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Our Top 25 teams for 2000

By Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000

1. Nebraska

COACH: Frank Solich.

1999 RECORD: 12-1 (7-1 Big 12).

KEY GAMES: at Notre Dame (Sept. 9), at Oklahoma (Oct. 28), at Kansas State (Nov. 11), Colorado (Nov. 24).

OUTLOOK: Nebraska's manhandling of Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl left the college football world in awe. It made many wonder if the Cornhuskers shouldn't have been playing for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. Turnovers killed the Cornhuskers in their only loss to Texas. Overcoming that problem in an option offense that runs constantly is key to this season. Eric Crouch is back after becoming the first Husker quarterback to lead the team in rushing since 1955. Another stable of I-backs returns, as does a solid defensive front line and an excellent punter and kicker. The schedule sets up beautifully for a trip to Miami.

2. Florida State

COACH: Bobby Bowden.

1999 RECORD: 12-0 (8-0 ACC).

KEY GAMES: at Georgia Tech (Sept. 9), at Miami (Oct. 7), Clemson (Nov. 4), Florida (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: It would be no surprise to see the Seminoles playing in the national championship game for the third straight year. With a 21-game regular-season winning streak, a third-year, 28-year-old quarterback in Chris Weinke and a weaker-than-usual ACC to plow through, the Seminoles may be headed for a showdown in the Orange Bowl with Nebraska. First, FSU must overcome the loss of receiver Peter Warrick and injuries on the offensive line. Second, run-stoppers Corey Simon and Jerry Johnson leave big holes on defense. And placekicking is no longer automatic. But overcoming boredom while waiting for big games against Miami and Florida might be the biggest concern of all.

3. Alabama

COACH: Mike DuBose.

1999 RECORD: 10-3 (7-1 SEC).

KEY GAMES: at UCLA (Sept. 2), Mississippi (Oct. 14), at Tennessee (Oct. 21), Auburn (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: DuBose somehow managed to survive a sexual harassment suit and a loss at home to Louisiana Tech to orchestrate one of the more remarkable turnarounds of the 1999 season. The Tide defeated Florida twice, the second time to take the SEC title, and only lost the Orange Bowl on a missed extra point in overtime. Now there is talk that the Tide can contend for the national championship. And it's possible, with 17 starters back and a more pass-oriented, wide-open offense. The defense has nine starters returning. A tough opener at UCLA and the usual battles against Tennessee and Auburn await. But this could be a big year.

4. Wisconsin.

COACH: Barry Alvarez.

1999 RECORD: 10-2 (7-1 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: Oregon (Sept. 9), at Michigan (Sept. 30), Ohio State (Oct. 7), Purdue (Oct. 21).

OUTLOOK: It's hard to believe the Badgers lost to Cincinnati last season. And it's even harder to comprehend that they will be better without Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. And yet, with quarterback Brooks Bollinger, who was 8-0 last year as the starter, the Badgers could be more balanced and diversified, making them more difficult to defend. Alvarez has won the past two Rose Bowls and has built a solid program through excellent recruiting. Eight starters are back on defense, including one of the best cornerbacks in the country, Jamar Fletcher. Getting through the Big Ten will be a challenge, however, and Wisconsin has not won at Michigan since 1962.

5. Michigan

COACH: Lloyd Carr.

1999 RECORD: 10-2 (6-2 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: at UCLA (Sept. 16), Wisconsin (Sept. 30), at Purdue (Oct. 7), at Ohio State (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: Highly touted quarterback Drew Henson finally gets to lead the Wolverines on his own, and he's got a strong supporting cast that has Michigan folks thinking about a national championship. Henson can throw to David Terrell, who had 71 receptions last year, and hand off to Anthony Thompson, who rushed for 1,257 yards. The defense returns the entire secondary, but five of the front seven are gone. Carr turned down a chance to play Virginia Tech in the Kickoff Classic, so the Wolverines can ease into the schedule. That will be necessary to survive the usual Big Ten rigors.

6. Florida

COACH: Steve Spurrier.

1999 RECORD: 9-4 (7-1 SEC).

KEY GAMES: at Tennessee (Sept. 16), Auburn (Oct. 14), Georgia (Oct. 28), at Florida State (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: The Gators enter the season on a three-game losing streak, a first in Spurrier's 10-year reign, and all the talk in the SEC, seemingly, is about Alabama and Georgia. But Spurrier recruited strongly in the off-season, and his team should be hungry after its poor finish. And perhaps Spurrier is sincere about putting less heat on his quarterbacks. With nine starters back on defense, including a potential superstar in Alex Brown, UF's demise is not imminent. After the usual opening warmups, the schedule is typically difficult, with visits to Tennessee and Florida State.

7. Georgia

COACH: Jim Donnan.

