Trojans sit atop preseason Power 16

Updated: August 22, 2007, 9:08 AM ET
ESPN The Magazine
The final six weeks of last season sure were crazy, but they were good for at least two reasons: They shook out an undisputed national champ (sorry, Boise State) and revealed a clear top dog for this year. The first 15 ballots turned in by a 16-person ESPN brain trust were topped by the USC Trojans. Then Mel Kiper Jr. cast his vote. Mel, as many of you may already know, believes a defending champ is No.1 until we have a chance to see them all back on the field again. Unlike Mel, though, we can't wait that long. So we asked seven Bristol experts to each dissect one facet of every team in our Top 16. We also made some extra space for the guys who get left out of 7-on-7's. Because linemen and specialists shouldn't have to live on Mel's love alone.

1. USC | 2. LSU | 3. Texas | 4. West Virginia | 5. Michigan | 6. Oklahoma
7. Virginia Tech | 8. Florida | 9. Louisville |10. Wisconsin | 11. Georgia
12. Ohio State | 13. Penn State | 14. Cal | 15. Florida State | 16. Auburn

1. USC Trojans
Last season: 11-2, 7-2 in Pac-10

David Buehler
Kirby Lee/WireImage.comDavid Buehler, who made one FG attempt last year, inherits USC's kicking duties.

When David Buehler showed up at USC last year, he was buried beneath three other kickers on the depth chart. How deep? The unknown transfer from Santa Ana (Calif.) College wondered whether anybody would even bother to learn his name. The first one who did was Mario Danelo, USC's record-breaking sophomore starter. Danelo walked up to Buehler at the first practice, shook his hand and marveled at Buehler's monster leg. It was a classy gesture, and Buehler looked forward to learning from his classmate. Sadly, on Jan. 6, days after scoring eight points in USC's 32-18 Rose Bowl win over Michigan, Danelo fell 120 feet to his death from a Los Angeles cliff.

Danelo's shoes are big ones to fill: He had hit 26 of 28 career FGs. Now his job goes to Buehler, who made his one FG attempt last year. In three spring-game tries, Buehler nailed a 32-yarder, missed a 45-yarder and had one try blocked. But Pete Carroll, who blames poor snaps and holds more than he does Buehler, isn't worried. "David's got great range," Carroll says. "It's just a matter of getting him real consistent now." He's already handled one pressure situation: On March 25, Danelo's parents, Joe and Emily, attended practice. Guess who was first in line to greet them? -- Bruce Feldman

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Wary of his young wideouts, QB John David Booty will turn to TE Fred Davis a lot. Smart move: Davis flat-out knows how to play the game. Expect him to far outpace his 38 catches for 352 yards from 2006.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Nine good but inexperienced backs, and a very capable QB calling plays. No one's better than Booty at ditching bad pass plays and calling the right run. Look for senior Chauncey Washington to break out of the pack.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Safety Taylor Mays is a throwback-type who eliminates the middle of the field, and corners Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris do a good job of funneling passes inside for him to clean up.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
This unit led the Pac-10 in total defense (295.8 ypg) and is as good as there is in college football. MLB Rey Maualuga is the boss. He can hit and has incredible balance shedding blockers.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
PR Desmond Reed has the physical skills -- elusiveness and raw speed -- to be dangerous, but he has to do better than 2006's 5.4 ypr.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Carroll is the nation's best at generating lost-yardage plays on D and using motions and shifts to set up favorable mismatches on O.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Even if USC suffers an early loss, its loaded Pac-10 sked will help vault it up the polls with every win. The game versus Cal, as usual, will decide the conference title and could determine one of the BCS title game contestants as well.

2. LSU Tigers
Last season: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC

Will Arnold
Justin Kase Conder / Icon SMILSU's Will Arnold (73) hopes to stay healthy for his senior season.

Will Arnold doesn't cruise message boards for news. He might go for a laugh every now and again, though. LSU's senior guard knows he's got a past checkered by injuries, but some of the tall tales fans write about his well-being are priceless. The misinformed say Arnold has had 18 different surgeries (he's had seven, and five were minor scopes), and that he's fat (he's 319, six pounds below his listed high school weight). Some suggest he's so fragile, the coaches should determine now which games he'll play (their advice: Hold him out of the showdown with Virginia Tech; it's not a conference game).

"If I listened to all those people," Arnold says, "I'd be crazy." To be fair, the guy does offer plenty of fodder for white-coat wannabes. He missed half of last season after tearing ligaments in his ankle, and doctors used a piece of his hamstring to make the joint stronger. But while he's still on the mend, Arnold sees no reason his final season down on the Bayou can't be a healthy one. "I'll always fight it," he says of the injury-prone tag. "All I can do is play." When he does, he anchors the SEC's best line, and Arnold is as good as it gets in the middle. He has drawn just two flags in 23 games, and one was in his first game as a freshman. How sick is that? -- Travis Haney

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
People are calling QB Matt Flynn a rookie, but he has appeared in 38 games. He's ready. I love WR Early Doucet. He used to be all speed, but now he's a savvy route runner.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
As impressive a runner as Keiland Williams is -- and he is very impressive -- LSU has to figure out how to work FB Jacob Hester into the offense, too. He isn't a game-breaker, but he is a hard-nosed bruiser.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Even with FS LaRon Landry gone, this may be the nation's best pass defense. CB Chevis Jackson is just the kind of player D-coordinator Bo Pelini loves. He can stick Jackson on an opponent's best wideout, then call all those zone blitzes he lives for.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Glenn Dorsey is a stud at DT. He's so disruptive, and not just with all those TFLs. His knack for pushing the pocket into the backfield lays it all out for DE Tyson Jackson to get the sacks.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
No doubt, Doucet is one of the best receivers in the country. He may be too good: Don't be surprised if LSU stops having him return kicks before too long.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Pelini is a future head coach. His D will gamble, but they cover their butts, too. New O-coordinator Gary Crowton is going to have to mesh his finesse approach with head coach Les Miles' pound it mentality.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
This has to be the nation's top season ticket, with home games against Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. No matter what anyone says, there's no reason to think Flynn won't be able to win right away, even against a defense like Virginia Tech's.

