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2009 CFN Preseason Rankings - The Top Ten

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 4, 2009


Who are the best teams going into the 2009 season? Brandon Spikes leads a loaded Florida team, but Oklahoma with Dominique Franks and USC with Damian Williams will be in the hunt for the national title all season long. Check out the elite of the elite teams: The CFN Preseason Top Ten.

Preview 2009 - Preseason Rankings

The National Title Contenders

There's one very important distinction in the CFN preseason rankings: these are based on how good the teams are going into the season and NOT how they're going to finish. Some teams have easier schedules than others, some get tougher road games and some will need a little bit of time to jell meaning they might be better than their final record might indicate. Going into the year, these are how good the teams appear to be from No. 1 through 120.

CFN 2009 Preseason Rankings
- 2009 Preview
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1 to 10 | 11 to 20 | 21 to 30 | 31 to 40 | 41 to 50 | 51 to 60
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61 to 70 | 71 to 80 | 81 to 90 | 91 to 100 | 101 to 110 | 111 to 120

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2008 Preseason Rankings | 2007 Preseason Rankings

10. California
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart
Why California should be No. 1: There are just enough fantastic playmakers on both sides of the ball to beat anyone in the country, and that includes USC, who makes the trip to Berkeley on October 3rd. RB Jahvid Best might be the best in America, while the defensive front should be a brick wall and the secondary should be terrific. Finally, this should be the star team Bear fans have been waiting for head coach Jeff Tedford to put together. The program has arrived on an elite level with this team ... at least that's the hope.
Why California isn't No. 1: Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've seen it all before. Cal has speed, athleticism, and talent, but but it always seems to collapse in key moments. Best has a hard time staying healthy, QB Kevin Riley has to go from erratic to consistently great, and a four-game midseason stretch of at Minnesota, at Oregon, USC, and at UCLA could turn out to be too much to handle.

Relative Strengths: Running Back, Defensive Line
Relative Weaknesses: Quarterback, Receiver

What to watch for on offense: The pivot. Cal didn’t just lose a center when Alex Mack graduated, it lost a leader, a fixture, and one of the best ever to play for the program. Under normal circumstances, junior Chris Guarnero would slide into the opening without a lot of attention, but these aren’t normal circumstances. He’s a nice, experienced player, who won’t hurt the offense, but he’ll have to deal with the added pressure of filling the shoes of a legend. That’s an extra layer of headaches that most centers never have to face.
What to watch for on defense: The rebuilt corps of linebackers. An obvious strength a year ago, the linebackers are now a question mark, courtesy of the graduations of Zack Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder. Mike Mohamed is a holdover, and a good one, but he’ll need help if the 3-4 defense is to continue flourishing at Cal. While sophomore Mychal Kendricks brings speed and a fresh energy, the veteran presence will come from Eddie Young and Devin Bishop on the outside.


9. Penn State
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Penn State should be No. 1: With the return of Sean Lee, to go along with blossoming superstar Navorro Bowman, Penn State is fantastic at linebacker again. QB Daryll Clark is the consummate leader who should be fine even with a new receiving corps to work with. Evan Royster might be the top NFL running back prospect in college football, the lines appear to have reloaded, and there's speed and talent all across the board. Helping the cause is a light and breezy schedule, especially in non-conference play (Syracuse is the hardest non-Big Ten game). If all goes according to plan, with Ohio State coming to Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions will likely be favored in every game.
Why Penn State isn't No. 1: Just because the record should be fantastic, 12-0 isn't unreasonable, that doesn't mean the team will be good enough to win the national title. While Joe Paterno has reloaded with good enough recruiting classes over the last few years to restock the shelves, the starting receiving corps is brand new, the defensive line loses some key players, and the O line needs to fill in the gaps around center Stefen Wisniewski. Clark, as good as he is, still has to prove he can pull out tight games in the fourth quarter.

