There is a reason why nobody has repeated as college football’s national champions since Nebraska in 1994-95. It’s hard. Just look at a few examples:
1996: Florida won its first national championship with Danny Wuerffel, the Heisman Trophy winner. The following year the Gators were ranked No. 1 until they went to Baton Rouge and were knocked off by LSU (28-21). Florida didn’t go to the national championship game, but they did knock No. 2 Florida State out of it with a 32-29 win in Gainesville.
2001: Miami looked like a virtual lock to repeat as national champions after destroying Nebraska in the Rose Bowl (37-14) and bringing almost all of that team back in 2002. The Hurricanes went undefeated in the regular season but lost to Ohio State (31-24 2 OT) in the national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl.
2004: With two future Heisman Trophy winners (Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush), USC rolled to the 2004 national title by beating Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl. But the Trojans’ chance at immortality ended with a brilliant performance by Texas quarterback Vince Young, who scored with seconds left beat USC 41-38 for the national title at the Rose Bowl.
2008: Behind quarterback Tim Tebow, Florida won the 2008 national championship and had everybody coming back in 2009. The Gators were number No. 1 for the entire regular season and did not lose. But they had to beat No. 2 Alabama in the SEC championship game to earn a return trip to earn another shot at the BCS title. The Crimson Tide won the game 32-13 and went on to beat Texas for the national title.
So it’s safe to say that Alabama knows that it is—pardon the pun—swimming against the Tide as it tries to repeat as national champions in 2010.
Coach Nick Saban has been in this position before. His 2003 LSU team won the national championship. But on Sept. 18 in 2004 his No. 5 Tigers lost 10-9 at Auburn, which went on to go undefeated and win the SEC championship.
“We have stressed to our guys the importance of looking at this team and making it the very best it can be and that it is a daily process. That has to be your focus—not what you did last year,” said Saban. “They understand that it is more difficult to repeat something than to do it the first time. There is a reason for that.”
But the consensus coming out of spring practice is that if anybody can repeat as national champions, Saban and this Alabama team can do it. Alabama, like Florida in 2009, will be one of the most compelling stories of the 2010 season.
On that note, let’s celebrate the end of Spring practice with our early top 25 for 2010. I left a lot of good teams out. Feel free to tell me which ones you believe should have been included:
1. Alabama: Talent is not an issue at Alabama. Mark Ingram (the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner) and Trent Richardson are the best running back duo in the country. LB Dont’a Hightower and DE Marcell Dareus will be All-Americans. A Sept. 11 home game with Penn State will be an early indicator if this Alabama team has the right stuff.
2. Ohio State: In its 26-17 win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes showed us what is possible when QB Terrelle Pryor plays well (23 of 37, 266 yards). But the Buckeyes will run the table because of defense. DE Cameron Heyward (from Atlanta) will have an All-America season. Road games at Wisconsin (Oct. 16) and Iowa (Nov. 20) are the key. A Sept. 11 visit from Miami is also intriguing.
3. Texas: Yes, quarterback Colt McCoy, college football’s all-time winner (45 victories), is gone. So are big-time defenders Sergio Kindle and Earl Thomas. But don’t kid yourself, the Longhorns are still loaded. Garrett Gilbert, who subbed for an injured McCoy in the BCS championship game with Alabama, is now ready to take over. Texas will win the Big 12 again.
4. Florida: Ditto for the Gators, who lost the most decorated player in school history (Tim Tebow) and five NFL Draft choices off what may have been the best Florida defense ever. But Urban Meyer and the gang have recruited well. The offense won’t miss a beat with John Brantley at quarterback because he has a great arm and a bunch of guys who can run fast. I can’t see the Gators winning at Alabama on Oct. 2 but other than the Tide, who is going to beat them?
5. Boise State: The Broncos return 21 of 22 starters from a 14-0 team that beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. One of those returning is quarterback Kellen Moore, (39 TD, 3 INT) who should be in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy. Boise State flies all the way across the country to open with Virginia Tech on Sept. 6. On Sept. 25 they host Oregon State, a dark horse in the Pac-10. Win them both and Chris Peterson’s team will be in the hunt for a trip back to Glendale, Ariz. This time, however, the BCS championship will be on the line.
