Never too early for a top teams list.
These are my "post-spring, Pre-Steele team rankings"
Relevant, thoughtful criticism is welcomed. Maybe I'll amend the list in subsequent updates based on intelligent responses.
As always, this list is about the "best" teams. I'm not looking at schedules and making predictions based on expected outcomes here, merely assessing the overall quality of the teams. Expected records are important, but not the only measures factored in when doing these rankings. That's how it should be, anyway.
- Ohio State---This will simply be the finest offense Jim Tressel has ever gotten ahold of. There are concerns with a defense returning just three starters, but the Buckeyes are a rugged defensive squad no matter the players and have a handful of "new" starters with legit starting experience coming back from injuries, academic woes, etc. I've ragged on their slowdown style of late, but this is a roster that can run and dominate on both sides of the ball almost by accident. Jim Tressel has won a championship and has a great shot at getting his second crown this year.
- USC---The big theme this year is that everyone's flawed. If that's the case, the always No. 1 or damn close Trojans should be big factors once again. There isn't a consensus No. 1 team and it's an environment USC stepped into at the start of the 2003 season. That team also had to replace an entire backfield of veteran stars (Palmer/Fargas/McCullough vs. Leinart/White/Bush) and cruised through the season after some early troubles. This is the deepest, most athletic USC team in memory. They lack a star to rally around, but the rest of the roster is young, surprisingly experienced and can fly. The battered, young defense of 2005 will be great in 2006 if it can stay healthy.
- Auburn---I was shocked by last year's bowl performance against Wisconsin. I'll chalk that up to a little lethargy in not making the SEC title game and a bigger bowl and the going-out party for Wisky's coach Barry Alvarez. Anyway, the Tigers' roster is loaded. The defense is smallish but can absolutely fly at all spots on the two-deep. Brandon Cox is a nifty system quarterback and the stable of backs may be America's finest (my apologies to California, Clemson, Georgia and co.). These tigers have the opportunity to win through versatility, possessing the personnel and schemes to either attack through a frenetic offensive and defensive display or maul foes in slow down ball. Few teams are so blessed.
- Texas---Football Jesus is gone. Christendom's had a frustrating time since His physical presence vacated this lovely planet. Texas fans will be similarly frustrated now that Vince Young has ditched Austin for the No Fun League. Don't get me wrong, the 'Horns will remain an impressive team, but the big guy's gone. The defense won't lose much (Huff and Wright can be replaced---look out for big DT Frank Okam), but the offense will have its moments of paralysis. Another fine season is in the works, but it just won't be the same. Think of Texas' many great non-championship seasons under Mack Brown. The difference of course it that this year's team should beat Oklahoma for the second straight time.
- Georgia---Much like the President, Georgia coach Mark Richt always pulls a rabbit out of his hat when people misunderestimate him. I'm not enamored with the Dawgs' backs or the lines and they have yet to fix a leaky run defense... but dammit it doesn't always matter. These Dawgs are going to go out and beat all but one and possibly two SEC foes big or small. Freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford is a potential phenom, and towards the end of the year may have this team doing some things on offense Dawg fans have not seen from any quarterback between the hedges. Last year was a golden opportunity to finish third or fourth in the rankings before injuries got in the way. Coach Richt probably realizes this and may put together the scrappiest, most competitive UGA squad of his tenure.
- California---Much of this team's fate rests with settling on a competent quarterback and rebuilding a great offensive line. The defense replaced nearly every starter last year, which means everyone's back this time around. That's a luxury for any coach and Cal will take advantage of it. The offense has some serious star power behind superback Marshawn Lynch, backfield mate Justin Forsett and freaky good receiver DeSean Jackson. With a balanced team on both sides of the ball, the Bears will challenge USC for Pac-10 surpremacy.
- Notre Dame---I'm all aboard the Charlie Weis bandwagon. However, I'm not sure this Notre Dame team is quite ready for prime time. I realize most everybody returns, but the Fiesta Bowl revealed some holes yet to be fixed. The Irish choked away scoring opportunities in the harsh BCS light, and a shaky defense watched faster players run circles around them for an entire game. The Irish have not gotten any faster on defense. Brady Quinn is an amazing leader, and he'll need to be as the Irish offense will have to carry this team the way USC's offense did last year. The difference is USC was coming off two championships and had two Heisman winners and LenDale White along with college football's best offensive line to work with. The Irish have ho-hum Darius Walker and the amazing Jeff Samardzija. Big difference. The target will be on this team's back every step of the way. For a team built with mostly middling recruits, the heavy burdens of national attention every week, talk of an undefeated season and Brady Quinn's Heisman run, it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
- Louisville---Why not West Virginia? Because this team will have a huge chip on its shoulder. They let a win against the Mountaineers disappear into an overtime loss as Steve Slaton scored six touchdowns against the Cardinals last year. All the Big East hype will be directed at the Mountaineers, but Louisville is an equally talented team with a greater breadth of offensive weapons and scheme to attack with. Quarterback Brian Brohm should be healthy this time around.