3. Texas Longhorns
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 in Big 12

Derek Lokey
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDerek Lokey is back and healthy, which should provide a boost for Texas' D-line.

Derek Lokey is back. Of course, if it had been up to him, the DT never would have had to leave in the first place. When the 6'2", 290-pounder broke his right leg at Nebraska on Oct. 21, he insisted on walking off the field; it was his only chance to fool the staff into letting him back in to the game. But it's hard to hide a spiral fracture and a strained knee, and harder to play on a leg held together by a plate and screws. So Lokey sat out the final four regular-season games. He did try to beg his way into practice for the Alamo Bowl, though.

"The doctors said six to eight weeks and it had been about six," Lokey says. "Turns out, they meant to be walking, not playing." Mack Brown called Lokey's injury the biggest loss of the season, worse than any of the Horns' three on-field defeats. So no one is happier that a scar is now the only way Lokey knows which leg he busted. (His 515-pound bench press and 380-pound power clean are team bests.) Last year, UT had the nation's third-best run D (61.2 ypg), but with the big man in a cast, the Horns lost two straight, to K-State and A&M. Those games had Lokey jumping off his couch to yell at the TV. You can't keep a good man down. -- Mike Ogle

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Colt McCoy has the head, body and arm (29 TDs, 7 INTs). Add WRs Limas Sweed and Quan Cosby, and you have maybe the nation's top pass offense.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
There's lots of work to be done on the offensive line, and RB Jamaal Charles isn't a push-the-pile kind of runner. But if they can get him to the outside, he'll eat up yardage. With his speed, he just turns the corner and is gone.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
The secondary can't give up another 21 TD passes this season. CBs Deon Beasley and Brandon Foster are just okay, but they do a good job of playing off receivers and coming up to make stops.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
DT Frank Okam is, simply put, a pain in the neck to block. It's tough to run against him because he pushes into the backfield on every play. Pair him with Lokey, and you wonder how anyone gains anything on the ground against this D.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Texas emphasizes special teams as much as Virginia Tech does, and that says a lot. The Horns have averaged four blocked punts per season over the past six. Cosby is a valuable wideout, but UT is smart to put him with the return teams, too. Getting him extra touches will pay off.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
This is a first-class staff, and Brown is an underrated talent developer. But UT's recent rise comes down to recruiting. And Brown deserves all the credit for that. He, not an assistant, makes most of the calls and sweet-talks the moms.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
The offensive weaponry is there to run the table. Obviously, the OU game is the Everest. But Texas A&M looks like a trap game; the Aggies gave UT fits last year, and the Horns could already be thinking about the Big 12 title game.

4. West Virginia Mountaineers
Last season: 11-2, 5-2 in Big East

Greg Isdaner
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisWest Virginia's Greg Isdaner (79) is impressive on the field and in the classroom.

As a junior at the Philly-area Episcopal Academy, Greg Isdaner, then a standout O-lineman, scored 1230 on his SATs. The reward: acceptance to Georgetown, alma mater of his proud parents and 15 other Isdaners. Then Rich Rodriguez mucked things up by giving young Greg a chance to play D1-A ball. When Isdaner accepted the offer, his folks were so upset that he spent part of his senior year living with friends. "They didn't say, 'Don't come back,'" he says. "But things got pretty bad." The deep freeze continued in 2005, his redshirt year. But last season, as Isdaner won freshman All-America honors, the thaw officially began. By the time he was named to the Big East's Academic All-Star team, the Isdaners were one big happy family. "I showed them I didn't come to sit on the bench and that I'm getting a good education," Greg says. "They even came to some games." Isdaner is set to graduate in three years with a degree in business and economics, and he's put in just as much time hitting the weight room as the books. The redshirt sophomore guard is now 305 pounds, with 12 percent body fat. That combo of lean and keen has WVU coaches ecstatic. "He's talented athletically, but he also thinks on his feet," says O-line coach Greg Frey. He's not afraid to stand on his own, either. -- Liam McHugh

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Patrick White is one of the best players in the country, and not just because of his running (101.6 ypg last year). He's always had a big arm, but his accuracy last season (65.9 percent) gets overlooked. He'll hook up a lot with WR Darius Reynaud, who's emerged as a major deep threat.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
White and RB Steve Slaton (134.2 ypg last season) eat up the chains on the ground, but FB Owen Schmitt, the best fullback of this century, sets the table for a terrific rushing attack.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
CBs Antonio Lewis and Vaughn Rivers will do. FS Eric Wicks will do everything and more. He's already solid covering short inside routes. Now he has to dedicate himself to improving the Eers' awful deep-ball coverage.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Here's the game plan: The 3-3-5 D hems in runners, then safety Wicks -- a tough, physical tackler -- cleans up the mess. Works for us, and for WVU: The Mountaineers' Big East-best run D allowed only 93.3 rushing ypg.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Call freshman Noel Devine The Transformer. This game-buster from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High is the kind of kid who can remake a game on returns. Opposing teams should think twice before scoring.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Rodriguez is a master of the spread offense; nobody balances finesse and power better. On defense, he and his staff really believe that the 3-3-5 defensive scheme is the answer. It'd better be, because last year's No. 109 pass D (243.3 ypg) raised a lot of questions.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Everybody knows WVU has to beat Rutgers and Louisville. But the Maryland game is pivotal. The Eers need to win, then have the Terps put together a good year. Otherwise, it's just another case of a Big East team playing an unfriendly BCS formula nonconference schedule.