6. TCU: A total of 16 starters return from what I thought was one of the top five teams in the country last season. The defense will miss Jerry Hughes, the pass rusher extraordinaire, and linebacker Darryl Washington. But Andy Dalton (3,268 total offense), the Mountain West offensive player of the year, is back and with his first victory this season (No. 30 in his career) will become TCU’s all-time winningest quarterback, replacing the great Sammy Baugh. The Horned Frogs open with Oregon State, which should be a good one.
7. Iowa: Here is all you need to know about the Hawkeyes. Eight starters are back on a defense that finished No. 10 in the nation. The offense returns QB Ricky Stanzi (18-4 as a starter) and splendid running back Jewel Hampton, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Iowa has some work to do on the offensive line but when has Kirk Ferentz not had a good offensive line? Ohio State comes to Iowa City on Nov. 20.
8. Oregon: If quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was back (he was suspended for the entire season in March), we’d be talking about the Ducks as a national championship contender. But with 19 other starters coming back from a Rose Bowl team, the Ducks are still the favorite to win the Pac-10. Oregon goes to Tennessee on Sept. 11. That should be interesting.
9. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers were one tick of the clock away from winning the Big 12 championship a couple of years ahead of schedule. And I’ll be surprised if Nebraska doesn’t win the Big 12 North again. Of course, Nebraska will be great on defense, even without No. 2 pick Ndamukong Suh. The concern once more is on offense where the Cornhuskers must get more production out of the quarterback position. 2009 starter Zac Lee played with a torn tendon in his right arm, which was repaired in the spring.
10. North Carolina: The Tar Heels had the No. 1 defense in the ACC last season and with nine starters returning should finish there again. The issue is at quarterback were T.J. Yates needs to have a good senior season if North Carolina is going to win its first ACC championship since 1980. Butch Davis has been building for four years. This is the year his recruiting should pay off.
11. Wisconsin: Running back John Clay, who led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,517 yards, sat out the spring while recovering from ankle surgery. He doesn’t need the practice. He’ll combine with returning QB Scott Tolzien (2,705 passing) to give the Badgers a very good offense. Ten starters on offense and six on defense return.
12. Oklahoma: The Sooners saw a lot of talent walk out the door in the NFL Draft (three of the first six picks played at Oklahoma, which had four first-round picks). So why did Oklahoma go 8-5? Simple: No. 1 pick, QB Sam Bradford, barely got on the field due to a shoulder injury in the first game. Tight end Jermaine Gresham missed the whole season and OT Trent Williams had to play out of position due to injuries. Now Landry Jones takes over quarterback and RB DeMarco Murray, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008, is set to have monster season in 2010.
13. Pittsburgh: No mystery here. The Panthers will give the ball to sophomore RB Dion Lewis, who ran for 1,799 yards on 325 carries (only Stanford’s Toby Gerhart had more with 345). Lewis is the nation’s leading returning rusher and will get into the mix for the Heisman. There are a lot of starters to replace (six on offense, seven on defense) but I’m picking Pittsburgh to win the Big East.
14. Florida State: For the first time since 1975 somebody other than Bobby Bowden will walk the sidelines as head coach in Tallahassee. That job now falls to Jimbo Fisher and with a veteran offensive line and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Christian Ponder), I’m picking Florida State to win ACC Atlantic. The key to success will be the ability of new DC Mark Stoops to rebuild a defense that finished last in the ACC in 2009.
15. Georgia Tech: The defending ACC champions had four players drafted (RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Demaryius Thomas, DE Derrick Morgan, S Morgan Burnett) but should contend for another conference title if Al Groh’s 3-4 defense rounds into shape. The schedule, however, includes trips to Kansas, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Georgia.
16. Arkansas: Quarterback Ryan Mallett had a very good first year (3,624 passing, 30 TD) in his first year in Bobby Petrino’s offensive system. He had no contact in the spring as he recovered from foot surgery. If the Hogs can improve just a little on defense (they finished last in the SEC in 2009) then they have a chance to give Alabama a run in the SEC West. The Crimson Tide goes to Fayetteville on Sept. 25.
