Several non-BCS-conference teams make early Top 25; only Oklahoma makes both Top 3

Richie Weldon has been following college football since 1995, his freshman year at Virginia Tech. An avid Hokies fan, Richie tries not to let that influence his opinions on other teams (most of the time). Seattle is the place he calls home now, and almost every Saturday during the fall he gets together with other Hokies to watch the games. Richie is a software developer. Rob Rochholz is a Fresno State (TheOtherFSU) alum and San Francisco Giants fan who works in graphic design and lives in San Francisco. He’s a former sportswriter at The Fresno Bee, where he covered the WAC, Pac-10 and Big West conferences.

1. Oklahoma
Bob Stoops has his Sooners facing a schedule that features no difficult contests until the second weekend in October for the annual showdown in Dallas against Texas. Each skill position on offense is stacked, especially behind sophomore QB Sam Bradford and RB DeMarco Murray. The only “concern” for Oklahoma is at the linebacker position, and “concern” is quoted because that’s the only unit that’s not ranked in the Top 1 or 2 by the major preseason magazines for the conference. The Sooners should roll over their opponents this season and find themselves locked on course for Miami and the BCS Championship game.

2. West Virginia
There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of senior QB Pat White and new head coach Bill Stewart. Stewart was able to win the Fiesta Bowl (48-28 over Oklahoma) with a team that Rich Rodriguez craftily molded, but now he needs to prove that he is able to win with a slew of new assistants. Working in his favor is that phenomenal senior QB (as long as White stays healthy) and a schedule that lists only one difficult game (at home against Auburn on Oct. 23). The game against Colorado could have upset written all over it if Stewart is not able to keep his men focused. Rest assured that LB Reed Williams, who’ll emerge as one of the team leaders, will remind the troops of the disastrous ambushes against South Florida and Pittsburgh last year. That should be enough motivation.

3. Ohio State
How can anyone not love that poisonous Columbus nut? This year should mark the fourth in a row the Buckeyes win the Big Ten. Over the years, Jim Tressel has compiled a 73-16 record (82%), which includes 10-plus wins four times in the last five years. Both the offense and defense are loaded with talent that will get the 102,329 fans jumping. LB James Larinaitis will be giving opposing offensive lines fits of rage as he looks to improve on his five sacks and 51 solo tackles from last season.

4. USC
The Trojans will be ranked high in every poll until someone else in the Pac-10 can rise up and challenge the team of the decade. Pete Carroll has proven he knows how to win year in and year out and has one, maybe two years left before the Rick Neuheisel-led UCLA Bruins become that team. The monster of a game with Ohio State on Sept 13 will set the tone for the entire season: Win big over the Buckeyes and start punching the tickets for Miami. Lose big and the Trojans will have to “settle” for Rose Bowl, again.

5. Georgia
There’s a ton of pressure on Georgia this year to win it all. There’s talk of Knowshon Moreno being invited to the Downtown Athletic club and personally transporting the Heisman Trophy back to Athens. Everyone saw last season that Matthew Stafford is a stud at the QB position. So why is UGA only ranked No. 5? Simple — the offensive line is young and inexperienced. There’s worry that Stafford won’t have time in the pocket and the holes won’t open for Moreno. Georgia will have a really good season, just not a BCS title season.

6. Missouri
How fun was it to watch Chase Daniel last season? Now how fun do you think it will be to watch him dazzle us again for another 13 games? With all eyes focused on him, LB Sean Weatherspoon will quietly rack up even more tackles than you can keep track of. Last year he had an amazing 77 as a sophomore!

7. Auburn
The 2008 Tigers will easily improve on their 9-4 record from 2007. Looking at the schedule, there’s only one tough away game (at West Virginia). LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia are all at home. The season ender at Alabama could decide if Tubberville’s Tigers play in the SEC Championship game or …

8. LSU
Just like their SEC foes, these Tigers have most of their difficult games at home, save for a tussle in Gainesville and one in Auburn. The big question mark surrounds the offense as a freshman QB is favored (Jarrett Lee) and the running backs are untested. Working in Lee’s favor is a sound offensive line and a stingy and experienced defense.

9. Florida
The Gators round out a great year for the SEC, at least in terms of preseason Top 10 teams. Last year’s Heisman winner is back; look for Tim Tebow to prove this season he can win that trophy this year behind his throwing arm instead of his rushing ability in short and goal situations. The offense will be lighting up the scoreboard with big strikes to WRs Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy.

