With College Football just a few weeks away, let’s finish the annual countdown of the Top 40 teams in the country, concluding this week with the number 20 through number 1 teams.
20.Â Marshall: Never underestimate some of the smaller conferences, especially one that has QB Byron Leftwich. The 6-foot-5 senior has 59 TDs and 16 INTs the last two years and could be the top pick in the NFL draft. Leftwich led Marshall to an 11-2 season in 2001 with 37 TDs and only 7 INTs. Marshall averaged 37.3 ppg (64 in a bowl game win) and could bust out like Fresno State and David Carr did last fall.
19.Â Maryland: How important is innovative coaching in football? Coach Ralph Friedgen went 10-2 in his first season with Maryland, leading the Terps to a surprising ACC title. Note that Maryland averaged 34 points and over 200 yards rushing and passing per game. With eight starters back on offense and five on ”˜D’, Friedgen’s imaginative offensive mind may show that 2001 was not a fluke.
18.Â USC: Should have been better under first-year head coach Pete Carroll and respected offensive coordinator Norm Chow. USC went 6-6, losing twice as a favorite. The Trojans could make a big jump behind 6-foot-5 senior QB Carson Palmer (13 TDs, 12 INTs), who heads a veteran backfield alongside speedy senior RB Sultan McCullough. Palmer has solid receiving targets in WRs Kareem Kelly and Keary Colbert. Carroll’s specialty has always been defense and USC held teams to 17 points per game in the pass-happy Pac-10 (after allowing 28 ppg under Paul Hackett in 2000). If Chow can get the offense to click, this veteran group could be tough.
17.Â Texas A&M: The Aggies have a nice blend of experience with a strong defense. QB Mark Farris returns for his senior season. Farris has a year under his belt working with several newcomers in RBs Derek Farmer and Keith Joseph, and WRs Jamaar Taylor and Terrence Murphy. Coach R.C. Slocum’s defense is always tough (18 ppg allowed in 2001) and should battle Oklahoma for Big-12 defensive bragging rights. Terrence Kiel (92 tackles), Jarrod Penright (10.5 sacks) and Sam Davis (5 picks) lead a ”˜D’ that returns seven starters. The schedule isn’t easy, but Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas Tech visit College Station before a season-ending showdown at Texas.
16.Â Illinois: The team needs to replace QB Kurt Kittner and has two prospects in junior Dustin Ward and transfer Jon Beutjer. But Illinois should still have a wide-open air game with a slew of talent at the skill positions. Senior RB Antoineo Harris will team with freshman Morris Virgil and the best group of wideouts in the Big-10, led by junior standout Brandon Lloyd (8 TDs, 1,006 yds). The defensive line has questions, but MLB Jerry Schumacher leads a talented group of LBs while CBs Eugene Wilson and Christian Morton anchor a strong secondary. Only two of their first eight games are on the road making the Illini a possible threat to repeat as Big-10 champs.
15.Â Texas Tech: The Red Raiders could be this year’s Illinois, riding a senior QB’s talented right arm to a strong season. Remarkable QB Kliff Kingsbury completed 68.9% of his passes in 2001, good for 3,502 yards, 24 TDs and 9 INTs. Two junior wideouts who caught 50 passes apiece return in Carlos Francis and Mickey Peters, while senior RB Wes Welker averaged 6.5 yards per rush and caught 50 passes. This group averaged 33.5 points and 309 yards passing per game and lost 41-31 at Nebraska as a 27-point dog
14.Â Nebraska: It’s a rebuilding year for the Cornhuskers. On the plus side, Nebraska plays eight home games, missing Oklahoma while playing Colorado and Texas at home. If you don’t think that’s important, remember that the ’Huskers have lost one home game over the last 10 years! The bad news is that four-year starter Eric Crouch is gone and junior QB Jammal Lord will experience growing pains. And that defense gave up 99 points in its final two games!
13.Â Michigan: The Wolverines didn’t get a lot of breaks in last year’s 8-4 campaign. Michigan outplayed Washington but lost 23-18 and suffered a heartbreaking setback at Michigan State, allowing a TD pass on the final play. But don’t count coach Lloyd Carr out. They return seven starters on offense and eight on "D." QB John Navarre and leading rusher John Askew are back, along with sack-leader Dan Rumishek. Michigan led the nation in sacks and has all four defensive starters in the trenches back. They have plenty of depth and plenty to prove.
12.Â Georgia: Watch out for the Dawgs. First-year coach Mark Richt (former offensive coordinator for Bobby Bowden at Florida State) did a remarkable job going 8-4. Georgia averaged 28.6 points per game and has SEC Freshman of the Year David Green at QB (17 TDs, 9 INTs). Sophomore WR Fred Gibson is a budding star and Georgia went 4-0 SU/ATS on the road in the rugged SEC. Georgia won at Tennessee as a 12-point dog, 26-24 at Tennessee ”” only the Volunteers third home loss since 1995! The Dawgs get Florida, Tennessee and Georgia Tech in Athens.