Relative Strengths: Quarterback, Linebacker
Relative Weaknesses: Receiver, Secondary
What to watch for on offense: The new receivers. The Nittany Lion top three receivers, Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, and Jordan Norwood, combined for 132 catches for 1,932 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. So good were those three that the passing game all but ignored the tremendous tight ends and didn't throw to the backs enough. While the new receiving corps will need time to be as good. Chaz Powell is a sub-4.4 runner with tremendous quickness and No. 1 target capability, and Derek Moye is a sub-4.4 runner with tremendous quickness and No. 1 target capability, but he's 6-5. The tight ends, Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, are too good not to be more involved, and their reemergence will allow the wide receivers to create matchup nightmares.
What to watch for on defense: The secondary. This could be the Achilles heel. There will be production and the stats will be fine, but oft-injured corner A.J. Wallace has to suddenly use all his NFL tools and be a good college coverman. The safeties are promising, but untested, while Knowledge Timmons is a senior who has yet to put it all together at corner. This group will all hit and they'll all make big plays against the run, but if it has to deal with a top-shelf receiving corps, watch out. Fortunately, there's no on the schedule, outside of Illinois, who should be able to throw.


8. Oklahoma State
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Oklahoma State should be No. 1: If you're not planning on putting at least 45 points on the board, don't bother showing up to play the Cowboys. OSU scored 50 points or more five times last year and averaged 41 per outing, and all the key parts are back. The skill trio of QB Zac Robinson, RB Kendall Hunter, and WR Dez Bryant is as good, if not better, as any in college football, while OT Russell Okung and the line should be terrific. The defense might not be special, but it should be better, especially at linebacker, and the special teams are fantastic..
Why Oklahoma State isn't No. 1: The defense. It's not awful, but defense hasn't exactly been head coach Mike Gundy's thing. No one in the Big 12 does much defensively when it comes to stats, but while OU and Texas might give up points and yards against desperate offenses trying to keep up the pace, the Cowboy D is simply mediocre. The pass rush was the worst in the Big 12 last year and isn't likely to be appreciably better. And then there's the prove-it factor. For all the good things OSU did last year, it came up with a good win over Missouri and that's it. Against the other four elite teams on the slate, OU, Texas, Texas Tech and Oregon, the Cowboys allowed a total of 187 points and lost all four games.

Relative Strengths: Running Back, Quarterback
Relative Weaknesses: Secondary, Linebacker
What to watch for on offense: The secondary receivers. No. 1 target Dez Bryant has to stay healthy, which has been a wee bit of a problem, even though he's been able to tough it out when needed, but even if he's 100% the second and third receivers need to start doing more. So who will they be? DeMarcus Conner and Justin Blackmon are projected to be starters, but Isaiah Anderson and Hubert Anyiam are good options ready to make a splash.
What to look for on defense: More of a pass rush. New defensive coordinator Bill Young will try to release the hounds and get all the speed an athleticism on the Cowboy defense to start to produce big things. The pass rush was non-existent throughout last year and the secondary suffered. At all costs against the pass-happy Big 12 attacks, OSU has to sell out to hit a quarterback. The results can't be too much worse after getting picked apart for 270 yards per game and 28 scores.


7. LSU
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Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why LSU should be No. 1: The talent is in place. It didn't matter much last season when the Tigers couldn't overcome shoddy quarterback play, but when it comes to raw speed, athleticism, and skill, there are few teams good enough to come even close. There appears to be a renewed sense of fire after the clunker of 2008, and with several great recruiting classes starting to mature, peerless lines (at least among the starters), and a secondary, led by Chad Jones, that promises to be more aggressive, LSU should win several games by simply showing up.
Why LSU isn't No. 1: Can Jordan Jefferson be the quarterback to lead LSU back to the promised land? Eventhually, but he doesn't have national title written all over him going into this season. The receiving corps isn't nearly up to LSU snuff, the secondary still needs to make more big things happen, even if it does appear to be better, and for all the talent up front, especially on the offensive line, the depth isn't there. A rash of injuries could quickly destroy the team, and a bout with interceptions (again) could be just as lethal..

Relative Strengths: Linebacker, Defensive Line
Relative Weaknesses: Secondary, Quarterback
What to watch for on offense: Better quarterback play. Jarrett Lee tried his best, and was trying to get through his first season without collapsing after Andrew Hatch had injury issues. He collapsed. The 16 interceptions forced the coaching staff to adjust the gameplan on both sides of the ball to hide him, and then enough became enough. Lee was raw, but freshman Jordan Jefferson was really raw and extremely erratic. However, he showed signs of becoming a playmaker. This spring, Jefferson was far more consistent and far more accurate while top recruit Russell Shepard was solid. If LSU's quarterbacks were better last season, the team would've been 10-3 and would've beaten Alabama and Arkansas.
What to watch for on defense: More attacking. It's not like the defense was awful last year, but it wasn't the high-flying disruptive machine it was in previous years. This year's D should make far more plays in the backfield, it'll come up with far more takeaways, and it'll start to look a little bit like the defense that now-Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini put together. The speed is there and the talent is solid across the board, and now the defense that gave up a not-that-bad 326 yards per game last year should be a brick wall.

