College Football

Weston’s Pre-Season Top 25-College Football

Often times, football fans refer to their sport as the sport with no off-season. Sure, there is that treacherous seven month period in which fans will not seen a pass thrown or a hit made, but will see much activity in between seasons, both in college and pro. In college, this period is used for the recruiting battle in which schools all over the nation run over scouting reports, meet with new players etc. just hoping that their program will be the right fit for the star they are trying to attract. But for those of us who do not hold a high position in the sport, we are left to use this period to analyze, speculate, and argue about who is who in the nation, and who has the best opportunity to make it big the next season. Fans and media alike all have their opinions as to who belongs in the top 25 heading into the 2004 season. Below you will find my rendition as to who belongs where in the college scene heading into 2004.25. Kansas State Wildcats
Perhaps never has a defending Big XII champion had so much to prove heading into the next season. The Wildcats need to prove that they are strong, serious contenders to repeat as champions without the services of quarterback Ell Roberson.  The returning bright spot for Kansas State is 5’7" running back Darren Sproles, who led the team last season with 1,986 rushing yards and figures to be a possible candidate for the Heisman trophy. If Sproles can lead his team to another Big XII championship, and perhaps another BCS Bowl, then his candidacy for college football’s most prestigious award should be very strong. Luckily for the Wildcats, their schedule is not as challenging as last season’s, but they still must face Big XII powerhouses such as Oklahoma and Nebraska, as well as the up-and-coming Missouri Tigers. If Kansas State can avoid screw-ups versus teams such as Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Colorado while competing well against the bigger teams, another Big XII championship is not out of the question.

24.Iowa Hawkeyes
After a Rose Bowl victory two seasons ago versus Carson Palmer’s USC Trojans, the Hawkeyes headed into the 2003 campaign without their "National Player of the Year," quarterback Brad Banks to lead them and still finished 10-3, including a Outback Bowl victory over the Florida Gators. This season the Hawkeyes will have to replace another starting quarterback in Nathan Chandler with Sophomore Drew Tate. Even with the loss of their starting quarterback, the biggest loss for the Hawkeyes was the anchor of their offensive line, Robert Gallery. The upcoming season can go in two totally different directions for Iowa, and their final record mainly depends on how they do in games against Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. If Iowa can win their other seven games versus mediocre competition and pull of two or three victories versus their remaining Big Ten schedule, then Iowa could be looking at another Outback Bowl appearance, but if Iowa struggles to put up points with  only two remaining offensive starters returning, then Iowa could be struggling to keep it .500 this year.

23.Wisconsin Badgers
The Wisconsin Badgers return fifteen starters, including nine offensive. The problem is that the only two non-returning starters were the Badgers best two players in quarterback Jim Sorgi and wide receiver Lee Evans. The bright spot on offense for Wisconsin will be the fact that they could possess the best rushing attack in the Big Ten. With Anthony Davis returning from injury, and Dwayne Smith returning from a season in which he averaged 5.2 yards per carry, the Badgers look as if they may be able to return to their rushing form that dominated the Big Ten in 1998 and 1999, seasons in which Wisconsin won the Big Ten championship. If Wisconsin can play the way they did in games versus Ohio State and West Virginia, while avoiding performances such as a 23-5 loss to UNLV last season, then Wisconsin could be a dark horse of the Big Ten.

22.Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers head into the 2004 season looking to take the Pac-10 by surprise. With the loss of Steven Jackson at running back, you would think that the offense could be in a bind heading into a new year. Luckily for the Beavers they have a returning 4,000-yard passer who threw 24 touchdowns last season. The Beavers will start their season off with an immediate test as they face the defending National Champions, the LSU Tigers. A win could give the Beavers a big swing of momentum that could carry them to a record as good as 8-0 or 7-1 heading into their match-up with Southern California. If Oregon State can pull of an upset at home versus the defending Rose Bowl champs and defeat rival Oregon at the end of the season, then a cinderella story could be in order.