10. Clemson
It’s do-or-die time for Tommy Bowden. Win a conference championship or get fired. Yes, he was offered a contract extension at the end of the 2007 season, but stranger things have happened. The offensive line is very young and this could prove the Tigers downfall. The rest of the units are tops in the conference and Clemson should make it to the ACC Championship game. The heat is on Bowden to produce Clemson’s first conference title since 1991 and end the longest conference title drought of any ACC team. (Yes, even Duke has won a title more recently!)

11. Illinois
After years of imitating the Temple Owls (good in basketball, horrible in football), the Illini pulled off a nine-win season and a trip to the Rose Bowl that helped vault them high in the preseason polls. Now it’s up to QB Juice Williams to keep the offense humming and challenge Ohio State for the conference title.

12. Texas
How many more years will Mack Brown settle for being the second place team in the Big XII South? Bowl games and 10-win seasons are the norm, but only one conference title in five years (yes, that was the 2005 season that produced the National Championship) really has to get his goat!

13. Wisconsin
The Badgers are featuring a stout running game behind PJ Hill and really good passing game behind Travis Beckum. Head coach Bret Bielema has not let down any hopes that legendary coach Barry Alvarez gave his team and fans. The game with Illinois in late October will go a long way towards a potential Rose Bowl bid.

14. Kansas
The 2008 Fighting Manginos are back and bigger than ever! A 12-win season and an Orange Bowl victory over the then Top 5 Virginia Tech Hokies are bringing much hope to the town folk of Lawrence. There’s a possible upset looming in September when the Jawhawks travel to entertain the South Florida Bulls. An 8-4 season may seem like a disappointment, but that record will get Kansas to a second consecutive bowl game.

15. Virginia Tech
There are lots of questions surrounding the Hokies this year, especially with unknown and untested talent at the WR and RB positions. Frank Beamer will need to assemble one of his best coaching seasons in his 22 years in Blacksburg if a trip to Tampa is to occur with another shot at the ACC Conference Title. It’s unlikely the Hokies will have a BCS Bowl this year. Instead, look for an evening event in Atlanta on New Years Eve.

16. Oregon
I hate the Ducks. But they have a team that needs to be ranked in the Top 20. Again.

17. BYU
Look for the Cougars to be impressive on offense with many great starters returning from last year’s 11-2 team. QB Max Hall will be looking to pass for over 4,000 yards and close to 30 TDs as only a game against UCLA threatens a perfect season.

18. Arizona State
The Sun Devils will not challenge USC for the conference title this season, but Dennis Erickson will be sure to coach his team to another bowl game. Winning that game against Georgia at home on Sept. 20 is not impossible, just improbable. A victory will give the Sun Devils a lot of needed confidence to rack up the Pac-10 wins and perhaps another trip to the Holiday Bowl.

19. Texas Tech
Mike Leach has turned his Red Raiders into Tom O’Brein’s version of Boston College. That is, his teams continuously win eight or nine games a season but never seem to make it over the hump to get to the next level. This could be the year that all changes as nine games are definitely winnable with two tossed up in the air. Beating Texas (unlikely) or Kansas (possible, even though it’s on the road) this season would definitely bring the team up a notch.

20. Michigan
All eyes will be on Rich Rodriguez to see how much success he can have in the Big House. Will his winning ways at West Virginia work with big-name players? Only time will tell.

21. South Florida
Who would believe that the South Florida Bulls would be the second-best football team in the state of Florida, and for the second consecutive year? What a job Coach Jim Leavitt is doing down there in Tampa! He and junior QB Matt “Keep the Mohawk” Grothe are looking to knock off West Virginia for the third consecutive season and playing in the school’s first BCS game.

22. Fresno State
For years it seems that Pat Hill has his Fresno State Bulldogs set for the big lights and possibly crashing the BCS party. This year, that same scenario could unfold but early games against Rutgers and Wisconsin will tell the season’s tale. The defense lost the 2007 WAC Defensive Player of the year (Marcus Riley), which isn’t good, but there is plenty of talent in sophomore Ben Jacobs (MLB) to pick up the slack. The game in late November against Boise State is paramount to the Bulldogs getting a great bowl game.

23. Wake Forest
Two words: Riley Skinner! OK, make that three words: Riley Skinner, yum!

24. Tennessee
Unfortunately for the Vols, they have some stiff competition on their schedule this season with a tough slate of away games (UCLA, Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina), which will hinder any huge hopes this season.

25. Rutgers
The Piscataway Knights are not getting enough love, mainly due to the loss of running back Ray Rice. Mike Teel is a really good QB, but losing three key offensive linemen in the off-season will make it tough to come in higher than third in the Big East this season. Another 8-4 season is likely.

