Posted: Monday August 16, 2010 11:40AM ; Updated: Tuesday August 17, 2010 11:51AM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Alabama enters 2010 where it ended '09 -- as nation's top team

Story Highlights

History shows Tide are unlikely to repeat, but as of now Alabama is the best team

Boise has found a BCS loophole, and has a real chance to play for the BCS title

Big Ten is loaded, but Ohio State has depth to emerge from league play unscathed

2010 Preseason Top 25
The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches' polls have agreed on a preseason No. 1 each year from 2000-09. Most likely, they'll agree again this year. The coaches already have tabbed Alabama to repeat as BCS champ, and the hacks (of which I'm one) have turned in ballots that will be released later this week. Most of those ballots probably will have Alabama at No. 1 -- just like mine.

If recent history is any indication, we'll be wrong. The last time the AP and coaches' polls correctly predicted the BCS champion in their preseason polls was 2004, when USC topped both in August and again in January 2005. Of course, if you're an Auburn fan, you'll probably argue they got it wrong in 2004 as well.

So, you ask, why did I pick Alabama knowing that A) The popular No. 1 choice rarely wins the title and B) no school has repeated as BCS champ since the system began in 1998? Because I believe Alabama is the best team, and I will continue to believe that until I see evidence otherwise on the field. That could come in September, or it might not come until December. But, if the trend of the past 10 years holds, that evidence will come sometime this season.

Recent history also suggests that we won't have to look far down the list to find the national champs. In the past six years, the lowest the eventual BCS champ has been ranked is No. 8 (Florida, in 2006, by the coaches, with the candlestick, in the study). In fact, 2006 is the only year since 2004 that the eventual BCS champ didn't start in the top five of both polls.

This is why Boise State -- No. 5 in the coaches' poll and probably the same or higher in the AP -- has a real chance to play for the national title if the Broncos go undefeated. Boise State found the loophole in the BCS; as long as you start the season ranked high enough, it doesn't really matter who you play as long as you play one or two decent games and go undefeated. For lovers of underdogs and proponents of playoffs, this is a beautiful thing. Anything that exposes the BCS for the popularity contest it is works for me.

Now, about the rankings:

This list is identical to the preseason AP poll ballot I sent in earlier this month. During the season, the rankings also will mirror my AP poll ballot unless something crazy (major injury, suspension, bloodless coup) takes place between Sunday morning -- when my AP ballot is due -- and Tuesday morning -- when the power rankings are due. Your input via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook is welcome. In fact, I'm adding two new features to each week's rankings to recognize your submissions. The first is the Told You So of the Week, which will feature a message from a reader who correctly skewered my rankings. The second is the Disgrace to the University, which will honor one (unedited) submission from the kind of reader who types "YOUR AN IDIOT" and hits send.

And before you fine folks in the Tar Heel State crank up your typing fingers, an explanation: I removed North Carolina from these rankings because Chapel Hill seems to be the epicenter of the NCAA's agent investigation. Since we don't know who might have to sit out for the Heels yet, I'm making like Vegas and taking them off the board. Obviously, if they whip LSU in Atlanta, I'll add them back to the poll.

 
1
Alabama Crimson Tide
2009 Record: 14-0
Returning Starters: 10 (eight offense, two defense)
Key returnees: RB Mark Ingram, WR Julio Jones, QB Greg McElroy, OG Barrett Jones, S Mark Barron, LB Donta' Hightower