21.Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilermakers can be a team that sneaks up on the rest of the Big Ten this season. With returning senior quarterback Kyle Orton and a solid running game, the Boilermakers could be in line to make a run in the conference. Purdue finished last season with a 9-4 record. Two losses came in overtime, including a 16-13 loss to Ohio State, and a 34-27 Capital One Bowl loss to Georgia. The other two losses came to  a good Bowling Green team in which they lost just 27-26 and another to defending Big Ten Champ Michigan. If the defense can remain strong and the offense can show more production, the Boilermakers may be able to pull off upsets versus the Buckeyes and/or Wolverines, both of whom they play at home. If the Boilermakers can do this, then a great season may be in order, but with just three returning starters on defense, questions remain.

20.Nebraska Cornhuskers
After two up-and-down seasons for the Oakland Raiders, Bill Callahan will try to make it in the college ranks with arguably the most prestigious program in all of college football. The Nebraska Cornhuskers have grown accustomed to winning over the past decade and a ten-win season is not enough to have firm job security. You can argue that the Cornhuskers biggest win, aside from a 17-3 victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, was a 17-7 season-opener in which they defeated the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Nebraska failed to make an appearance in losses to Missouri, Texas, and Kansas State. In these three games, the Cornhuskers lost by an average margin of 23 points.  Because of a weak early schedule, the Cornhuskers should be 6-0 when they square off against Kansas State, the team that slapped them around 38-9 last season. If the players learn and run the west coast offense successfully and the defense continues to be one of the best in the nation, then the Cornhuskers could battle for a spot in the Big XII championship, but they’ll need a lot of luck along the way.

19.Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State will return for the 2004 season without their number one receiver in Rashaun Woods, and without their number one running back in Tatum Bell. On top of everything, their quarterback Josh Fields is expected to leave the team to pursue a career in baseball. Without their big three, the Cowboys will bring back seven starters on offense, but their new quarterback will be freshman Bobby Reid. The running game could perhaps be the most critical part of the Cowboys success. With Vernand Morency(918 yards, 8 TD’s in 2003) returning for his junior season, it seems that the Cowboys may be able to have success running the ball this season, which should make Reid’s freshman year much easier. The Cowboys start the season with an opportunity to go as good as 5-1 or 6-0, but then face a three-game stretch in which they face Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. This season may be a re-building year for two or three years down the road.

18.Texas Christian Horned Frogs
After making a BCS run last season, the Horned Frogs have perhaps a better chance of doing so this year. The Horned Frogs will return their starting quarterback, running back, and wide receiver on offense and face a favorable schedule that could see TCU going undefeated in the regular season.  TCU should be 8-0 when they head to Louisville on November 9th. If they can pull of the road win versus the Cardinals, and then avenge last seasons loss to Southern Miss the next week at home, the Horned Frogs could be able to stir up even more controversy in the BCS.

17.Minnesota Golden Gophers
Warning to the Big Ten: Fear the Gopher! Minnesota brings back a 10-3 team whose only losses came to Michigan 38-35, Michigan State 44-38, and Iowa 40-22. Minnesota will bring a run it down your throat attitude to their game. The Gophers have three games that should decide the fate of their season. If the Gophers can pull of an upset against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, then they will immediately become the favorites to win the Big Ten since they do not have to face Ohio State. After that, they must face Wisconsin and Iowa down the stretch. If the Gophers can win one or both of those games, then it could be a story-book year for Minnesota. However, they must find a new quarterback, and it will more than likely be sophomore Bryan Cupito, who has never thrown a pass in his collegiate career.

16.Auburn Tigers
After being predicted by many magazines as a pre-season top five and national championship contender last season, the Tigers lost their season-opener 23-0 to USC, and again to Georgia Tech 17-3 the next week. Coming into 2004, the Tigers will look to surprise the SEC, and they may do so. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is predicted to have a huge senior season, if he stays healthy. Everyone knows that Williams will be the source of the offense next season, but the production of senior quarterback Jason Campbell will be critical as well. Campbell has proven that he can control a game pretty well, but he must prove that he can also make the big play from time to time. If the defense can stay remain tough, even with the loss of stellar linebacker Karlos Dansby, then the Tigers could make a run in the SEC West, but they will have to pull off an upset versus LSU in order to do so.

