Virtually the entire offense returns for the Crimson Tide, including Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram.
Greg McElroy had his ups and downs in his first season as the starting quarterback, but he should be more consistent as a senior.
Trent Richardson will spell Ingram at tailback, and it’s not too crazy to say he may be more talented than Ingram. In fact, Ingram himself has said before that Richardson has more natural ability.
Julio Jones figures to have his best season ever with such a loaded backfield, which will force opposing defenses to play a lot of man coverage while loading the box to stop the run. He is easily one of the early favorites for the 2010 Fred Biletnikoff award.
On defense, many pieces will need to be replaced, including Terrance Cody, Javier Arenas, and Rolando McClain. D’onta Hightower figures to replace McClain at linebacker; McClain is probably the biggest loss from this year’s national championship team.
A tough departure for Alabama will be kicker Leigh Tiffin, the program’s all-time leading scorer.
As long as there is experience on offense and Nick Saban on the sidelines, any team with that situation is in great shape.
2. Ohio State
Terrelle Pryor finally validated himself with a two touchdown, 266-yard performance in the Buckeyes’ Rose Bowl victory over Oregon. After all of the criticism that, fair or not, came his way in his first two seasons in Columbus, Pryor put out most of that fire with the stellar game in Pasadena.
Brandon Saine and Daniel Herron, who rushed for 739 and 600 yards, respectively in 2009 both return next season, giving Ohio State one of the most feared backfields in the country. Inexperience plagued that unit this season, but next year it will turn into the team’s strongest link.
The Buckeyes return six starters on defense, including Cameron Heyward at defensive end. He will be the star of that side of the ball in 2010.
Ducks’ coach Chip Kelly is quickly becoming one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game. His Oregon team broke through this season with the first Pac-10 championship in eight years by a team not named USC. He returns rising sophomore phenom LaMichael James at running back, and thick-skinned Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback.
Oregon suffered a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, but leave it to Kelly to let that defeat serve as the driving force behind his team’s off-season preparation for 2010.
4. Boise State
Poor Kyle Wilson. The Broncos’ star cornerback in 2009 will be the only starter from this past year’s team not to do it again in 2010. Every other starter is back, including rising junior quarterback Kellen Moore, who finished second in the nation in passing efficiency behind only Tim Tebow.
Boise State faces Oregon State and Virginia Tech in the first month of the season, giving it all the opportunity it needs to prove to the country that it belongs in the national championship game once and for all should they go unbeaten.
This may surprise some folks, but make no mistake about it: Nebraska is back. Starting quarterback Zac Lee returns, continuing the trend set by the first four teams in this list. After nearly being benched during a midseason cold streak, Lee bounced back to finish the year strong in 2009.
A 33-0 drubbing of Pac-10 runner-up Arizona in the Holiday Bowl was proof enough that Nebraska was a force to be reckoned with. The Huskers were literally seconds away from beating two top-10 teams in 2009. They lost to Virginia Tech on the road in the final minute 16-15, then allowed a last-second field goal by Texas to lose 13-12 in the Big 12 Championship Game.
They lose all-world defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is likely to be the first player taken in April’s NFL Draft. Jared Crick will fill his shoes. Crick is a rising junior who has high expectations within the Husker community. While nobody can fill the gargantuan shoes of Suh, Crick could eventually help the memory of Suh fade if he lives up to his potential.
6. Virginia Tech
The Hokies return every skill player on offense, and they also will receive the services of running back Darren Evans, who in 2008 set the school record for rushing yards in a season by a freshman. He suffered a torn ACL in fall practice, though, setting up Ryan Williams to shatter record after record, including the mark set by Evans.
Tyrod Taylor has come a long way from the freshman scrambler whose confidence throwing the ball was comparable to the high school science fair champion asking the prom queen for a date. In 2009 he made great strides with his patience in the pocket, as well as his accuracy, and he should have his best year yet in 2010.
The defense replaces seven players with starting experience, but leave it to Bud Foster, one of the most well respected coordinators in America, to have his bunch ready to go come September.
The Tigers better live up to this projection, or there will be Bedlam in Baton Rouge. Ironically, Bedlam is the nickname given to the rivalry game at head coach Les Miles’ former school, Oklahoma State. Since arriving at LSU, Miles has won a national championship, but lost nine games in the following two seasons.
Jordan Jefferson must improve at quarterback; he was much too error-prone and never seemed to have command of the team like a starting quarterback should. That is a problem that can be solved with off-season development, but how committed Jefferson is to improving is anyone’s guess.
Russell Sheppard was a highly touted athlete in the Percy Harvin mold, but never saw significant action in 2009. The coaching staff said he was having trouble adjusting to the speed of the game mentally, and he was not ready to handle the schemes the Tigers implored. Scary note for the rest of the SEC: the Virginia Tech staff said the exact same thing about Ryan Williams during his redshirt year in 2008. You see how that turned out.
Gary Patterson has developed a mini-dynasty in Fort Worth, mostly because of great defense. Next year, however, it will be his experienced offense that will be his strongest unit. Andy Dalton will be a senior at quarterback, and for most of 2009, he was everything the Horned Frogs needed him to be: a leader and an efficient passer. Next season, his role will take a big leap, as he will be called upon to make more plays.
The defense will be solid, despite losing end Jerry Hughes, arguably the best player to come through the program since LaDanian Tomlinson. Patterson always has a respectable unit on the field, and 2010 will be no different. It could be scary to think how good they could be given the experience returning on offense.
9. North Carolina
Sleeper Alert: North Carolina may have the best defense on paper coming into next season. Quann Sturdivant, Robert Quinn, Marvin Austin, Kendrick Burney and Deunta Williams are all back for another season to play for what was already the best defense in the ACC in 2009.
They allowed an average of 15.5 points per game last season, and with most of the players returning, they should shut down most of the teams in a conference that does not lack for meek offensive attacks.
T.J. Yates will be in his fourth season as the starting quarterback after a rough 2009. He showed promise during his sophomore season before being lost to injury, then this past season he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (14).
With Greg Little back at receiver and Ryan Houston back at running back, he will have plenty of help and set up for a surprisingly strong farewell campaign in Chapel Hill.
Garrett Gilbert’s performance in the second half of the BCS National Championship Game told everyone all they needed to know about the fate of the Longhorns’ program. He shredded the nation’s best defense in Alabama for back-to-back touchdowns, nearly leading one of the most memorable comebacks in college football history.
Although Texas would have traded nothing to have had Colt McCoy healthy for the game and taken home the national title, the experience Gilbert gained from that game was invaluable.
The running game should be a strong point next season in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ zone-read attack, and with Gilbert they will have the best pure passer the Longhorns may have ever seen. Colt McCoy was an accurate short to mid-level passer, but Gilbert’s arm is twice as strong and is a much more polished quarterback at the same stages in their careers.