5. Michigan Wolverines
Last season: 11-2, 7-1 in Big Ten

Jake Long
Kirby Lee/WireImage.comMichigan's Jake Long was the Big Ten's Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2006.

As Jake Long stood at home plate this past summer, every softball coming at him looked bigger and bigger. Every time Michigan's star left tackle swung the bat, those balls got smaller and smaller. And as Long clubbed homer after homer in Michigan's annual team softball game, he knew blowing off the NFL for one more year in Ann Arbor was a good idea. "Having a good time, people laughing and enjoying each other, really solidified it," Long says. "It made me enjoy my decision." After an injury-shortened 2005, Long started every game last year for an offense that led the Big Ten with 2,282 rushing yards. At the end of the year, Big Ten coaches selected Long -- not Joe Thomas or Levi Brown -- as the conference's Offensive Lineman of the Year. But just when the 6'7'', 313-pound Long was leaning toward leaving, running back Mike Hart told him he'd return if his left tackle did. "He put his life and his career in my hands," Long says. "It's an honor to know that he has that much confidence in me." Ultimately, the sting of yet another loss to Ohio State -- Long's third in three tries -- drew them both back. "This team has to win a championship," Hart says. "It's on our shoulders." With Long, those are some broad shoulders. -- Adam Rittenberg

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Junior WR Mario Manningham (65 career catches for 1,136 yards) has become one of college football's few real go-to guys. He has great speed and leaping ability, but his best attribute is how badly he wants the football. He goes up and gets it.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Hart's career numbers are staggering: 3,679 rushing yards, 111.5 ypg, 29 total TDs. But it's even more staggering that he's lost one fumble -- one! -- in his UM career. He's as reliable as college RBs come.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
UM coaches are desperate for the team to get faster in the secondary. Freshman CB Donovan Warren will get a serious look because of his raw speed, and FS Stevie Brown was a 100- and 200-meter guy in high school. Brown has only 14 career tackles. But he can fly.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
OLB Shawn Crable is a big, athletic kid who can drop into coverage or stuff the run. He really played with a mean streak down the stretch last year and finished with 10.5 TFLs. SS Jamar Adams (47 tackles) isn't great in coverage, but he hits like an LB.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
KR/PR Steve Breaston's departure really stings. His replacement, Johnny Sears (89 return yards in '06), has similar physical skills but doesn't find seams like Breaston did.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Lloyd Carr gets a bum rap because he's struggled with Ohio State (1-5 against Jim Tressel) and lost his past four bowl games. But he deserves credit for knowing when to shake up his staff, like when he promoted Ron English to defensive coordinator last year.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Everybody knows the importance of the Ohio State game. But if everything goes right early for the Wolverines, their season begins at Wisconsin. A win probably vaults Michigan to No. 1 leading up to Ohio State. Then we could have another Game of the Century.

6. Oklahoma Sooners
Last season: 11-3, 7-1 in Big 12

Allen Patrick
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireOU running back Allen Patrick should have room to run behind Phil Loadholt.

Heard the latest one about Oklahoma's new left tackle? Phil Loadholt is so big (How big is he?), the protective boot he wore all spring doubled as freshman kicker Jimmy Stevens' dorm room. Okay, the Sooners aren't the Simpsons. Fact is, Loadholt is enormous. The 6'8", 350-pound transfer from Garden City (Kan.) JC can't help but stand out -- and out. "Phil's a beast, the biggest guy I've ever seen," says senior RB Allen Patrick.

Of course, Bob Stoops won't entrust his QB's blind side to just any dormitory of a man. Loadholt emerged as a dominant force last season, flashing the same fancy footwork that made him a runner-up to Colorado's Mr. Basketball in high school. "He's amazing to watch," Stoops says. Which made that protective boot (for a broken big toe) anything but a joke. Loadholt has made a nice recovery, though; Stoops says he's been blown away by Loadholt's speed this preseason. With three QBs who've combined to complete a total of one college pass, Loadholt and talented junior guard Duke Robinson (6'5", 330) will have their work cut out for them. "This can be a great line," Loadholt says. "I feel very comfortable protecting that back side." In other words, no biggie. -- Liam McHugh

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
No one is sure what OU will get with either Joey Halzle or Sam Bradford under center. But book this: The passing offense will get by. The wideouts will make sure of it. Malcolm Kelly, in particular, is not only big (6'4", 217) and very physical, he also has terrific hands and speed.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Patrick is potentially a great tailback. At 6 feet, 191, he's smaller than dearly departed Adrian Peterson, but he's just as fast (4.45 speed) and he's sturdier than his size suggests. The line returns nine of the two-deep top 10, so the run-blocking will be ferocious again.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Reggie Smith is a classic CB/safety tweener. He's a little too aggressive to play corner but not quite big enough (6'1", 197) for safety. Still, he is a really nice problem to have.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
You know what the most important factor in honing OU's run D will be? Its offensive line. Just wait until young, talented kids like DT DeMarcus Granger, a 6'3", 300-pound soph who can collapse pockets, get some reps against the first-team blockers. By Week 10, they'll be tough. Believe it.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Smith is a stud return man (7.8 ypr on punts, 22.6 ypr on kicks), but he'll split duties with WR Juaquin Iglesias. Better yet, Stoops, an underrated special-teams mind, should give Smith one job and Iglesias the other, to give each player a break. The Sooners can't afford either guy getting hurt.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
At 86-19 for his career, Stoops is obviously one of those very successful coaches who came from a defensive background. But the Sooners did bite a bit too hard on play-action last season, and what about that No. 41 pass D (188.4 ypg)?

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Sure, OU has to beat Miami, and taking down Texas goes without saying. But playing at Texas Tech is never fun, with that unorthodox offense and wild crowd, and this time it could be a real trap game. Stoops will be glad to skip out of Lubbock with one more point than the Red Raiders.

