An early crack at an '09 top 25
'Big Four' Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and USC stand miles above the rest
The one other team worthy of a top five spot? The surging Ole Miss Rebels
Penn State and Ohio State are the only top 20 Big Ten teams, at Nos. 15 and 16
The biggest question heading into the 2009 college football season isn't who's No. 1 (umm ... that would be Florida). It isn't even who should be Nos. 2-4 (Texas' Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford return for the Red River rivals, and USC is loaded as usual).
The question is: Who the heck should be No. 5?
In compiling this initial, absurdly early stab at next season's top 25 teams, the extent of the drop-off between the projected top-four teams to everybody else struck me. Mind you, it's hardly a guarantee things will play out this way, but on paper, as of today, you'd be hard-pressed to find any team that returns remotely as much proven talent as those Big Four.
So who did I end up going with at No. 5? Ole Miss. It probably seems laughable to many of you that Ole Miss -- Ole Miss -- could possibly field a top five team, but take a look at some of the other contenders, then consider the Rebels' résumé. They won six straight to end last season, including a Cotton Bowl victory over 11-1 Texas Tech, and they welcome back 17 starters, including premier quarterback Jevan Snead.
The rest of the top 10 consists of Oklahoma State, which has all the big names from its star-studded offense; Alabama, which will be inexperienced at quarterback and offensive line but loaded elsewhere; Virginia Tech, which has now posted five straight 10-win seasons; Oregon, which has star QB Jeremiah Masoli and RB LeGarrette Blount returning, but got wiped out at O-line and wide receiver; and Boise State, which came within one point of a perfect season.
Read on for more details.
1. Florida (13-1 in 2008)
Who's back: QB Tim Tebow, DE Carlos Dunlap, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Joe Haden, S Ahmad Black.
Who's not: WRs Percy Harvin* and Louis Murphy, T Phil Trautwein, G Jim Tartt.
Skinny: The defending champs return a former Heisman winner at quarterback, their top three tailbacks and, remarkably, their entire starting defense.
2. Texas (12-1)
Who's back: QB Colt McCoy, WR Jordan Shipley, T Adam Ulatoski, LBs Sergio Kindle and Roddrick Muckelroy.
Who's not: WR Quan Cosby, DE Brian Orakpo, DT Roy Miller, CB Ryan Palmer.
Skinny: McCoy and the offense should be potent again, and last year's young secondary should improve with another year under Will Muschamp.
3. Oklahoma (12-2)
Who's back: QB Sam Bradford, RBs DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown, TE Jermaine Gresham, DT Gerald McCoy.
Who's not: WRs Jauquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson, T Phil Loadholt, G Duke Robinson, S Nic Harris.
Skinny: Bradford's return is huge for an offense that must retool its line and receiving corps. The defense has nine starters back from the BCS title game.
4. USC (12-1)
Who's back: RBs C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight, WR Damian Williams, S Taylor Mays.
Who's not: QB Mark Sanchez*, DT Fili Moala, LBs Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, S Kevin Ellison.
Skinny: New QB Aaron Corp or Mitch Mustain will have a solid supporting cast. The defense loses a boatload of staples but should be able to reload.
5. Ole Miss (9-4)
Who's back: QB Jevan Snead, RB/WR Dexter McCluster, DE Greg Hardy, CB Marshay Green, S Kendrick Lewis.
Who's not: T Michael Oher, DT Peria Jerry, LBs Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer.
Skinny: After knocking off Florida, LSU and Texas Tech, the Rebels are ready to take the next step behind star QB Snead. Hardy's return is a huge boost.
6. Oklahoma State (9-4)
Who's back: QB Zac Robinson, RB Kendall Hunter, WR Dez Bryant, T Russell Okung, LB Andre Sexton.
Who's not: TE Brandon Pettigrew, CB Jacob Lacey, S Ricky Price, P Matt Fodge.
Skinny: The Cowboys will score points in bunches, as nearly every key player is back from the nation's sixth-ranked offense. Pass defense remains a concern.
7. Alabama (12-2)
Who's back: RB Mark Ingram, WR Julio Jones, NT Terrence Cody, LB Rolando McClain, CB Javier Arenas.
Who's not: QB John Parker Wilson, RB Glen Coffee*, T Andre Smith*, C Antoine Caldwell, S Rashad Johnson.
Skinny: The Tide has all but two starters back from the nation's No. 3 defense. They'll need the D to carry them early while breaking in a new QB and O-linemen.
8. Virginia Tech (10-4)
Who's back: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Darren Evans, DE Jason Worilds, CB Stephan Virgil, S Kam Chancellor.
Who's not: G Nick Marshman, DE Orion Martin, LB Purnell Sturdivant, CB Macho Harris.
Skinny: The Hokies have a dangerous backfield tandem in Taylor and breakout star Evans. Seven starters return from a defense that jelled late in the season.
9. Oregon (10-3)
Who's back: QB Jeremiah Masoli, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Ed Dickson, CBs Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond.
Who's not: RB Jeremiah Johnson, WR Jaison Williams, OL Max Unger, DE Nick Reed, S Patrick Chung.
Skinny: Masoli and Blount should lead another explosive offense, though the Ducks will need to rebuild their O-line. The defense has several key holes to fill.
10. Boise State (12-1)
Who's back: QB Kellen Moore, RB Jeremy Avery, DE Ryan Winterswyk, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jeron Johnson.
Who's not: RB Ian Johnson, WRs Jeremy Childs* and Vinny Perretta, LB Kyle Gingg, S Ellis Powers.
Skinny: Boise will produce another dangerous offense but could take a step back on D. As a freshman last season, Moore was the nation's No. 12 passer.