First game: Sept. 4 vs. San Jose State

A team that lost so many defensive starters probably shouldn't begin the season where it ended the last one, but Alabama is an unusual case. Coach Nick Saban's first full recruiting class (2008) is now hitting its stride, and most of the new defensive starters have higher ceilings than the guys they replaced. That doesn't mean they'll be as good right away as the group that led the Crimson Tide to a national title last season; chemistry like that unit had is difficult to duplicate. Of course, Alabama also boasts the returning Heisman Trophy winner (Ingram) and a backup who might be just as good or better (Trent Richardson). Saban wants McElroy to be a bit more of a gunslinger this season, which could mean bigger numbers for Jones. Of course, with a great line and great backs, the Tide might be better off moving six yards at a time and eating the clock to give that inexperienced defense a chance to catch its breath every once in a while.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
2
Boise State Broncos
2009 Record: 14-0
Returning Starters: 19 (nine offense, 10 defense)
Key returnees: QB Kellen Moore, WR Titus Young, WR Austin Pettis, CB Brandyn Thompson, DE Ryan Winterswyk, S Jeron Johnson

First game: Sept. 6 vs. Virginia Tech (Landover, Md.)

Here's a prediction I know will come true: Most of the complaints I'll receive about this poll will point to this particular slot. The power-conference apologists will whine that Boise State would lose three games if it had to slog through a tough conference slate. Maybe, but those people always fail to realize that if Boise State played in the Big 12 or Pac-10, it would have Big 12 or Pac-10 players instead of the collection of two- and three-star recruits that Coach Chris Petersen and his staff have turned into stars. The argument falls flat after that. This isn't an excuse for Boise State -- just an answer to a silly argument. I'm not grading on a curve here. I ranked Boise State No. 2 because I believe that the Broncos -- on a neutral field -- would beat the teams ranked below them and lose to Alabama. Now, if you want us to stop talking about Boise State and stop ranking the Broncos so high, there is an easy solution. When your favorite power-conference program plays the Broncos, it better beat them. Virginia Tech gets the next shot on Labor Day.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
3
Ohio State Buckeyes
2009 Record: 11-2
Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, six defense)
Key returnees: QB Terrelle Pryor, C Mike Brewster, WR DeVier Posey, DE Cameron Heyward, LB Ross Homan, CB Chimdi Chekwa

First game: Sept. 2 vs. Marshall

The Buckeyes are the first of a glut of Big Ten teams in the top 15. Will all those schools be in the top 15 by season's end? Probably not. But this is the deepest the league has been in years, and Ohio State seems to have the depth on both sides of the ball to get through a rugged conference schedule unscathed. Coach Jim Tressel took the handcuffs off Pryor for the Rose Bowl against Oregon, and the resulting win encouraged some big dreaming in Columbus. Will Pryor be similarly unleashed this season? That's tough to predict. Ohio State returns four offensive line starters, two quality backs (Brandon Saine and Boom Herron) and a stout defense, so Sweatervestball could win at least 10 games. But Tressel wants to win 13 games, and Pryor, now a junior, seems to have earned his coach's trust.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
4
Texas Longhorns
2009 Record: 13-1
Returning Starters: 13 (six offense, seven defense)
Key returnees: RB Tre' Newton, WR Malcolm Williams, OT Kyle Hix, DT Kheeston Randall, DE Sam Acho, LB Keenan Robinson

First game: Sept. 4 at Rice

Texas is breaking in a new quarterback (Garrett Gilbert) and a revamped offense that will rely more on downhill runs. That might be problematic if the Longhorns needed to score more than 14 points to win most games. They don't. Coordinator Will Muschamp proved last year why he was named coach-in-waiting in Austin. This year, his defense could be even better. Randall is a load up front, and Acho can play end or tackle in a four-man front. In fact, if Muschamp so desires, he can throw a three-man front at teams with Acho playing the 3-4 defensive end he probably was born to play. Behind them is Robinson, who may be considered one of the nation's best linebackers by season's end.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
5
Iowa Hawkeyes
2009 Record: 11-2
Returning Starters: 14 (six offense, eight defense)
Key returnees: DE Adrian Clayborn, S Tyler Sash, WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, QB Ricky Stanzi