7. Virginia Tech Hokies
Last season: 10-3, 6-2 in ACC

Orion Martin
Rich Kane/Icon SMI Orion Martin was a walk-on in 2004. Now, he's Virginia Tech's starting DE.

He'd never felt better, which made Orion Martin feel terrible. In the spring of 2005, Hokies coach Frank Beamer called in all the walk-ons to let them know if they'd earned scholarships. Martin had barely been recruited as a 200-pound prep DE and spent 2003 at Hargrave Military Academy. But even as he got bigger, his profile stayed small. Still, Martin decided to try out in Blacksburg. By then, he'd bulked up to 240, with a 350-pound press and 34-inch vertical, and that helped earn him a walk-on spot in fall 2004. He had to earn it all over again the next spring. After he nailed that tryout, he made 3½ TFLs and two sacks of Marcus Vick in the spring game.

Then Beamer gave Martin the news: He'd gotten his free ride. But when he saw all the sad faces of his buds who hadn't made the cut, Martin 86ed the celebration until he got back to his dorm. He didn't play much that fall, and made 29 stops as a reserve last season. Now, the redshirt junior is Virginia Tech's starting right end. Says D-line coach Charley Wiles, "He's made himself into a D-1 player with hard work." And everyone in Blacksburg feels pretty good about that. -- Dale Brauner

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Va. Tech has top-tier wideouts. Possession guy Josh Morgan is steady (33 catches, 448 yards), bullet-quick Eddie Royal is spectacular (31, 497) and Justin Harper (6'4", 214) is a handful. But someone has to get them the ball. Another 11 TD/11 INT season from QB Sean Glennon won't cut it.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
On a gimpy ankle, RB Branden Ore ran for 1,137 yards and 16 TDs last season. Healthy, he may rewrite the record book. Beamer actually trusts Glennon to run this team and is impressed by how his QB always audibles to the right play. Which usually means handing it to Ore.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
This is a terrific secondary. Corners Brandon Flowers and Victor Harris are technically sound cover guys. Both are exceptional finishers (85 combined stops) and catch the ball if they get their hands on it. Expect them to top last season's seven combined picks.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall are the best LB duo in the country. Hall is the plugger (128 tackles) and Adibi is the playmaker (3 INTs, three forced fumbles).

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
News flash: The Hokies are beasts on special teams. Boring? Okay, how about this? KR/PR Royal can blow open a game all by himself (735 return yards, 1 TD). He's such a dangerous weapon, he's bound to get even more snaps at wide receiver as well.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
One thing we know about Beamer: His team will always play rugged D. He's the best at recruiting talented kids who aren't afraid to mix it up. No team gets the better of Va. Tech for very long. And in the wake of the tragic shooting, Beamer's staff won't let the team's emotions run away from them.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Realistically, Va. Tech could lose a close one to LSU and still play for the BCS title. That makes the Hokies' game at Clemson the pivotal one of the season. The Hokies should be 4-1 by then, and facing a team they hammered 24-7 last year. Win that one, and they can easily run the table.

8. Florida Gators
Last season: 13-1, 7-1 in SEC

Phil Trautwein
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesPhil Trautwein's flexibility on the offensive line gives the Gators options.

Nobody is going to mistake Florida's Phil Trautwein for a yoga instructor, but the Gators' 6'6", 300-pounder could pass for one. The guy is flexible. As in, he can play pretty much any position on the offensive line. Trautwein came to Gainesville as a tackle prospect and played there as a true freshman. As a soph, though, UF needed a blocking tight end, so he moved over. By the end of that season, he was flip flopping between tackle and tight end, sometimes changing jerseys between plays. "I'd warm up wearing No. 75 then run over and throw on No. 86 to play tight end," he says.

To shore up a so-so line last season, Urban Meyer switched Trautwein back to left tackle, where he could protect QB Chris Leak's blind side, and Trautwein started every game for an offense that averaged 29.7 ppg. But now, with southpaw soph Tim Tebow replacing righty Leak under center, Meyer needs to shift his second-team All-SEC tackle again if he wants to keep his QB safe. Say hello to the Gators' new right tackle. "It's the same mind-set, just a few adjustments," the senior lineman says. "It's not like they're asking me to play quarterback lefthanded." Hey, kid, don't give Coach any ideas. -- Liam McHugh

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Just because we saw so little of it last season, don't think Tebow has no arm. His nearly 10,000 aerial yards at Ponte Vedra Nease High is testament enough. But with do-it-all WR Percy Harvin (5 TDs), he won't have to force the action. Note to Tim (with apologies to Nike): Just dump it.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Junior RB Kestahn Moore is steady, but if he has flashes of special, he's keeping them to himself. So Tebow will do his share of lugging it. The QB may not be Patrick White, but he could be Alex Smith with muscle, a physical (6'3", 235) runner who smells the first-down marker.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Young CB Markus Manson, a former running back, will have to go from getting his licks in on special teams to manning up for 60 plays a game. Safety Tony Joiner is a steady tackler (59 stops), but he'll never be the first guy Meyer thinks of when he needs a lockdown.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
The Gators don't boast a great D. Of course, how great does it have to be? All it has to do is keep foes under 35 ppg. DE Derrick Harvey had 11 sacks, and that means he'll draw lots of double-teams, freeing raw LBs Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe (37 combined stops).

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Brandon James gets a B+ on punts (11 ypr) and a C on kicks (18.2). UF needs big plays, but at 5'6", 181, his durability is an issue. So is his judgment: He'll miss the opener after a drug arrest.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Meyer recognizes his team's flaw -- the lack of a running game. Then again, who doesn't? But he's the only one who has to coach around it. His solution is to run a Utah-type spread behind Tebow, but it's tough to see how that is going to work given all the speedy SEC secondaries.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
The Tennessee game is a huge early test. Tebow killed the Vols last year with runs in big spots, so expect them to stack the line to make him put it in the air. If he can't execute, film of that game will be more popular than "The Bourne Ultimatum" throughout the conference.

