To kick off my season preview features, I've put together a list of the top 40 teams in the country. Why 40 teams, instead of some other arbitrary number, like, say, 16 or 25? Mainly because the cutoff between solid teams and the rest of the country is pretty close to that dividing line. You can throw in a couple of other teams into the "solid" bucket, but chances are you won't find many of them. And without further ado, the list:
The Hawkeyes take the place of the Beavers, who plummeted out of my top 40 after the apparent loss of receiver Stroughter. Iowa has an outstanding coach, a great defense, and a solid running game (assuming the O-line is OK after losing three starters). As long as they get decent QB production, this should be a bounce-back year for them.
Someone's got to be fifth in the Big Ten, and the Boilermakers have about as good a shot as anyone else. If you'd prefer to flip-flop with Iowa you might be right, but Purdue has enough experience to get the edge.
The Cougars had a great year in 2006, but they lost a great QB, a decent runner, and some of their biggest contributors on defense. They have a reasonable shot at the Mountain West, but right now they look like the third team in that group, with New Mexico and Colorado State having a shot at sending them even lower.
Defense, defense, defense. The Wildcats have what could be a fantastic defense, and if their offense can finally improve, this will be a dangerous team that is very capable of making a move.
#36: Oklahoma St
The schedule has been seriously upgraded thanks to a week 1 trip to Athens, and they lose a bunch of production on the defensive line. Still, this could be a surprise team if Bobby Reid continues to improve and the running game can churn out yards like they did last year.
#35: Boise State
As magical as 2006 was, 2007 is almost inevitably going to be a rebuilding year. Without Zabransky and the passing game, this just isn't going to be the same team. Ian Johnson and the O-line will keep them from slipping too far, though.
They were decent last year, and they return a bunch of important contributors. Losing Eric Weddle hurts a lot, but there's enough talent here that if TCU stumbles they've got as good a shot as anyone at the league title.
This is a program on the rise, but 2007 will be a step back. They lose some important guys on defense and they're going to miss Brian Leonard in the backfield. Plus they're unlikely to be as successful in close games again.
They've got Darren McFadden, they've got Felix Jones, they've got Marcus Monk, and they return the guy who actually started most of their games at QB. So why so low? Besides the offseason chemistry-destroying mess, they also need to rebuild their O-line, as well as their defensive front seven. Since running the ball and stopping the run were their big strengths last year, it's tough to project how important these losses will be.
This could turn out to be a good team, but unless they turn into a major passing machine, it's tough to see much improvement from last year. With a rebuilt front seven, they're going to have major issues against good running teams, and they're going to be facing a lot of good running teams. Not a good combination.
With the return of John Parker Wilson and a strong passing game, the Tide have a reasonable shot of making a serious move upwards in the rankings. First, though, they're going to need to improve on defense, especially against the run.
For what it's worth (not much these days), this should be the best team in the Big XII North, especially since they have a strong running game and get Nebraska at home. Still, a mediocre defense and a mediocre head coach keep them from being anything more than a slight favorite in their division, and keep them out of my top 25.
#28: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish are one of the nation's biggest question marks this year. Their whole roster is overhauled, which is usually a bad thing, but they are replacing the guys who left with a bunch of hyped, talented recruits. This team could crash and burn, or they could hit 8-9 wins. Without seeing these guys on the field, there's just no way of knowing.
Auburn has been one of the most consistently good programs in the country the last few years, but this year looks like a rebuilding year. The only thing they were really good at last year was running the ball, and they lose Kenny Irons plus most of the line. Having a senior QB is nice, but this isn't a team that likes to throw it much, so it's tough to say how much that is really going to matter. The defense should be about as good as last year, since they only have a few replacements to make (though those are big ones).
This is another question mark team. Their defense should be fantastic, but there are a lot of holes to plug on offense. If they can get their offense to be good, this can be a top 15 team. If they can't, expect someone else to win the Mountain West.
#25: Boston College
If Florida State doesn't win the Atlantic, then these guys are the next best bet. They had a solid team last year, and don't really lose anyone important. While it's true they had an unusually fortunate TO ratio, with a ballhawking defense and a veteran quarterback they're likely to be somewhere in the black again next year as well.
This is a team that could go either way. On the one hand, they have a great pair of backs in Stewart and Johnson, and a talented receiver corps, and a solid defense led by a strong secondary, but on the other hand they still haven't found consistent play at quarterback, which could be a major liability if things don't improve.
The whole SEC East looks like a giant crapshoot, with nothing resembling a clear favorite, but the Vols look like they'll probably end up as fourth best. Erik Ainge has done a solid job and should improve, but losing the whole receiver corps plus having to rebuild the left side of the O-line and the defensive secondary is just too much to ask this team to do and still be dangerous.
Perhaps the trendiest team of 2007, Hawaii looks to make some major noise on the national scene. With a great QB in Brennan, along with a decent receiving corps, Hawaii looks to pass their way into the BCS. A less than stellar defense and a storied history of stumbling away from the islands make that a tough goal, but this team is good enough to at least have a chance.
Another one of the trendy picks of 2007, the South Florida Bulls should be strong this year. They've got a decent defense, a decent offense, and a recent history of occasionally nabbing the big upset (Louisville in 2005, West Virginia in 2006). If they can avoid the bad losses, there's no reason to think they won't end the season somewhere in the top 25.
Call me crazy, but this team just doesn't scare me all that much. Losing Chris Leak will affect this team far more than anyone seems to expect, and the defense was flat-out gutted from what they had last year. They won't crash and burn, especially since they've been recruiting well, but there will be a significant drop-off.
#19: Florida State
With a new OC and a significant amount of talent returning, the Seminoles are the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division. It's been a while since they've had a top-notch team, so don't expect them to hit the top 10, but there's a very reasonable chance of finishing around #15 or so.