15.Tennessee Volunteers
For Tennessee, it will be hard to replace Casey Clausen, especially when you are left to choose from 6th-year senior C.J. Leak, brother of Chris Leak, and Rick Clausen, brother of Casey Clausen. Leak threw a total of eight passes last season, and Clausen had very little experience as a freshman while at LSU. It seems that Leak is the quarterback heading into the new season, but the offensive strategy will focus on the running-back trio in Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis, and Gerald Riggs. If not for two huge let-downs versus Auburn and Georgia last season, the Vols could have pushed for an SEC championship bid. The success of the Volunteers season will revolve around how they do in games versus Florida, Georgia, and Auburn in the SEC. The Volunteers found a way to beat the Gators in "the swamp" last year, but were unable to contend against a Georgia team which figures to be much stronger this season. The fact that the Bulldogs have to face Notre Dame near the end of the season makes matters worse. If Leak or Clausen can perform as both of their brothers have, the Tennessee could become a strong contender for the SEC East crown. But if they are unable to defeat their east foes, and Cedric Houston is unable to stay healthy, the Vols could be looking at a long season.

14.Missouri Tigers
Returning at quarterback for Missouri will be junior Brad Smith, a phenomenal athlete who led the team in passing yards(1,977) and rushing yards(1,406) last season. With Smith’s athleticism, the Tigers are automatic favorites to contend for a spot in the Big XII championship game. The Tigers will also return nine starters on defense that, although not exceptional last year, held opponents to 22.1 points per game. The Tigers have an easy schedule through their first five games where their most difficult opponent will be Colorado at home. However, down the stretch the Tigers and the rest of the nation will find out just what this team is made of with games at Texas, Oklahoma State, at Nebraska, and Kansas State. It would take an amazing performance to pull out the upset versus Texas, but wins versus the remaining three are not out of the question for Missouri. For the past two seasons, college football fans have gotten to know Brad Smith a little bit better, but expect to hear even more about him this year, perhaps in the Heisman talks!

13.West Virginia Mountaineers
Being in the Big East has never been so easy for the Mountaineers. After years of battling powerhouse Miami and the Hokies of Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers now find themselves as the HUGE favorites to win the conference this season. However, even with the Hokies out of the conference, the Mountaineers will face them on the 2nd of October, perhaps their biggest game of the year. With the schedule that faces them, the Mountaineers have a legitimate chance at finishing as good at 10-1, or even 11-0! If West Virginia can find a way to beat Maryland, which they failed to do so last year losing 34-7 and 41-7, and pull off a win versus a Hokie team that defeated them 28-7 last year, then Rasheed Marshall’s senior season could be the Mountaineers most memorable.

12.Clemson Tigers
For years, the Florida State Seminoles dominated the ACC, and stood alone in the conference as the lone powerhouse. With the emergence of Clemson, North Carolina State, and Virginia over the past few years, the conference gained respect throughout the nation. With the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech, this conference is down-right scary and is arguably the best conference in the nation. Charlie Whitehurst made a huge splash in the ACC last season, throwing for 3,561 yards and 21 touchdowns. Whitehurst will look to build on a 2003 9-4 record, but will have to do so with a very tough schedule. The Tigers will have to face Florida State, Virginia, and Miami…ALL AWAY! These games will be critical for the Tigers. If Clemson can pull of at least two wins versus these teams, then will challenge for the ACC championship. But, if the Tigers win one, or fail to win any, then expect them to fight for third place in the conference. By the way, do not expect their meeting with South Carolina at the end of the season to be a "gimme." After thrashing their rivals 63-17 last season, the Gamecocks will be looking for revenge in the worst way.

11.California Golden Bears
Playing in the Pac-10 will greatly help the Golden Bears chances of competing for a BCS bowl game. That along with the fact that Cal returns one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation in Aaron Rodgers, who threw 19 TD’S to only 5 INT’S last year. Although the Bears finished with a mediocre 8-6 record last season, they defeated co-national champion Southern California in triple overtime, crushed Washington 54-7, and defeated Virginia Tech 52-49 in the Bowl. Going into their fourth game against the Beavers of Oregon State, expect the Golden Bears to be 3-0. The Bears will face off against Oregon State and Southern California in back to back weeks, both of these games on the road. Pulling off one win would be huge for the Bears because their schedule favors them to win out the rest of the year. If the Bears can find a consistent running game and their defense improves, then we could see the Bears playing on January 1st.