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Eastern Illinois

The Hawkeyes get Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin at home, which helps ease the difficulty of the schedule a little. Clayborn might be the most dominant defensive player in the country, and he is capable of completely taking over a game the way Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh did last year. Don't laugh when you see the Facebook pages touting Clayborn's Heisman Trophy candidacy. If he's not the best player in the country, he's at least in the top five.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
6
TCU Horned Frogs
2009 Record: 12-1
Returning Starters: 16 (nine offense, seven defense)
Key returnees: QB Andy Dalton, S Tejay Johnson, LB Tank Carder, C Jake Kirkpatrick, WR Jeremy Kerley

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Oregon State in Arlington, Texas

Watch the Horned Frogs closely in their first game. Fair or not, how they perform against the Beavers might determine whether they have a chance to play for the national title. Why? Oregon State is also one of Boise State's two decent opponents this season. So if TCU and Boise State go undefeated, the team that played better against common opponents Oregon State and Wyoming will probably get the nod to play for the title. Why? Because -- and here's another prediction guaranteed to come true -- there is no way pollsters will match TCU and Boise State for the BCS title. The leaders of the six power conferences will organize a playoff before that happens. Of course, this may all be for naught. Oregon State, one of the best teams in a loaded Pac-10, could beat one or both.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
7
Virginia Tech Hokies
2009 Record: 10-3
Returning Starters: 13 (eight offense, five defense)
Key returnees: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Ryan Williams, OT Blake DeChristopher, DT John Graves, LB Barquell Rivers

First game: Sept. 6 vs. Boise State (Landover, Md.)

Before they can worry about becoming the first ACC team since the league expanded to compete for the national title, the Hokies must embrace their role as Defenders of the Status Quo. They'll have a lot of fans on Labor Day who are sick of hearing about Boise State. They'll have even more enemies who will be pulling for the Broncos to keep upsetting the power structure. If Virginia Tech can beat Boise State, it certainly can compete for the national title. The Hokies have a lot to replace on defense, but when has coordinator Bud Foster not found a way to reload? Meanwhile, Virginia Tech has Williams and a healthy Darren Evans in the backfield behind Taylor. The Hokies should be able to control the ball, putting pressure on opposing offenses to score with limited chances.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
8
Oregon Ducks
2009 Record: 10-3
Returning Starters: 19 (10 offense, nine defense)
Key returnees: RB LaMichael James, OT Bo Thran, LB Spencer Paysinger, LB Casey Matthews, CB Cliff Harris

First game: Sept. 4 vs. New Mexico

How competitive are the Oregon offense and defense? Last week, Ducks coach Chip Kelly had to e-mail video of the final play of Friday's Competition Day to Pac-10 director of officials Dave Cutaia to determine whether the offense or defense won the scrimmage. (The defense won after Cutaia ruled that receiver Jeff Maehl failed to maintain possession on a play along the sideline.) This is great news for the Ducks. Even though former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is surrounded by Hotty Toddy hotties instead of piloting the offense in Eugene, Oregon's O should remain prolific. A defense that can stop that offense can help the Ducks win the Pac-10 for a second consecutive season.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
9
Wisconsin Badgers
2009 Record: 10-3
Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, six defense)
Key returnees: RB John Clay, OT Gabe Carimi, QB Scott Tolzien, LB Culmer St. Jean, S Jay Valai, DE J.J. Watt

First game: Sept. 4 at UNLV

You probably know that the Badgers return their entire offensive line from last season. You probably also know that the Badgers return Clay, who rushed for 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2009. But guess who returns the Big Ten's most efficient passer? It's Wisconsin. Senior QB Tolzien logged a 143 passer rating while throwing for 2,705 yards and 16 touchdowns. If Tolzein can cut down on the interceptions -- he threw two that were returned for touchdowns against Ohio State -- the Badgers could have a juggernaut on offense.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
10
Florida Gators
2009 Record: 13-1
Returning Starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)
Key returnees: C Mike Pouncey, OT Carl Johnson, S Ahmad Black, CB Janoris Jenkins

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Miami (Ohio)

