The 2009 pre-season USA Today Coach’s poll came out the other day, and it should surprise absolutely no one that the Florida Gators are ranked number one. What is a bigger surprise is that it wasn’t unanimous. The National Champion Gators received 53 of 59 first place votes.
Texas, who is ranked 2nd, received 4 first place votes, while 3rd ranked Oklahoma and 4th ranked USC each received one vote. Alabama rounded out the top 5.
#1 – FLORIDA GATORS
2008 Record: (13-1, 7-1)
Florida is already heavily favored to win their second straight national title and it’s easy to see why. Not only is Tim Tebow returning, but so are seven other offensive starters, including RBs Jeffrey Demps and Brandon James. Demps and James both hope to take some of the load off of Tebow this season. Last year, Tebow led the Gators in rushing with 673 yards while he led the offense to a 3rd best ranking in the nation (43.6 PPG).
On defense, the Gators have all 11 starters returning from last season’s top ranked defense in the SEC. Last year’s team gave up the fewest points in the SEC and 5th in the nation (12.8 per game), including holding record setting Oklahoma to 14 points in the Championship game. With all of the players returning, they should be equally tough to score on this season. Their 32 sacks were 2nd in the SEC to only Ole Miss.
The only thing that could possibly hurt them is the loss of WRs Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, who both left the team to join the NFL. Last season, Harvin was a huge part of the Gators’ offense, not only as their 2nd overall receiver (644 yards), but also as their 2nd overall rusher (659 yards). But, they do have a very talented Riley Cooper ready to step up and take over the position.
The Gators’ schedule shows nothing that should stand in their way of another trip to the Championship Game. The biggest obstacles they face is in Oct 10th meeting in Baton Rouge against LSU. If they can get past that, the only other possible bump in the road is a meeting in Jacksonville with Georgia on Halloween. That’s about it.
The schedule, coupled with all of the returning starters, and the phenomenon that is Tim Tebow, arguably the best college football player in the past 50 years, if not ever (and either another Heisman Award or another Championship will absolutely cement that legacy), makes the Gators a very attractive pick to repeat as National Champs.
#2 – TEXAS LONGHORNS
2008 Record: (12-1, 7-1)
There should be no one outside of the state of Oklahoma who doesn’t believe that the Longhorns got totally jobbed last season by the BCS system. There is still no reasonable explanation why, after beating the Sooners, 45-35, earlier in the season, that they would be leap-frogged by that same team and not given the opportunity to fight for the Big 12 Championship against Kansas, who they would have demolished. They had every right to go to that game, and then to face the Florida Gators in the BCS Championship Game.
While that bitterness won’t go away anytime soon, and it shouldn’t, this is a new season. And thus, the Longhorns have a shot at redemption.
With leading passer and rusher Colt McCoy returning, along with leading receiver Jordan Shipley, Texas is in a very good position to take control of the Big 12 Conference. Last season, the Longhorns ranked 5th in the nation and 3rd in the conference in scoring (43.4).
Their passing game was very good, ranking 7th in the nation and 4th in the conference in passing (308.3 yards per game). McCoy was fifth in the conference in yards (3,859), fourth in TD (34), sixth in completions of 20+ yards (42) and fourth in passes for first downs (183).
However, their running game wasn’t nearly as good, with 167.5 yards per game on the ground only ranked them 41st in the nation and 5th in the conference. The team’s leading rusher was McCoy, with 561 yards and 11 TD. Vondrell McGee was next with 376 yards and 4 TD, but sophomore Cody Johnson had the most TD with 12. Both McGee and Johnson are returning this season.
Defensively, the Longhorns had the most sacks of any team in the nation last year (30), but their team leader, Brian Orakpo, 2008’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner went to the Washington Redskins in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, and there is no easy replacement for someone of his stature.
They were the top ranked team in the conference in scoring defense (18.8), total defense (342.9), and rushing defense (83.5). With many of their defensive starters returning, they should be able to maintain that pressure on a conference that is known for high scoring.
Looking at their schedule, they don’t face their first challenge until Week 3, when they meet Texas Tech, in Austin. Then just two weeks later they meet Oklahoma in Dallas in what will likely be their toughest game of the season. After that, there are really no tough games for them until they see who they face in the Big 12 Championship, and they should beat whoever that is.
Based on what we know now, and barring any major injuries to either team, we should be seeing Florida and Texas in Pasadena on January 7th.
#3 – OKLAHOMA SOONERS
2008 Record: (12-2, 7-1)
Let me get this out of the way right now. Last year’s Sooners team was very, very good. They had the number one, record breaking team in the nation (54 points per game) and if Heisman Award winner Sam Bradford had gone pro, he more than likely would have been the number one pick in the draft. All that being said, they had no business being in the BCS Championship Game against the Gators. That honor, by all rights, should have gone to the Texas Longhorns.
OK. Now that’s out of the way, the Sooners should be very good again this season. Bradford is returning, as are running backs Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray, who both ran for over 1000 yards last season. Also returning is TE Jermaine Greshem, who was Bradford’s 2nd best receiver (950 yards) last year.
On defense, the Sooners look even better. All 11 of last season’s starters are returning this season. Last year the team was ranked 2nd in the conference in rushing defense (116.2 yards) and 5th in the conference in pass defense (252.5 yards) while coming in 3rd in overall defense (367.7 yards). They allowed only 24.5 points per game (2nd Big 12).
