At this time last year Rivals.com picked Ohio State to win the 2006 national championship.
OK, so we were close.
SEC champion Florida crushed the Buckeyes in a lopsided championship game Monday night in Glendale, Ariz. The Gators also appeared in our first preseason top 10 a year ago, albeit not quite so high.
So it is that we embark on our first preseason poll for the 2007 season. Yes, it's our first because we'll deliver several between now and our final preseason poll in August. We jump out of the gate right after the curtain falls on the 2006 season in this poll, and our mission statement is to vote only with the knowledge of who already has announced they will turn pro early.
Otherwise, we are to assume that players who have yet to declare are returning to college. We'll update the poll in about two weeks, following the deadline for draft-eligible players to make known their intentions.
Like the Buckeyes a year ago, we have an overwhelming favorite to win the crown.
USC is loaded once again. After the way the Trojans dismantled an excellent Michigan team in the Rose Bowl, they are our pick to win the national title next season.
USC - which started only four seniors, including just one on defense - should emerge as an overwhelming favorite nationally. Our preseason poll has only one other Pac-10 team in the top 25 - California at No. 15.
That means it should be smooth sailing in the conference for the Trojans. They have road games against two other teams in our top 25, No. 14 Nebraska and No. 23 Notre Dame. Still, with John David Booty pulling the strings and a defense that should be nothing short of frightful, USC should be playing for it all.
The conference with the toughest road, according to our poll, will be the SEC. It has six ranked teams, two more than the Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 in our poll. LSU checked in at No. 2 to lead the way for the SEC, with national champ Florida (fifth) the league's other representative in our top 10.
Here is the top 25 in the first Rivals.com preseason poll for 2007:
Rivals.com 2007 Preseason Top 25
John David Booty bided his time in Los Angeles and made the most of it when he finally got his shot to quarterback the Trojans. He completed 242 of 391 passes for 2,956 yards and 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions, establishing himself as a major Heisman threat in 2007. The receiver position will be somewhat depleted, but there is plenty of talent in the wings. The defense, though, could carry the Trojans. It has scary potential, with probably the best secondary in the nation behind a top-notch front seven. USC ranked in the top 10 nationally in run defense, 11th in scoring defense and 20th in total defense. The unit loses only one senior, linebacker Dallas Sartz. Pete Carroll has it rolling, and no one else in the Pac-10 is even close.
A superb effort in the regular season has been lost for many in Ann Arbor amidst the lopsided loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines should bounce back though, because of the best collection of returning skill players in the country. Running back Mike Hart (1,562 yards; at least 91 yards in every regular season game) was a Rivals.com first-team All-American. Quarterback Chad Henne (2,508 passing yards, 22 TDs, eight interceptions) and wide receiver Mario Manningham (20 yards per catch, nine TDs in just seven starts) were on our third team. The defense loses six senior starters, including All-Americans LaMarr Woodley and Leon Hall. Defensive coordinator Ron English will have his hands full to duplicate the success of 2006.
One of the most oft-heard utterances of the 2006 season was: LSU has as much, if not more, talent than any team in the country. Some people refused to believe it, but the realization may have sunk in a little when the Tigers destroyed Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. There is an abundance of talent in Baton Rouge, so much so that we're picking LSU at the top of the heap in a tough year in the SEC. The defense should return seven starters, including one of the top lines in the country. The biggest question will be at safety, where LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels are seniors. On offense, four starters return on the line. There is as much depth at quarterback behind JaMarcus Russell as any team in the country has at the position.
The Mountaineers finished on a high note, rallying from an 18-point second-half deficit to beat Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. Rich Rodriguez had his flirtation with Alabama, but eventually decided to stay in Morgantown. That is good news for fans of the Mountaineers. The entire backfield of quarterback Pat White, running back Steve Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt returns, as do three-fifths of an offensive line that loves to get off the ball and create holes. White and Slaton don't need a lot of room to gain positive yardage. The defense struggled in 2006 (62nd nationally), but it does return seven starters. Nose tackle Keilen Dykes, a first-team All-Big East pick, is the leader.