The Gators may not stay this low for long. While they seem capable of reloading on defense and should get excellent quarterback play from junior John Brantley, a few key questions remain. For starters: To whom will Brantley throw? No one on Florida's roster has proven himself a go-to receiver -- yet. (Redshirt freshman Andre Debose, who missed last season after surgery to repair a torn hamstring, has some Percy Harvin-like qualities.) Also, while junior tailback Jeff Demps is excellent in space, it's tough to imagine him running between the tackles much. With Tim Tebow gone, someone is going to have to gain the tough yards for Florida, and it won't be Brantley. It may be backup quarterback Trey Burton or tight end Jordan Reed, filling the role Tebow filled in 2006. If the Gators identify their playmakers before they hit the meat of their schedule, Florida will return to the top five.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
11
Oklahoma Sooners
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 14 (nine offense, five defense)
Key returnees: RB DeMarco Murray, WR Ryan Broyles, QB Landry Jones, DE Jeremy Beal, S Quinton Carter

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Utah State

OK, so I don't like the Sooners as much as the esteemed Phil Steele, who has them winning the national title. Still, this should be a huge bounce-back year for Oklahoma, which still has great players and can't possibly have worse luck than it did last season. While I don't share Steele's enthusiasm, I do understand where he's coming from. Oklahoma doesn't have to play Nebraska in the regular season. Texas does. Oklahoma has three challenging-to-difficult nonconference opponents (Florida State, at Cincinnati, Air Force) in successive September weeks. If the Sooners did win the Big 12 title with a loss, they'd probably get the tiebreaker and be voted into the BCS championship game over another one-loss power-conference champ.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
12
Miami Hurricanes
2009 Record: 9-4
Returning Starters: 16 (seven offense, nine defense)
Key returnees: QB Jacory Harris, OG Orlando Franklin, WR Travis Benjamin, DE Allen Bailey, CB Brandon Harris

First game: Sept. 2 vs. Florida A&M

The Hurricanes' talent level finally has returned to pre-slide levels. Unfortunately, that coincides with two rough out-of-conference road games (at Ohio State, at Pittsburgh) and a bit of a renaissance in the ACC Coastal Division. Defending ACC champ Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and North Carolina will field good-to-excellent teams, and Miami also must play Clemson and Florida State, the two best teams in the Atlantic Division. That said, the Canes have the manpower to beat anyone. They have some lingering questions on the offensive line, but they're solid everywhere else.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
13
Nebraska Cornhuskers
2009 Record: 10-4
Returning Starters: 17 (10 offense, seven defense)
Key returnees: DT Jared Crick, CB Prince Amukamara, P/K Alex Henery, RB Roy Helu Jr., WR/TE Mike McNeill

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Western Kentucky

We know the Cornhuskers can play defense. How far they go this season will depend on an offense that looked pitiful at times in 2009. Nebraska's three-man quarterback derby continues this week as incumbent Zac Lee tries to fight off Cody Green and Taylor Martinez. Meanwhile, at I-back, Helu and sophomore Rex Burkhead are getting pushed by 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore Dontrayevous Robinson. All that competition should produce a more effective offense.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
14
Penn State Nittany Lions
2009 Record: 11-2
Returning Starters: 13 (eight offense, five defense)
Key returnees: RB Evan Royster, OL Stefen Wisniewski, DT Ollie Ogbu, DE Jack Crawford

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Youngstown State

Every recent public appearance by Joe Paterno has been examined like the Zapruder film. Is this it for JoePa? While Paterno does seem less spry than usual, let's hold off on the doom-saying unless there is a noticeable drop in quality on the field. Penn State hasn't won fewer than nine games in any of the past five seasons, so cut the legend some slack. Besides, Paterno has a big decision to make. He must pick a starting quarterback, and he said last week that four players -- sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin and freshmen Paul Jones and Robert Bolden -- remain in the hunt to win the job.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
15
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2009 Record: 11-3
Returning Starters: 15 (seven offense, eight defense)
Key returnees: QB Josh Nesbitt, C Sean Bedford, RB Roddy Jones, LB Brad Jefferson