1999 RECORD: 8-4 (5-3 SEC).

KEY GAMES: Tennessee (Oct. 7), Florida (Oct. 28), at Auburn (Nov. 11), Georgia Tech (Nov. 25).

OUTLOOK: A popular pick to win the SEC East, the Bulldogs have shored up their defense to go along with an exciting offense led by quarterback Quincy Carter, who can do everything. Former Oklahoma coach Garry Gibbs is Georgia's new defensive coordinator, and 10 starters are back from a unit that did not play up to potential, ranking last in the SEC in total defense and pass defense. That will have to improve for the Bulldogs to do what is expected, which is to snap a nine-game losing streak to Tennessee and defeat Florida. Donnan is 1-7 against those two schools.

8. Texas

COACH: Mack Brown.

1999 RECORD: 9-5 (6-2 Big 12).

KEY GAMES: Oklahoma (Oct. 7), at Colorado (Oct. 14), at Texas Tech (Nov. 4), Texas A&M (Nov. 24).

OUTLOOK: At one point, the Longhorns were 9-2 last season, which means they dropped their last three games. Some of the same questions remain: How much will heralded quarterback Chris Simms play in relief of starter Major Applewhite? Can the offensive line protect better? Will the defense perform as well as a year ago? Many believe the questions will be answered favorably. The Longhorns are the pick to win the Big 12 South and will get off to a quick start with a soft early season schedule. And there is no Nebraska or Kansas State during the regular season.

9. Kansas State

COACH: Bill Snyder.

1999 RECORD: 11-1 (7-1 Big 12).

KEY GAMES: at Colorado (Sept. 30), Oklahoma (Oct. 14), at Texas A&M (Oct. 28), Nebraska (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: Once again, Kansas State is helped and hurt by its schedule. The Wildcats refuse to take on anyone of significance outside of the Big 12 -- well, at least they play Big Ten foe Iowa -- which can be a drawback in the complicated BCS formula. But it gives them the opportunity to win all of their games. Last year, the only loss was at Nebraska, 41-15. This year, the Cornhuskers visit. No question, however, that Snyder has built a strong program. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jonathan Beasley is solid, if not spectacular, and the defense that ranked second in the nation in total defense returns eight starters. The Wildcats could make a run for No. 1, just like two years ago.

10. Miami

COACH: Butch Davis.

1999 RECORD: 9-4 (6-1 Big East).

KEY GAMES: at Washington (Sept. 9), Florida State (Oct. 7), Virginia Tech (Nov. 4), at Syracuse (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: The Hurricanes have their highest preseason ranking in the Davis era and finally seem poised to return to their glory days. There are numerous hurdles to overcome, however. Quarterback Ken Dorsey, a sophomore who started three game last year, is far from seasoned. He does have a talented and explosive supporting cast, but nobody backing him up has played in college. The defense continues to improve, although it lost Nate Webster. Special teams could be a concern. And then there are those pesky Seminoles and Hokies, who are a combined 10-0 against Davis. But all the elements are in place for a Big East title run -- and possibly more.

11. Virginia Tech

COACH: Frank Beamer.

1999 RECORD: 11-1 (7-0 Big East).

KEY GAMES: Georgia Tech (Aug. 27), at Boston College (Sept. 30), at Miami (Nov. 4), Virginia (Nov. 25).

OUTLOOK: After a storybook season in which the Hokies posted their first undefeated regular season and played for the national championship, it will be interesting to see how they respond after the loss of several key performers. Beamer has spent the past several years building a powerhouse at his alma mater. Still, he must replace eight starters from the nation's top scoring defense. At least his all-world quarterback returns. Michael Vick passed for 1,840 yards and 12 TDs and nearly ruined Florida State's national championship dreams in the Sugar Bowl. A Nov. 4 game at Miami looms large.

12. Tennessee

COACH: Phil Fulmer.

1999 RECORD: 9-3 (6-2 SEC).

KEY GAMES: Florida (Sept. 16), at Georgia (Oct. 7), Alabama (Oct. 21), Arkansas (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: Fulmer has proven himself over time, posting the best winning percentage (.850) of any active college coach. This season offers a different challenge. Five key players left early for the NFL, and after weathering the departure of Peyton Manning two years ago, the Vols most now replace his replacement, Tee Martin. Sophomore quarterback Joey Mathews is nowhere near as ready as Martin was, which means Fulmer could attempt to institute the power running game he prefers. The SEC schedule is daunting, with Alabama, Georgia and Florida -- all preseason Top 10 picks. It has been some time since the Vols were not expected to contend for the SEC East title.

13. Purdue

COACH: Joe Tiller.

1999 RECORD: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: at Notre Dame (Sept. 16), at Penn State (Sept. 30), at Wisconsin (Oct. 21), Ohio State (Oct. 28).

