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Stewart Mandel Inside College Football

Post-spring Power Rankings

Trojans, Tigers still loaded, but Bulldogs have fewer questions

Posted: Thursday April 29, 2004 11:46AM; Updated: Thursday April 29, 2004 12:14PM

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In the immediate aftermath of their Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on Jan. 1, USC players already were being asked about next season. With what was expected to be 16 returning starters and another batch of instant-impact freshmen on the way, the Trojans seemed like an obvious choice for preseason No. 1.

A few days later, All-America defensive end Kenechi Udeze turned pro. Then came superstar Mike Williams' ill-fated departure in February. On the eve of spring practices, stud right tackle Winston Justice, one of just two returning starters on the offensive line, was lost for the year following his arrest and suspension for flashing a pellet gun at a student. Starting fullback Brandon Hancock had knee surgery and is out for the season, too.

Is USC still loaded despite these setbacks? Absolutely. Reggie Bush, who may be the most talented player in the country, was a third-string tailback last year, for crying out loud. There's speed across the board at the skill positions, and the defensive front should once again be dominant.

But with so many questions -- like whether Heisman hopeful Matt Leinart will have enough time to throw -- it's hard to declare with confidence that the Trojans are strongest team in the country coming out of spring football.

Admittedly, Georgia suffered its own potential crisis when starting linebacker Tony Taylor tore his ACL in the spring game.

But this is a team that lost nearly half its projected starting defense to injury last season and still went 11-3, with two of those defeats coming to co-national champ LSU.

Of the five teams I considered for No. 1 -- USC, Oklahoma, LSU, Miami and Georgia -- the Dawgs, who return 10 starters on offense (led by fourth-year QB David Greene) and three potential All-Americas on defense (end David Pollack, safety Thomas Davis and linebacker Odell Thurman), have the fewest question marks.

Which is why they're my post-spring No. 1.