11.Â Florida: The Gators had a tumultuous off-season when Steve Spurrier shook the football world by resigning and moving to the NFL. The new staff is led by head coach Ron Zook (defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints) and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, who ran Marshall’s wide-open offense last year. The Gators outscored teams by a 44-14 average and is led by junior QB Rex Grossman (34 TDs, 12 INTs) and senior RB Earnest Graham. Florida went 10-0 with Graham last year, 0-2 without him. But with so many new faces and a tough schedule, a Top-10 finish will be tough.
10.Â Washington State: Coach Mike Price and the Cougars are off a 10-2 campaign where they averaged 126 yards rushing, 272 yards passing and 35 points per game. QB Jason Gesser led the Pac-10 in passing and total offense and returns for his senior season. A favorable schedule and a senior-laden defense could have them in the running for the Pac-10 title and a January 1 bowl game.
9.Â Ohio State: "Today Michigan, tomorrow the Big-10!" First-year head coach Jim Tressel endeared himself toBuckeye fans by upsetting the Wolverines at Michigan. Ohio State has eight home games and one of the best defenses in the country with 6-foot-4 junior DE Will Smith and S Mike Doss. Senior QB Craig Krenzel started two games last year, but one was the big win at Michigan. Leading WR Michael Jenkins returns while sophomore WR Chris Gamble has the speed to be a game-breaker. Tressel’s system produced 26 ppg with great balance (174 yds rushing, 163 pass per game).
8.Â Virginia Tech: Coach Frank Beamer’s Hokies outscored teams by nearly 17 points in 2001. They have a ton of returning talent in RBs Kevin Jones (Big East Freshman of the Year) and Lee Suggs, QB Grant Noel and sack leaders Ben Taylor and Jim Davis. Athletic sophomore CB Dangelo Hall (3 picks) is a budding star on defense and the team plays five of its final seven games at home. Noel suffered a spring knee injury and his September status will be a huge key.
7.Â Florida State: Youth and injuries crippled the Seminoles last season. But that 8-4 campaign was more of a bump in the road. FSU has seven starters back on offense, eight on ”˜D.’ Athletic sophomore QB Chris Rix is a keeper along with RB Greg Jones. Alonzo Jackson (5 sacks) and Michael Boulware (3 INTs), the brother of Baltimore Ravens star Peter, lead the defense. The Noles play two games in August and face nine bowl teams, including an Oct. 12 date at Miami.
6.Â Colorado: The potent Buffaloes ran for 2,742 yards in 2001, eighth best in college football. Three starters on the offensive line return along with junior QB Craig Ochs and leading rushers Chris Brown and Bobby Purify. Colorado may run its way to the Big-12 title again, though November is brutal with trips to Oklahoma and Nebraska.
5.Â Washington: Coach Rick Neuheisel has a ton of talent at his disposal, including junior QB Cody Pickett, sophomore WR Reggie Williams and four starters on the O-line. The Huskies averaged 28 ppg, but gave up 29 per game, so if a new 3-4 defensive scheme doesn’t help, they’ll be a good OVER team again. If the 3-4 does turn the trick, Washington could be Pac-10 champs.
4.Â Texas: The Longhorns averaged 39.2 points per game in 2001. Eight starters are back on offense, including QB Chris Simms, RB Roy Williams and WR Cedric Benson. Texas has depth and speed on offense, outscoring foes by 25.5 points per game. The Horns will roll up a lot of points again. One concern is that Simms and head coach Mack Brown seem to perform at their worst in big games. They’ve lost two in a row to rival Oklahoma (as a favorite each time) and face the Sooners, Kansas State and Nebraska, the latter two on the road.
3.Â Tennessee: If timing is everything, the Vols have a shot at the national pie. Coach Phil Fulmer had to be overjoyed when Florida coach Steve Spurrier left for the NFL. Tennessee is now the team to beat in the SEC and a crop of young talent looks ready to blossom. Gifted junior QB Casey Clausen has been a starter since his freshman year and is surrounded by sophomore speedster WRs Kelley Washington and Leonard Scott, along with TE Jason Witten. A veteran offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-7, 315-lb right tackle Will Ofenheusle.
2.Â Oklahoma: If defense wins championships (and it does), the Sooners will be in the running for their second national title in three years. A year ago Oklahoma beat Kansas State, shut down Texas 14-3, lost a close 20-10 game at Nebraska, before holding Arkansas to 3 in a Cotton Bowl victory. Oklahoma outscored teams by a 13-point average and has the brilliant Stoops brothers, Bob and Mike, running the offense and defense. The ”˜D’ will keep OU in games and the offense has its key players back in 6-foot-5 WR Trent Smith, RB Quentin Griffin and QBs Jason White and Nate Hybl.
1.Â Miami: Larry Coker enjoyed a sensational first year as coach by guiding Miami to an 11-0 regular season and a 37-14 rout of Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship. Miami lost some players to the NFL, but there’s enough talent to provide the ”˜Canes with ammo to repeat. Senior QB Ken Dorsey (23-1 as a starter) teams with WR Andre Johnson and a ferocious defense that allowed 9.8 points per game in 2001 led by senior DT William Joseph. Sophomore TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. is one of several young talents that can step in and keep this team potent. The schedule is not easy, with games against Florida State, Florida and Tennessee, the latter two on the road. But Miami was good enough to smash FSU 49-27. Over the last two years, Miami is 9-3 as double digit home favorite.