tampabay.com

Our top 25

By Times Staff
Published September 1, 2006


The Times' preseason rankings, compiled by staff writer Brian Landman

1. AUBURN

Not that long ago, coach Tommy Tuberville, right, looked to be on his way out. That was before his Tigers put together a 22-3 record (15-1 in the SEC) the past two years. Offensively, QB Brandon Cox, TB Kenny Irons and WR Courtney Taylor are a Lethal Weapon 3. The schedule is favorable, with three huge SEC games - LSU, Florida and Georgia - at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

KEY GAME: LSU, Sept. 16

2. OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes are loaded offensively with QB Troy Smith, TB Antonio Pittman, WR Ted Ginn Jr. and a veteran line. The defense must somehow replace LBs A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, and that has to happen fast. The schedule is front loaded, with games at Texas and Iowa and a home date against Penn State all in the first five weeks.

KEY GAME: at Texas, Sept. 9

 

3. WEST VIRGINIA

The Mountaineers have the kind of running attack that can control a game with RB Steve Slaton (1,128 yards and 17 TDs) and QB Patrick White (952 yards, 7 TDs). White likely will have to throw the ball more than he did last year - defenses will dare him to do that. If he makes them pay, look out.

KEY GAME: at Louisville, Nov. 2

 

4. NOTRE DAME

QB Brady Quinn (3,919 yards, 32 TDs, 7 INTs) might be the preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy. Darius Walker might win the Doak Walker Award as the top RB. Jeff Samardzija could be the top WR and the Biletnikoff winner. These guys will score points. Lots. The question is if the defense is any tougher.

KEY GAME: at USC, Nov. 25

 

5. TEXAS

The defending champion Longhorns have plenty of experience and proven, top-shelf ability all over the field except at one position, QB. Neither redshirt freshman Colt McCoy nor freshman Jevan Snead has thrown a collegiate pass, and neither is the next Vince Young, a player capable of single-handedly carrying a team. At least, not yet.

KEY GAME: Ohio State, Sept. 9

 

6. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Let's see. The Trojans' offense had to carry a porous defense last year, and gone are two Heisman Trophy winners (QB Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush) from the backfield. There have been injuries and NCAA questions. None of that bodes well. Still, QB John David Booty does have WRs Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, so don't count USC out.

KEY GAME: Notre Dame, Nov. 25

 

7. FLORIDA

There's a lot to like about the Gators, beginning with how offenses have a history of going off the charts in coach Urban Meyer's second year. Much will hinge on whether Chris Leak (20 TDs, 6 INTs) runs a bit more and becomes more of a fit for Meyer's scheme. The biggest obstacle could be the schedule: at Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, at Auburn and Georgia in a six-game stretch. Yikes.

KEY GAME: at Tennessee, Sept. 16

 

8. FLORIDA STATE

For the first time since 2000, the Seminoles look like they have an offense capable of pinball-like scores. QB Drew Weatherford, TB Lorenzo Booker, WRs Chris Davis, Greg Carr and De'Cody Fagg all look poised for big years. The defense is inexperienced but has perhaps more playmakers than a year ago with LBs Lawrence Timmons and Geno Hayes, S Myron Rolle and DE Everette Brown.

KEY GAME: Clemson, Sept. 16

 

9. IOWA

QB Drew Tate can do it all, and sometimes last year he tried to show it. Not always a good trait, Mr. Tate. He's likely learned that, and, with another solid line to protect him, he should be even better. Can he lead the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten title? Maybe not, but second place and a possible BCS bid aren't farfetched possibilities.

KEY GAME: at Michigan, Oct. 21

10. LSU

Can you have too much talent at QB? The Tigers will find out as they juggle JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux. Needless to say, the Tigers figure to air it out. LB Ali Highsmith and a veteran secondary led by S LaRon Landry will have to cover for a largely inexperienced front seven. The schedule isn't kind.

KEY GAME: at Auburn, Sept. 16

 

11. MIAMI

The Hurricanes have been team turmoil ever since the embarrassing 40-3 loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. Half the staff fired. A shooting. Suspensions. Defections. But maybe the players will take an Us-against-the-world attitude that could translate into a confidence befitting "The U." The opener could galvanize or vaporize that attitude.

KEY GAME: FSU, Sept. 4

 

12. CLEMSON

Coach Tommy Bowden's team won its last four, including against FSU and at South Carolina, and returns 15 starters. The key will be how well and fast new starting QB Will Proctor (18-of-31 for 281 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) assumes the leadership role. Clemson plays at Boston College and at FSU in Weeks 2 and 3.