The Gators lose some key personnel, especially on the defensive side where the front seven will be decimated. UF had 10 senior starters in all, four on offense and six on defense. Much of the pressure to duplicate the success of the 2006 season will fall on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow, who will be called on to do more than just run on third-and-short. There's little doubt, though, that his presence will transform the Gators into more of a running team. Four-fifths of a solid offensive line return, and you can bet you'll see a lot more of Percy Harvin in 2007. The defense will have to wait and see how many of its mega-talented juniors return for the chance to repeat as national champions like the basketball team's juniors did.
The Buckeyes will have to replace Troy Smith, and it has been a while since Jim Tressel entered a season with a question at quarterback. Smith's backup was a fifth-year senior (Justin Zwick) as well. Fortunately for Tressel, he can surround his signal-caller with spectacular playmakers at running back and receiver. OSU also returns three offensive linemen. If all of Ohio State's juniors return for one more year, and we assume in this poll that they will, whoever is under center will throw to a solid group of receivers. The defense, which admirably replaced nine starters from the 2005 team, will have to make up for losing most of its line. However, it has strength everywhere else.
The Hokies are loaded for a strong run in 2007, returning 16 starters from a team that was upset by Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Not only is that a nice number of key returnees to have if you're Frank Beamer, but it's evenly split among offense and defense. Bud Foster's unit led the way in 2006, topping the national rankings in total defense. The Hokies yielding just 219.5 yards per game. Linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi are strong contenders for All-American honors, as is special-teams ace Eddie Royal. Royal led the ACC in punt returns with a 12.0-yard average. The biggest question for Virginia Tech will be at quarterback, where rising junior Sean Glennon (2,097 yards, 11 TDs, eight interceptions) will need to be more consistent.
The Sooners will have a long time to stew over their loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl and the shocking events that led to it. But Bob Stoops & Co. can take solace in the fact they return a whopping 16 starters, including nine on offense. The only problem is one of the guys who has used up his eligibility is quarterback Paul Thompson. Backup Joey Halzle saw action in only one game in 2006. Questions under center notwithstanding, Oklahoma has plenty of reason for optimism. It returns four offensive linemen who helped OU rank 18th nationally in rushing. The Sooners also get back three-fourths of their secondary and all three were named second-team All-Big 12.
The Longhorns lose five starters on each side of the ball, but Mack Brown has been stacking one top recruiting class on another in Austin. The chief concern will be along the offensive line, where the middle (center and both guard spots) will have to be rebuilt. The secondary also was hit hard by graduation, with only free safety Marcus Griffin returning. Still, Brown's bunch should be a top contender with Oklahoma in the Big 12. Colt McCoy grabbed the starting spot at quarterback and made the most of his chance, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for 27 TDs and just seven interceptions. With a year under his belt and receivers like Billy Pittman and Limas Sweed, the sky is the limit on offense.
Bret Bielema started his head coaching career about as well as he could have hoped, becoming just the third coach in NCAA history to post 12 wins in his rookie season. The second-youngest active coach in Division I-A prowled the sidelines like a veteran, and his team responded by playing solid, efficient football. Even bigger things could be on the horizon. Sixteen starters are slated to return, including nine on offense. Yes, quarterback John Stocco - an underrated passer and leader - and All-American left tackle Joe Thomas leave giant shoes to fill, but the rest of the offensive line isn't too shabby. Running back P.J. Hill is back to prove his redshirt freshman season was no fluke. Bielema no doubt will fashion another highly ranked defense with five of the front seven back, too.
At this writing, quarterback Brian Brohm is returning to the Cardinals. The guys who aren't returning are running back Michael Bush and head coach Bobby Petrino, who is making the jump to the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. The Cardinals lose seven starters on defense, but when you play offense like they do (second nationally in total offense, fourth in scoring offense) you don't worry so much about defense. Brohm has top targets Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas back, as well as three offensive linemen. Former Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe has the unenviable task of keeping the offensive juggernaut on track, but at least there is plenty of coal for the engine.
