By Bruce Marshall,
Associate Editor

1-OKLAHOMA...We love the psychology surrounding this season’s Sooners, flying a bit under the radar after dropping to 8-4 last year. With all of the fuss made about Texas last season, it’s easy to forget how HC Bob Stoops literally owned the Horns before ‘05, whipping Mack Brown (sometimes badly) 5 in a row before Vince Young & Co. beat a young OU team last October in Dallas. But Stoops had the Sooners back on course by the time the season ended, and they were improved enough to beat 1-loss Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. Now RS soph QB Rhett Bomar and a bevy of frisky young receivers have a full year under their belts, and watch how getting RB Adrian Peterson back at 100% will jazz things up offensively. Moreover, the defensive back 7 should be dynamite, and the schedule is set up for a national title run if OU can win a tricky mid-September test at revenge-minded Oregon. Survive that trip to Eugene, and avenge last year’s loss vs. you-know-who at the Cotton Bowl a few weeks later, and Stoops is back in the driver’s seat for another shot at the BCS crown.

2-AUBURN...SEC observers are suggesting that last January’s bowl loss vs. Wisconsin might have been the best thing that could have happened to Auburn...for 2006, that is. With 8 months to stew over that embarrassment, don’t be surprised if the upcoming Tiger edition uses that loss as a season-long motivator. There’s a great 1-2 punch on offense with QB Brandon Cox a year wiser and RB Kenny Irons getting some peripheral Heisman mention, and HC Tommy Tuberville claims this might be the fastest defense he’s ever coached on the Plains. The schedule is BCS-perfect, too, with a soft non-conference slate, only four road games (albeit one of those at Alabama), and most of the toughest SEC tests (Florida, LSU, & Georgia) at home.

3-WEST VIRGINIA...Sure, the Mounties are something of a team du jour entering ‘06 after opening a lot of eyes with that early KO punch delivered to unsuspecting Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. But anyone with a pulse would have to get excited about the prospects of such potent young soph playmakers as QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton, who promise much more after their spectacular debuts a year ago. Indeed, if White can improve his passing skills, he might be the closest thing to Vince Young on this fall’s college landscape. Still, we’re playing a bit of the schedule angle with WVU, which probably has a better likelihood of running the table than any other team in the country because of its manageable slate. The Mountaineers’ BCS and possible Fiesta Bowl hopes will likely come down to a Thursday night Big East showdown at Louisville in early November.

4-OHIO STATE...Few programs can withstand losing five first-round draft choices, not to mention the top 9 tacklers from last year’s defense, and hardly miss a beat. Such, however, is the depth HC Jim Tressel has stockpiled these days in Columbus. And no one needs to feel sorry for the ‘06 Buckeyes, who still boast of two legitimate Heisman candidates in QB Troy Smith and do-everything Ted Ginn Jr., not to mention one of the best Big Ten RBs in Antonio Pittman. Much like last season, any serious national title hopes will be on the line in another early-season showdown vs. Texas (this year at Austin, September 9).

5-FLORIDA...We heard for much of last season how QB Chris Leak wasn’t the right “fit” for Urban Meyer’s spread-option imported from Utah, but by the end of ‘05 Leak and the rest of the Gators looked to be getting the hang of things. And remember how Meyer’s second teams at Bowling Green and expecially Utah really jelled. There’s plenty of depth and speed on a potentially dominant stop unit, which can carry Florida until its rebuilt OL jells, and any number of potential impact frosh (maybe even highly-touted QB Tim Tebow) are likely to make their presence felt. Things are going to have to mesh, however, to deal with a tricky slate featuring several key contests (Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, & Florida State) away from the Swamp.

6-TEXAS...Even minus Vince Young, Texas would have been pretty good last year. But, Young was the ultimate X-factor that turned the Horns from a very good team into a great team. Now, almost everything appears in place for another title run except at QB, where Mack Brown enters the season with virtually no experience whatsoever at the most important position on the team. Nonetheless, this is still a BCS-quality squad. We’ll know if it’s another potential national champion by midseason after what are essentially Fiesta Bowl elimination games vs. Ohio State (at Austin September 9) and Oklahoma (at Dallas October 7).

7-SOUTHERN CAL...Given all the potential storm clouds surrounding the program, any forecast on the Trojans is a provisional one, at least until camp reconvenes in August, after Pete Carroll absorbed more blows than George Chuvalo in a troubling April stretch of events. By fall, we should have an idea of what kind of sanctions SC might be facing in wake of the damning Reggie Bush evidence and other allegations, not to mention if the suspension of RS frosh QB Mark Sanchez (sexual assault charges) sticks, which could prove especially important if Matt Leinart’s heir apparent, John David Booty, hasn’t sufficiently recovered from back surgery. Still too many blue-chippers to dismiss a title run, but the Trojans can’t help but regress from their recent lofty perch.

8-FLORIDA STATE...The pieces seem to be in place for Bobby Bowden to perhaps make one more run at national honors. After all, the Noles dealt with a myriad of inexperience and injury problems last year and still ended up winning the ACC crown. But we still need more evidence before we’re convinced the offense really has a clue of how to proceed after basically forgetting about the run last year while QB Drew Weatherford endured inevitable growing pains as a frosh. The quick-footed defense, however, is good enough to keep the Noles in every game, including a crucial opener at hated Miami that could prove the launching pad for a Fiesta Bowl run.

