Early Top Five: Ohio State, Florida Reload; Can Alabama?

Replacing Tim Tebow will be no easy task for Florida QB John Brantley.

I will be voting in the Blogpoll once again this season, so I thought today would be a good time to throw out an early top five before unveiling my full preseason ballot later this month. Part of the reason for doing this is that I disagree with the majority of the preseason polls, where Alabama sits atop the standings almost across the board. Who do I think is the legitimate preseason number one? Michigan fans probably won’t like the answer…

  1. OHIO STATE: While most of the preseason attention has focused on whether or not Terrelle Pryor can build on his Rose Bowl MVP performance in January, many are overlooking the tremendous collection of talent Jim Tressel has placed around the former number-one recruit. Ohio State returns 15 starters from last year’s 11-2 squad, and both sides of the ball are chock full of upperclassmen — the offensive line boasts two seniors and three juniors, and as many as seven seniors could start on defense. The truth is, Pryor doesn’t need to have a Heisman-level season for this team to run the table — remember, this is a program that won a national title with Craig Krenzel starting at quarterback. If Pryor can turn in a breakout performance, this team will be tough to beat for any team in the country.
  2. FLORIDA: It’s amazing that a team coming off a 13-1 season in the nation’s toughest conference could fly under the preseason radar, but that’s exactly what is happening with the Gators this year. Yes, Tim Tebow is gone, but junior John Brantley was Rivals.com’s No. 3 overall quarterback in the class of 2007 and should be more than capable of leading a talented Florida offense. That offense still features speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey and former blue-chip receiver Deonte Thompson as well as an impressive collection of offensive line talent. The defense must replace a lot of talent, but Florida has the players to reload along the front seven, and they return three very good defensive backs in SS Ahmad Black, FS Will Hill, and CB Janoris Jenkins. Getting past Alabama will be tough, but I think Florida will be right back atop the SEC standings this year.
  3. OREGON: Forget the offseason turmoil, and even the loss of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli; this is still a very talented team that has appeared to surpass USC as the class of the Pac-10. The loss of Masoli certainly hurts, but redshirt senior Nate Costa actually beat Masoli out for the starting job prior to the 2008 season before suffering a season-ending knee injury — the dropoff there shouldn’t be that big. With 1500-yard rusher LaMichael James joining him in the backfield, a solid receiving corps, and a line that returns all five starters from a unit that allowed just 13 sacks in 2009, Costa and the offense should have no problem putting points on the board. The big question mark is the defense, a unit that turned in a very inconsistent 2009 season — they held seven opponents to 21 or fewer points, but allowed 33 or more four times, including a 51-42 loss to Stanford. With seven returning starters, including all three linebackers (led by All-Pac 10 selection Casey Matthews), expect a better performance from a defense that should be entirely composed of juniors and seniors.
  4. ALABAMA: Based on sheer talent, I couldn’t justify dropping the Crimson Tide any further, but with just two starters returning from last year’s stifling defense I expect to see Alabama struggle a bit more than their preseason rankings suggest. In fact, Alabama will likely have to look to rely on the offense, which features Heisman winner Mark Ingram, QB Greg McElroy, and receivers Julio Jones and Marquise Maze, to carry the team while the nine new starters settle in on D. Alabama should put up points in bunches, and I expect the defense get stronger as the season goes on, but with so much uncertainty around the defense and true freshmen likely to handle kicking and punting duties, ‘Bama looks ripe for an upset or two in 2010.
  5. TEXAS: Last year’s runner-up will attempt to reload after losing stars Colt McCoy (QB), Jordan Shipley (WR), Sergio Kindle (DE), and Earl Thomas (FS), but with 14 returning starters and blue-chip talent at every position, Texas should find themselves in the national title hunt once again. Sophomore QB Garrett Gilbert had a crash course in High Pressure 101 when he had to replace an injured McCoy in the national title game, and that experience should only help the former five-star prospect in his first season as the starter. He’ll have a stable of talented running backs to help move the ball behind a line that will feature four seniors, and receivers Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll have big-play ability. Despite the loss of Thomas, the secondary should be strong with three returning starters, while DE Sam Acho anchors a line full of former top recruits and outside linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho (Sam’s brother) should keep the front seven strong. Add in blue-chip freshmen in DE Jackson Jeffcoat and LB Jordan Hicks, and Texas will be tough to beat in the Big 12.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll have a full top 25 coming in the near future.

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