Jan. 23, 2009

By Adam Caparell
NCAA.com

The 2008 season isn’t more than three weeks behind us, but it doesn’t take long for talk to turn to next year in college football.

The wide open race for the BCS Championship featured plenty of contenders last fall and 2009 is shaping up to be no different. With the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft behind us, we now have a fairly clear picture of what teams will look like next season before we hit Signing Day and the beginning of spring practice.

What teams are gearing up for a BCS Championship run in ’09? The three Heisman finalists all look to have their teams primed for big seasons while a few surprises from ’08 make up some of 2009’s top teams to watch, appearing below in no particular order.

Florida – 13-1, BCS Champions, SEC Champions 
Key Returnees: QB Tim Tebow, RB Jeff Demps, RB Chris Rainey, LB Brandon Spikes
Key Losses: WR Percy Harvin, WR Louis Murphy
The Lowdown: Tebow’s decision to return makes Florida the popular pick to repeat as BCS champions by many, but with potentially all 11 starters back on defense, the Gators D is the biggest reason why expectations will be through the rough in Gainesville next fall. Urban Meyer joined very elite coaching company by winning his second SEC and BCS Championships in just four seasons with the Gators. 

Georgia Tech – 9-4
Key Returnees: QB Josh Nesbitt, RB Jonathan Dwyer, DE Derrick Morgan, SS Morgan Burnett
Key Losses: DE Michael Johnson, DT Vance Walker
The Lowdown: Paul Johnson did what few thought he could in his first season in Atlanta: lead the Yellow Jackets to a winning season and a bowl game, while in the process revamping the offense. A young roster returns – 75 freshmen and sophomores played for the Yellow Jackets last season – and those freshmen who did not go through the off-season conditioning program get the chance to do so this time around. That’s really important when you play for Johnson.

LSU – 8-5, Chick-fil-A Bowl Champions
Key Returnees: RB Charles Scott, WR Brandon LaFell
Key Losses: G Herman Johnson, DE Tyson Jackson, LB Darry Beckwith
The Lowdown: Big things are expected out of Jordan Jefferson, the sophomore quarterback who emerged on the scene late in the Tigers season, but from first impression he seems to have the tools to be a very good QB. The Tigers must contend with some heavy losses on defense, but the return of Scott in the backfield is key and Les Miles has established himself as an excellent recruiter of top talent so expect an infusion of young athletes.

Oklahoma – 13-2, Big 12 Champions
Key Returnees: QB Sam Bradford, RB DeMarco Murray, TE Jermaine Gresham, DT Gerald McCoy
Key Losses: WR Juaquin Iglesias, G Duke Robinson, S Nic Harris
The Lowdown: Bradford could have easily left school early and been the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, but he decided to stick around for one more season and thanks to a few more players choosing to put off their pro careers, Oklahoma appears to be loaded for another run at a BCS Championship. Holes on the offensive line will have to be addressed, but as many as nine starters on defense could return.

Oklahoma State – 9-4
Key Returnees: QB Zac Robinson, RB Kendall Hunter, WR Dez Bryant
Key Losses: TE Brandon Pettigrew, CB Jacob Lacey
The Lowdown: The Cowboys are going to be as talented as anyone with the offense they’ll feature, but the big question will come down to defense. They showed they can make periodic stops, but can they do it consistently if they want to be a serious contender in the Big 12 South? Once again the division will feature loaded Texas and Oklahoma teams making it tough sledding for the Cowboys, especially considering they have to travel to Norman.

Ole Miss – 9-4, Cotton Bowl Champions
Key Returnees:  QB Jevan Snead, RB Dexter McCluster, DE Greg Hardy
Key Losses: OT Michael Oher, DT Peria Jerry
The Lowdown: Houston Nutt did a fine job in his first season in Oxford, transforming a team that went 3-9 in 2007 to a bowl team with many of the same personnel from a year before. Snead blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC and the talent around him – the much heralded talent brought in by Ed Orgeron during his time at the school – came of age. The future looks very bright for the Rebels who will have to taper high expectations around campus.

Oregon – 10-3, Holiday Bowl Champions
Key Returnees: QB Jeremiah Masoli, RB LeGarrette Blount
Key Losses: RB Jeremiah Johnson, C Max Unger, DE Nick Reed, SS Patrick Chung
The Lowdown: The uncertain future of Mike Bellotti, when he decides to retire and step into the role of Oregon athletic director, will cast a shadow over the Ducks until he decides it’s time. And that could conceivably happen before the season beings. Chip Kelly is waiting in the wings, already named Bellotti’s successor, but speculation continues to swirl as to when Kelly will officially take over. No matter, the Ducks seem to have found their quarterback in Masoli, who really exploded in the Holiday Bowl. The offense should be Oregon’s strong suit once again.

Texas – 13-1, Fiesta Bowl Champions
Key Returnees: QB Colt McCoy, WR Jordan Shipley, LB Roddrick Muckelroy
Key Losses: WR Quan Cosby, DE Brian Orakpo
The Lowdown: McCoy will be a Heisman Trophy frontrunner and a lot will be thrust upon his shoulders next season, but coach Mack Brown probably will look to limit his running (he led the Longhorns in rushing last season). Finding a featured tailback will be among the staff’s priorities this spring and summer. The Longhorns secondary has been a soft spot on defense the past few seasons, but it figures to mature with another season under its belt.

USC – 12-1, Rose Bowl Champions, Pac-10 Champions
Key Returnees: RB Stafon Johnson, RB Joe McKnight, S Taylor Mays
Key Losses: QB Mark Sanchez, DT Fili Moala, LB Rey Maualuga, LB Brian Cushing
The Lowdown: Pete Carroll was not happy losing Sanchez to the draft, but Carroll doesn’t have to look too far to find the next five-start recruit waiting in the wings. Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp will battle for the job. A lot of defections on defense mean you won’t see the same ferocious Trojans D as last year, but they’re still going to be among the Pac-10’s best.

Virginia Tech – 10-4, Orange Bowl Champions, ACC Champions
Key Returnees: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Darren Evans, DE Jason Worilds
Key Losses: DE Orion Martin, CB Victor Harris
The Lowdown: Taylor will be the unquestioned quarterback for the Hokies who once again found a way to a BCS bowl last season. Taylor needs to refine his passing game, but another off-season should net him improvements come fall. Evans should vie with Tech’s Dwyer for top offensive honors in the ACC. The defense, under Bud Foster, should be strong once again.

Others To Watch: Alabama, Boise State, Cal, Kansas, Ohio State, Penn State, TCU