January 8, 2008

Who's next? Tough to look past the Trojans

THE LIST: Rivals.com 2008 Preseason Top 25

Even after a season filled with upsets, surprises, twists and turns, we're back where we started for 2008.

USC began last season as a near-unanimous pick for the top spot in the polls. One rival coach predicted the 2007 Trojans could be one of the best teams in the history of college football.

After that coach - Stanford's Jim Harbaugh - defeated USC in one of the biggest upsets in memory, the Trojans had work to do to make sure they'd be one of the best teams in the Pac-10 by the end of the season.

They succeeded at that.

Key players got healthy and USC rediscovered its swagger in November, reeling off five consecutive wins to end the season. All five wins were over bowl teams, including a 49-17 rout of Illinois in the Rose Bowl.

Though USC loses at least 10 key starters, the Trojans showed enough potential over the final month of '07 to think they'll have a bright future in '08. That is why the Trojans are Rivals.com's early pick let's make that early, early pick for No. 1 in 2008.

USC loses six offensive starters, including quarterback John David Booty, leading rusher Chauncey Washington, leading receiver Fred Davis and three starting linemen, including two-time All-America tackle Sam Baker. Defensively, USC loses the backbone of two Pac-10 title teams defensive end Lawrence Jackson, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, linebacker Keith Rivers and cornerback Terrell Thomas.

Though junior linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing say they will return for their senior seasons, USC still is waiting on a decision from guard Chilo Rachal on the NFL Draft.

Should all return, it could be another national championship season in Los Angeles. Under Pete Carroll, the Trojans rarely lack for replacements. Thanks to injuries, USC got a sneak peak at several contributors through the season. Six freshmen started during the season, including five on offense.

That number doesn't include perhaps the biggest difference-maker for 2008 tailback Joe McKnight. Rivals.com's second-ranked player in the 2007 class, McKnight will enter his sophomore season off a spectacular performance in the Rose Bowl. He had 125 rushing yards, 45 receiving yards and 36 punt-return yards, averaging 10.8 yards per touch.

Defensive end Everson Griffen (5.5 sacks in 2007) also will step into a more prominent role.

Troublesome for USC will be the departure of Booty, whose injuries coincided with the Trojans' two losses. He broke his finger in a 24-23 loss to Stanford, and he was absent for the Trojans' 24-17 loss to Oregon. Once-heralded recruit Mark Sanchez, 2-1 as a starter, returns. However, former five-star recruit Mitch Mustain will be eligible following his transfer from Arkansas.

Also working in USC's favor is its schedule. The Trojans face Ohio State, another candidate for No. 1, in the second game of the season at home. The Trojans also will have their toughest conference games at home, facing Arizona State, Oregon and California at the Coliseum.

All signs point to another banner season for USC. Thanks to the events of 2007, though, don't expect quite so much hype surrounding the Trojans in '08.

Rivals.com 2008 Preseason Top 25: Jan. 8
1. USC (11-2)
Putting USC at the top is a safe pick because the Trojans annually win their conference, earn a BCS bid and play their best at the end of the season.
2. Georgia (11-2)
Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno will give the Bulldogs one of the nation's top quarterback/tailback duos.
3. Ohio State (11-2)
The Buckeyes' title hopes could depend on whether potential first-round picks Vernon Gholston, James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins stay in school.
4. Oklahoma (11-3)
Quarterback Sam Bradford will try to build on his outstanding freshman campaign while leading a team that could return as many as 17 starters.
5. Missouri (12-2)
The Tigers should return three 2007 Rivals.com All-America selections in quarterback Chase Daniel, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and free safety William Moore.
6. Florida (9-4)
You know that offense will rack up some points, but the Gators' defense must get a whole lot better.
7. West Virginia (11-2)
The Mountaineers hope the expected returns of Pat White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine on offense will compensate for heavy graduation losses on defense.
8. LSU (12-2)
The Tigers lose tons of talent on both sides of the ball, but they have plenty of former four- and five-star prospects ready to replace them.
9. Auburn (9-4)
Auburn's biggest losses are on the sideline, as they must adjust to a new offense and find a replacement for departed defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
10. Clemson (9-4)
With so much talent back on offense and defense, the Tigers can't come up short in a big situation again. Can they?
11. Kansas (12-1)
The Jayhawks could be even stronger than they were this season. They'll need to be better now that they no longer avoid Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech.
12. BYU (11-2)
If the Cougars beat Washington and UCLA in September, they might not lose all season.
13. Virginia Tech (11-3)
The Hokies' hopes of contending for anything beyond an ACC title rest on whether cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Victor Harris return to school.
14. Texas (10-3)
The Longhorns are banking on Will Muschamp's arrival to boost a defense that struggled up until its bowl game this season.
15. Wisconsin (9-4)
The Badgers have a big question mark at quarterback, but they look solid just about everywhere else.
16. Illinois (9-4)
Rashard Mendenhall's decision to enter the NFL Draft will make it tougher for the Illini to prove they're not just a one-season wonder.
17. Texas Tech (9-4)
The Harrell-to-Crabtree combination will give Big 12 defensive coordinators plenty of sleepless nights next season.
18. Oregon (9-4)
The Sun Bowl proved how dangerous this team can be if it gets consistency from its quarterback, but the Ducks must go on the road to face USC, California, Arizona State and Oregon State.
19. Arizona State (10-3)
Rudy Carpenter returns to work behind a retooled line that has to do a better job of protecting him.
20. Penn State (9-4)
The last time Penn State had a quarterback as run-oriented as Daryll Clark, Michael Robinson led the Nittany Lions to an Orange Bowl title.
21. Tennessee (10-4)
Uncertainty at quarterback and offensive coordinator prevents us from ranking the Vols any higher.
22. South Florida (9-4)
The offense should be better than this season's, but the Bulls will have a tough time replacing cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams.
23. Michigan (9-4)
The Wolverines could have some growing pains as they adjust to new coach Rich Rodriguez and his spread offense.
24. South Carolina (6-6)
This is a leap of faith considering how the Gamecocks ended 2007, but we're guessing South Carolina should have one of the nation's most improved teams.
25. Wake Forest (9-4)
Jim Grobe's decision not to go to Arkansas assures that Wake Forest once again will have the coaching edge in just about every game it plays next fall.

Rivals.com football staff members Steve Megargee, David Fox, Olin Buchanan and Mike Huguenin compiled the Rivals.com Preseason Top 25.



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