9-NOTRE DAME...Charlie Weis certainly awakened the echoes last year in South Bend, and there could be more shaking down the thunder this fall if sr. QB Brady Quinn makes an expected Heisman run after his breakout ‘05 campaign (3919 YP!). Moreover, Weis’ Irish displayed moxie and intelligence that recent Ty Willingham & Bob Davie editons lacked. However, Weis & d.c. Rick Minter are concerned about their defense, which lacks quicks and was often burned (especially thru the air) last year. And another challenging schedule means ND is going to have to find a way to deal with the same type of big-play opponents this fall.

10-CALIFORNIA...Who ever thought we’d be wondering about the QB situation on a Jeff Tedford-coached team two years running? But that’s again the big question mark for an otherwise loaded Bear squad that has a decent shot to knock USC off its recent Pac-10 pedestal—IF the QB situation is solved, that is. We’ll have to wait until fall to see if Nate Longshore would have already provided that answer if not for a serious leg injury suffered in the ‘05 opener. Meanwhile, Tedford has jazzed things up by “stealing” o.c. Mike Dunbar from Northwestern and implementing some of the Wildcats’ high-powered spread, which should suit the likes of homerun RB Marshawn Lynch and explosive soph wideout DeSean Jackson just fine.

11-LSU...After dealing with the distractions of Hurricane Katrina and still fashioning an 11-2 mark last season (including a 40-3 romp past Miami in the Peach Bowl), not to mention returning with an abundance of riches at QB (JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, and precocious RS frosh Ryan Perrilloux) plus numerous other big-play weapons, the Tigers ought to be ready for bigger things this fall, no? Well, perhaps, but HC Les Miles is still going to have to do some quick patchwork along LSU’s depleted offensive and defensive fronts in time for the Tigers to deal with another thankless gauntlet of SEC road games at Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee.

12-TEXAS TECH...Lost amidst the usual hail of gunfire from Mike Leach’s potent Red Raider spread offense was the fact Texas Tech played a lot better defense than usual last fall, ranking a solid 18th in points allowed. And that stop unit figures to be pretty ornery once again. Meanwhile, Leach is plugging in another new QB, the marvelously-talented soph Graham Harrell, though he hasn’t had as much time to learn the spread as did a succession of senior predecessors. The non-conference slate is tougher than last year’s joke, but it’s still manageable, and the Red Raiders project to be underdogs vs. only Texas and Oklahoma this fall.

13-IOWA...The good news is that HC Kirk Ferentz once again resisted overtures from the NFL and is back to lead the Hawkeyes to another bowl. Whether it’s another one of the New Year’s games in Florida or a lower-profile date elsewhere probably depends upon how quickly the Hawkeyes replace impact LBs Chad Greenway (1st-round Vikings draftee) & Abdul Hodge (Packers 3rd-round selection) and retool a secondary that was far too permissive in ‘05. Still, productive QB Drew Tate & RB Albert Young return, and September swing games vs. Iowa State & Ohio State are both at Iowa City.

14-GEORGIA...There’s talk in Athens that true frosh QB Michael Stafford is good enough to lead the Dawgs to the promised land (or at least the BCS). But if we see much of Stafford this season it will probably be due to the fact sr. QB Joe Tereshinski has looked as unimpressive as he did in relief work for the sometimes-dazzling D.J. Shockley last season. No matter, HC Mark Richt will likely switch gears with his offense and turn loose explosive jr. RBs Thomas Brown & Danny Ware (maybe the nation’s top pair?). However, we wonder if the combo of Tereshinski and lots of rebuilding on defense will prevent Georgia from seriously challenging Florida in the SEC East.

15-LOUISVILLE...Once RB Michael Bush decided not to leave for the NFL, the pieces stayed in place for another record-breaking Louisville attack that also welcomes back deadeye QB Brian Brohm & homerun WR Mario Urrutia. And most everyone returns defensively save pass-rush demon Elvis Dumervil. Further, the two toughest tests on the schedule (Miami-Fla. & West Virginia) both take place at Papa John’s. But the Cards were almost Hawaii-like in the way they dropped off so much away from home last year, and we’re not convinced they can emerge unscathed from even their modest-looking road slate in the fall.

16-MIAMI-FLORIDA...What happened to the swagger, guys? It was on display occasionally last season but certainly not in the inexplicable collapse at the end of the season that culminated in a humiliating 40-3 emasculation at the hands of LSU in the Peach Bowl, which prompted HC Larry Coker to make numerous staff changes. Now, it’s Coker who could be under the gun if Miami continues to slide away from the nation’s elite. The defense ought to be typically Cane-like nasty, but QB Kyle Wright and the offense need to display more consistency to survive another treacherous ACC schedule.