1. Georgia
By the end of last season, the Bulldogs were playing as well as anyone in the country. It’s been 28 years since Georgia won a national title in football, but with nine returning starters on one of the country’s best defenses, things are looking good for 2008. The schedule is tricky, featuring road games at Arizona State, LSU and Auburn. It’s also strong enough that the Dawgs will reach the BCS title game with one loss.

2. USC
Pete Carroll’s Trojans reload behind junior QB Mark Sanchez in a quest for a seventh straight Pac-10 title. Injuries have hampered USC during fall camp so things could get dicey in September in games at Virginia and Oregon State. The Sept. 13 game versus Ohio State at the Coliseum is the must-see game of the year and will tell us all we need to know about USC’s national title hopes.

3. Oklahoma
The schedule is softer than normal, and that’s what makes OU a strong contender to win it all. Will the computers be kind to the Sooners though? After losing four consecutive BCS bowl games, one has to wonder what is holding OU back. The offense should be excellent and returns almost fully intact. Defense could be a question mark, especially early, but it might not matter as the Sooners don’t face a single true road game against a Top 25 team.

4. Florida
With Tim Tebow at the helm, the Gators are a threat again to win it all. A murderous road slate featuring games at Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida State could smash that dream though. It will be interesting to see if Urban Meyer can work that magic again in his fourth season. A player to watch in 2008 will be super sophomore Chris Rainey, an amazing playmaker who’s about to become a star at Florida.

5. Ohio State
If there was ever a year the Buckeyes were going to break through, this is it. Ohio State has been beaten badly in consecutive BCS title games, but 18 starters return from last season. The hugeness of the USC game cannot be understated, and OSU desperately wants to legitimize itself and prove it can win a big one. Beating the Trojans in Los Angeles could pave the way for OSU to reach a third straight championship game.

6. LSU
The Tigers are losing a lot of talent off last year’s national championship team. Injuries, defections and an unsettled quarterback situation make LSU a risky pick, but the guess is that Les Miles has a few tricks up his sleeve again. Plus there’s the always-important matter of playing only four road contests, which helps significantly. Can little Appalachian State pull off another season opening stunner by winning at LSU Aug. 30?

7. West Virginia
Pat White is back. Rich Rodriguez is gone. With the fiery Rodriguez no longer leading the way, it will be interesting to see how this team reacts. White’s return helps WVU immensely, but he needs to guard against the injuries that plagued him a year ago. When he’s out of the lineup, the Mountaineers are not even close to being the same team. New offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen says WVU will throw the ball more, which will be a good thing.

8. Missouri
Gary Pinkel was a coach on the hot seat for years, and his Tigers teams always seemed to disappoint. The rise of QB Chase Daniel a year ago helped turn Mizzou into a 12-2 powerhouse. In 2008, the Tigers should be strong again with the return of 17 starters. Daniel is a major Heisman Trophy contender.

9. Texas
Do you notice a pattern here? Texas is another preseason Top 10 team returning an experienced quarterback. Colt McCoy is the real deal, and his return offsets the loss of some other offensive keys. If he can cut down on the number of interceptions (he threw 18 a year ago), McCoy and Co. could improve on last season’s 10-win campaign. A 4-game stretch in the middle of the season (facing Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in consecutive weeks) will be tough.

10. Clemson
The Tigers haven’t won an ACC title in 17 years, despite having teams equally as talented as this one. On paper, Clemson looks like the ACC team to beat. The offense should be explosive with loads of talent at the skill positions. The schedule is extremely favorable and even allows the Tigers to talk about a possible unbeaten season. Who wouldn’t want to start the year with 5 consecutive home games against the likes of The Citadel and South Carolina State? Clemson doesn’t play its second road game until the month of November!

11. Wisconsin
One of the country’s premier offensive lines will pave the way for outstanding running back P.J. Hill, a legitimate Heisman candidate. The only question mark for the Badgers is a significant one though – quarterback. For the moment, Bret Bielema has penciled in fifth-year senior Allan Evridge, who started a handful of games for K-State a few years ago. Back-to-back road games against Fresno State and Michigan conclude a tougher than normal September for Wisconsin.

12. Arizona State
The Sun Devils are an interesting case study and difficult to predict. ASU will be 3-0 by the time it hosts Georgia on Sept. 20. Beating the Dawgs would surely propel Arizona State to – at least – a Top 5 ranking. However, a loss to Georgia could begin a downhill spiral from which ASU may not escape since road games at Cal and USC follow. Dennis Erickson has his work cut out for him this season.

13. Penn State
Is this Joe Paterno’s final season? If so, it could be one of his best, with a lot of senior talent returning for what may be JoePa’s final go-‘round. The defense should be solid but the offense has some question marks. Luckily, three of the first four opponents are Coastal Carolina, Syracuse and Temple, meaning that the offense will be able to ease its way into the season. On an ominous note, the Big Ten slate does PSU no favors as the Lions face both Wisconsin and Ohio State on the road.

