USC marching to title alone this year

Aug 17, 2004 4:42 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: These are the preseason Top 25 college football ratings as voted by a consensus of staff writers. The poll will be updated each week beginning with games played Saturday, Sept. 4.

1. USC: Only questions concern finding four replacements along the offensive line and a schedule lacking heavyweights. Trojans will play their strongest opponent during the first week in January. Outside of the Trojans, Pac 10 is shy of big name players.

2. Oklahoma: An already loaded offense adds perhaps the country’s best freshman running back, Adrian Peterson. With 15 starters and both kickers back, the Sooners only worry might be having to play Kansas State the week after facing Texas.

3. LSU: Bayou Bengals will count on defense to remain. LSU must break in a new quarterback to replace Matt Mauck, but 14 returning starters should ease the process. Biggest problem is road games at Auburn, Georgia, and Florida — the last two back-to-back in October.

4. Georgia: Aside from some questions along the O-line, this could well be Georgia’s year. The Dawgs were 24-4 over the last two years with two of those losses to LSU. Georgia has 16 starters back, each aching to reverse a long-standing losing skid to Florida.

5. Florida St: Nine starters return on offense including veteran QB Chris Rix. The two top running backs, both reserves last year, rushed for over 330 yards and averaged 5.2 and 5.4 yards a carry. Defense has question marks and the schedule includes Miami, Syracuse, UVa, Maryland and Florida.

6. Miami: NFL teams drafted six Hurricane players in the first round! Even for a school that yearly has pure talent, depth has to be a cause of concern. Only nine starters and the two kickers return. However, except for the FSU opener and a Nov. 13 matchup at Virginia, the schedule is decent.

7. Texas: Longhorns get back 16 starters from a team that went 10-3. Some coaching changes have been made under Mack Brown and that’s all this squad may have needed. Schedule doesn’t include Nebraska or K-State so 10 wins looks good. Oklahoma and possibly Texas Tech are the toughies.

8. California: The Bears won five of their last six last year including a bowl win over Virginia Tech. QB Aaron Rodgers is one of the nation’s top passers and there are nine starters back on defense. Even if Cal loses to USC, the Bears will likely finish no worse than 9-2.

9. Utah: The Utes get 17 starters back from a team that went 10-2 last year, including a win the over Southern Miss in the Liberty Bowl. QB Alex Smith was 12th nationally in passing efficiency last year. If the Utes go undefeated during the regular season, what bowl will they go to?

10. West Virginia: The Mountaineers have lots of experience on both lines and three stars coming back at the skill positions on offense. The manageable schedule should have the Mountaineers running undefeated deep into the season. Avenge two losses to Maryland could mean a BCS bowl.

11. Michigan: The Wolverines boast talent, depth and a schedule full of land mines. Big Blue might be favored in every game, but an unbeaten season is doubtful. Michigan debuts California high school QB legend Matt Gutierrez, who has never led a team to a loss.

12. Ohio State: Buckeyes had 14 players taken in NFL draft, including three first rounders. This year they will still have three of the most talented players in the Big 10, including linebacker A.J. Hawk, center Nick Mangold and placekicker Mike Nugent. But, a national title looks remote.

13. Florida: Gators want to end five-loss seasons, but the departure of 13 starters means this year’s squad has its work cut out. Why? Try road games at Florida State and Tennessee, a neutral site battle with Georgia along with a home clash against LSU. Sophomore Chris Leak is key at QB.

14. Auburn: Tigers play three cupcakes at home — Louisiana Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech. They also get the SEC’s two heavyweights (Georgia and LSU) at Jordan-Hare. Those two games, plus away dates at Tennessee and Alabama, will tell the tale of their season.

15. Kansas State: Mighty mite RB/returner Darren Sproles is still around to drive opponents’ wacky. Coach Bill Snyder will start with season with an untested quarterback and a remade defense but as usual he has front loaded his schedule with schools that aren’t in K-State’s weight division.

16. Wisconsin: The new QB (probably John Stocco) will see nine guys who started last year in his huddle. Defensive line also has lots of experience and the secondary should be more than adequate. The schedule, minus Michigan, might send the Badgers into Ohio State with a 5-0 record.

17. Louisville: If the Cardinals can get by arch rival Kentucky in the opener, they might be 5-0 going into Miami on Oct. 14. Last year’s 9-4 Cardinals team started strong but lost three out of their last five including a bowl game. This year’s team has 17 starters back.

18. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have three main worries — an inexperienced QB, a completely untested placekicker and a schedule that does them no favors. On the plus side the defense should be strong, especially at linebacker. This is a team that will win ugly often enough to make a solid bowl.

19. Minnesota: The Gophers play four of their first five games at home, where they are extremely tough. Tailback Marion Barber III is the top offensive player as the Gophers search for a replacement at QB. Minnesota was 5-1 ATS in the first six games, 2-5 in the final seven.

20. Memphis: The Tigers have every offensive starter back from a 9-4 team that averaged better than 39 points and 444 yards per game. The defense has some questions especially at linebacker, where there are no returning starters or seniors in the two-deep chart. Looks like 9-2 is reasonable.

21. Missouri: Talk about a cupcake schedule! The Tigers open with Arkansas State, Troy State and Ball State. Missouri should be 5-0 heading to a matchup with Texas in Austin. QB Brad Smith can hurt you both running and passing. If he has a career year, the Tigers could make noise in the Big 12.

22. Miami of Ohio: Redhawks return 16 starters and both kickers from a team that went 13-1 last year including a bowl win over Louisville. QB Ben Roethlisberger is a major loss, but the Redhawks’ defense should now get some long deserved credit. The Michigan opener Sept. 4 tell a lot.

23. Oregon: The Ducks have developed into a consistent Pac 10 winner since posting 11 victories in 2001. Autzen Stadium is a virtual deathbed for visiting teams, but the Ducks have had problems outside Eugene in the past couple of seasons. Oregon should make a bowl again, but passing Cal and USC in the league standings will be mighty tough.

24. Toledo: The Rockets are 37-12 over the last four years and have lots of offensive firepower. Toledo’s star QB, junior Bruce Gradkowski (71 percent completions) has two top receivers and second team All-MAC tailback Trinity Dawson. The Minnesota opener on the road is big.

25. Nebraska: No team in the country will be more interesting to watch. Ex-Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan scraps the Cornhuskers traditional option to install the pros West Coast offense. There is enough talent coming back from a 10-win team to ensure a bowl bid.

Honorable mention: Notre Dame, Purdue, Bowling Green, Alabama, N.C. State, Marshall.