10.Florida Gators
After news traveled of Steve Spurrier’s firing in Washington, Gator fans were licking their chops, just hoping that the University of Florida would go out and get their departed mastermind. The move never happened, and the Florida faithful were left to cope with Ron Zook, who has been on the hot seat ever since his first game in Gainesville. Luckily, the Gators have found their quarterback of the future in sophomore Chris Leak(2,435 yards, 16 TD’s in 2003). Leak will continue to progress, and become an even better quarterback year after year, but the Gators have many problems that need to be addressed. The biggest question for Florida surrounds their defense, which returns just three starters and only one impact player from the previous season in Channon Crowder. On top of a questionable defense, the Gators must replace senior wide-outs Carlos Perez and Kelvin Kight. Word around Gainesville is that Andre Caldwell is the receiver of the future, and should develop a close bond with Leak throughout their careers, but Caldwell is just a sophomore. If the Gators can develop a running game with backs Ciatrick Fason and DeShawn Wynn, then the Gators could have a very dangerous offense, as usual. The Gators success will come down to four games this year, as it always does. Gator fans, say it with me…at Tennessee, LSU, Georgia (World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party), and at Florida State.

9.Ohio State Buckeyes
Two years removed from the national championship, the Buckeyes enter 2004 looking to make a lot of changes on both offense and defense. After Clarett was suspended for the entire season, Buckeye fans had hopes that their all-american running back would return for his junior year. After challenging the NFL’s early entry rule, it seemed that Clarett would be able to enter the draft, but his attempt failed when a judge ruled against Clarett a week before the draft was to take place. Clarett was denied by the NFL, and was eventually denied admittance back onto the Buckeyes’ squad.  Along with Clarett’s loss, the Buckeyes lost fourteen players to the NFL. Ohio State will have to hope that their defense can carry them, as it did last season. Ohio State faces a reasonably tough schedule in 2004, with trips to North Carolina State, Iowa, and Purdue. Lucky for the Buckeyes, they will square off with Michigan at home this year, and will look to avenge last seasons 35-21 loss. If the Buckeyes find a way to establish the run, and quarterback Justin Zwick can control the offense, the Buckeyes could return for another BCS birth, but they will need a lot of luck along the way.

8.Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles domination of the ACC has seen flashes of ending over the past few seasons with teams such as Maryland and North Carolina State capturing the title. With Virginia Tech and Miami, a team which the Seminoles have lost five straight to, joining the conference the Seminoles will have to give an excellent performance this season in order to re-capture the ACC crown. Luckily for the Seminoles, they return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Chris Rix. Seminole fans have been waiting for Rix to break out of his shell for three years now, with little success. Over the past three seasons, the success and failures of Florida State have been weighed heavily on the shoulders of Rix, who threw 23 TD’s last season compared to just 13 INT’s. It is numbers like these that have Seminole fans hoping that Rix has matured on the field and will have a very successful senior year. If Florida State can finally find a way to defeat the Hurricanes in game one of the season, while defeating Clemson and Florida at home, then expect the Seminoles to make a realistic run for the national championship. But, Florida State’s woes continue versus Miami, and a rough ACC schedule down the road catches up with them, expect the criticism of Rix to be higher than ever.

7.Michigan Wolverines
John Navarre faced much criticism during his tenure in Ann Arbor, but finally shook it all off and put everything together in his senior year. After leading the Wolverines to a victory over Ohio State, and a birth in the Rose Bowl, Navarre landed the trust of his teammates and quickly became the leader of the squad. With his presence now gone, as well as Heisman candidate Chris Perry’s loss to the NFL, the Wolverines still look to be the favorites to win the Big Ten. With a defense that was one of the best in the nation last year, and the return of senior wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the Wolverines believe they have enough talent to make another BCS run, or maybe even a national championship appearance.  Michigan has an opportunity to finish the season undefeated, but must win games that they are "supposed to win," such as games versus Iowa, Minnesota, and at Purdue. Although they could face problems versus all three, they are easily winnable. Of course, the success of this season will come down to the last game of the year against rival Ohio State, the team they defeated 35-21 last year.