KEY GAME: at FSU, Sept. 16

 

13. OKLAHOMA

Coach Bob Stoops should have a staunch defense led by DE C.J. Ah You and LB Rufus Alexander. RB Adrian Peterson, a bruising, speedy back, couldn't stay on the field last year and must stay healthy this year, especially with new uncertainty at QB: Stoops had to dismiss Rhett Bomar, and that means even more pressure on the ground game.

KEY GAME: Texas, Oct. 7, in Dallas

 

14. MICHIGAN

The Wolverines underachieved last year, and maybe that will motivate QB Chad Henne, WRs Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham and RBs Mike Hart and Kevin Grady. That's a lot of firepower, if they're healthy and playing well. They had better do both, with road trips to Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State.

KEY GAME: at Ohio State, Nov. 18

 

15. LOUISVILLE

QB Brian Brohm, coming back after tearing his right ACL late last season, and TB Michael Bush are quite the Daily Double in Derby town. Brohm threw for 2,883 yards and 19 TDs despite missing the last two games, and Bush had 1,143 yards and 23 TDs.

KEY GAME: West Virginia, Nov. 2

 

16. TEXAS CHRISTIAN

The Horned Frogs would have crashed the BCS party had the new format (with a fifth game) been in place last year. Can they be in position again? QB Jeff Ballard and top TBs Robert Merrill and Lonta Hobbs give them the offense to reach the heights of the Mountain West again.

KEY GAME: Texas Tech, Sept. 16

 

17. CALIFORNIA

The Bears will run the football as well as any team with RBs Marshawn Lynch (1,246 yards, 10 TDs) and Justin Forsett (999, 6 TDs). Just think how potent the offense would be if QB Joe Ayoob completes more than 49.2 percent of his passes. The Bears can make a statement in what looms as one of the more interesting season openers.

KEY GAME: at Tennessee, Saturday

 

18. NEBRASKA

A strong finish, including a 32-28 shootout against Michigan in the Alamo Bowl, makes the Cornhuskers the team to beat in the Big 12 North. QB Zac Taylor has a veteran, talented line and should build on his record-setting passing season (2,653 yards, 19 TDs). They don't play Oklahoma, which should help.

KEY GAME: at USC, Sept. 16

 

19. GEORGIA

Coach Mark Richt doesn't have a David Greene or D.J. Shockley at QB, not with Joe Tereshinski, although the senior knows the offense and has been solid. It helps that he has RBs Thomas Brown and Danny Ware to hand the ball off to and an emerging talent at WR in Mohamed Massaquoi.

KEY GAME: Florida, Oct. 28, in Jacksonville

 

20. PENN STATE

Coach Joe Paterno wasn't done, as his critics suggested. His team was one play (at Michigan) away from an undefeated season. Sophomore WRs Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood could play for anybody. But can Anthony Morelli possibly replace QB Michael Robinson? LB Paul Posluszny is the key for the D.

KEY GAME: Michigan, Oct. 14

 

21. TENNESSEE

QB Erik Ainge is better than what he showed last year (45.5 percent passing, 5 TDs and 7 INTs). Uh, make that he better be. He has the WRs, a TB and a new coordinator/QB coach in David Cutcliffe, who had been at Tennessee from 1982-98. The Volunteers won the national title that last year. Hmm.

KEY GAME: Florida, Sept. 16

 

22. VIRGINIA TECH

The Hokies somehow overlooked FSU in the ACC finale and missed out on a BCS game. They lost a ton of talent, including problem-child but talented QB Marcus Vick. Coach Frank Beamer's teams will run the ball well, block some kicks on special teams and win a lot.

KEY GAME: at Miami, Nov. 4

 

23. TEXAS TECH

No matter who the QB is, he's going to get lots of work throwing. That's what the Red Raiders do, and they have a stable of talented WRs, including Joel Filani (1,007 yards, 8 TDs), Robert Johnson (951 yards, 4 TDs) and Jarrett Hicks (850 yards, 10 TDs). The D is experienced.

KEY GAME: at Oklahoma, Nov. 11

 

24. PITTSBURGH

The Panthers are young offensively except in the most vital of spots: QB. Tyler Palko (2,392 yards, 17 TDs, 9 INTs) is back for a third year as a starter, and that makes coach Dave Wannstedt's team dangerous. The toughest games (West Virginia and Louisville) come the last two weeks at home, which should be crucial for a young team.

KEY GAME: at USF, Nov. 4

 

25. ALABAMA

TB Kenneth Darby (1,242 yards) figures to be one of the best in the nation, but he desperately needs an inexperienced QB, likely sophomore John Parker Wilson, to play well so defenses can't just stack the box. The Tide might not come in big with road games against Florida, Tennessee and LSU.

KEY GAME: Auburn, Nov. 18