9. Louisville Cardinals
Last season: 12-1, 6-1 in Big East

Art Camody
Peter Aiken/WireImageArt Carmody, last season's Lou Groza Award winner, is Mr. Automatic for Louisville.

On a scalding July day, 80 Louisville players showed for voluntary workouts. But over the next few hours, the throng dwindled steadily, as sweat-soaked Cardinals escaped to the cool of the locker room. Finally, only senior kicker Art Carmody remained. He booted some balls, retrieved them himself, then booted them again. Logging OT is nothing new for Carmody, who, as a star at Loyola College Prep in Shreveport, La., had such lengthy solo sessions that the field caretakers learned to mow around him. "I work very hard to get better," says Carmody.

At this point, how much better can he get? Last year, Carmody won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker. He owns the NCAA record for most extra points in a season without a miss (77) and is in fact the game's most accurate ever, having hit 95.7 percent of his PATs and FGs. He needs 83 points to pass Houston's Roman Anderson for the career mark of 423. Carmody, who shares an apartment with star QB Brian Brohm and is a minister at Louisville's Cathedral of the Assumption, wants to stay in town after his college days are over. But wanna bet he's closing down an NFL practice facility a year from now? -- Pat Forde

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Brohm (3,049 passing yards) may be the best QB in the country, but it doesn't hurt that he has WRs Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas shagging his tosses. At 6'6", 228, Urrutia is the physical one. Douglas, 5'11", 170, is the speed. He had 70 catches for 1,265 yards last season.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
RBs George Stripling and Anthony Allen have game. Know what else they have? Only three starts between them. Good thing even a Pop Warner kid could run behind this Cardinals O-line. Center Eric Wood (25 straight starts) is a Rimington Award favorite. He's a terrific QB up front.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Corner Rod Council is a solid cover guy who has learned to play man, and FS Latarrius Thomas plays like former UL star Kerry Rhodes. He just needs to pick better times to gamble.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
LBs Malik Jackson and Preston Smith had a combined 101 tackles last season; they're perfect for D-coordinator Mike Cassity, who schemes for pursuit. Yes, they're going to miss DT Amobi Okoye, but sophomore DE Peanut Whitehead looks like another future first-rounder.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Carmody is the best kicker in the country, period. And in the high-scoring Big East, a last-possession kick could easily be the difference more than once. As for the return game … well, don't expect Trent Guy (145 return yards last season) to bust one, and you won't be disappointed.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
This is Steve Kragthorpe's chance of a lifetime: a stacked roster and a much bigger stage than he had at Tulsa. Of course, this is also the best group of foes he's ever faced. And what will the option-lover do with ace-chucker Brohm?

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Louisville has two monster games: at West Virginia and a season-ender against Rutgers. A BCS run means sweeping both, but it may actually depend on beating NC State early, then hoping the Wolfpack can build a schedule-strengthening bowl season of their own.

10. Wisconsin Badgers
Last season: 12-1, 7-1 in Big Ten

Marcus Coleman
David Stluka/Getty ImagesWisconsin O- lineman Marcus Coleman has the brawn and the brains to succeed.

He's way too tall to play center, but Marcus Coleman, who stands 6'6", 295, thrives at the position because he spends so much time sweating the small stuff. The senior still logs long hours memorizing blitz packages, protections and line calls. For a while last year, it was O-line coach Bob Palcic who had to coax his star to stop in every day for film study. Pretty soon, though, Coleman didn't need an invite. "It just turned into me walking in there," he says. The extra work led to his winning team offensive MVP honors twice last fall and culminated in one crucial, season-defining play.

Before a snap in the Capital One Bowl, Coleman spied two Arkansas LBs and one safety sneaking up for an all-out blitz, a rarely used Razorback scheme. He calmed his spooked O-line by barking assignment changes and taking on two blitzers himself. The quick read gave QB John Stocco the time to hit TE Travis Beckum for a 13-yard TD, the eventual game winner. It's no wonder, then, that even with Stocco gone, Palcic is confident as long as Coleman is hiking the ball. "He's our offensive brains," Palcic says. The brawn's not too shabby either, Coach. -- Chico Harlan

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
The QB -- either Tyler Donovan or K-State transfer Allen Evridge -- will rely on Beckum, who's fast enough to stretch D's and tough enough to work the middle.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
P.J. Hill ran for 1,569 yards as a frosh; now that he's trimmed down to 223 pounds, he'll be even quicker to find holes. He should have lots of them: The vet O-line returns nine of its top 10 players. So what's the call? Hand it to Hill. Repeat as necessary.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Corner Jack Ikegwuonu has terrific feet, hip turns and anticipation. He'll need his whole skill set, as teams test sophomore safeties Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant with play-actions and misdirections.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
In spot duty last year, MLB Elijah Hodge got two sacks; he has big-play potential. Jonathan Casillas can tackle (83 stops) and run with receivers in nickel defense. DE Matt Shaughnessy isn't the most gifted athlete, but man, is he nasty.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
KR Josh Nettles (14.7 ypr) and PR Luke Swan (5 ypr) do only so much, but PK Taylor Mehlhaff does it all. He hit all 47 of his PATs and went 15-of-20 on FGs last season. In a close game, UW expects him to come through.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Bret Bielema made a risky move last year when he let go of a bunch of proven winners to build his own staff. UW is clearly his program, one that plays with atypical physicality (even for Madison), but can he squeeze a passing game from these QBs?

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Wisconsin gets props, but not nearly as many as USC, Texas or Florida. So the Badgers have to work the room to sway pollsters. That makes Nov. 3 -- against host OSU -- huge. Maybe UW can afford a November loss. But not this one.