So how much will a new coach matter for the Hurricanes? Under Coker, the Canes steadily declined until a disastrous showing in 2006, but if Shannon does a good job, this team is loaded for a comeback. There's plenty of talent on offense, so if former super-recruit Wright can find his way at quarterback, Miami will finally have a strong offense to go along with what figures to once again be a top-notch defense.
Among the usual "Big Three" of the SEC East, the Bulldogs look like they should be the strongest. Matthew Stafford should improve significantly with a year of experience under his belt, and the running game should still be decent despite a rebuilt offensive line. The defense will have some issues, but at least a few playmakers return, so it won't be a disaster.
For a team which has one of the youngest rosters in the entire nation, this is a really dangerous group. Their passing game is an absolute beast, which will make them a tough out even for the teams who are able to take advantage of their youth throughout the rest of their roster.
#15: Texas A&M
So why do I have the Aggies one slot above the team that waxed them in last year's Holiday Bowl? Partially because bowl games don't much matter as a predictor of future performance, and partially because A&M returns a lot of talent. The defense has some issues, but they've got one hell of a running game and what looks to be a decent passing attack to back them up. The schedule looks nasty but A&M has had plenty of success on the road in recent years, and this isn't a rating of how they'll finish, it's a rating of how good a team is. And A&M is good.
#14: Georgia Tech
This team is loaded for another run at the ACC title. They have one of the most talented defensive fronts in the nation, a strong running game, and they lose interception king Reggie Ball. As long as Taylor Bennett does a good job at quarterback, and someone can step up and at least be a decent weapon at receiver to replace departed star Calvin Johnson, there's no reason to think these guys won't be a really good team.
#13: Penn St
It looks like it's once again time for the Lions to make a big-time run, as they return a talented, experienced group of players. The loss of running back Hunt, linebacker Posluszny, and a few other players keep them from being the Big Ten favorites, but with games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Ohio St all at Happy Valley (virtually impossible to win at when PSU is good), they could easily find themselves with a fantastic record and a BCS berth.
#12: Ohio St
One year after losing the national title game, and with BCS berths in four of the last five years, the Buckeyes find themselves "rebuilding". Thanks to replacing their quarterback, running back, receiving corps, and a big chunk of their defense, they won't be quite as good as they've been of late. Road trips to Penn St and Michigan (plus a possibly tough game at Purdue) will keep them from winning the Big Ten outright again, but by the time the end of the year rolls around, this is going to be one hell of a team.
#11: South Carolina
Over the last month and a half or the season, South Carolina improved dramatically. By the end of the year, they were playing about as well as pretty much anyone outside of the top 5 or so. And now they return everyone of note, except for some new faces on the offensive line. The road schedule is unpleasant, but their home slate is pretty cushy, and the three Western Division teams they drew are no tougher than anyone else's draw, except perhaps Tennessee. This team has slowly improved under Spurrier, but this looks like the year where they make a big move.
There are too many holes to fill, especially on defense, to consider this team a national title favorite, but you can never count out a team with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Mario Manningham. If they can all stay healthy (depth is a very real issue at these positions), they will have a shot, especially with all but one of their big games at home.
This is a really veteran team, with experienced juniors and seniors at just about every roster slot. The only question mark they have is their passing game, with a pair of quarterbacks who still haven't proven themselves and a receiver corps long on experience but short on truly dangerous playmakers.
Despite some important losses, this team may be even better this year than they were in 2006. Brian Brohm is now a senior and could well be the best quarterback in the country. He has a strong receiving corps to work with, and the line should again be good. The running game could use more experience, but they guys coming in did pretty well last year in relief, so it's going to be good. The defense has a few guys to replace, but there's plenty of talent coming in, which means that this is going to be another fine unit. The big question is how they will respond to a new head coach, and whether there will be a smooth transition, although their three toughest games are all at the end of the year.
#7: West Virginia
This is the first of the really, truly, legitimate national title contenders. As good as they've been the past few years, this year could be the one where they really break out. They've got Pat White, they've got Steve Slaton, and they finally have a defense with experience. If they get hot and catch a few breaks, there's no reason to think that they can't win their way into the national title game.
These days the Longhorns don't rebuild, they reload, and this year is no exception. The secondary isn't as good as last year, but everything else about this team is top-notch.
#5: Virginia Tech
Ignoring everything that's happened over the off-season, the Hokies return a very good team, with both talent and experience everywhere on the roster. As long as they can find consistency (always an issue for them), this is a legitimate national title contender and the obvious favorite in the ACC.
This team is flat-out loaded, and is a very real national title contender. The only real issue is at quarterback and secondary, but with most of their big games in November, this might not be as much of an issue. They don't have the raw talent of the three teams above them, and there are too many tough road games to be happy, but Bret Bielema has done a great job so far, and this really does look like the best team in a league that is loaded at the top.
The LSU Tigers look like a really good team this year. Their defense, already strong in 2006, returns largely intact, and their offense should be potent again, so long as they're able to find a capable replacement for departed quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
Last year the Sooners lost a really good quarterback to a scandal before the year, and lost their fantastic running back to injury for about half of the year. And yet they were still a great team that only had one bad performance, against Texas. As long as they get good quarterback play (a very real question mark), they're going to be an absolute beast.
You were expecting someone else? The Trojans are flat-out loaded, and have a fantastic defense. There are some issues on offense, with a running game that has talent but hasn't produced like it should, and a passing game that needs to replace a bunch of guys who had been carrying this team for a while, but this still looks like the best team around, by a pretty fair margin. The schedule does them no favors, but they're still the deserving favorites to win another title this year.
Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.