6.Louisiana State Tigers
LSU proved that they were beyond a shadow of a doubt the best team in the nation last season. Although this may upset some USC fans, you have to look at the schedule that the Tigers had to deal with on their way to the Sugar Bowl. LSU had to face Georgia twice-during the regular season, and in the SEC championship. The Tigers also had to face Florida, the lone team in which they lost to last season, as well as a late-season meeting with Eli Manning and the Ole Miss Rebels. After LSU finished 12-1, they had to square off with the seemingly invincible Oklahoma squad, who they defeated 21-14. LSU seems to be the inevitable favorites to head back to Atlanta this season, perhaps against Georgia again. The Tigers will hope that senior Marcus Randall can make up for the loss of Matt Mauck, but their offense will be focused on running the ball with Justin Vincent, who emerged as one of the nation’s future best backs. The Tigers will face a week one challenge against Oregon State, but should grab the win at home. LSU will also have to play on the road versus Auburn, Georgia, and Florida along the way. It is a tough schedule, but the Tigers will only have to contend with Auburn for the West title this year. LSU should beat Auburn and grab enough SEC wins along the way to hold them off for yet another SEC championship game spot.

5.Texas Longhorns
After a season that saw the Longhorns suffer losses at home versus Arkansas and in the Holiday Bowl versus Washington State, no loss hurt more than the beating that the `Horns took versus rival Oklahoma. In a rivalry that is arguably the best in the nation, the Red River Shootout was just a one team affair, as the Sooners rolled to a 65-13 victory. A big loss such as that can bring criticism from the fans towards the team, and mostly their coach. Mach Brown has been criticized over the years for not being able to win the big game, and may find himself looking for another coaching job soon if he can not change his fortunes against bigger competition. Although the loss of Roy Williams at wide receiver could limit the passing production, the Longhorns have established themselves as one of the biggest rushing threats in the nation with quarterback Vince Young and running back Cedric Benson. Young can be a dangerous passer at times, but when in passing situations, the Longhorns will likely opt to go with senior Chance Mock(16 TD’s 2 INT’s in 2003.) Texas has enough talent to make a BCS push this season, and their schedule favors the `Horns as Oklahoma seems to be the lone big threat, unless Missouri can pull of an upset. But, the Longhorns will have to prove they are for real in the yearly battle with Oklahoma. Both teams should be undefeated heading into the game and it could shape into one of the best games of the year, if Texas can use last years thrashing
as motivation.

4.Georgia Bulldogs
With all the remaining starters returning from last season’s squad, it is difficult not to rank Georgia high in the pre-season. Georgia will hope to not duplicate what happened to Auburn at the beginning of last season when they too had national championship expectations from many around the nation based on returning players. An appearance in the SEC championship is not a guarantee like in the West, for the Bulldogs will have Tennessee and Florida to deal with. In order to represent the East in the SEC championship, while making a BCS push, the Bulldogs will have to be more efficient on offense. In David Greene’s final season at Georgia, he will hope to improve on a mediocre 13 touchdown 11 interception ration last season. Playing in the SEC is never easy, and Georgia will be the first team to tell you that as soon as their season comes to an end. Georgia’s first test last season will be their first again this year as they will face the LSU Tigers on October 2nd, this time at Georgia. The week after, Georgia will have to take on the Volunteers on Tennessee, a team the Bulldogs beat 41-14 last season. If Georgia can pull off a victory in those two games, then just one challenge remains. Unfortunately for Georgia, the challenge gets no bigger as they will have to face the team they just can’t figure out how to beat, the Florida Gators. Even if Georgia survives this rigorous schedule, they will still be forced to face LSU yet again in a rematch of last season’s SEC championship. Perhaps no other team in the nation has a tougher road to climb in their pursuit of a national championship, but with a sensational defense, a senior quarterback, and a talented receiving squad coming back, the Bulldogs have what it takes to make an Orange Bowl appearance.

