviate some of the pressure on Tebow. Eight starters are back from what was a very young defense last season, and end Carlos Dunlap looks like a premier pass-rusher. The Gators play only one really tough road game: at Tennessee on Sept. 20.
With quarterback Chase Daniel and speedy kick returner/receiver Jeremy Maclin back, the Tigers should be explosive again on offense. New starters at left tackle and center must play well. Missouri also returns 10 starters from a very underrated defense, but linebacker is a concern after injuries and defections depleted the unit during the spring. Missouri doesn't play Oklahoma, Texas A&M or Texas Tech.
The Tigers appear to be the best team in the ACC, but how many times have we heard that during coach Tommy Bowden's tenure? The Tigers haven't won an ACC title since 1991, but this might be their best chance in a long, long time. Quarterback Cullen Harper, tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and receiver Aaron Kelly lead what could be a very good offense -- if four new starters play well on the line. Replacing three starting linebackers also is a big concern. Clemson plays four of its first five games at home, but the opener against Alabama in the Georgia Dome will decide how the season goes.
Coach Mack Brown continues to haul in top-five recruiting classes each year, but bringing in defensive coordinator Will Muschamp from Auburn might have been his biggest addition in 2008. Muschamp wants the Longhorns to be meaner and more aggressive this season after they allowed 371.2 yards per game in 2007. On offense, Texas still hasn't settled on a starting tailback to replace Jamaal Charles, who led the Big 12 in rushing before bolting for the NFL draft.
The Mountaineers appear to be the team to beat in the Big East, especially with Rutgers and South Florida each having big holes to fill. Quarterback Pat White and tailback Noel Devine give the Mountaineers the potential to have an explosive offense, and new coach Bill Stewart is very excited about his team's fast linebackers.
10. Auburn Tigers
LSU has dismissed quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, which might open the door for Auburn in the SEC West. New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback for his spread offense, but the Tigers will still be able to run the football. The Tigers will play Tennessee, LSU and Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Florida rotates off the SEC schedule.
The Red Raiders bring back record-setting quarterback Graham Harrell and receiver Michael Crabtree, but coach Mike Leach is most excited about his team's improved defense. Texas Tech is deeper and bigger up front on defense and the addition of a few key juco transfers makes it a big sleeper in the Big 12.
12. LSU Tigers
Even without Perrilloux, the Tigers are still good enough on the offensive line and in the backfield to contend for an SEC title. Redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee doesn't have to make a lot of big plays at quarterback; he just can't make too many mistakes. LSU's defense is still going to be very good, even without All-America tackle Glenn Dorsey and coordinator Bo Pelini, who left for Nebraska.
The Sun Devils aren't standing pat after last year's surprising 10-3 record. Coach Dennis Erickson has installed more four- and five-receiver sets on offense and a lot more blitzes on defense. Erickson is counting on a few juco transfers to help his offensive line, which struggled to protect quarterback Rudy Carpenter and gave up a school-record 55 sacks last season.
14. BYU Cougars
The Cougars look like the best bet from a non-BCS conference to crash the big boys' party this coming season. BYU returns 10 starters from an offense that averaged 442.8 yards and 30.1 points per game. Quarterback Max Hall is surrounded by a myriad of playmakers and should be better in his second full season under center. The defense must replace three of four starting linebackers, but the Cougars will easily be the class of the Mountain West Conference (and might even finish unbeaten).
Coach Phillip Fulmer overhauled much of his coaching staff and brought in Richmond's Dave Clawson to install a spread offense. New quarterback Jonathan Crompton looked good running the attack this spring, but he underwent elbow surgery shortly after practices ended. Safeties Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley are star players in the secondary, but replacing linebacker Jerod Mayo won't be easy. The Volunteers might be third-best in the SEC East behind Georgia and Florida.
The Illini are going to really miss tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who left school after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. Quarterback Juice Williams will have to become more of a passing threat and receiver Arrelious Benn will have to become more involved on offense. Coach Ron Zook has signed three straight nationally ranked recruiting classes, so the Illini's talent continues to get better and better.
17. Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks lost several of the key pieces -- tailback Brandon McAnderson, receiver Marcus Henry, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and cornerback Aqib Talib -- from last year's remarkable 12-1 season. But quarterback Todd Reesing returns to lead what should be another good offense, and new defensive coordinator Clint Bowen inherits nine returning starters. The schedule is much tougher than a year ago, including road games at South Florida and Oklahoma and home games against Texas and Texas Tech.
Neither Allan Evridge nor Dustin Sherer played well enough to win the quarterback job, so coach Bret Bielema will wait until preseason camp to name a starter. Regardless of who starts, the Badgers will rely heavily on a quartet of running backs, led by Zach Brown and P.J. Hill. A defense that has a lot to prove under new coordinator Dave Doeren really needs to have top defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, who broke his right leg during spring practice.
Bill Stull, who injured his thumb in the 2007 opener and missed the rest of the season, moved ahead in the battle for the starting quarterback job. Stull came back with a stronger arm and better mobility. If the Panthers can establish a passing game to balance LeSean McCoy's running, the offense could be pretty explosive. Linebacker Scott McKillop, the top tackler in Division I-A in 2007, leads a defense budding with confidence after upsetting West Virginia 13-9 in last season's finale.
The Hokies were able to rely heavily on Bud Foster's defense last year and still win the ACC and play in the Orange Bowl. But without defensive end Chris Ellis, linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, and cornerback Brandon Flowers, it won't be as easy for Virginia Tech this season. Coach Frank Beamer still hasn't decided how to use quarterbacks Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor, and top tailback Branden Ore was kicked off the team.
The Bulldogs bring back 10 starters on offense, including quarterback Tom Brandstater and tailback Ryan Mathews. Coach Pat Hill will have to replace 2007 WAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Riley. The Bulldogs play a typically tough nonconference schedule with games against Rutgers, Wisconsin and UCLA, so there won't be much room for error.
Can Jim Grobe do it again? Wake Forest again seems as strong as any team in the ACC, where Florida State and Miami continue rebuilding. The Demon Deacons return 14 starters, including quarterback Riley Skinner and tailback Josh Adams. Replacing All-America center Steve Justice and wide receiver Kenneth Moore are top priorities. Wake Forest gets ACC foes Boston College and Clemson at home.
23. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks won't fall off the map after losing tailback Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Dennis Dixon. Sun Bowl hero Justin Roper and three other quarterbacks are battling for the starting job, and juco transfer LeGarrette Blount eased the Ducks' concerns about replacing Stewart. The running game might be really good again if Jeremiah Johnson recovers from a knee injury. The schedule might be pretty difficult with road games at Purdue, USC, Arizona State, California and Oregon State.
The Spartans were very close to accomplishing really big things in coach Mark Dantonio's first season, losing five games by six points or less. If Michigan State can rebuild both of its lines and replace top receivers Devin Thomas and Kellen Davis, they might win those close games in 2008. The Spartans open the season at California and play Michigan and Penn State on the road, but Notre Dame, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin each go to East Lansing, Mich.
Penn State suffered a big blow during spring practice when All-America candidate Sean Lee tore the ACL in his right knee, but 16 other starters are expected back. Quarterback Daryll Clark should be more mobile than departed starter Anthony Morelli and there's a boatload of talented receivers coming back. Road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin are tough tests.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
With spring practices in the rearview mirror, it's time for another look at the early preseason Top 25 for 2008.