6. Ohio State
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Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart
Why Ohio State should be No. 1: Don't shed any tears for a Buckeye team that replaces several star players with more top-shelf talent.  A combination of runners will replace the unreliable Beanie Wells, while Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey will flourish thanks to Terrelle Pryor and the improved passing game. The defensive line and secondary are as good as ever, and they should make up for the potential growing pains at linebacker.
Why Ohio State isn't No. 1: While the players are in place, there are way too many question marks to expect any sort of run at the national title. The Buckeyes are good enough to go 10-2 on talent alone, but there might not be enough in the bag to get by USC at home on September 12th. The D and special teams should be great at times, but they're not at the elite level needed for Tressel Ball to work effectively. The offense will have to open things up, and that could lead to just enough inconsistency to potentially lose at Penn State or at home to Illinois.

Relative Strengths:
Quarterback, Defensive Line
Relative Weaknesses:
Linebacker, Running Back
What to watch for on offense: The line. While the overall production wasn't bad, when push came to shove, last year's line got shoved. It got ripped apart this spring by the defensive line, but the OSU front four will probably be dominant against everyone. With three good starters returning, led by center Michael Brewster, and with the addition of former Michigan Wolverine, Justin Boren, to bring more of an attitude and a nastiness to the offensive front, the line should be better and should allow all the speedy skill players time and room to work.
What to watch for on defense: The rotation on the end. The pass rush was supposed to be unstoppable, even after losing Vernon Gholston, but it was only above average
. This year, there are too many ends to get on the field at the same time. Thaddeus Gibson is a star who could grow into an All-America-caliber pass rusher, while Cameron Heyward is productive inside and out. Nathan Williams and Lawrence Wilson are just a few of the great options who'll be a part of the rotation. With good tackles in Doug Worthington and Dexter Larimore to eat things up on the inside, the ends should be free to blow into the backfield.

5. Georgia  
- Preview |
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Georgia should be No. 1: The Dawgs will let Florida hog the spotlight and should fly under the radar without the pressure and expectations of last season when they were almost everyone's preseason No. 1. Mark Richt's teams tend to do better when no one is expecting much, but this year's squad is loaded. The O might lose Knowshon Moreno, but there are more excellent backs than carries available. The return of Trinton Sturdivant should be a big boost to a fantastic offensive front, Rennie Curran is an All-America leader for a phenomenal linebacking corps, and there aren't any major holes to worry about.
Why Georgia isn't No. 1: While there aren't any big problems, there isn't the star power of Florida or the firepower of Oklahoma State, the season opening opponent. No. new QB Joe Cox isn't going to be bad, but he's not Matthew Stafford and he's not the type of player who can carry an offense by himself if the running game isn't working. If the Dawgs beat OSU in Stillwater, then the expectations and the attention will quickly be cranked up..That's not a plus in the  Richt era.

Relative Strengths:
Offensive Line, Linebacker
Relative Weaknesses:
Quarterback, Secondary
What to watch for on offense: The line. It's the walking wounded going into the fall with so many key players recovering from a slew of issues, led by star left tackle Trinton Sturdivant coming off a bad knee injury, but if everyone is healthy, there won't be a deeper more talented line in America. There's so much talent and so much versatility that the coaching staff can play around with the lineup whenever needed and get production. It happened last year with decent results, and there's no reason the line can't be better with so many key parts returning.
What to watch for on defense: The tackle rotation. With Jeff Owens back after missing almost all of last season, and with Geno Atkins choosing to return for his senior year rather than be a millionaire as a first round pick in this year's draft, the Bulldogs are loaded on the inside. Throw in 320-pound veteran Kade Weston, who's trying to get healthy after playing banged up last year, and emerging star DeAngelo Tyson, and Georgia will be phenomenal on the defensive interior.