OUTLOOK: The Boilermakers rejoiced when quarterback Drew Brees elected to stick around for his senior season. The reasons are obvious. A Heisman Trophy candidate, Brees has brought excitement to a program that had none when he arrived. He has passed for more than 8,000 yards and 64 touchdowns in his career and thrives in Tiller's run-and-shoot offense. The defense returns just five starters, and that can be a problem with an offense that often does things so quickly. That puts the defense on the field far too often. A difficult month of October will make or break the season, but Purdue has an outside shot at contending for the Big Ten title.

14. Washington

COACH: Rick Neuheisel.

1999 RECORD: 7-5 (6-2 Pac-10).

KEY GAMES: Miami (Sept. 9), at Colorado (Sept. 16), at Oregon (Sept. 30), UCLA (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: Neuheisel took a season to implement his style, and the Huskies actually were a pleasant surprise a year ago under the former Colorado coach. Quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo is back, and he offers a strong threat running as well as throwing. The defense was weakened by several departures, putting the pressure on an experienced secondary. The Huskies will get a stern test when Miami visits in the second week, and Neuheisel's return to Boulder against Colorado promises to be interesting. Southern Cal is not on the schedule, however, which puts Washington right in the thick of the Pac-10 race.

15. Southern Cal

COACH: Paul Hackett.

1999 RECORD: 6-6 (3-5 Pac-10).

KEY GAMES: Penn State (Aug. 27), Oregon (Oct. 14), at UCLA (Nov. 18), Notre Dame (Nov. 25).

OUTLOOK: Looking for their first Rose Bowl appearance in five years, the Trojans are slight favorites in the Pac-10 and will be aided by a favorable home schedule. The defense is strong, with 10 starters returning, and Hackett is a sound offensive strategist who needs sophomore quarterback Carson Palmer to remain healthy. USC lost six of its next seven games after Palmer went down with a broken collarbone in the third game last season. The Trojans end the season against cross-town rival UCLA and Notre Dame, and haven't defeated both in the same year since 1981. The last time they defeated them on back-to-back Saturdays was 1978.

16. Mississippi

COACH: David Cutcliffe.

1999 RECORD: 8-4 (4-4 SEC).

KEY GAMES: Auburn (Sept. 9), at Alabama (Oct. 14), at Georgia (Nov. 18), Mississippi State (Nov. 23).

OUTLOOK: After a successful run as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, Cutcliffe brought his style to Ole Miss and managed to overcome a lack of depth due to scholarship restrictions. The Rebels suffered all of their defeats in the SEC and were overshadowed in the West by resurgent Alabama. Deuce McAllister and Joe Gunn are excellent running backs who help an exciting offense, and Les Binkley, who made 14 of 16 field goal attempts, might be the SEC's best kicker. A second straight victory over Auburn (and former coach Tommy Tuberville) would do wonders, and having seven homes games will help.

17. Ohio State

COACH: John Cooper.

1999 RECORD: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: at Arizona (Sept. 9), Penn State (Sept. 23), at Wisconsin (Oct. 7), Michigan (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: For the first time since Cooper took over in 1988 and went 4-6-1, the Buckeyes did not qualify for a bowl game, a shocking development in Columbus. OSU fans became accustomed to losing stockpiles of talent to the NFL, only to re-load. Cooper elected to shuffle his coaching staff, hiring two new coaches and giving five other assistants new duties. Quarterback Steve Bellisari needs to be better than 11th in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and the defense needs to overcome the loss of linebacker Na'il Diggs. The Buckeyes are plenty talented and underachieved last season, but the schedule does them no favors. There is no Northwestern or Indiana this year.

18. Clemson

COACH: Tommy Bowden.

1999 RECORD: 6-6 (5-3 ACC).

KEY GAMES: at Virginia (Sept. 23), Georgia Tech (Oct. 28), at Florida State (Nov. 4), South Carolina (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: In his first season, Bowden quickly tried to get Clemson in the modern age, putting in a wide-open offense never before seen in Death Valley. Quarterback Woody Dantzler passed for more than 1,500 yards despite starting just five games, and the Tigers lost three games by just a field goal, including a 17-14 loss to Bowden's dad, Bobby, and Florida State. Most believe the Tigers can climb to second in the ACC behind you-know-who and teams will once again dread going to Death Valley, where the Tigers play seven games this season. Clemson needs to find some consistency in its kicking game to be lethal.

19. Penn State

COACH: Joe Paterno.

1999 RECORD: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: USC (Aug. 27), at Ohio State (Sept. 23), at Michigan (Nov. 11), Michigan State (Nov. 18).

OUTLOOK: This is a rebuilding year for Paterno, who lost defensive end Courtney Brown and linebacker LaVar Arrington, the first two picks in the NFL draft. Just two starters return on defense and Paterno also will be without longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who retired after 32 seasons. Playing seven teams with winning records from a year ago, along with the off-field problems of quarterback Rashard Casey -- he allegedly attacked a police officer, making his future cloudy -- will not make life any easier. Unlike last year, when the Nittany Lions had their sights set on the national championship before a late-season swoon, making it to a nice bowl game might be a more modest goal.