The Bulldogs lose five senior starters on each side of the ball. The most significant losses are along the offensive line, where three starters are gone. The defensive front seven also takes a big hit, losing more than half of its starters. But coach Mark Richt has recruited well over the years, and there is plenty of talent waiting for a chance. It obviously would help matters in Athens if quarterback Matthew Stafford can get a firm grip on the offense and squelch any competition. He seemed to take a step in the right direction with his offensive MVP performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Stafford at least has the luxury of solid players lining up behind him in fullback Brannan Southerland and running back Kregg Lumpkin.
The offense returns seven starters, but the focus will be on a new starter in Lincoln. Arizona State transfer Sam Keller is expected to take the reins at quarterback from Zac Taylor, who enjoyed his finest season under Bill Callahan. Callahan's West Coast offense is taking hold, and Keller will be the beneficiary of a solid nucleus of skill players. Offensive leaders include receivers Maurice Purify and Terrence Nunn and running backs Brandon Jackson and Marlon Lucky. The losses are heaviest on defense for the Cornhuskers, where the entire front four is gone. On the bright side, All-Big 12 linebacker Bo Ruud and three-fourths of the secondary return.
The Tigers lose seven starters on offense and five on defense, so Tommy Tuberville and his staff will have some work to do. Gone are workhorse running back Kenny Irons, receiver Courtney Taylor and all but one offensive lineman. The offensive line figures to be the biggest worry. Auburn has some quality depth at running back. The defense loses standout linebackers Karibi Dede, Will Herring and cornerback David Irons. However, there is always talent to be had when you're one of the elite programs in the SEC. Defensive end Quentin Groves (9.5 sacks) returns, as does defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, a first-team Rivals.com Freshman All-American.
The Golden Bears lose much of their firepower with the decision of running back Marshawn Lynch to leave early for the pros. But Justin Forsett has proven to be a more-than-capable replacement. He returns in the backfield along with quarterback Nate Longshore, who settled in and finished with 3,021 passing yards and 24 TDs. Longshore's favorite target, DeSean Jackson, also is back and should gain more national recognition as a junior. The offensive line has three starters back. The unit that will need the most attention is the defense, which loses six starters - including decorated lineman Brandon Mebane and All-American corner Daymeion Hughes.
A wild and woolly season filled with unthinkable highs and unspeakable lows culminated in a loss to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Along the way Darren McFadden finished as the Heisman runner-up, and a group of parents expressed concern with the head coach and the program. The head coach in this case being Houston Nutt, who hired former Springdale (Ark.) High School coach Gus Malzahn to be his new offensive coordinator. It worked out well enough; Malzahn was named Rivals.com's National Offensive Coordinator of the Year. It helped to have around McFadden and Felix Jones, both of whom return.
The Vols made a nice turnaround from a shocking 5-6 season in 2005 to win nine games. However, a disappointing loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl left room for some grousing from the Orange faithful. With rival Florida winning the national title, don't expect the grousing to die down. Still, UT coach Phillip Fulmer appears to have things headed back in the right direction. Quarterback Erik Ainge was a revelation in 2006 despite mediocre offensive line play. Expect that to change and Ainge to remain solid, though the receiving corps will experience heavy losses. John Chavis' defense also wasn't up to its usual self (50th nationally in total defense), but it did have some major injury problems. The defense returns six starters and should bounce back toward the top 20.
The Nittany Lions quietly have been stockpiling talent, and the trait they've been looking for is speed. Joe Paterno's teams haven't always been the fastest, but they've always been well-coached. When you put speed and coaching together, you're on the verge of a breakthrough. There are significant losses, chief among them running back Tony Hunt and All-American linebacker Paul Posluszny. But much of the offense returns, including quarterback Anthony Morelli and a trio of receivers who could make a major impact in Jordan Norwood, Derrick Williams and Deon Butler. Three offensive linemen also are back. The defense will be led by linebacker Dan Connor, cornerback Justin King and safety Anthony Scirrotto.
