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Posted: Friday January 9, 2009 2:39PM; Updated: Sunday January 11, 2009 4:25PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

With Tebow returning, Florida will be the overwhelming favorite in '09

Story Highlights

With Tim Tebow in the mix, the loaded Gators top the early 2009 preseason top 10

The top 10 includes four SEC and three Big 12 teams, plus USC, Utah and VaTech

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With plenty of stars returning, including Major Wright (21) and Ahmad Black (35), Florida will be a top-tier team next season.
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With Tim Tebow returning, Florida will be the most overwhelming preseason favorite in recent memory. Junior linebacker Brandon Spikes is the only player on the Gators' already stout defense that could be gone next season, should he decide to turn pro. Wide receiver Percy Harvin is likely NFL-bound, but all of Florida's speedy tailbacks return, and there are no shortage of other future playmakers waiting in the wings.

An Early Preseason Top 10 for 2009

1) Florida: Remember when the Gators brought back all five starters from their national championship basketball team? We could see the football equivalent. How often does the No. 1 team in the country bring back all 10 or 11 defensive starters? The Gators finished No. 9 nationally in total defense with mostly freshmen and sophomores.

2) Texas: The 'Horns came within a last-second touchdown of playing in Miami. McCoy returns for his senior season after setting an NCAA-record for completion percentage (76.7). So do receivers Jordan Shipley and Malcolm Williams and four starting offensive linemen. Young defensive backs Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas have the makings of potential stars.

3) USC: If quarterback Mark Sanchez returns, the Trojans will bring back 10 starters from the offense that lit up Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans will have to replace nearly their entire starting defense, but several of the reinforcements -- defensive end Everson Griffin, linebacker Chris Gallipo and defensive backs Shareece Wright and Will Harris -- have already played plenty.

4) Oklahoma: The Sooners won't be scoring 60 points a game next season -- nearly the entire offense will turn over, with or without Sam Bradford. But OU's defense, which played admirably against Florida, should be even better. Nine of its starters against the Gators were underclassmen, led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Travis Lewis.

5) Alabama: It's been said that the Tide were a year ahead of schedule in '08. 'Bama was extremely young and, despite losing stalwarts like tackle Andre Smith, center Antoine Caldwell and safety Rashad Johnson, will be more talented across the board. Running backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram return, and new quarterback Greg McElroy gets to throw to Julio Jones.

6) Ole Miss: Houston Nutt's Rebels were one of the hottest teams in the country down the stretch, providing a glimpse of even better things in '09. Quarterback Jevan Snead will emerge as a potential Heisman candidate, and if Ole Miss can continue developing a defense to complement its explosive offense, the Rebels could have their best season since the '60s.

7) Oklahoma State: The Cowboys proved one of the nation's most dynamic offensive teams in '08, and quarterback Zac Robinson, running back Kendall Hunter and wideouts Dez Bryant and Damian Davis all return. The defense remains under heavy suspicion, but those close to the program expect major improvement with a more experienced front seven.

8) Utah: Don't make the mistake of discounting the Utes just because quarterback Brian Johnson and his receivers are graduating. As you saw in the Sugar Bowl, Utah can play some pretty mean defense. Star pass-rushers Paul Kruger, Stevenson Sylvester and seven other starters return on that side. An experienced line should help the offense rebuild.

9) LSU: The Tigers' slip to the land of five losses should prove to be a one-year aberration. In the Chick-fil-A bowl rout of Georgia Tech, Les Miles found a quarterback he can trust in rising sophomore Jordan Jefferson. Star running back Charles Scott returns as well. The defensive front is still loaded with talent, and a year's experience should help a struggling secondary.

10) Virginia Tech: The Hokies are one of just three teams nationally to post five straight 10-win seasons, and they did it this year despite some major rebuilding. Tech will enter '09 with a solidly entrenched quarterback (Tyrod Taylor), a budding star tailback (Darren Evans) and another typically dominant, Bud Foster-led defense (featuring seven returning starters).

Keep an eye on: Oregon, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Penn State, Oregon State.

 
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