Sneak peek: CFN’s early 2010 top 25

A very early look at the teams that will likely enter the 2010 season on someone’s preseason top 25.

1. Alabama

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 1

Because it’s Alabama and because the coaching is so great and because the talent level is so ridiculously high after a few years of top-shelf recruiting, this might be everyone’s preseason No. 1 team. However, there are concerns for a team that caught a few big breaks in a down year in the SEC (not to mention Colt McCoy’s shoulder injury in the national title game) and needed a few skin-of-the-teeth wins to get through unscathed. The defense has some major work to do with six of the defensive front seven gone, including LB Rolando McClain and NG Terrence Cody. Corner and punt return star Javier Arenas and FS Justin Woodall are also gone. But don’t shed any tears for a defense that has plenty of NFL prospects waiting in the wings. Oh yeah … the offense. The backfield is jaw-dropping with a Heisman-winner (Mark Ingram) along with a guy (Trent Richardson) who might be a starter in the NFL right now. Throw in top-five pro prospect WR Julio Jones and three starters on the O line, and the offense will be tremendous. The schedule has plenty of landmines with Penn State, at Arkansas, Florida, at South Carolina, Ole Miss, at Tennessee, and Auburn to deal with.

2. Florida

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 2

If you’re ever going to get to Florida, this is the year, with the phenomenal recruiting classes waiting in the wings. In a year of transition (or Year One A.T.T. … figure it out), QB John Brantley has to live up to all the prep hype and be the NFL prospect that many consider him to be. However, he can be mediocre and the Gators will still likely win the East with a defense that remains loaded despite the loss of future NFL stars like Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden. The offense will have to use the offensive line to pave the way for more of a running game from the backs. The depth chart is laughably amazing with too much talent for one ball now that super-recruit Mack Brown is in the mix with Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, and Emmanuel Moody. With Tennessee in even more of an iffy phase and Georgia trying to figure out what it is, this might turn into a three-game season — going to Alabama and hosting LSU in back-to-back weeks and dealing with an improved Florida State in the regular-season finale.

3. Texas

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 4

Texas might be considered one of the favorites for the national title if there weren’t a few question marks about QB Garrett Gilbert’s consistency as the full-time starter. Throw in some nasty road games against Nebraska and Texas Tech to go along with dates against Oklahoma, UCLA, and Texas A&M, and the Horns will have to earn what they get. However, the overall schedule isn’t all that awful for a team this good and there’s no reason to not be in Glendale in early January either as the Big 12 champion or as the Big 12 champion playing for the whole ball of wax. The defensive back seven will be rock-solid and the losses up front, including Sergio Kindle and Lamarr Houston, can be replaced by more NFL-caliber talent. The offensive line needs to be better and there has to be a running game, but this could still be a team that simply out-talents its way to a championship.

4. Ohio State

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 7

The Buckeyes are the far-and-away favorites to the win the 2010 Big Ten title, and will be in the mix for the national title from the start. Miami is coming to Columbus, but there isn’t any USC to deal with this year. There are only two dangerous road games, Wisconsin and Iowa, but if the team really is national title-good, it needs to win those. The offense is loaded with experience and the defense should be solid once again as the tremendous recruiting classes of the last few years restock the shelves.

5. Nebraska

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 17

If you’re looking for your sleeper, or at least a team that might just slip outside of everyone’s preseason top five but could end up in Glendale, this could be it. Ten starters are back on offense and there’s good, developed depth to rely on. And while the defense loses Ndamukong Suh and Barry Turner off the line and SS Larry Asante from the secondary, Bo Pelini’s defense isn’t going to take a major step back with Jared Crick and Pierre Allen the stars up front. Schedule-wise, the early date at Washington will be a test, but it’s winnable for a team dreaming of a national title. Road games at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M are dangerous, but Texas and Missouri have to come to Lincoln.

6. Oklahoma

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 35

Reports of the program’s demise might be premature. Boosted by one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, the talent level is still high and now the team is a bit more experienced with eight starters returning on offense, led by QB Landry Jones, whose time spent throughout last year was the one positive from the Sam Bradford injury, and RB DeMarco Murray who only seems like he’s been in Norman so long that he once shared a backfield with Billy Sims. The defense loses all-everything DT Gerald McCoy, but it gets back seven starters including LB Travis Lewis and pass rushing star Jeremy Beal. The schedule is interesting with Florida State, at Cincinnati, at Missouri, and at Texas A&M to deal with.

