With spring practices in the books across the college landscape, here's a look at my final Top 25 heading into the summer.
1. LSU: Take some Les Miles magic, pour in a polished Jordan Jefferson and add a typically stout Tigers defense and you get the best team in the land. Or, at least the best team in the SEC. The opener against Oregon at Cowboys Stadium will be incredible theatre.
2. Oklahoma: If the Sooners can survive an early nonconference tilt against Florida State in Tallahassee, they will be primed for a run at the BCS national championship. The offense will be explosive, and the running game will be fine behind Roy Finch and Co.
ICONCan Cliff Harris and the Ducks return to the BCS title game?
3. Oregon: The up-tempo spread attack may not have run smoothly in the team’s spring game, but the return to health of Josh Huff will help. Meanwhile, Cliff Harris and the defense will once again be underrated.
4. Alabama: Only at Alabama can a team lose its starting quarterback, a former Heisman-winning running back, its best receiver and a dominant defensive lineman and still occupy Top-5 status. This defense will regain its bite — particularly in an improved secondary.
5. Boise State: Kellen Moore will be without top receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, but the vertical passing game should still be stellar with Geraldo Hiwat and Tyler Shoemaker. If the Broncos get past Georgia, only home games against Nevada and TCU stand in their way.
6. Florida State: I’m buying E.J. Manuel as a full-time starter. The Seminoles also return 17 starters and seem primed to return to national prominence under second-year head coach Jimbo Fisher.
7. Oklahoma State: Todd Monken won’t have to do much tinkering with this offensive unit following Dana Holgorsen’s departure to West Virginia — not when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are wreaking havoc on opposing defenses.
8. Nebraska: The suspensions at Ohio State and some rebuilding at other conference powers give the Cornhuskers an edge in their debut campaign in the Big Ten. If T-Magic can stay healthy, they should represent the Legends division in the league’s championship game because that defense may be Bo Pelini’s best yet.
9. Arkansas: Tyler Wilson will have perhaps the nation's best set of receivers at his disposal, as well as underappreciated running back Knile Davis. The defense improved drastically last year, and head coach Bobby Petrino seems poised to make this program an annual Top-10 contender.
10. Stanford: The Cardinal lost three offensive linemen, their top receivers and Owen Marecic. Of course, Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck is back. But the bold persona of Jim Harbaugh can’t be replaced by new head coach David Shaw. And don’t forget that top assistants Greg Roman and Vic Fangio left for San Francisco with their head coach.
11. Texas A&M: Ryan Tannehill helped direct a fantastic late-season surge by the Aggies once he assumed the starting job under center. Mike Sherman has a talented squad, but Tim DeRuyter’s defense will have to continue to make strides in his second season as coordinator — without stud linebacker Von Miller.
12. TCU: Youth will not be an excuse for TCU next fall. Gary Patterson won’t let it be as the team prepares to move into the Big East in 2012. Casey Pachall may not be Andy Dalton, but the Horned Frogs will always run the ball and play ferocious defense.
13. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will have to survive the first five games without Jim Tressel, Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey and the rest of the Buckeye Five. Even if they do, a road tilt at Nebraska is the first game back for the offenders. Whoever is under center — Joe Bauserman, Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton or Taylor Graham — will need to get consistent play from an unproven receiving corps.
ICONLogan Thomas has heard the Cam Newton comparisons.
14. Virginia Tech: Tyrod Taylor put the Hokies on his back last season after their 0-2 start. New signal caller Logan Thomas may be able to do that and more due to his 6-6, 242-pound frame. If the former tight end can help the offense score enough points, Bud Foster’s defense will do the rest.
15. Mississippi State: Losing defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas hurts, but third-year head coach Dan Mullen continues to build up his program in Starkville. Expect Chris Relf to continue to improve under center and make an emerging offense better.
16. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has his most talented team in Columbia. The big question remains whether Stephen Garcia or Connor Shaw will take the snaps under center in the opener. Either way, Marcus Lattimore and a dangerous defensive line will keep the Gamecocks in a lot of football games.
17. Michigan State: The Spartans didn’t come to play in their two biggest games last season — the road tilt at Iowa and the Capital One Bowl against Alabama. That falls on head coach Mark Dantonio, who must make sure things are different in 2011.
18. Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish finished the 2010 season with four consecutive victories. But no matter who starts under center, Notre Dame could really feel the effects of Michael Floyd’s absence if he is out for an extended period of time.
19. Auburn: The loss of Cam Newton is one thing. But an even bigger question is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Tigers lose seven starters. Don’t expect Auburn to be as stout against the run, but an improved pass defense could actually make Ted Roof’s unit more balanced.
20. USC: Matt Barkley didn’t have a great spring because he wasn’t playing with his full complement of receivers. The biggest question is whether Monte Kiffin’s defense can build on a nice spring and at least be respectable.
21. Wisconsin: The Badgers lost six All-Big Ten standouts, but the fact that they just keep getting production from the running back position and across the offensive line makes this team a fixture in the Top 25. If a pass rusher emerges, this defense may not take a step back.
22. West Virginia: The arrival of Dana Holgorsen from Oklahoma State was the greatest thing to happen to quarterback Geno Smith, who looked very comfortable directing this offense down the field in the team’s spring game. There is speed all over the field, but will the Mountaineers avoid stubbing their toes in Big East play?
23. Florida: Will Muschamp made a big statement by dismissing his best defensive player, Janoris Jenkins. While the secondary has major questions, I love the potential of the defensive line. And new coordinator Charlie Weis makes any offense better.
24. Miami: Will Al Golden win enough to satisfy a fickle fan base? First thing’s first, though: who will start under center for the Hurricanes?
25. BYU: The early-season schedule is brutal — at Ole Miss, at Texas, vs. Utah and vs. Central Florida to open things up. But quarterback Jake Heaps is an exciting player, and he’ll have a veteran group around him to help ease the load.
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