4. Texas
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Texas should be No. 1: All the same positives of last year are the same plusses as this year, only better. QB Colt McCoy should be even sharper, the special teams will be the positive different in at least one game, the receiving corps has a great blend of terrific young stars and trusted veterans, and the pass rush should be excellent again with Sergio Kindle moving from linebacker to end, at least in key situations. And then there's the motivation factor. After what happened last year, there's unfinished business to be taken care of.
Why Texas isn't No. 1: All of the same negatives of last year are the same negatives as this year ... maybe. The running backs have to prove they can handle the ground attack to take the pressure off McCoy. The line, while talented, has to do a better job of being consistent and has to be able to take over from time to time. The secondary hasn't been strong for a few years, even with the benefit of a pass rush. and while it should be better, it's not going to be elite. And then there are the expectations, which are high even for Texas. Anything less than a national title will do, but there are landmines at Missouri, at Oklahoma State, and against Kansas, to go along with the showdown against Oklahoma.
Relative Strengths: Quarterback, Offensive Line
Relative Weaknesses: Secondary, Running Back
What to watch for on offense: The young receivers. The running backs will again operate by committee, with the hope to do more so Colt McCoy doesn’t have to lead the team in rushing again, and the offensive line should pave the way for a more consistent season. However, the key to the Texas offense is the precision passing attack that McCoy was so masterful at last year. Getting top target Jordan Shipley back with a sixth year of eligibility was key, but the stars of the show could be from last year’s recruiting class. Malcolm Williams already showed what he could do with a whale of a performance in the loss to Texas Tech, Dan Buckner has the size and potential to be great, and DeSean Hales has the gamebreaking ability to potentially be the best of the three. The emergence of the young receivers might be the difference between a great year and a national title.
What to look for on defense: Sergio Kindle doing his Brian Orakpo imitation. Kindle is an All-America caliber linebacker who saw a little bit of time as a rush end late in the year when Orakpo went down. While Kindle might still play a more natural outside linebacker spot from time to time, he’ll use his speed, smarts, and talent to be used as the Buck end and be asked to be a pure pass rusher. Don’t be shocked if he puts up better numbers than Orakpo(who made 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss).


3. Oklahoma
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Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart
Why Oklahoma should be No. 1: The defensive line is too deep, the second team would start at about 100 other places, the rushing tandem of Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray is NFL-caliber, Jermaine Gresham is the nation's best tight end, and Heisman winner Sam Bradford is still living in Norman instead of Detroit, New York, or Tampa. While there might be concerns on offense, the defense, unlike last year, should pick up the slack. The return of LB Ryan Reynolds from a knee injury gives the Sooner D a leader and a quarterback, but it's Gerald McCoy and the defensive front that'll shine brightest..
Why Oklahoma isn't No. 1: Bradford might make everyone around him better, but there are still concerns at wide receiver. The group looks the part, but now it has to prove it can produce on a consistent basis. Can Bradford put up big numbers under pressure? The team might have to find out with four starters off last year's O line, the best in America, gone. However, left tackle Trent Williams, the lone returning starter, could be the first lineman taken in next year's NFL draft.

Relative Strengths: Quarterback, Defensive Line
Relative Weaknesses: Secondary, Receiver
What to watch for on offense: The offensive line. Last year's front five was the best in America, and this year it has to replace tackle Phil Loadholt, guards Duke Robinson and Brandon Walker, and center Jon Cooper. Tackle Trent Williams might have been the best of the bunch, and while he's back and will move over from right tackle to the left, there are some major question marks after a rocky offseason. Brian Simmons has the potential to be a strong left guard, and there are good, big options at the other three spots, but it's asking a lot to keep Sam Bradford upright like last year's line did. OU allowed just 13 sacks last season and paved the way for 2,779 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns. This year's front five might not be as good, but it can't be a liability in the up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
What to look for on defense: A dominant front seven. It's not an overstatement to suggest that OU has six legitimate pro prospects to rotate around up front, while the linebacking trio of Ryan Reynolds in the middle, leading-tackler Travis Lewis on the weakside, and Keenan Clayton on the strongside will make its pitch to be among the best in college football. Last year, the line was camped out in opposing backfields making 42 tacks and 106 tackles for loss. Those numbers might not even be close to what this year's group should come up with thanks to a devastating end rotation and Gerald McCoy, Adrian Taylor, and DeMarcus Granger at tackle. No one's going to run on this group.