7. Virginia Tech

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 9

Virginia Tech figures to be where it is each season, near the front of the pack in the hunt for an ACC crown. As the Coastal Division gets tighter, with the likes of Miami, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina, there’ll be minimal margin for error. QB Tyrod Taylor has another season of eligibility left, meaning the backfield will be loaded with terrific athletes. While the defense has vacancies that need to be filled, that never seems to be too big of a problem for ace coordinator Bud Foster.

8. Boise State

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 3

The preseason hype will be off the charts. This will be the hot team this offseason after yet another big season and so much talent returning. But will it be enough to finally be in the national title discussion? If the Broncos can beat Virginia Tech in Landover, Md. in the season opener and get by Oregon State at home, then yes. At this point, with so many great seasons in a row, there should be a groundswell of support to see what the team can do when finally given a shot at the whole ball of wax … if it beats the Hokies.

9. Wisconsin

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 19

Look out. There are a few key replacements to make but the Badgers should be considered among the favorites to win the Big Ten title. Last year’s team was good and young, but the 2010 squad should be good and experienced. The key will be to see if Bret Bielema’s club can play up to expectations. For all the good things that happened in 2010, the bowl win over Miami was the only victory of note, and the Badgers failed in their three big regular-season tests against Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern. They’ll be in just about everyone’s preseason top 15, and they’ll have to play like it from the start.

10. LSU

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 27

Last year was a strong year, even if it wasn’t the special one that LSU has been accustomed to. The 2010 season should be when the Tigers get back into the national title hunt, with eight starters back on offense and the phenomenal recruiting classes of the last few years about to kick in. The defense suffers a big blow up front with the loss of three good starters, but LSU is a factory for coming up with talented linemen. The linebacking corps has the potential to be special with a little bit of time, while the secondary, led by corner Patrick Peterson, will be a rock. No one’s touching this team until the trip to Florida on Oct. 9, and the Alabama game is in Baton Rouge.

11. Oregon

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 10

Oregon won a Pac-10 championship with a team that had very few senior starters, so a repeat is more than just an attainable goal; it’s expected. With QB Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James returning to the backfield and the entire offensive line intact, Chip Kelly’s offense could be even more prolific in 2010. The defense can use a complement to Kenny Rowe at defensive end and the offense is always looking for more consistency from the receivers, but otherwise, this program is poised for a third consecutive 10-win season.

12. Iowa

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 8

Preseason top ten … maybe? Only four starters are back on offense, but the backfield is intact and Iowa is always great at filling in the holes with no-name players who come from out of nowhere to produce. The defense returns loaded, PK Daniel Murray and P Ryan Donohue could form one of the nation’s best kicking tandems, and the schedule isn’t all that bad with just two road games in the first eight. The toughest games, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, are at home.

13. Penn State

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 15

It’s Penn State, so the team is going to be good. It’ll go to a great bowl game, and it’ll be in the hunt for the Big Ten title, but it’s more of a Big Ten X factor than a sure-thing contender going into 2010. Ohio State is loaded, Iowa should be even better, and Wisconsin should be terrific. Penn State has to replace QB Daryll Clark and has to hope for Kevin Newsome or Matt McGloin to be good enough to keep the passing game going while RB Evan Royster gets a heavier workload. There’s work to do to replace several key players on defense like DT Jared Odrick and linebackers Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman, and Josh Hull, but there are several decent prospects on the way ready to step up. This will be a good team that no one will put at the top of the Big Ten preseason pecking order, but it could surprise and be great with a little luck.

14. North Carolina

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 31

Now that Butch Davis has built a foundation in Chapel Hill, he’s looking to get the Heels over the hump and into the ACC title game with a team loaded with NFL players … at least on one side of the ball. The defense should be tremendous, starting with DE Robert Quinn and DT Marvin Austin, along with linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant. The offense will be a work in progress until someone can step up and solidify the quarterback play. With the top four producers back, at least the young receivers figure to be much-improved.

15. USC

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 16

What now? This is uncharted territory for Lane Kiffin and the program. Having been humbled by the league for a change, USC will spend the next few months trying to pull itself back up to national contention. Continuity at quarterback will help and raw talent on both sides of the ball isn’t an issue, but the Trojans need to locate the swagger that was missing in 2009. Of all the units, the secondary will be hardest hit by graduation, losing Taylor Mays, Kevin Thomas, Josh Pinkard, and Will Harris.

16. Georgia Tech

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 13

Two years into this project, Paul Johnson has to like where he has the program headed. The systems have been fully installed, the classes reflect those systems, and the players have bought into the blueprint. Tech won 11 games and an ACC crown with a surprisingly small number of seniors, indicating minimal drop-off heading into 2010 and a realistic shot at repeating.