NCAA Football Power Rankings
Rank LW (1/5/04) Team
1 7 Georgia Bulldogs (11-3 in 2003)
With an improved offensive line (all five were first-year starters a year ago), the big-play tandem of Greene and receiver Fred Gibson were back in 2002 form this spring, while sophomore Kregg Lumpkin has broken from the pack of talented tailbacks.
2 1 USC Trojans (12-1)
The loss of receivers Williams (assuming the NCAA does not reinstate him) and Keary Colbert hurts, but sophomores Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis shone throughout the spring. The "Wild Bunch" carried on, with Shaun Cody moving to end to make room for emerging tackle Manuel Wright.
3 3 Oklahoma Sooners (12-2)
Jason White, the first returning Heisman winner in 13 years, sat out most of spring, but the offense should again be potent with nine returning starters. There are questions on defense, though, with four stars and co-coordinator Mike Stoops gone.
4 2 LSU Tigers (13-1)
Quarterback is a question, with senior Marcus Randall the best of an undistinguished trio. The good news is young receivers Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis stood out, while juco transfers Mario Stevenson and Claude Wroten helped the defense reload.
5 4 Miami (FL) Hurricanes (11-2)
QB Brock Berlin, coming off a 17-interception season, had a good spring game and protected his job, while sophomore Darnell Jenkins emerged as a new receiving threat. The D-line largely dominated the O-line during spring, which could be a good or bad sign.
6 11 Texas Longhorns (10-3)
New coordinator Greg Robinson's impact was felt on the defense, where the linebackers look strong. QB Vince Young worked on the passing game, which features several new receivers. Freshman Limas Sweed is the most promising.
7 6 Ohio St. Buckeyes (11-2)
The core of the Buckeyes' past two teams has departed, but there is no shortage of emerging talent on defense. Behind an improved offensive line, RB Lydell Ross has looked sharp. Quarterback, most likely sophomore Justin Zwick, is the biggest question.
8 14 Florida St. Seminoles (10-3)
On offense, QB Chris Rix was his usual inconsistent self this spring, but RB Lorenzo Booker is poised for a huge year. Despite numerous losses, FSU could be dominant defensively, with LBs A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims the breakout stars.
9 -- Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-3)
Too high? Not if the defense is as stout as it looked this spring. Coupled with the nation's most dominant rushing tandem (Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney) and impressive sophomore QB Bryan Cupito, this could be the Gophers' year.
10 -- Florida Gators (8-5)
While it's hard to read too much into a spring game, sophomore QB Chris Leak and his young receivers (Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell and Reggie Lewis) were explosive and tailback Ciatrick Fason dominant. Then again, the Gators' secondary is young and suspect.
11 5 Michigan Wolverines (10-3)
QB Matt Gutierrez appears to be a capable replacement for John Navarre, and he has three terrific receivers to throw to, but no go-to tailback has emerged. Linebacker and secondary should be strong, but there's not much depth along the D-line.
12 12 Kansas St. Wildcats (11-4)
Sophomore Dylan Meier has early dibs at quarterback, but his job will be mostly to hand off to Darren Sproles. The defense lost several standouts, but LB Marvin Simmons, a juco transfer and former USC signee, is poised for a breakthrough season.
13 10 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-3)
The Hawkeyes lost nearly their entire starting offense and special teams units, but sophomore QB Drew Tate performed admirably throughout the spring, and the defense, led by LBs Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway, is flat-out loaded.
14 -- West Virginia Mountaineers (8-5)
The offense should be explosive with receiver Chris Henry (who caught 13 passes for 200 yards in the spring game) and likely breakout RB Kay-Jay Harris. Injuries to several starters allowed coaches to develop depth on defense.
15 -- California Golden Bears (8-6)
In addition to returning star Geoff McArthur, three freshman receivers, Sam DeSa, Sean Young and Noah Smith, emerged as new threats in the passing and return games. Freshman CB Thomas DeCoud bolstered the secondary.
16 -- Clemson Tigers (9-4)
QB Charlie Whitehurst is the main reason for optimism at Clemson, but Tommy Bowden's focus this spring was on improving the defensive line, which responded with eight sacks in the spring game. Offensive tackle could be a problem.
17 -- Maryland Terrapins (10-3)
Sophomore QB Joel Statham was impressive enough to earn an early endorsement from Ralph Friedgen. With just four returning starters on defense, QB Chris Kelley moved to safety and excelled. So did linebacker Shawne Merriman.
18 -- Utah Utes (10-2)
The offense, led by returning QB Alex Smith and WRs Paris Warren and Steve Savoy, should be potent. Much-improved senior LB Tommy Hackenbruck emerged as a capable replacement for leading tackler Ray Holdcraft.
19 -- Wisconsin Badgers (7-6)
There's no question the Badgers will be proficient at running the ball (with Anthony Davis and Booker Stanley) and stopping the run (with Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson). Sophomore John Stocco emerged as the starting quarterback.
20 -- Virginia Cavaliers (8-5)
The Cavs' two-year youth movement as paid off with an extremely experienced group, but one key face is missing: QB Matt Schaub. In his place, Marques Hagans has held off Anthony Martinez and Notre Dame transfer Chris Olsen.
21 -- Missouri Tigers (8-5)
Everyone knows about QB Brad Smith, but running backs Damien Nash and Marcus Woods were the pleasant surprises of spring. The defense, much improved late last season, returns nine starters, but the offensive line is a concern.
22 -- TCU Horned Frogs (11-2)
The heart of last year's high-scoring offense is back: QB Brandon Hassell and RB Robert Merrill. The defensive front must be rebuilt, but juco cornerbacks Quincy Butler and Drew Coleman made an immediate impact.
23 -- Auburn Tigers (8-5)
Following last year's flop, new offensive coordinator Al Borges focused on improving the Tigers' downfield passing game. The defense, depleted of several stalwarts, mostly struggled, though LB Antarrious Williams emerged as a rising star.
24 -- Oregon Ducks (8-5)
The Ducks are closer to the team that beat Michigan than the one that got crushed by Washington and Washington State. Junior Kellen Clemens is finally the undisputed quarterback. Pass defense continues to be a concern.
25 -- Toledo Rockets (8-4)
With Ben Roethlisberger and Josh Harris departed, Toledo's Bruce Gradkowski is now the king of MAC quarterbacks. Receiver Lance Moore, who led the nation with 103 catches, also returns. The D-line needs to improve drastically.

Notable omissions: Tennessee (QB situation is a mess), Nebraska (will struggle the first year to adapt to the West Coast offense), Washington State (massive attrition) and Virginia Tech (not falling for that one again).

On the cusp: Louisville (QB Stefan LeFors, RBs Eric Shelton and Michael Bush all return), Oklahoma State (Josh Fields' uncertain status doesn't help), N.C. State (replacing Philip Rivers will be no small chore) and Notre Dame (Brady Quinn looks a lot further along).

Stewart Mandel's Power Rankings also serve as his ballot in the Football Writers Association/Grantland Rice Super 16 Poll.

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