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Never too early to rank 2010 top 10

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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We’re not even two weeks removed from the 2009 college football season and I’m already thinking about next year. And why not? If you ask me, it’s never too soon. I’m sure Michigan and Notre Dame fans would agree.

Here’s my “probably way too early, probably way too premature, probably way too ambitious” look at college football’s top 10 heading into the 2010 season

10. North Carolina -- The Tar Heels were inconsistent in ’09, falling to ACC second-tier teams Florida State and North Carolina State, but beating Virginia Tech on national TV. In '10, the Tar Heels return 10 of 11 starters from a defense that ranked 6th in the nation last season. In a college football headline that was swallowed up by head coaching moves and NFL early entrants, five of the Tar Heels’ top defenders announced they’d be returning to school next season.

Returning Stars: DT Marvin Austin, LB Bruce Carter, WR Greg Little
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 4 vs. LSU (Atlanta)
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Season opening win over LSU, followed by wins over Rutgers, East Carolina, and a flawless ACC slate.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Ole Miss 2009 -- Lots of media hype, big expectations, and slightly above average results.

9. Nebraska -- The Ndamukong Suh Era is officially over in Lincoln, but the Bo Pelini Era is truly just beginning. For as good as the Nebraska D was in '09 -- and umm, yeah, it was pretty darn good -- it might be even better in 2010. Suh and safety Matt O’Hanlon are gone, but rising junior Jared Crick and the bulk of the '09 defense returns. The offense? It can only get better. Zac Lee and Cody Green will battle it out for starting quarterback duties, and both Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead will star in the backfield.

Returning Stars: DT Jared Crick, RB Roy Helu, WR Brandon Kinnie
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 18 at Washington
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Carl Pelini’s defense picks up where it left off following NU’s 33-0 Holiday Bowl win, the offense shows a pulse and scores some points, and the home crowd gives Garrett Gilbert hell in Oct. 16 bout with Texas in Lincoln.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: The defense crumbles without Suh and O’Hanlon, the offense doesn’t improve, and the ‘Huskers slip back to the middle of the Big 12.

8. Florida -- Tim Tebow, Joe Haden, Brandon James, Riley Cooper, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, Carlos Dunlap, and both Pouncey brothers will be playing pro football on Sundays next season. Urban Meyer might not be roaming the sidelines. And yet, I’ve still got the Gators as a Top 10 squad. What gives? I think John Brantley’s the best quarterback you’ve never heard of, Will Hill’s an up-and-coming star, and this team will savor being disregarded by the bulk of the media after two years of nothing short of an all-out media love fest.

Returning Stars: S Will Hill, LB Jon Bostic, RB Chris Rainey
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sep. 11 vs. South Florida
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Disrespected by the media in summer polls, team rallies together and under whoever ends up coaching them, upsets Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 2, takes down Georgia in Jacksonville, then beates Florida State in the regular-season finale out in Tallahassee.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Brantley isn’t as ready as everyone assumes he is, Steve Addazio struggles as the “kinda sorta, we think so” temporary head coach, and the SEC takes its jabs at a young Gators squad.

7. Pittsburgh -- When Greg Romeus, a surefire first round NFL pick had he wanted to go that route, declared he’d be coming back to school, Pitt catapulted into the '10 Big East favorite spot. In Romeus, rising sophomore and Heisman Hopeful Dion Lewis, and stud receiver Jonathan Baldwin, Pitt has three of the top individual talents in the entire conference. Pitt’s got holes all over, but should be a tough out in ’10.

Returning Stars: RB Dion Lewis, DE Greg Romeus, DE Jabaal Sheard
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 25 vs. Miami
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Pitt knocks off Utah on the road on Sept. 11, beats Miami and Notre Dame, and then cleans up in a down-year for the Big East. James wins the Heisman, Romeus sweeps the defensive awards, and Dave Wannstedt wins his first Big East title.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Rising sophomore Tino Sunseri struggles to replace Bill Stull, the Panthers drop early out-of-conference games in Utah and vs. Miami and Notre Dame, and falls to the bottom of the Big East without a senior leader under center.

6. Texas -- With the snap of a shoulder, the Garrett Gilbert Era was jumpstarted in the Jan. 7 BCS title game. After a shaky first half, Gilbert looked fantastic in the final two quarters vs. a sturdy Alabama defense. Colt McCoy and Sergio Kindle won’t be back in '10, but there are several up-and-comers chomping at the bit to take leadership roles.

Returning Stars: DE Sam Acho, QB Garrett Gilbert, RB Tre Newton
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 25 vs. UCLA
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Garrett Gilbert comes out slingin’, the no-name defense rallies under Will Muschamp, and Mack Brown gets the most out of his full cupboard of running backs. Texas beats up on UCLA and Oklahoma in back-to-back weekends and then escapes Lincoln unscathed in what should be the Big 12’s game of the year on Oct. 16.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Gilbert struggles out of the gates, the defense misses Kindle’s fire, and Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State beat up on the McCoy-less Longhorns.

5. Boise State -- I’ve seen some pundits place the Broncos as high as no. 2 on their preseason Top Tens, and that’s not so absurd. The Broncos return 21 of 22 starters on offense and defense, bring back a seasoned rising junior in Kellen Moore at quarterback, and have finally earned the respect and admiration of college football writers. Or at least, we’d hope so.

