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Buck starts here

Ohio State No. 1 after spring, but field is wide open

Posted: Tuesday April 25, 2006 10:43AM; Updated: Tuesday April 25, 2006 6:22PM
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Brady Quinn and the Irish should improve in Year 2 under head coach Charlie Weis.
Brady Quinn and the Irish should improve in Year 2 under head coach Charlie Weis.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

Trying to pick an early No. 1 team for 2006 is a lot like trying to find a decent lunch at the food court in your local mall: None of the choices are particularly appetizing, so you might as well just pick something and go with it.

Do you go with one of last year's standbys, Texas and USC, even though both must replace franchise players? Do you take a chance on offensive juggernaut Ohio State despite all those unfamiliar faces on defense? Are you willing to overlook that Fiesta Bowl meltdown amidst all the tempting star power of Notre Dame? Was that West Virginia Sugar Bowl show a fluke or a sign of things to come? And, oh yeah, what about Oklahoma, which has a healthy Adrian Peterson?

After much debate, I decided to go with the Buckeyes -- for now. Perhaps I drank too much of the Kool-Aid during my recent trip to Columbus, but no one there seems particularly worried about the young defense, particularly with stud freshman running back Chris Wells joining an already loaded offense. We'll find out plenty about OSU quickly enough: The Buckeyes are at Texas on Sept. 9.

NCAA Football Power Rankings
Rank LW School
1 -- Key returnees: QB Troy Smith, WR Ted Ginn Jr., RB Antonio Pittman, DT Quinn Pitcock

Spring star: LB Ross Homan. The true freshman turned heads, drawing comparisons to a young A.J. Hawk.

Lowdown: The offense, which in addition to Smith, Ginn and Pittman welcomed top-rated high school RB Chris Wells during the spring, should be nothing short of powerful. The question is how quickly the Buckeyes' nine new defensive starters -- most of them highly touted, but untested -- jell.
2 -- Key returnees: RB Jamaal Charles, T Justin Blalock, DT Frank Okam, S Michael Griffin

Spring star: TE Jermichael Finley. The pass-catching redshirt freshman could be a more athletic version of departed star David Thomas.

Lowdown: Replacing QB Vince Young with a pair of freshmen, Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead, might seem like a recipe for disaster, but the 'Horns are so loaded at the skill positions and on defense that it's been apparent they'll still be able to win without the quarterbacks running for 200 yards.
3 -- Key returnees: QB Brady Quinn, WR Jeff Samardzija, RB Darius Waker, S Tom Zbikowski

Spring star: QB Jimmy Clausen (H.S. junior). The prep star's much-anticipated announcement on Saturday that he was committing to the Irish upstaged ND's spring game.

Lowdown: With four veteran starters on the line to go with Quinn and the skill guys, coach Charlie Weis' offense, 10th in the country last season, figures to be even more potent. Nine starters return on defense, but the key will be developing a better pass rush and more consistent cornerbacks.
4 -- Key returnees: QB Pat White, RB Steve Slaton, C Dan Mozes, LB Kevin McClee

Spring star: DB Quinton Andrews. The hard-hitting redshirt freshman is pushing for a starting spot in WVU's 3-3-5 stack.

Lowdown: The Mountaineers spent the spring cultivating a more productive passing game to go with the already powerful running combo of Slaton and White. The defense, which played a valuable but unsung role last season, will need several youngsters to step up in the secondary.
5 --
LSU Tigers (11-2)
Key returnees: QB JaMarcus Russell, WR Dwayne Bowe, FS LaRon Landry, LB Ali Highsmith

Spring star: DT Glenn Dorsey. LSU coach Les Miles says Dorsey is just as talented as departed stars Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten.

Lowdown: With Russell sitting out spring, backups Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux made their push for playing time. The Tigers shouldn't have a problem reloading on defense, but running back (Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent are both coming off torn ACLs) and offensive line remain question marks.
6 -- Key returnees: RB Adrian Peterson, LB Rufus Alexander, DE Carl Thibodeaux, DE C.J. Ah You

Spring star: CB Reggie Smith. The heralded sophomore, who moved from safety to corner, has the looks of a big-time playmaker.

Lowdown: With eight returning starters, the Sooners will likely trot out their best defense in several years, and a healthy Peterson is obviously a major luxury. The season will turn on how well the young offensive line can protect QB Rhett Bomar, who himself needs to develop.
7 -- Key returnees: WR Dwayne Jarrett, WR Steve Smith, C Ryan Kalil, DE Lawrence Jackson

Spring star: FB Ryan Powdrell. Pressed into tailback duties because of injuries, the 260-pounder showed surprising running ability.

Lowdown: The offense will remain a mystery until the fall, when QB John David Booty returns from back surgery and several freshmen arrive to replenish the depleted backfield. The Trojans' front seven should be strong, particularly at linebacker, but the secondary could be a weakness again.
8 -- Key returnees: RB Marshawn Lynch, RB Justin Forsett, WR DeSean Jackson, CB Daymeion Hughes

Spring star: LB Worrell Williams. The athletic sophomore was a standout in practices and will likely earn a starting spot.

Lowdown: New offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar installed components of the spread offense, a scary thought considering Cal's plethora of weapons. The only question is which quarterback, Nate Longshore or Joe Ayoob, will run it. The defense, extremely young last year, should be improved.
9 -- Key returnees: QB Chad Henne, WR Mario Manningham, RB Mike Hart, LB LaMarr Woodley

Spring star: LB Shawn Crable. With an impressive spring, the junior is on his way to bumping one of UM's returning starters.

Lowdown: With new coordinators on both offense (Mike DeBord, coordinator for the 1997 title team) and defense (Ron English), the Wolverines figure to be less predictable than past seasons. Much of the O-line and backfield have slimmed down in hopes of becoming a quicker running team.
10 -- Key returnees: RB Kenny Irons, QB Brandon Cox, DE Marquies Gunn, LB Will Herring

Spring star: LB Tray Blackmon. The hard-hitting redshirt freshman won the starting weakside linebacker job.

Lowdown: New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (Nick Saban's former aide) spent much of spring tinkering with his personnel, including moving productive safety Herring to linebacker. Irons gives the Tigers a powerful runner, but some new receivers will need to emerge.