First game: Sept. 4 vs. South Carolina State

Don't know who Anthony Allen is? You will. He's the guy who, if he stays healthy, will gain at least 1,000 yards this season. That's because just about everyone who starts at B-back in Paul Johnson's option offense gains more than 1,000 yards. Allen could run for a lot more than that, though. The 229-pound back, who replaces Jonathan Dwyer in the dive-back spot, averaged 9.7 yards a carry last season.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
16
Pittsburgh Panthers
2009 Record: 10-3
Returning Starters: Nine (five offense, four defense)
Key returnees: RB Dion Lewis, WR Jonathan Baldwin, OT Jason Pinkston, DE Greg Romeus, S Dom DeCicco

First game: Sept. 2 at Utah

The Panthers will get a great test on opening night against a Utah team that hasn't lost at home since Sept. 8, 2007. Expect Lewis to get plenty of carries behind a revamped line. Meanwhile, Baldwin will give first-year quarterback Tino Sunseri a freakishly athletic target. And if Utes quarterback Jordan Wynn is wondering what playing in the Pac-12 will be like in 2011, he can rest assured that he won't face many pass-rushers better than Pitt's Greg Romeus.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
17
Oregon State Beavers
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 15 (eight offense, seven defense)
Key returnees: TB Jacquizz Rodgers, WR James Rodgers, DT Stephen Paea, LB Dwight Roberson

First game: Sept. 4 vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas)

If the Beavers go undefeated in September, they'll probably get a fruit basket from BCS coordinator Bill Hancock for dispatching TCU and Boise State from the national title picture. If that happens, we'll have to talk about the Beavers potentially playing for the title. We'll probably also see quite a few more Quizz-for-Heisman commercials.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
18
Cincinnati Bearcats
2009 Record: 12-1
Returning Starters: 13 (eight offense, five defense)
Key returnees: WR Armon Binns, RB Isaiah Pead, OG Alex Hoffman, LB J.K. Schaffer, DT Derek Wolfe

First game: Sept. 4 at Fresno State

First-year Bearcats coach Butch Jones already has proven he can pick up where Brian Kelly left off. When Kelly left Central Michigan for Cincinnati, Jones took over the Chippewas and led them to two MAC titles in three seasons. Jones inherits a ton of talent in Cincy, but he also faces a tougher league. Pittsburgh, Connecticut and West Virginia all have the rosters to win the Big East. It will be up to Jones to ensure the Bearcats claim the title for the third consecutive season.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
19
USC Trojans
2009 Record: 9-4
Returning Starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)
Key returnees: QB Matt Barkley, WR Ronald Johnson, DT Christian Tupou, LB Devon Kennard, LB Chris Galippo

First game: Sept. 2 at Hawaii

In a Twitter response to a teammate complaining about the ESPYs on July 14, USC quarterback Matt Barkley tweeted something that suggests the 2010 Trojans may have a little bit of 1993 Auburn in them. "We better be there next year, representing the greatest team that went as far as they could," Barkley tweeted that night. Can the Trojans follow in the 1993 Tigers' pawprints and go undefeated while suffering through sanctions? Maybe, but the depth of the Pac-10 should keep that from happening.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
20
Georgia Bulldogs
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 14 (nine offense, five defense)
Key returnees: WR A.J. Green, OT Clint Boling, OG Cordy Glenn, LB Justin Houston

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette

I left Georgia out of the post-spring Top 25 because I felt there were too many questions with a new starting quarterback (Aaron Murray) and a revamped defense (new coordinator Todd Grantham has installed a 3-4 to boost a unit that was terrible last year by Georgia standards). That omission probably was a mistake. As I was putting together an all-SEC team for another project, I kept coming up with Bulldogs (Green, Boling, Glenn, Houston, K Blair Walsh, P Drew Butler) on the first team. That's a lot of elite talent. Now consider this fact: Georgia won only eight games last year, and Coach Mark Richt has yet to post back-to-back single-digit-win seasons. Still, I want to see actual defensive improvement before ranking the Bulldogs higher.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
21
Florida State Seminoles
2009 Record: 7-6
Returning Starters: 17 (11 offense, six defense)
Key returnees: QB Christian Ponder, OT Andrew Datko, OG Rodney Hudson, LB Nigel Bradham