- Miami---"It's Great, To Be, A Miami Hurricane!" At least, that's what they say. Who am I to disagree? After an embarrassing loss to LSU in last year's Peach Bowl, this Miami team will finally have the motivation necessary to kill any lingering lethargy that has overtaken Coral Gables since the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State in 2002. A new coaching staff, a rugged defense and a gifted quarterback sounds like the right recipe to get back to the winning ways. They're not ready for prime time yet, but a return to the top 10 is a good start.
- West Virginia---The last time West Virginia had this much preseason hype, they flopped. It happens, but it's especially hard to keep big fish/small pond teams focused over the course of a season when they're the topic of national discussion since January. Young stars Patrick White (quarterback) and back Steve Slaton should dazzle fans and opponents. The trick is to consistently win and overcome setbacks for a team with young offensive stars with great expectations.
- Florida---I realize year two is usually a magic season for Urban Meyer coached teams, but I'm concerned. Chris Leak really isn't a good fit at quarterback, and it will be hard for the more athletic and fiery Tim Tebow to politically get much legitimate playing time from the former all-everything recruit. The offensive line is also a huge problem and coach Meyer threatened to bench all the backs and not bother running the ball in a fit earlier in the spring. Ouch. That said, the defense should be good to great and the incoming crop of recruits will shake things up on offense because some of them can run and make plays such as national hotshot Percy Harvin. We may have to be just a bit more patient with the Gators as they continue to fix personnel issues on the offensive side of the ball.
- Iowa---This team is due. Quarterback Drew Tate's a winner and so is his coach. The linebacker replacements for Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are talented dudes and back Albert Young has finally realized he's a legit D-I player. There are pieces in place for a run at the Big Ten title if Ohio State or Michigan stumble.
- Florida State---Fix the offense already! This is a really talented team, among the more talented Seminole groups in the last 10 years. Drew Weatherford will overcome his interception issues and the backs are going to be fun to watch. Last year's offensive line injury bug isn't likely to happen again. The defense loses several starters to the NFL but fear not, names like Myron Rolle, Lawrence Timmons and Geno Hayes will quickly make Seminole fans forget. The Seminoles got hot at the tail end of last season, findings ways to win until letting the Penn State game slip away. To me that's a sign that the players and coaches are all on the same page and are ready for a big run in 2006.
- Oklahoma---Like Florida, the Sooners also have offensive line issues. There's a lot of young talent here, but by no means do I see a squad as coherent or as talented as the 2000-2004 Sooners. Adrian Peterson is an unbelievable back who will win a few games by himself... but he can't win them all.
- Michigan---The proverbial hot stove team---don't touch or you'll get burned. I've learned my lesson with the Wolverines. They'll look great at times, disappointing in others, and go 9-3 ad infinitum. There's some reason for excitement with some talented young defensive linemen emerging, but Lloyd Carr is still the head coach which means Michigan will let 1-2 wins dissolve into bitter late defeats.
- Clemson---Can they steal a win or two from Florida State or Miami? There's some intriguing talent on both sides of the ball and they've done some interesting tinkering with the offense. Fifth year senior quarterback Will Proctor should play with urgency and exceed the inconsistent output of ballyhooed but underwhelming Charlie Whitehurst.
- Arizona State---Some talented transfers have arrived to help the defensive line. The offense should be great, and do-it-all Rudy Burgess has shifted to cornerback to help out on D. Nice. I see a 700-yard game or two in their future with the bombs-away quarterback hydra of Sam Keller and Rudy Carpenter.
- Texas Tech---This is the most talented team yet in Lubbock. Replacing a quarterback is obviously nothing new to this team so no worries in that department.
- LSU---I'm not taking a lot from the Peach Bowl. That was a Miami team that had a lot of internal troubles that bubbled to the surface right at kickoff as they melted down on national television. A fight and several coach firings later, the bowl win seems more an aberration or taking advantage of a wounded foe. Just saying. The Tigers need to settle on a quarteback (among JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flyyn) and pray he doesn't cough up the job. This team can really run but they're more athletic than football savvy in some spots. If back Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent once again prove inconsistent, keep an eye on frosh backs Charles Scott and Keiland Williams. They're good... real good.
- TCU---Our first non-BCS mention here. Gary Patterson's an excellent coach and was able to take out Oklahoma and Iowa State last year. Not bad. The Horned Frogs don't do anything fancy, but play smart, tough football, get turnovers and gut out the close ones. They should factor in here somewhere yet again.
Traditional Powers On The Outs:
Penn State, Nebraska, Alabama