3.Miami(FL) Hurricanes
It seems hard to believe doesn’t it? How can a team that lost seven players in the first round of the NFL draft, including six on defense, be ranked as high as fourth in the nation? With the talent the Hurricanes possess year in and year out, starter or not, it takes very little for them to replace what they lose, which makes Miami downright scary. What makes them even more scary is the fact that many people believe Miami could have even a better defense than last year! This is being said about a team that lost linebackers Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, safety Sean Taylor, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork to name a few. The defense will be led by Antrel Rolle, who is arguably the best defensive back in the nation. Although Rolle was recently suspended indefinitely during the off-season, don’t expect Miami to keep him from playing his senior year because he has too much talent. Miami will be playing in a new scenery this season, the ACC. No more cruising through the Big East on their way to the national championship game, because they now have to show up to play week in and week out, starting with their first game of the season versus Florida State, a team they have owned over the past few years. Although playing in the ACC will be a challenge for Miami, the biggest challenge may lie in finding the right quarterback. Although Brock Berlin has been named the starter, if he continues to struggle such as last season, it will difficult for coach Larry Coker to keep freshman Kyle Wright on the bench. Berlin will have to show that he can make good decisions and control the offense while Miami establishes the run with backs Tyrone Moss, Frank Gore, and Quad Hill. There may be only two teams that pose a threat to Miami during the regular season, and that is Florida State and Clemson. If the `Canes can pull of the season opener versus Florida State, stretching their streak against the `Noles to six in a row, while winning games versus the rest of the teams whom they should beat, look for the Hurricanes to be sitting around the top of the BCS picture.

2.Oklahoma Sooners
Perhaps never has one team seemed so dominate throughout a season. In 2003, people all over the nation were citing the Sooners as one of the greatest teams in the history of college football. Heading into a December 6th Big XII championship game versus Kansas State, the Sooners sported victories against Texas 65-13, Missouri 34-13, Oklahoma State 52-9, and Texas Tech 56-25! People were already calling the Sooners national champions, and they had not even been invited to the game yet. Heading into a showdown with the Wildcats, the Sooners were just one game away from grabbing that invitation, but were upset by the Kansas State Wildcats 35-7. With the huge loss in the Big XII championship, Sooner fans feared that their national championship appearance would be in jeopardy. Lucky for Oklahoma, the BCS ruled in favor of the Sooners rather than the Trojans of Southern California, which naturally caused a huge uproar of controversy after the Trojans dominated Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The controversy only rose when Oklahoma was defeated in the Sugar Bowl by the LSU Tigers 21-14. Perhaps never has one team seemed so high above the competition it faced, only to fall flat on their face in the final two games. Lucky for Oklahoma, returning Heisman trophy winner Jason White will return at quarterback for his senior year. Along with White returns leading receiver Mark Clayton, a preseason all-american. Oklahoma always has great talent moving up to replace departed stars, and this year will be no different, so don’t expect Oklahoma’s defense to slip any. In fact, Oklahoma’s defense may even be better than last seasons. If White can bounce back from a wrist injury that many people believed hampered him during his past two games, and the Sooners can beat Texas, then expect Oklahoma to get another shot at capturing the title.

1.Southern California Trojans
The returning AP national champion Trojans enter 2004 with a chip on their shoulder. Many people do not consider them the national champions because they did not have the opportunity to play in the national championship game. USC will look to prove to everyone that they are the outright best team in the land this season, leaving no room for a tie. Wide receiver Mike Williams’ return is questionable, pending an NCAA ruling to allow him back into school, but is expected to be granted his wish to return. Whether Williams returns or not, the Trojans will be more than happy to have Matt Leinart returning at quarterback(3,556 yards, 38 TD’s in 2003.) Playing in the Pac-10 only makes Southern Cal’s chances of a national championship appearance better. USC will face Virginia Tech to open the season on August 28th, but should win easily. If the Trojans can avenge last season’s triple-overtime loss to Cal on October 9th, then it should be smooth sailing throughout the rest of the season.

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