11. Georgia Bulldogs
Last season: 9-4, 4-4 in SEC

Mikey Henderson
Paul Abell/US Presswire Georgia's Mikey Henderson finished 2006 as the SEC's top punt returner with 14.7 ypr.

On Georgia's depth chart, Mikey Henderson is listed as a flanker. But maybe the live-wire senior from Buford, Ga., deserves another title: team IT guy. Henderson, an admitted tech geek, receives five calls a week -- on the iPhone he bought with money earned editing Web pages -- from teammates who need his help. Web design, clogged printers, expired passwords -- you name it, Henderson can handle it. That goes for the football field, too, where the 150-pound Henderson returned punts and kicks and also had eight touches on offense.

He finished the season as the SEC's top punt returner with 14.7 ypr, including 2 TDs. When he's asked about that success, he pours buckets of praise on his blockers and doesn't care that he sounds like a wimpy gadget guy when he does it. "All of them can beat me up," he says. "So I don't want their hard work to go to waste." Now Henderson is looking forward to using his 4.3 speed in an expanded role as a full-time flanker. But even with the extra work, Henderson vows to keep his side job off the field. "Some guys have easy computer questions, and some of them are hard," he says, "Either way, I want them to know I'm their guy." -- Travis Haney

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
QB Matthew Stafford took his lumps (7 TDs, 13 INTs) last year as a freshman. But he has a big, accurate arm and surprising mobility. Question is: Who will be his safety valve? Senior Sean Bailey is speedy, but he has only 36 career catches and is coming off a knee injury.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
The Dawgs have lots of backs but no stud. Kregg Lumpkin is a slasher, not a home run threat. And, while Thomas Brown can break into the secondary and run away from DBs, he's coming off a knee injury. No matter who's back there, Stafford is going to face stacked fronts.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Asher Allen and Prince Miller are small (5'10" and 5'8", respectively) but scrappy CBs. They're fast enough to cover. Just not sure yet if they'll be able to tackle anyone.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Both DTs -- 6'3", 292-pound Jeff Owens and 6'5", 315-pound Kade Weston -- command double-teams. That should allow new starting DEs Roderick Battle and Marcus Howard to work one-on-ones and become backfield pests. Combined, they had only 2 TFLs last year.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Henderson can flat-out fly, and he's one of the few guys who can legitimately take it to the house at any time. Just have to wonder if a guy who's 5'10", 150 pounds and playing a bigger role on offense will hold up back there.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Mark Richt is a terrific special-teams coach, but he relies too much on field goals. And while he did an underrated job bringing along Stafford, he needs the QB to take a monster step in red zone efficiency this year.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
A 2-0 start would vault Georgia toward the top of the polls, but the Tennessee game is huge. It's Georgia's first big SEC road test, and the Dawgs lost at home to the Vols last year, 51-33. Now they have to win in Knoxville.

12. Ohio State Buckeyes
Last season: 12-1, 8-0 in Big Ten

Vernon Gholston
Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty ImagesVernon Gholston led Ohio State with 8½ sacks and 15 TFLs in 2006.

These days, Vernon Gholston draws a crowd wherever he is. Opponents automatically send two blockers at OSU's star DE. On YouTube, more than 18,000 sadists have watched his clothesline takedown of Iowa RB Albert Young. Even Gholston's teammates show up in the gym to marvel at the 6'4", 260-pound junior's routine. With a bench press of 455 pounds, Gholston and his 9 percent body fat are quite a spectacle. "You see veins coming out of this guy's arms and all over his body," says LB Marcus Freeman. "Most of the time, when we go to the weight room, it's just to watch him."

All the attention is better than none. In the fall of 2005, after Gholston broke his left hand in the opener, he spent the year heaving iron alone. But by the following spring, he was stronger -- much stronger -- for the experience. In 2006, Gholston started 13 games and led the team with 8½ sacks and 15 TFLs. This fall, the D-line replaces three starters, but with Gholston, Ohio State is assured of having muscle up front. "Strength has always been a big part of my game," he says. "I like that I'm strong." He's not alone in that. -- Adam Rittenberg

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Jim Tressel will let QB Todd Boeckman throw. Well, safe passes, anyway. Then again, WRs Brian Robiskie and Ray Small turn safe passes into game-breakers (37 catches, 451 yards between them). They have Ginn-Gonzalez skills. It's time to put up Ginn-Gonzalez stats.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
As usual, the O-line is a solid asset. LT Alex Boone (6'8", 325) is the best of the bulky bunch. Boeckman isn't mobile, so OSU loses the run threat from the QB position, but that just means more carries for soph RB Chris Wells. He could double last season's 576 yards and seven TDs.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
The Buckeyes excel in rugged man coverage. Future first-rounder CB Malcolm Jenkins is a 6'1", 202-pound bully (55 stops, four picks). He might be the most physical corner in the country. Donald Washington (6'1", 195) is a hitter too, with two forced fumbles and 41 tackles in 2006.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
DEs Gholston and Lawrence Wilson are run stoppers, and LBs James Laurinaitis and Freeman stuff everything else. Laurinaitis has great instincts, and he's going to get better; he's started only 13 games. Freeman, who ran the 100-meter relay in high school, has the tools to be a star too.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
KR/PR Small has the same lean build (6 feet, 175) and sprinter's speed as Ted Ginn Jr. But here's something he has that Ginn doesn't: exactly zero career returns.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
No big revelation here: Tressel builds around defense and the kicking game. He recruits PKs harder than any other coach in the country. On offense, he's spread things out a lot lately, but he's a power guy at heart. He'll never stray too far from smashmouth.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
The UM-OSU hype exists for a reason -- it's always a monster match. But watch for Illinois the week before. The Illini kept improving last season, including a tough 17-10 loss to OSU. They'll be just as ornery this time, and they lie in ambush between the Buckeyes' two biggest games.