17. Miami

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 20

After a few years of building and assembling deep recruiting classes, Randy Shannon and Miami have been building to this point. There are plenty of returning starters on offense and defense, and depth doesn’t figure to be a concern. Following an up-and-down sophomore season, it’s time for QB Jacory Harris to turn the corner and reduce the number of his mistakes. Graig Cooper’s serious knee injury and Javarris James’ graduation mean the ‘Canes need to develop a new feature back in the offseason.

18. TCU

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 5

How quickly can the Horned Frogs rebuild and rebound after losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl? It shouldn’t take long with QB Andy Dalton leading a veteran passing game that gets all the receivers back. Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker form a dangerous 1-2 rushing tandem, while the line should be a rock with four starters back. The defense has to replace end Jerry Hughes and NFL-bound LB Daryl Washington, and losing starting corners Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest isn’t a plus. But it’s TCU; everything is fine. Playing Oregon State in Arlington, Texas in the opener will be a nice test, but there’s no one else on the slate that should provide a huge test away from Fort Worth outside of Utah. BYU and Air Force are home games.

19. Auburn

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 33

If last year was a positive step forward, this year could be a major leap if Neil Caudle can produce at quarterback. The tremendous recruiting class should help the overall depth, but there are enough good players in place to expect more consistency with RB Onterio McCalebb leading the dangerous attack that gets back all the top receiving weapons and four starters up front. The defense welcomes back eight starters and should be a brick wall against the run. Yes, the Tigers have to go to Alabama, but they get two weeks off before that showdown, and the three other road games (yes, only three) are at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Kentucky. Merry Christmas.

20. Georgia

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 30

Last year wasn’t that bad by normal standards, but it’s not what Georgia was hoping for. There are still big questions about an underachieving group of running backs, a quarterback situation that needs Logan Gray or Aaron Murray to be great, not just good, and a defense that was stunningly soft and didn’t make nearly enough big plays. There’s speed and athleticism across the board, and WR A.J. Green, C Ben Jones, and DE Justin Houston bring some playmakers to build around, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The schedule isn’t all that bad with the toughest road game at Auburn and the second toughest at South Carolina.

21. West Virginia

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 21 West Virginia recruits about as well as any other Big East school, which will be a boon to head coach Bill Stewart. The competition at quarterback begins with freshman Geno Smith, who benefited most when Jarett Brown was injured. Speedy RB Noel Devine gives the offense a playmaker to build around, while Jock Sanders should be one of the Big East’s most explosive stars. If Stewart can’t bring a title back to Morgantown in his third year, the locals could start getting a little antsy.

22. Florida State

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 44

It’ll be the dawn of a new era in Tallahassee as Bobby Bowden gives way to Jimbo Fisher, who finally has the authority to make key decisions. He needs to find a new defensive coordinator that can fix the mess on that side of the ball. The offense, on the other hand, has far fewer worries. QB Christian Ponder was evolving before suffering a season-ending injury and Jermaine Thomas gets to run behind a line that returns completely intact.

23. Utah

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 23

Is Kyle Whittingham going to be able to get his Utes back to the BCS? The Mountain West breaks are there with BYU and TCU coming to Salt Lake City, and any team good enough to think about the BCS has to beat Air Force and Wyoming on the road. There are resume builders in non-conference play with Pitt, at Iowa State, and at Notre Dame to deal with. QB Jordan Wynn got thrown to the wolves late last season, and it should pay off this year as the leader of an attack that gets back seven starters. The defense has to fill some big holes — all the linebackers have to be replaced — but the line should end up being better, even without top end Koa Misi.

24. Arkansas

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 28

Last year was the stepping-stone to this year after QB Ryan Mallett chose to come back for another season. The junior bomber leads a devastating offense that returns 10 starters and should be among the most dangerous in America. The defense has nowhere to go but up and should be more consistent with seven starters coming back. However, losing Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis off the line hurts, and MLB Wendel Davis won’t be easily replaced. The Hogs aren’t going to win the West, but they’ll be in the thick of things getting Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss at home and catching a break getting Vanderbilt and South Carolina from the East.

25. BYU

Final 2009 CFN Ranking: 11

Depending on those who take off on Church missions, this should be another good year. If Riley Nelson can hold off super-recruit Jake Heaps and be a steady leader at quarterback, the offense could be terrific, with a strong receiving corps and with four starters returning to the offensive front. The defensive front seven needs an almost wholesale change, but the secondary should be terrific. Playing Washington and at Florida State in non-conference play will give the Cougars a shot to make a big splash, but the Mountain West games against the three other top teams in the league, Air Force, TCU, and Utah, are all on the road.