2. USC
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why USC should be No. 1: Lose Mark Sanchez, throw in Aaron Corp or Matt Barkley. Lose an elite linebacking corps that might be the greatest in college football history, and replace it with more NFL-caliber talent. USC reloads, it always reloads, and now, some of the areas that went overshadowed last year should shine bright. The O line, led by C Kristofer O'Dowd, should be the best in America, while Taylor Mays and the way-too-deep secondary is unquestionably the best in college football. Everyone is back at running back, Damian Williams leads a nice receiving corps, and all the perceived holes appear to have been filled.
Why USC isn't No. 1: Even when the program has everything going its way it tends to brain cramp from time to time to blow its national title hopes. Stanford of a few years ago, Oregon State last year; there is always one game when the team decides to loaf it. This year's team has so much turnover on the defensive front seven, along with a new starting quarterback, to provide just enough inconsistency to possibly keep the Trojans out of Pasadena, at least for the game it really wants to play in early January..

Relative Strengths: Offensive Line, Secondary
Relative Weaknesses: Defensive Line, Quarterback

What to watch for on offense: The offensive line. Yeah, it’s rough to focus on interior linemen, when Damian Williams, Stafon Johnson, and Joe McKnight are on the playground, but these Trojans are worth the discipline. If you like dominant, athletic front walls, then USC is going to grab your eye throughout the year. After doing some shuffling and rebuilding, assistant Pat Ruel just might have his best collection of talent this decade. This group has it all, which is going to make everyone, including the new quarterback, more effective. The Trojans have tons of experience, anchors at center and left tackle, and as many as six or seven members of the two-deep, who’ll someday play in the pros. It too often gets overlooked, but the line will be the catalyst for a lot of USC’s success in 2009.
What to watch for on defense: The new linebackers. Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, and Kaluka Maiava were all drafted by the NFL in April. Sure, it would’ve been nice if even one veteran was back at the position, but there’s no stopping progress. Or the next wave of stars about to populate the depth chart. Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith, and Michael Morgan are next in line, and have just as good a chance to follow their predecessors into the pros. The newcomers won’t be as prolific, at least not right away, but they will be faster and potentially more apt to create turnovers. By 2010, they’ll all be experienced upperclassmen, and ready to bridge the gap from Cushing, Maualuga, and Maiava.

1. Florida
- Preview | Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Florida is No. 1: There's no other reasonable choice. The team that was more dominant last season than it ever seemed to get credit for gets everyone back on defense, including future NFL stars Brandon Spikes at linebacker and Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham at end. The offensive line will be terrific, the backfield is loaded with veteran backs, and then there's Tim Tebow, who appears destined and desperate to close out his special career with nothing less than a national title.
Why Florida shouldn't be No. 1: The pressure could be too tremendous to bear. Even for a team as good as this one, expectations are through the roof in a year when a mere national title might be considered a disappointment if there isn't a special statement made. It's almost as if the Gators are worrying about style points before getting the wins, and with their relatively easy schedule, it might be tempting to let down, even with No. 15 trying to carry things at times. Don't underestimate the loss of receivers Louis Murphy and Percy Harvin. It's Florida, so there are more good targets ready to step up, but the absence of the star targets could be an issue against one of the few elite teams on the slate.

Relative Strengths: Quarterback, Linebacker
Relative Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Running Back
What to watch for on offense: The I-formation?! New offensive coordinator Steve Addazio was experimenting this offseason in an attempt to add a few more wrinkles to the equation. No, this isn't going to be 1977 Nebraska, and the spread isn't going anywhere, but part of the overall goal is to develop Tim Tebow's NFL passing ability and to get the running backs more involved. The biggest beneficiary in this year's offense, which really isn't going to change, will be tight end Aaron Hernandez. The team's third leading receiver last year will get the ball more often and will be the go-to receiver now that Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy are gone.
What to watch for on defense: The backups. With 11 starters returning from a defense that finished ninth in the nation, fourth in scoring D, and held down the all-timer of an Oklahoma offense, there isn't all that much room for wild, sweeping changes. But there's a problem that's not really a problem: some of the backups are better than the starters. Omar Hunter is a fantastic tackle prospect who'll be perfect on the nose and could see far more time in the rotation at both spots. Will Hill might be the team's best safety, but he'll have a hard time knocking all-stars Ahmad Black and Major Wright out of a job. Years of strong recruiting has stocked the shelves, and it should be interesting to see how the rotation ends up playing out.

CFN 2009 Preseason Rankings
- 2009 Preview
|
1 to 10 | 11 to 20 | 21 to 30 | 31 to 40 | 41 to 50 | 51 to 60
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61 to 70 | 71 to 80 | 81 to 90 | 91 to 100 | 101 to 110 | 111 to 120

-
2008 Preseason Rankings | 2007 Preseason Rankings