13. Penn State Nittany Lions
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 in Big Ten

Gerald Cadogan
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAs Levi Brown's replacement, Gerald Cadogan has some big shoes to fill at Penn State.

To say Gerald Cadogan is a fan of Levi Brown is an understatement. Cadogan can recall just about every one of the former Nittany Lion great's 45 starts, and of course his nickname (Grandpa). He even has his own pet name for the left tackle (Big Bad Levi). When Cadogan says he spent the spring watching every single down Brown played last year, just believe him and move on. Fact is, Cadogan always had the best seat in the house. He played in four games as Brown's backup in 2005, then slid over to guard and started five games last season alongside BBL, Arizona's first-round pick in April. Now Cadogan means to take ownership of Brown's job. All that's left is for him to earn it.

He struggled last season as a first-time starter and was benched in October. But after an impressive offseason, coaches are sure the 6'5", 313-pound junior is up to the job. "He reminds me athletically very much of Brown," Joe Paterno says. "But whether he's going to be as good as Brown -- he's got to do that himself." Cadogan has at least one other big supporter. At a recent charity event, Brown pulled Cadogan aside. "Left tackle," he said, "is your territory now." From Grandpa's mouth to JoePa's ears. -- Chico Harlan

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Nobody questions QB Anthony Morelli's ability; he has all the tools. He showed the whole bag in the Capital One Bowl win vs. Tennessee (14-for-25, 197 yards). This season his wingman will be steady senior Deon Butler. Butler may be only 5'10", 168, but he's a sure thing (48 catches, 637 yards).

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Austin Scott is afflicted with the "potential" curse. This is the season he sheds it. At 6 feet, 222, with good speed, Scott could easily duplicate his career stats (1,021 yards, 10 TDs). One obstacle: The O-line has issues; it's not a good sign that JoePa signed two jucos to it.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
You have to love CB Justin King. He's a great athlete who can turn and run with anyone. And playing wideout earlier in his career has helped him understand how to cover.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Dan Connor will move to middle linebacker, but that won't limit his big-play ability (113 tackles, nine TFLs). Dominant as he is, he could really use a couple of graybeards on the D-line. Only junior DE Josh Gaines, with nine career starts, has logged any serious PT.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
PSU will use dynamic playmakers Derrick Williams and A.J. Wallace on returns. It's called picking your poison: Williams is elusive and gets to his high gear as fast as any returner in the country. Wallace can just flat-out fly.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
O-coordinator Galen Hall doesn't often get a lot of credit, but he deserves every bit of what he gets and more. The Lions lured a slew of speedy recruits after he took over the offense. But it's still JoePa's show, and he reminds everyone of that with his boot camp practices.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
PSU really has only one big road game, and it's early, at Michigan. If the Lions are 3-0 at that point, a win in Ann Arbor would catapult the team into the top five and BCS title contention. Not so fast, though. Penn State is 0-8 against the Wolverines since 1997.

14. Cal Golden Bears
Last season: 10-3, 7-2 in Pac-10

Ken Delgado
Rob Holt/ICON SMID-line coach Ken Delgado likes what he sees from Cal DT Matt Malele.

Matt Malele is hungry. Starving, actually, and not in the clichéd, he-really-wants-it-badly kind of way. The Cal defensive tackle's stomach is constantly growling. That's what happens when a space-eating 330-pound DT tries to remake himself into a playmaking 300-pound run-stuffer. The secret: punting on the fast food. "I went from three or four double-cheeseburgers a week to only three over the past four months," Malele says. He started slashing in January. But he knew he was in trouble back on Sept. 2 of last year, when his D gave up 216 rushing yards (and 514 total) in a 35-18 rout at Tennessee. Malele went on to finish the year with only 11 tackles in 13 starts.

So this offseason, he set out to boost his stamina and quickness by trimming down. Mission accomplished. Malele was virtually unblockable this spring. And the senior will get help from fellow DTs Derrick Hill (6'3", 289) and Michael Costanzo (6'3", 287), Golden Bear redshirt freshmen who Cal coaches say play like grizzlies. But for Cal to make a BCS push, it has to improve on the Pac-10's No. 7 rushing D (125.4 ypg). That makes Malele the key to the season. "We know he can be a great leader," says D-line coach Ken Delgado. "But now he really has to help us make plays." And stay hungry. -- Bruce Feldman

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
QB Nate Longshore ended his junior season by completing 19 of 24 passes for 235 yards and 1 TD against Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl. Expectations are even greater this season.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
He doesn't have Marshawn Lynch's talent, but RB Justin Forsett is capable. When Lynch got hurt against Oregon, Forsett gained 115 fourth-quarter yards in a 45-24 win. But even with All-Pac-10 C Alex Mack back on the O-line, Cal has to set up the run with the pass.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
Despite 21 picks, the pass D was bad last season. CB Syd'Quan Thompson is solid, but expect redshirt freshman Darian Hagan, the fastest corner Cal has, to play a lot. Safeties Bernard Hicks and Thomas DeCoud are physical, but coaches don't want them covering people.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
They have to shape the run D around Malele, who's almost impossible to move in the middle. That creates bubbles at the line so LBs Zack Follett and Worrell Williams can come up and make stops.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
Forsett is a steady kick returner, but don't expect to see him there for very long. Two reasons: He's too important in the offense to risk injury on special teams. And that DeSean Jackson guy.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
This is really the only coaching staff that consistently has given USC trouble. Take a bow, Jeff Tedford. He's a terrific QB tutor and offensive schemer, which is why his O against Pete Carroll's D is college football's best head-to-head coaching matchup.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Last year, Tennessee ruined most of Cal's goals for the season. This game has been circled on Cal's schedule ever since. For a real chance at getting to the BCS title game, Cal has to win this one.

15. Florida State Seminoles
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 in ACC

Andre Fluellen
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesAndre Fluellen (No. 96) is the go-to guy on Florida State's defensive line.