17-MICHIGAN...They’re not used to 5-loss seasons in Ann Arbor. Moreover, the Wolverines have lost 4 of their last 5 vs. Ohio State and have been supplanted by the Buckeyes as the pre-eminent power in the Big Ten, resulting in HC Lloyd Carr being placed on notice this fall. And, longtime right-hand man def. coord. Jim Herrmann has departed, with DB coach Ron English promoted to Herrmann’s old spot. We can’t discount the Wolverines as long as QB Chad Henne & RB Michael Hart are still around, but the Michigan “D” hasn’t been dominant for a while, and the Wolverines will be pushing their luck if they risk taking almost every game into the final moments as they did in ‘05.

18-ALABAMA...Bama made an art form out of winning ugly last fall, but hopes that the offense would emerge from the stone age have taken a blow with the news that homerun WR/KR Tyrone Prothro might not make it back form last year’s devastating leg injury. That could be a real blow for an offense that still hopes a healthy Prothro will ease the transition at QB from Brodie Croyle to soph John Parker Wilson. We’ll see how last year’s All-World defense recovers from some key graduation losses, but the Tide gets a bit of a break by winning the Bill Snyder Award for weakest non-conference slate (Hawaii, Duke, UL-Monroe and Florida International).

19-VIRGINIA TECH...We’ve learned to never underestimate a Frank Beamer team, and we expect that ridding the program of Marcus Vick will eventually turn out to be a positive. Short-term, however, Beamer has no clear-cut choices at QB, and he’ll need one to emerge or else waste a collection of some of the best receiving talent in the land. Another hail of Beamer-specialty forced turnovers and blocked kicks can always compensate, but there are probably too many holes to fill on both sides for the Hokies to get into the national title mix.

20-NAVY...There’s talk by the Chesapeake that this could be the best Navy team since Roger Staubach’s 1963 Cotton Bowl side, and who’s to argue? Simply put, HC Paul Johnson’s system works in Annapolis, and if the Mids could survive the loss of 16 starters in ‘05 and get back to a bowl, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be even better this fall with 17 starters returning. Johnson’s spread-option should hum again with its fourth different sr. QB in as many years (now it’s Brian Hampton’s turn), and regional scouts continue to rave about the un-Academy-like athleticism on the roster. The slate is very forgiving with only an October 28 game vs. Notre Dame appearing out of reach.

21-UTAH...Was that a sneak preview of things to come in last December’s Emerald Bowl, when Utah wiped the field with Georgia Tech? If so, that’s bad news for the rest of the Mountain West, as the Utes are hungry again after relinquishing the league crown to newcomer TCU last season. After wondering how life would be without Alex Smith last season, HC Kyle Whittingham now enters his 2nd year in charge and has two dynamic options (jr. Brian Johnson & sr. Brett Ratliff) to choose from at QB. We’ll know by midseason if Utah is ready to set up camp again in the weekly rankings after early dates vs. UCLA, Boise State, and TCU (the latter two at home in a 5-day span).

22-ARIZONA STATE...No, HC Dirk Koetter can’t play both of his featured QBs (Sam Keller & Rudy Carpenter) at the same time, but either one is capable of detonating what should be another potent Sun Devil offense. What about the defense? That’s been another matter lately, but there’s real hope in the desert that a plethora of transfers will quickly fortify the platoon. By mid-October, we’ll know if ASU is a legit Pac-10 contender after its 3-game stretch vs. Cal, Oregon (only home game of bunch), and USC.

23-TENNESSEE...Realizing that anything close to a repeat of last year’s 5-6 train wreck could cost him his job, HC Phil Fulmer has brought back an old friend, off. coord. David Cutcliffe (who held the same position during Peyton Manning’s years and the ‘98 national title season in Knoxville), to re-calibrate an offense that was its own worst enemy when coughing up the ball 27 times (95th in TO margin) last fall. But Cutcliffe might need to reach deep into his bag of tricks to get QB Erik Ainge performing up to the level his supposed abilities suggest. An interesting opener at Knoxville vs. dangerous Pac-10 invader Cal could set the tone for 2006.

24-BOSTON COLLEGE....The no-nonsense Eagles deserved a bit more respect than they received last season, being forced to trek to far-away Idaho for their bowl game on the home field of explosive Boise State. But the Eagles won anyway. And, after proving they can compete with the big boys in the new and expanded ACC in ‘05, they are looking for more of the same in ‘06. QB Matt Ryan returns with another rugged stable of RBs and a typically road-grading Tom O’Brien OL, but some key defensive playmakers (including DE Mathias Kiwanuka) must be replaced. The season’s pivotal points will come in back-to-back mid-October dates vs. Virginia Tech & Florida State.

25-GEORGIA TECH...ACC sources report that Emerald Bowl embarrassment vs. Utah has served as quite a motivator for the Yellow Jackets throughout spring and their off-season workouts. Let’s see if that can translate into more points than the mere 19 pg Tech scored in ‘05. There’s no reason it shouldn’t, not with QB Reggie Ball back for what seems like his 10th season and WR Calvin Johnson capable of causing nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Ball is probably too erratic to suggest the Jackets are a BCS-caliber team, but Tech will have a chance to make a big splash early when hosting Notre Dame in its September 2 opener.