The Scarlet Knights return 13 starters from a team that led the program to new heights. But the most important returnee is coach Greg Schiano. He was targeted by many of the programs looking for a head coach, but Rutgers was able to convince him to stay in Piscataway. Schiano believes he has it going at the state university of New Jersey, and who's to argue with a season that narrowly missed out on the BCS? Running back Ray Rice returns to lead the offense, which also has emerging wide receiver Kenny Britt and three-fifths of the line that made such big holes for Rice. The defense loses four of its front seven, but don't expect too much of a dropoff from a unit that ranked fourth nationally a year ago.
Remember when Penn State was written off after a few poor seasons? Unlike Penn State in the early 2000s, Florida State is still making bowl games ? and winning them (the Seminoles beat UCLA 44-27 in the Emerald Bowl). The bloodletting in the offensive staff should turn the team around with LSU's Jimbo Fisher taking over for maligned coordinator Jeff Bowden. West Virginia's Rick Trickett is also a good bet to get more out of the offensive line. The defense will be a year older, but it still loses senior linebacker Buster Davis and linebacker Lawrence Timmons - a junior who already declared for the draft.
Although the Aggies' season ended with a 45-10 drubbing at the hands of Cal in the Holiday Bowl, Texas A&M's 2006 season has to be one of the best turnarounds of the year. Dennis Franchione went into the season on the hot seat, but goes into 2007 with a little momentum thanks to a win over Texas in Austin. The Aggies can look forward to another powerful ground game with quarterback Stephen McGee and running back Jorvorskie Lane, who had 19 touchdown runs. Look for Texas A&M to find more ways to get the ball to explosive running back Mike Goodson. The Aggies' defense should have plenty of experience with only four seniors leaving.
Charlie Weis has his work cut out for him in Year Three. Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and 15 other seniors who started the Sugar Bowl are gone. Jimmy Clausen, Rivals.com's top recruit in 2007, Demetrius Jones, Zach Frazer and 2006 backup Evan Sharpley will compete to replace Quinn. The Irish will have two full Charlie Weis signing classes to replenish the roster, but the only freshman to see consistent playing time in '06 was offensive tackle Sam Young. The youth on the roster won't have much time to adjust with road trips to Michigan, Penn State, Purdue and UCLA and home games against Georgia Tech and Michigan State making up the first half of the season.
Hawaii's pass-first offense will make sure the Warriors are routinely among the top statistical offenses in the country, but quarterback Colt Brennan makes Hawaii a contender for the next mid-major breakthrough. The Warriors were second in the WAC to undefeated Boise State in 2006, and they ended the year with a convincing win over Arizona State in the Hawaii Bowl. The only thing that will stop Hawaii from joining Boise State and Utah as a BCS bowl team is road trips. Two of Hawaii's three losses came on the mainland (to the Broncos and Alabama).
Boston College extended its bowl winning streak to seven games without Tom O'Brien. Now, the Eagles will have to continue their regular-season consistency without him as well. Jeff Jagodzinski takes over a team that has won at least eight games in six consecutive years. The Eagles' top playmakers will be seniors for their rookie coach. Quarterback Matt Ryan returns as the ACC's leader in total offense. The Eagles also bring back linebackers Jolonn Dunbar and Brian Toal and cornerback DeJuan Tribble
The Tigers limped out of the season with four losses in their final five games, including a loss to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. Running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller form one of the most dangerous running tandems in the country. That's good news for the Tigers, who will have to replace fifth-year senior Will Proctor at quarterback. Among the leading candidates will be true freshman Willy Korn. Star defensive end Gaines Adams departs, but leaves behind a large group of returning starters - including rising senior cornerback C.J. Gaddis.
Also receiving votes: Wake Forest, UCLA, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Maryland, South Florida, South Carolina, Oregon, Alabama, Miami, TCU, Miami, Boise State, Missouri