At the ripe old age of 22, DT Andre Fluellen is FSU's resident Dr. Melfi. Teammates regularly approach him with questions about how to juggle classes and football or how to rekindle a stalled relationship. "I guess I just give off that vibe," he says. "And I like the role." The emotional support is nice, but the Seminoles need his other talents even more, those of a 6'4", 280-pound backfield destroyer. Injuries hobbled Fluellen last season, forcing his move inside to noseguard, and he still chalked up eight TFLs. He's back at his natural spot this fall, and FSU coaches are standing by to see how his combination of DE speed and DT power is going to bring the havoc.

Preseason award nominators are on guard too -- they've named him to the Outland and Bednarik watch lists. "He has everything it takes to be a dominating defensive lineman," says D-line coach Odell Haggins. All the hype hasn't created an outsize ego, though. Motivated by last year's 7-6 letdown, Fluellen renewed his training in January and spearheaded movie nights with 10 FSU defenders, watching martial arts videos to learn hand techniques for fending off blockers. "Some guys stop working when you turn your back. Not him," says Haggins. Thanks, Coach -- but how does that make you feel? -- Travis Haney

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
Drew Weatherford (23 starts) has an edge on Xavier Lee at QB. Whoever throws will try to find 6'6" junior WR Greg Carr, who has great hands in traffic (key stats: 12 TDs in 34 receptions).

Bill Curry on Run Offense
FSU's run game has been horrible lately, despite a continuous string of marquee recruits. Junior Antone Smith is the latest blue-chipper who is expected to blow up. His speed and ability say he should. His 644 yards in two seasons indicates something different.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
CB Tony Carter is 5'9", 170, but he plays bigger; he can take out a receiver by himself. Soph SS Myron Rolle covers slot guys well and can tackle (77 stops), but as long as he plays a little tentatively, he'll never be the enforcer his game promises.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
DTs Fluellen and Paul Griffin are solid, but FSU needs them in the backfield on every down. Alex Boston is a handful too. He's played all four line positions, but now that he's settled in at DE, he might triple last season's six TFLs.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
KR Michael Ray Garvin could be a game-breaker. He averaged 22.6 ypr last season, with a long of 47. He may be only 5'8", 183 pounds, but he can fly: He ran a 10.21 100 for the Seminoles' track team.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
This offseason, Bobby Bowden led a JoePa-like staff shake-up. Now we'll see if it spurs a PSU-like turnaround. The clock is ticking. How long before new O-coordinator Jimbo Fisher realizes he has much less to work with than he did at LSU?

Brad Edwards on Schedule
This might be the toughest schedule in the country. In the season opener, Clemson replaces Miami, and that's not exactly an upgrade. But the killer is that Alabama game. The schedule says it's a home game, but FSU can count on little more than a 50-50 crowd in Jacksonville.

16. Auburn Tigers
Last season: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC

Quentin Groves
John Reed/US PresswireQuentin Groves is inching closer to Auburn's all-time sacks record.

There are two constants in Tigers DE Quentin Groves' life: He spends countless hours poring over game film, and he gets grief every time he messes up. That's because he watches most of his tape at home with his wife, Treska, his most brutal critic. "In a way it's cute," says Groves. "But then you think how weird it is that your wife's telling you how to pass rush … " Hey, it's working. Groves has gone from 235-pound DE/LB tweener to 254-pound menace, tallying 9.5 sacks last season for a defense that allowed 17 points or fewer in 11 of 13 games.

In his bust-out game, a 27-17 win over Florida, Groves had three sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble. Now the senior is only four sacks from eclipsing Gerald Robinson's school-best 26 career QB drops. "I pray every day that I'll stay healthy and break the record," Groves says. That's one big reason he returned to Auburn, even after graduating in December. But breaking a school record is only the start for the skinny kid who's morphed into a sack-seeking future pro. "He's a family man now," says DE coach Terry Price. "There's a point when you've got to step up and be a man." Funny, that's what his wife tells him every time they watch film together. -- Travis Haney

Let's Ask Bristol

Todd Blackledge on Pass Offense
When QB Brandon Cox is healthy, he's very good. He doesn't have a huge arm but completes 60 percent of his passes. He's a cerebral Leinart type. That is all he has to be with WRs like Rod Smith.

Bill Curry on Run Offense
Despite an inexperienced O-line -- only LT King Dunlap is back -- Auburn will be solid on the ground. Sophomore RB Ben Tate is a big weapon, and Brad Lester is one of the few FBs who can bust long runs: He had a 21-yard TD run against Georgia last season.

Rod Gilmore on Pass Defense
FS Aairon Savage goes after a lot of balls but had only one pick to show for it. Corners Jonathan Wilhite and Patrick Lee are small (5'11" and 6 feet respectively) and need to catch the balls they get their hands on. The team had only 10 picks all season.

Chris Spielman on Run Defense
Groves broke through last year -- 11 TFLs -- but he'd better be ready for lots of double-teams. NG Josh Thompson and DE Sen'Derrick Marks have the ability to divert blockers away from Groves. They just need to use it.

Desmond Howard on Special Teams
KR Tristan Davis, who averaged an SEC-leading 27 ypr last season, has the pure speed to always be a threat for six. But he's going to have an expanded role playing tailback. Look for steady PR Mario Fannin to field his share of kickoffs.

Jim Donnan on Coaching
Tommy Tuberville really believes in running the ball and stopping the run, and he shows that in practice. Nobody runs more first-team O against first-team D, and that creates a seriously physical mind-set -- which the Tigers show every Saturday.

Brad Edwards on Schedule
Of those four road SEC games, realistic fans have to hope for a split. The Tigers probably have to beat LSU to win the division and get to the SEC title game. If they don't, they're probably heading to the Capital One or Outback Bowl.