I hate doing this. I really do. But considering giving ridiculously early preseason "lookaheads" is all the rage these days, I thought I might as well share my Top 10 coming out of 2008 and going into 2009. Keep in mind we still have eight months to go before the start of next season, and between spring ball, a semester without football, and fall camp a lot can happen. Also, don't forget that some of these rankings are contingent on big name stars coming back for another season, like Oklahoma's Sam Bradford or USC's Mark Sanchez. Still, here's where some of the nation's top teams figure to fall going into the long, slow thaw of winter.
1) Florida-Hey, it's not like I wouldn't like to be contrarian here, but fresh off a National Title this team is just scary good and only figures to get better. Percy Harvin moves on to the NFL from the offense but the unit isn't short on experience or playmakers, with Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey waiting in the wings. The defense should be stacked - with or without Brandon Spikes- and you know the coaching staff won't have any off days with Urban Meyer at the helm. All of this would make for a Top 5 team at least, but when you factor in the return of one of the greatest college football players ever, well, now it just starts to become unfair.
2) Texas-The team that many thought should be playing for a National Title this year may very well find itself playing for one in 2009, as the return of QB Colt McCoy, WR Jordan Shipley, and four of five starting offensive linemen make Texas' explosive offensive attack arguably the best in the Big XII. Losing stud DE Brian Orakpo hurts, but the return of LB's Sergio Kindle and Rodderick Muckelroy leave the Longhorn's no shortage of talent on Will Muschamp's defense. The secondary - young and inconsistent at times in 2008 - should be much improved.
3) Alabama-It may be tempting to drop the Crimson Tide a few spots when you consider just how poorly they played without soon-to-be NFL bound left tackle Andre Smith in the Sugar Bowl, but remember that as a hole this team was remarkably young this past season. Losing Logan Coffee and John Parker Wilson hurt on offense, but the majority of the defense will be back as will emerging playmakers Mark Ingram at running back and Julio Jones at wide receiver. If this team can find a capable quarterback they look like the favorite in the SEC West.
4) Oklahoma-We'll know by Thursday whether or not Sam Bradford is coming back or not, but in either case the Sooners should return a strong defense anchored by nine returning starters. The return of Ryan Reynolds (injured against Texas) at linebacker should bolster the unit, and even with the losses on the offense line and skill positions there is enough talent in the pipe to keep this team in the hunt for a Big XII and National Title.
5) USC-I know, I know. East Coast bias, right? Wrong. I like USC to make it back to a BCS bowl in 2009, but given the fact that they're going to have to replace six of their starting front seven on defense gives me cause for concern, especially considering their recent history of midseason PAC-10 hiccups. This might be the most talented team in the country, but if anything college football has shown us that experience trumps talent with the new 12-game schedule format.
6) Georgia Tech- Leave it to a longtime Navy fan to go out on a limb on this one. I know Georgia Tech was handled in the Peach Bowl and that ranking them above the LSU Tigers may seem blasphemous to our friends in SEC country, but consider for a moment that Johnson was working with an offense built primarily from freshmen and sophomores recruited for a radically different system. The last time he did that - 2002 at Navy- his team went 2-10 his first year but came around to finish 8-5 in 2003. Even if the defense isn't as good as it was in 2008 I don't see any reason to expect that Johnson's offense won't be incredibly more productive in 2009, making them the ACC favorite.
7) LSU-Settle down Tiger fans, I did not forget you. Had QB Jordan Jefferson and the Tigers played the rest of the 2008 season like they did in the 2008 Peach Bowl we may have had a different matchup in the SEC Title game, but even the 38-3 stomping of Georgia Tech is not enough for me to overlook the painful inconsistency of Les Miles' team in 2008. I like the Tiger offense moving forward under Jefferson, but a likely overhaul of the front seven on defense keeps me skeptical.
8 ) Ohio State-I know some analysts are already drinking the Terrelle Pryor cool-aid, but the Buckeyes do suffer some pretty significant personnel losses going into next season. Chris Wells and Brian Robiskie depart, and joining them may be fellow wideout Brian Hartline. Defensively the Buckeyes will have to retool, and despite the fact that they've replaced NFL talent in the past I think they struggle moving forward without all everything linebacker James Laurinaitis. Still, this looks like the Big 10's best team heading into 2009.
9) Oklahoma State-Here's a comparison for you: How about the Cowboys as next year's version of the 2008 Red Raiders? The defense may struggle, but with all the playmakers back on offense this could end up being a team which just outscores its opponents more often than not. Quarterback Zach Robinson and wideout Dez Bryant are legitimate Heisman darkhorses.
10) Boise State-I don't know if Boise State is really the tenth best team going into next season (ok, so I know they're not) but I do think they represent the best shot of a non-automatic qualifier getting to a BCS bowl game in 2009, which in and of itself deserves mention on a list like this. This season's freshmen sensation Kellen Moore returns at quarterback to direct an explosive offense which features several other young but talented skill position players.
Others to Consider:Virginia Tech, Penn State, Ole Miss, Kansas, Notre (gasp!) Dame