Their 3.0 sacks per game ranked 4th in the nation and there’s no reason to think they won’t be just as good this season.
This team faces two tough challenges. The first is the offensive line where the only starter from last year who is returning is offensive tackle Trent Williams. The rest of the O-line, Phil Loadholt, Duke Robinson, Jon Cooper and Brandon Walker, are all history. Also, both receivers from last season, Juaquin Iglesias and Manuel Johnson, who combined for 1864 yards and 19 TD last season, are also gone.
Their schedule looks just as good as Texas’ does. Their first tough game isn’t until the Red River Rivalry game against Texas in Dallas on October 17th. Then they may have a tough time against Texas Tech on November 21st, and Oklahoma State almost always gives them a run for their money. But overall, they are better than any Big 12 team they are going to face.
If they can somehow get by Texas in the game in Dallas, they will go to the Big 12 Championship, legitimately this time. And, they should be able to beat whomever they face there to move on to the BCS Title Game. However, Texas has a lot to prove and should leave no doubt as to who should go to Dallas on December 5th.
#4 – USC TROJANS
2008 Record: (12-1, 8-1)
Here’s the good news for the Trojans: Nine of 11 starters from last season’s offense is returning. Here’s the bad news: The two who aren’t are QB Mark Sanchez who is now a starter with the NY Jets, and WR Patrick Turner, who accounted for 741 yards and 10 TD.
And more bad news: Eight of 11 starters on defense have to be replaced. But, more good news: There is some serious depth waiting to step in at every position and take over. General consensus is that Pete Carroll’s troupe will be just fine, once they determine who the QB is going to be.
A safe bet for QB will be Mitch Mustain, who threw 11 passes in 16 attempts last season for 157 yards with 2 TD and 2 INT. He will be tossing to leading receiver Damian Williams, who had 869 yards receiving and 9 TD last season. Also returning is the RB tandem of Stafon Johnson (705 yds, 9 TD) and Joe McKnight (659 yds, 2 TD).
On defense, they finished first or second in a weak conference in nearly every category. Even with a relatively new staff, they should finish high in the rankings. The other teams just aren’t that good. And that will help the Trojans stay high in the overall rankings in general.
Looking at the schedule, it’s not as easy as it has been in the past, but they should still have little problems. They go to Ohio State in Week 2, and that will be their first challenge of the season. Once they get past that, their next tough game is Week 5 against the California Golden Bears, only because they always play them so tough. After that, their next challenge is the very next week when they travel to Notre Dame. None of those will be easy games. The fact that they are all on the road makes them that much harder.
The rest of the season will depend on which conference game the Trojans decide to use this season to fall on their swords. Every season there seems to be that one game that they are favored by 217 points that they lose. The fun part is trying to guess which game that is. Depending where in the season they fall on that sword will depend on how bad it hurts them in the overall scheme of things.
#5 – ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
2008 Record: (12-2, 8-0)
Last season, Alabama was nearly unbeatable, that is, until that ran into the buzz saw that was the Florida Gators. They were a perfect 12-0 until losing to the Gators in the SEC Championship Game. Then, they lost to the Utah Utes in the Sugar Bowl. In all likelihood, they will again meet the Gators in the SEC Championship Game. There is just no one better in the SEC Western Division.
They lost some key players on offense, including QB John Parker Wilson, and RB Glenn Coffee, as well as TE Travis McCall. They also lost several of the front line.
Wilson was ranked 5th among SEC QBs last season in passing yards (2243) and 7th in TD (7), so while he wasn’t great, he was acceptable. He wasn’t helped very much by a porous front line that allowed the 2nd highest sack total in the conference (25).
RB Coffee, on the other hand, will be greatly missed. His 1383 yards, which nearly doubled that of anyone else on the team, ranked 2nd in the conference and his 10 TD ranked 5th.
Stepping into the lead role at RB will be Mark Ingram, who had 728 yards rushing with 12 TD last season. Also returning is lead receiver Julio Jones. Last season Jones led the Tide with 58 catches for 924 yards and 4 TD.
Nick Saban’s QB will more than likely be last season’s backup Greg McElroy. Last year, McElroy tossed for 123 yards and 1 TD. The biggest problem Saban will face is that if McElroy gets injured, there’s no one ready to step in behind him.
On defense, the Tide has nine starters returning from last season’s squad including nose guard Terrence Cody and defensive end Brandon Deaderick. One of the only issues that the defense has is the loss of free safety Rashad Johnson, who led the team in interceptions last season.
Last season’s defense was ranked 3rd in the nation and first in the SEC in total defense (263.5 yards per game). They ranked 7th in the nation and 2nd in the SEC in scoring (14.3 points per game). And their rushing defense was spectacular, ranking 2nd in the nation and 1st in the conference, allowing a ridiculous 74.1 yards pre game. There’s no reason not to believe they won’t be that good again this season.
Alabama’s schedule starts off very tough. They open at home against 7th ranked Virginia Tech. If they can get past them, they have it pretty easy for a while. Their next big challenge comes in Week 6 against #10 Mississippi, then they get a break until they face LSU on November 11th. If they can make it through that gauntlet, they deserve to go to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.