20. TCU

COACH: Dennis Franchione.

1999 RECORD: 8-4 (5-2 WAC).

KEY GAMES: at Nevada (Sept. 9), at Navy (Sept. 30), Hawaii (Oct. 7), Fresno State (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: With bowl wins in each of his first two seasons after inheriting a team that had just one victory, Franchione has opened eyes in the coaching fraternity. With 21 starters back, the Horned Frogs will be the favorite to claim the WAC title, especially with Heisman candidate LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield. He was the nation's leading rushing a year ago with 1,850 yards. Franchione also brought in a top-notch recruiting class and the schedule is not daunting. The biggest WAC games are at home, and TCU could move up the rankings as the season progresses.

21. Oklahoma

COACH: Bob Stoops.

1999 RECORD: 7-5 (5-3 Big 12)

KEY GAMES: Texas (Oct. 7), at Kansas State (Oct. 14), Nebraska (Oct. 28), at Texas A&M (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: Stoops, the former defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida, has re-energized the Sooner faithful, who had not seen their team play in a bowl since 1994 before making it in his first season last year. He also helped a trickle of season ticket sales increase to more than 56,000. Slowly, he's replenishing the talent that had slipped noticeably at what once was an elite program. Surprisingly, the Sooners turned it around last year with a strong passing game and quarterback Josh Heupel. Oklahoma looks to take another step back this year and could contend for the Big 12 South title.

22. Southern Miss

COACH: Jeff Bower.

1999 RECORD: 9-3 (6-0 Conference USA).

KEY GAMES: at Tennessee (Sept. 2), at Alabama (Sept. 16), at Oklahoma State (Sept. 23), East Carolina (Nov. 24).

OUTLOOK: The defending Conference USA champs might want to have a chat with their schedule-maker. They easily could start the season 0-3, with tough road games at Tennessee, Alabama and Oklahoma State. They play just four at home, including a date with South Florida. Jeff Kelly is back at quarterback and will play under a new offensive coordinator, Chris Klenakis, whose charge is to bring more consistency. Despite a final ranking of No. 13, the school's highest ever, Bower felt the need to make four changes on his staff, not satisfied with winning 22 of 24 conference games since it was formed four years ago.

23. Texas A&M

COACH: R.C. Slocum.

1999 RECORD: 8-4 (5-3 Big 12).

KEY GAMES: at Notre Dame (Sept. 2), Texas Tech (Sept. 30), Colorado (Oct. 7), at Texas (Nov. 24).

OUTLOOK: It took 10 games for the Aggies to get a 100-yard rushing performance from one of their tailbacks, and the result was finishing ninth in the Big 12 and 60th in the nation in rushing offense. Slocum brought in two new offensive assistants to try to upgrade the attack and headed into the fall with Mark Farris, Vance Smith and Colby Freeman still being considered for the top quarterback spot. Farris played five years of minor league baseball before returning to school last year. "The Wrecking Crew" defense wasn't nearly as formidable a year ago, leading to plenty of uncertainty heading into this season.

24. Illinois

COACH: Ron Turner.

1999 RECORD: 8-4 (4-4 Big Ten).

KEY GAMES: Michigan (Sept. 23), at Penn State (Oct. 21), at Michigan State (Oct. 28), Ohio State (Nov. 11).

OUTLOOK: The Illini did the unthinkable last year, winning at Michigan and Ohio State, something nobody had done since 1951. They finished off the season with a 63-21 victory over Virginia in the Micron PC bowl and a No. 24 final ranking. So there is plenty of optimism, especially with 10 starters returning on offense, including quarterback Kurt Kittner. Only four starters return on defense, but several would-be starters have playing experience. Turner has done an excellent job rebounding from an 0-11 start, going 3-8 and 8-4. Few would be surprised to see Illinois' record improved some more.

25. Notre Dame

COACH: Bob Davie.

1999 RECORD: 5-7.

KEY GAMES: Texas A&M (Sept. 2), Nebraska (Sept. 9), Purdue (Sept. 16), at USC (Nov. 25).

OUTLOOK: The Irish slip into the last spot in the poll, but barely. For the first time since 1986, they were unranked in the AP preseason poll. And it is likely they will not be among the Top 25 when the season ends. A brutal schedule, especially early, likely will put Davie in the position of fighting for his job, especially after he dropped the final four games last season. How can this be? One clue is the Irish had just one player, quarterback Jarius Jackson, selected in the NFL draft. The Irish should be better than a year ago, when the defense was dreadful. Arnaz Battle is the new quarterback. And indications are there is more depth. But it won't be enough this year.

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