14. Auburn
The game at West Virginia on Oct. 23 is one of those must-see games. It’s so rare these days to see a top team schedule tough so this is a nice surprise. LSU, Georgia and Tennessee all have to travel to Auburn during the regular season, giving the Tigers a great chance to make some national noise. Auburn is deep and experienced and could very well end up being ranked higher.

15. Wake Forest
Riley Skinner may go down as the college football player most likely to have been Googled this off-season. Skinner is the star player for the Deacons for a number of reasons, and he – along with 14 other starters – return for what could be a breakout season. Wake gets Clemson at home in October, so things could get interesting in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

16. South Florida
Matt Grothe returns for his junior season, a year after he led the Bulls to a strong start that vaulted them all the way to a #2 national ranking. Things eventually fell apart, but USF still won 9 games for the second straight year. It looks like a similar season is in store this time if the defense is able to fill some major holes.

17. Virginia Tech
The defending ACC champions need to replace a lot of talent but I wouldn’t count the Hokies out. The defense will unveil at least seven new starters and the offense has some big question marks of its own. And while they’ll be young, they will also be very talented. Virginia Tech has turned into one of those programs that reloads rather than rebuilds, and they still appear to be the class of the ACC’s Coastal Division.

18. Tennessee
The Volunteers won 10 games a year ago, including a New Year’s Day bowl, but no one seems to be talking about them right now primarily because Phil Fulmer will be handing the reins to a new quarterback. The offensive line and defensive secondary will be big assets and the only real question mark is how new QB Jon Crompton pans out. September could be a potential killer with games against Florida, Auburn and UCLA.

19. Oregon
Another team that needs to replace a QB is Oregon, which must replace a great one in Dennis Dixon. Add to that the loss of RB Jonathan Stewart and there is a lot of uncertainty in Eugene. Nate Costa was leading the summer pack in the race for the open QB slot. Jeremiah Johnson will take over at running back for the Ducks, who have a tremendous home field advantage at Autzen Stadium, yet face USC, Arizona State and Cal all on the road in 2008.

20. Illinois
Despite being routed by USC in the Rose Bowl, it was a semi-miracle that the Illini made it to any bowl last season. Quarterback Juice Williams returns to lead the way, though it won’t be a surprise if Illinois takes a step back this year and suffers a small drop-off. The opener at Missouri will be a big one and could set the tone for the entire 2008 season, which includes road games at Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan. Ron Zook has this program headed in the right direction.

21. Kansas
No team created more of a buzz last year than the Jayhawks, who came out of nowhere to finish 12-1, including a win in the Orange Bowl. However, with the element of surprise gone, and a schedule that is nowhere near as easy as last season’s, it’s possible Kansas may suffer a significant downward slide. Trying to prevent that will be returning QB Todd Reesing, who had a sensational 2007.

22. Fresno State
Will Fresno State become the third WAC team in a row to reach a BCS bowl? The talent is there with 17 returning starters from a team that dismantled Georgia Tech and Kansas State a year ago. However, the schedule is a killer with seven road games, including September games against Rutgers, UCLA and Wisconsin. If the Bulldogs follow in the footsteps of WAC members Boise State and Hawaii and somehow finish the regular season unbeaten, no one will question whether this team deserves a BCS bowl bid.

23. Texas Tech
The Graham Harrell-to-Michael Crabtree combo could be the best QB-WR duo in the college game. Tech appears close to catching Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South but might not be there yet, despite the return of 18 starters. A team this talented should really attempt some more rigorous out-of-conference scheduling. This season’s first four games are against Eastern Washington, UMass, Nevada and SMU. Sheesh.

24. BYU
The Cougars have big BCS bowl hopes this season and have a schedule that will help them reach that goal. There are no other ranked teams on the slate, and the toughest match-up could be a home game in Provo against UCLA. The season finale against rival Utah will be tricky, as rivalries usually are, but the Cougars have an offense that is more than capable of outscoring anyone. BYU needs to be wary of getting into too many of those wild 48-45 Mountain West shootouts though.

25. Boise State
Never count out the Broncos. All they do in Boise is win, especially on the blue field at home. BSU has won 43 straight regular-season games at home and is 55-1 on the blue since 1999. Running back and 2007 Fiesta Bowl star Ian Johnson returns for his senior season and has Heisman hopes. Road games at Oregon and Southern Miss early in the season will test the Broncos, who turn to redshirt freshman Kellen Moore at QB.