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Samford

The Seminoles may as well be Georgia: ACC Edition. FSU's offense is in great hands; all five offensive linemen return, and Ponder could wind up a Heisman candidate. FSU's defense, however, was atrocious last season and should look radically different thanks to first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. Expect to see defensive back Greg Reid -- the nation's top punt returner in 2009 -- on the field most defensive downs, and expect to see more variety from the Seminoles in terms of formations and blitzes. FSU doesn't have a superior athlete at every position anymore, but adjustments in scheme should prove that the Seminoles haven't fallen nearly as far as they appeared to last season.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
22
Arkansas Razorbacks
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 17 (10 offense, seven defense)
Key returnees: QB Ryan Mallett, TE D.J. Williams, WR Joe Adams, LB Jerry Franklin

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Tennessee Tech

The Razorbacks are the SEC's trendy team this season, and they should put up huge offensive numbers thanks to Mallett, Williams and company. But unless they can stop someone, they'll probably rise no higher than No. 20. The past five SEC champs have had one thing in common: a ferocious defense. Arkansas will have to do much better with a group that finished ninth in the SEC in scoring defense (25.1 points a game) and dead last in the league in total defense (401.2 yards a game) in 2009. We should have a pretty good idea about the Arkansas defense after the Hogs face Georgia between the hedges on Sept. 18.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
23
Connecticut Huskies
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 17 (nine offense, eight defense)
Key returnees: QB Zach Frazer, RB Jordan Todman, LB Lawrence Wilson

First game: Sept. 4 at Michigan

If the Huskies win their opener, Michigan fans probably will consider it one more nail in the coffin of the Rich Rodriguez era. Las Vegas might consider the Wolverines a favorite (-2.5), but not many people who have watched UConn the past few years would agree. Coach Randy Edsall's team is loaded with veterans who have grown up on the field. Wilson and fellow linebacker Scott Lutrus are tackling machines, and Todman rushed for 1,188 yards last season. Meanwhile, 225-pound USC transfer D.J. Shoemate is eligible to play immediately. He could give the Huskies another weapon to wear down opposing defenses.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
24
Utah Utes
2009 Record: 10-3
Returning Starters: 12 (eight offense, four defense)
Key returnees: QB Jordan Wynn, RB Eddie Wide, C Zane Taylor, CB Brandon Burton

First game: Sept. 2 vs. Pittsburgh

In Utah's final year in the Mountain West, we'll learn if Coach Kyle Whittingham can reload instead of rebuild. The Utes return three starters on their defensive line, but just one (Burton) for the rest of the defense. So an entirely new linebacker corps and a mostly new secondary will open against Pitt tailback Dion Lewis and receiver Jonathan Baldwin. Welcome to trial by fire.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
25
Auburn Tigers
2009 Record: 8-5
Returning Starters: 15 (seven offense, eight defense)
Key returnees: C Ryan Pugh, OT Lee Ziemba, WR Darvin Adams, LB Josh Bynes

First game: Sept. 4 vs. Arkansas State

The Tigers landed former Florida quarterback Cameron Newton, who spent last season playing for Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. Newton's arrival has everyone on the Plains believing Auburn can play with anyone in the SEC this year, and they're correct. The only problem is that all five SEC teams ranked in this poll can beat one another on a given day, and the same goes for a sixth (LSU) that could leap into the poll and shoot into the top 10 if it strings together a few impressive games. In other words, strap in for a wild year in the SEC.

TEAM PREVIEW
 
Just missed the cut: North Carolina, Houston, West Virginia, LSU, Navy
 

 
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