Although play will improve throughout the league, the ACC is still looking for that one dominant team that can contend for a national title. Just when it seemed like Virginia Tech could assume that role, it lost running back Darren Evans (1,265 yards as a freshman) to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Even with Evans on the sideline, the Hokies are still the team to beat. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor seems poised for a breakout season. The Hokies also have a typically nasty defense led by end Jason Worilds and cornerback Stephan Virgil. Virginia Tech faces Alabama (in Atlanta) and hosts Nebraska in the first three weeks of the season. How the Hokies do in those games will speak to where the conference stands. Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer is a Heisman candidate in Paul Johnson's dangerous spread-option attack. Miami finished one game back in the division last season and ought to be better this year.
Let the "Big Least" jokes commence. Without a team ranked in either the coaches poll or the Associated Press Top 25, expect even more griping from conferences like the Mountain West. So which of these teams will get the league's automatic BCS berth? It looks like Cincinnati, South Florida, Rutgers and Pittsburgh are grouped at the top, with Cincinnati getting the nod thanks to the return of quarterback Tony Pike. At Rutgers, Anthony Davis anchors one of the country's top offensive lines. West Virginia running back Noel Devine will need to improve on last season's 1,289 yards to help fans forget losing Pat White. Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt had a breakthrough season last year but has to replace his best players on both sides of the ball. South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie give the Bulls star power.
The Big Ten may struggle to put a team in the national championship game, but the competition for the conference title figures to be entertaining. Ohio State and Penn State will battle for the top spot, with both teams needing to replace a ton of talent. The Nittany Lions have a narrow edge because they have quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster, as well as a schedule that gives their newcomers time to develop and has the Buckeyes coming to Beaver Stadium. On defense, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman will lead one of the best linebacking corps in the nation. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor seems poised for a monster season, but the loss of every other skill player certainly dampens any enthusiasm.
How good is the Big 12? Since winning a national title three seasons ago, Texas has gone 32-7 and not played in a conference title game. Last season, the Longhorns beat Oklahoma, but lost to Texas Tech on the final play and had to watch the Sooners play for the national championship. And then Texas quarterback Colt McCoy finished second to Oklahoma's Sam Bradford in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Now, Texas looks poised not only to win the conference, but also to possibly get McCoy some hardware. The Longhorns will need to find a ground game, but the return of McCoy combined with a huge offensive line and an experienced group of receivers ought to compensate. Bradford was only the second sophomore to win a Heisman, but inexperience on the offensive line and at receiver might make his junior campaign a little less memorable. Also in the South, Oklahoma State boasts one of the most dazzling offenses in the nation with quarterback Zac Robinson, receiver Dez Bryant and running back Kendall Hunter.
Is this the year a team other than Southern California wins the Pac-10 outright? Don't bet on it. Pete Carroll and the Trojans will field another strong team with talent to burn. Still, there are new faces on both sides of the ball. The defense will break in a nearly entirely new front seven, though the secondary will again rank among the best in the country thanks to the safety combination of Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard. The heralded true freshman Matt Barkley beat out Aaron Corp to be the starting quarterback. California and Oregon are strong contenders to make the BCS, though each is a shade behind the Trojans in the Pac-10. Cal has the conference's best offensive player in running back Jahvid Best, but the Golden Bears have been uncharacteristically average at quarterback over the past two seasons. Oregon promoted last season's offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, to replace Mike Bellotti as the head coach. He will have plenty of talent to work with in his effort to match Bellotti's success. Jacquizz Rodgers paces a superb running game at Oregon State.
College football's premier power conference includes the defending national champion Florida as well as four other teams in The Associated Press's top 13: Alabama, Louisiana State, Georgia and Mississippi. As deep as the league is, the story will be the Gators, winners of two of the last three national championships and a favorite to repeat in 2009. Tim Tebow dominates the headlines, but linebacker Brandon Spikes leads a defense that lost only one starter from a season ago. Florida's stiffest challenge from within the East Division will come from Georgia, whose title hopes went unrealized in 2008. The Bulldogs hope less flash and more substance will yield another 10-win season and a potential BCS berth. The West is deep. Alabama enters Year 3 of the Nick Saban era looking to build upon last season's success, which included a division title and a loss to Florida in the conference title game. Ole Miss is the trendy pick in the SEC, thanks to its upset of Florida, a strong finish to last season and quarterback Jevan Snead.
The league's BCS hopes are centered on Houston and East Carolina, but both are extreme long shots. Houston has the better chance of the two, though its offense will need to outscore both Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in nonconference play, a tall order. Houston's biggest rival in the West division is Tulsa, whose deep receiver corps is the best in the conference. Damaris Johnson, for example, has the potential to lead the Golden Hurricane in both receiving and rushing. Texas-El Paso will welcome back safety Braxton Amy, who missed last season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Southern Methodist could take a big step forward in June Jones' second season.
Despite MAC teams' having four victories against Big Ten opponents last season, the chances of the conference even sniffing a BCS appearance are minuscule. Still, with five new head coaches and nine returning quarterbacks, there are plenty of story lines. The quarterback discussion starts at Central Michigan with Dan LeFevour, who can be one of the best in the nation if healthy and makes the Chippewas the favorites in the East. Nipping at their heels is Western Michigan and its quarterback, Tim Hiller, who is less heralded than LeFevour, but who led the conference with 36 touchdown passes and 3,725 yards passing last year.
No Sun Belt team has any misconception of making the big time, though a program like Troy has been known to make things difficult for bigger opponents in nonconference play. The Trojans enter the season as both the defending conference champions and the prohibitive favorite to repeat, thanks to a talented offense, led by quarterback Levi Brown, and the strongest front seven in the Sun Belt.
The only one of these teams that has any real BCS aspirations is Notre Dame, and the only thing making those aspirations possible is a schedule featuring two teams that finished in the Top 25 last season. And both those games (Michigan State and Southern California) are in South Bend. The Irish will be dangerous on offense with Jimmy Clausen.