17. Virginia Tech: With the last two ACC rookies of the year (Darren Evans, Ryan Williams) at tailback and with senior Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, this will be Virginia Tech’s best offense since Michael Vick led the Hokies to the 1999 national championship game. A lot of people have the Hokies winning the ACC and in the mix for the BCS championship. I think there are too many holes on defense and a back loaded schedule. Let’s visit again about Virginia Tech after a Sept. 6 game with Boise State.
18. Oregon State: When is Mike Riley going to get the credit for being a really good coach? The Beavers return 15 starters from an 8-5 team including TB Jacquizz Rodgers, the Pac-10’s leading rusher (1,440 yards) and wide receiver James Rodgers, who led the conference in receiving yards (1,034). Sophomore Ryan Katz has to replace QB Sean Canfield. Oregon comes to Oregon State on Dec. 4 for the annual Civil War, and the Pac-10 title could be on the line.
19. Stanford: The Cardinal will certainly miss Toby Gerhart, who led the nation in rushing yards (1,871 in 13 games). But sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck (2,595 yards, 13 TD) is more than ready to take a larger role in the offense. The key is the improvement of a defense that returns seven starters from a unit that finished ninth in the Pac-10 (402.69 ypg). The Cardinal switched to a 3-4 scheme looking for better results.
20. Miami: I love the number of athletes on this team and the way that QB Jacory Harris leads the Hurricanes when he’s healthy. That’s one of the keys. The offensive line, which gave up 35 quarterback sacks last season, has to protect Harris better. The defense, coach Randy Shannon said, has to get nastier and force more turnovers than the 21 it got last season. Some people tell me that Miami is set for a breakout season in the fourth year under Shannon. We’ll see.
21. Georgia: If a veteran offensive line can be good from Day 1, then Georgia has a chance to improve on its 8-5 record from a year ago. The key is Georgia’s ability to run the ball with Caleb King and Washaun Ealey and thus keep the pressure off redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray. If Murray is put in too many third and long situations, then Georgia will have problems. The defense must, must be better than the unit that recovered only two fumbles and gave up 25 touchdown passes last season.
22. Clemson: The Tigers got to ACC championship game last season and if quarterback Kyle Parker passes on minor league baseball and returns, Clemson should challenge Florida State in the ACC Atlantic. Clemson will certainly miss RB/KR C.J. Spiller but there is still a lot of talent on offense with running backs like Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. The defense is deeper and more athletic than a year ago.
23. Penn State: The Nittany Lions ended Spring practice still unsure who was going to replace Daryll Clark at quarterback. It could be freshman Paul Jones. There is much work to do on the offensive line but the real concerns should be on defense, where NFL draft choices DT Jared Odrick and linebackers Navarro Bowman and Sean Lee are gone. After spring ball Coach Joe Paterno called his team “average.” That means I probably should have Penn State ranked higher.
24. Oklahoma State: I made this pick because of my “Talkin’ Football” buddy Brady Ackerman. There is no way the Cowboys should be ranked after losing WR Dez Bryant and QB Zac Robinson. Only four starters return on each side of the ball. But one of the starters returning on offense is RB Kendall Hunter, who ran for 1,555 yards as a sophomore but was limited to only 89 carries last season due to injury. But new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen comes over from Houston, where Case Keenum lit up the scoreboard last season (5,671 yards, 44 TD). Will Weeden becomes the QB and will get a chance to put up some big numbers.
25. Navy: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Middies because you have to be impressed that the program that Paul Johnson built has just kept on trucking under his successor, Ken Niumatalolo. I also have a soft spot in my heart for quarterback Ricky Dobbs (Douglasville, Ga.) who is now a senior. Last season Dobbs rushed for 1,192 yards (plus an NCAA record 27 touchdowns) despite playing with a broken kneecap the last six games. He also threw for 1,031 yards. Navy was 10-4 last season and won its seventh straight Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
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