Returning Stars: QB Kellen Moore, RB Jeremy Avery, CB Brandyn Thompson
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Oct. 2 vs. Virginia Tech (Washington D.C.)
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Boise State silences their critics with early season wins over BCS powers Oregon State and Virginia Tech, wins another WAC title, and becomes the first mid major to compete in a BCS title game.
Worst Case Scenario: The Broncos fall to Oregon State and get embarrassed on the road at Virginia Tech, stumble vs. Nevada and/or Fresno State, and miss out on BCS bowl contention despite a slew of returning starters.

4. Iowa -- Many folks, including myself, wrote off Iowa’s 9-0 start to the 2009 season to some lucky bounces, fortunate turnovers, and inferior Big Ten conference play. After seeing the Hawkeyes dismantle and destroy the high powered Georgia Tech offense in the Orange Bowl, I realized it’s time to stop hating on the Hawkeyes. This was a damn good team and should be an even better team in '10.

Returning Stars: QB Ricky Stanzi, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Marvin McNutt
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 18 at Arizona
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Clutch quarterback Ricky Stanzi emerges as a Heisman contender in his senior season, guiding the Hawkeyes offense to a flawless season with wins in Iowa City over Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State. After holding court in those four home games, the Hawkeyes earn the respect of the voters and qualify for their first BCS title game.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Stanzi struggles to stay healthy, the offense falters without Bryan Bulaga manning the left tackle spot, and the defense can’t live up to expectations without Pat Angerer manning the middle. Iowa loses to Penn State at home early in the season, then falls to Wisconsin and Ohio State in Iowa City later on.

3. Oregon -- Too high? Perhaps. But with 10 of 11 offensive starters returning from a unit that put up 36 points per game, it’s hard not to be high on the Ducks in '10. Nine starters return on defense, too. Jeremiah Masoli and Kenny Rowe will be the team leaders in a potentially epic down year for the Pac-10.

Returning Stars: QB Jeremiah Masoli, LB Kenny Rowe, RB LaMichael James
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 11 at Tennessee
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Oregon handles Tennessee in Knoxville, cruises through a light September and early October Pac-10 slate, then knocks off USC in the LA Coliseum on Halloween weekend. The Ducks win their second consecutive Pac-10 title, finish the year with a flawless record, and become the first team to represent the Pac-10 in the BCS title game since USC did it in '05.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: The Ducks struggle on the road vs. Lane Kiffin’s former team in Tennessee and on the road vs. his current one at USC, Oregon State gets the best of the Ducks at home in the Civil War, and 19 of 22 returning starters end up playing in the Holiday or Emerald Bowl in late December.

2. Ohio State -- The Big Ten hasn’t been this strong from top to bottom since the late ‘90s and Ohio State appears to be the cream of the crop. The Buckeyes got rid of that big game albatross with a convincing Rose Bowl win over Oregon and should only be tougher and smarter in '10. Terrelle Pryor, Devier Posey, and thunder n’ lightning running duo Brandon Saine and Boom Herron star on offense, while the defense brings back just about every top contributor.

Returning Stars: QB Terrelle Pryor, WR Devier Posey, LB Brian Rolle
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 11 vs. Miami
Best Case 2010 Scenario: Ohio State beats up on Miami in a rematch of the 2003 BCS title game in Columbus, wins key road games at Wisconsin and Iowa, and defends home field in the Horseshoe vs. Penn State and Michigan. The Buckeyes finish the season undefeated, go to their third BCS title game in five years, and this time, come out as victors and national champs.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Pryor reverts back to his 2009 mid-season ways, the offense struggles against top notch Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa defenses, and the Buckeyes drop another out-of-conference home game to a national power in September. The Buckeyes finish fourth in the Big Ten, play in a pre-New Year’s Day bowl game, and calls for Jim Tressell’s job start back up in Columbus.

1. Alabama -- Though the national champs are losing three All-American defenders to the NFL in Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, and Javier Arenas -- the bulk of the offense, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and superhuman wideout Julio Jones are back. LB Donta Hightower and DE Marcell Dareus are expected to take the torch from McClain, Cody, and Arenas on D, and Nick Saban’s already got his boys focused on a repeat in '10.

Returning Stars: QB Greg McElroy, RB Mark Ingram, DE Marcell Dareus
Key 2010 Out of Conference Game: Sept. 11 vs. Penn State
Best Case 2010 Scenario: The Tide rolls over Penn State in Tuscaloosa in September, rides that momentum into the SEC regular season slate, and wins key conference home games vs. Florida and Ole Miss. The Tide then wins its third straight vs. LSU, takes down Auburn, and captures its second consecutive SEC and BCS titles.
Worst Case 2010 Scenario: Alabama’s defense struggles out of the gates without McClain and Cody up the middle, losing at home to a Penn State ground game anchored by senior Evan Royster and center Stefen Wisniewski, then drops a pair of conference road games in Knoxville and Baton Rouge. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson fail to live up to the hype and the Tide end up playing in the Music City Bowl vs. an ACC also-ran on Christmas Eve.

“Way Too Early” BCS Bowl Projections:

National Title Game: Alabama vs. Iowa
Rose Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Sugar Bowl: Florida vs. Nebraska
Fiesta Bowl: Boise State vs. Texas
Orange Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. North Carolina

The Rest of the Top 25:

11. Georgia Tech
12. Penn State
13. TCU
14. Virginia Tech
15. Wisconsin
16. California
17. LSU
18. Miami
19. Oklahoma
20. Houston
21. Oregon State
22. Utah
23. Florida State
24. Georgia
25. USC
Tagged: Florida State, Virginia, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Boise State, Western Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, California, Oregon State, USC, Oregon, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Houston, Utah, Florida International

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