It seems every pundit and preseason magazine takes a stab at predicting the best offensive and defensive units.
Sometimes it’s easy because an entire group is back, and usually includes an All-American or two and a few all-conference players. Other times it takes a bit of forecasting and feedback from coaches and opponents. What makes this even more difficult is the daily off-the-field issues that could result in a player or players being suspended, or even potential losses to injury before the season begins.
In an attempt to not be persuaded by these early predictions, I refrained from looking at any current “Best Unit” predictions. Now that I’m done it’s time to see how these prediction compare to the “experts.”
Top Offensive Backfield
Best: Alabama Crimson Tide
With Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram (5-10, 212, junior) and speedy Trent Richardson (5-11, 220, sophomore) Alabama has a talent overload at running back.
Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging more than six yards a carry during his breakout season. Ingram is the starter and will get the bulk of the carries, but Richardson is a proven commodity and the Tide coaching staff will want to get the ball in his hands regularly as well. Richardson rushed for 751 yards and scored eight touchdowns in a back-up role.
The duo also combined on 460 receiving yards and three scores.
QB Greg McElroy (6-3, 225, senior) isn’t likely to light anyone up, but he’s a game manager. His job is not to win games, but not lose them. He should do that again in 2010, which should serve Alabama well as it tries to repeat as national champs.
Runner-up: Virginia Tech Hokies
Similar to Alabama, the Hokies have two top level running backs with Ryan Williams (5-10, 211, sophomore) and Darren Evans (6-0, 218, sophomore), who returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Williams was supposed to be the backup, but all he did take advantage of the opportunity by rushing for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns, while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Williams enters 2010 as a Heisman candidate, but it will be interesting to see how many carries Evans takes away.
The Hokies also have seasoned QB Tyrod Taylor (6-1, 217, senior), who is a dual-threat. He completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,311 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also rushed for 370 yards and five scores. Virginia Tech FB Kenny Younger (6-0, 235, senior) will get limited carries, but he’ll be expected to open holes for the talented running backs.
Best: Arkansas Razorbacks
QB Ryan Mallett, a Heisman candidate, has to love the talent he has back at wide receiver as Arkansas returns its top four wide outs.
Leading the way is WR Greg Childs (6-3, 217, junior), who is the Razorbacks best deep threat. Childs had 48 catches for 894 yards—that’s right, almost 19 yards a catch—and seven touchdowns. Welcome to the Bobby Petrino offense and the strong arm of Mallett. Arkansas likes to air it out.
Rounding out this talented group is Jarius Wright (5-10, 180, junior), Joe Adams (5-11, 182, junior) and Cobi Hamilton (6-3, 209, sophomore). Wright had 41 catches for 681 yards and five touchdowns, while Adams pulled in 29 for 568 yards and seven scores. Hamilton is another big target who had 19 receptions for 347 yards and three TDs.
Don’t forget about TE D.J. Williams (senior), who was a 2008 Mackey Award semifinalist. He finished with 32 catches for 411 yards and three scores.
Runner-up: Boise State Broncos
Boise State QB Kellen Moore gets most of the credit for the Broncos’ offensive success, but Boise’s solid receiving corps shouldn’t be overlooked.
Titus Young (5-11, 168, senior) and Austin Pettis (6-3, 197, senior) return after All-WAC seasons and a combined 29 touchdowns. Pettis is athletic and a gamer. He had 63 receptions for 855 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averaged 65.8 receiving yards a game. Young is Moore’s go-to guy. He finished with 79 catches for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also had three rushing touchdowns and two on punt returns.
TE Tommy Gallarda (6-5, 254, senior) is more of a blocker, but he did pull in four touchdown catches while tallying just nine receptions in all of 2009.
Top Offensive Line
Best: Wisconsin Badgers
This choice just seems too easy. The Badgers return all five starters, along with two other linemen who have considerable playing time. RB John Clay has to love running behind this group.
OT Gabe Carimi (6-7, 315, senior) and OG John Moffitt (6-5, 323, senior) are arguably two of the best linemen in the nation after earning All-Big Ten honors in 2009. They are joined by C Peter Konz (6-5, 312, sophomore), OG Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 312, junior) and OT Josh Oglesby (6-7, 331, junior) in the starting lineup.
Don’t forget TE Lance Kendricks (6-4, 239, senior) as he rounds out the nation’s best offensive line. As a unit they helped the Badgers rush for 33 touchdowns, while permitting just 23 sacks.
Runner-up: Florida State Seminoles
Heisman Trophy candidate QB Christian Ponder hopes this group is as good as advertised. All five starters are back for a unit that has gone through some growing pains, while learning from one of the nation’s most-demanding coaches—Rick Trickett.
The group is led by All-America OG Rodney Hudson (6-2, 282, senior), who anchored a line that allowed 20 sacks and cleared the way for the Seminoles to average 4.6 yards a carry in 2009. The other starters are C Ryan McMahon (6-1, 284, senior), OG David Spurlock (6-4, 286, junior), OT Zebrie Sanders (6-6, 288, junior) and OT Andrew Datko (6-6, 303, junior) are all potential all-conference caliber players.
Hudson and McMahon have both been named to the Outland Trophy watch list for 2010. The only newcomer is tight end Beau Reliford (6-6, 253, junior).
Top Defensive Line
Best: Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa’s defensive line is anchored by DE Adrian Clayborn (6-4, 285, senior), who was recently named the top player in the Big 10 by ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg. Clayborn came up big for Iowa in last year’s Orange Bowl victory, and was a force all season. He had 11.5 sacks and forced four fumbles.
While Clayborn heads the group, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has to be confident in a group that also returns three other starters. DE Broderick Binns (6-2, 261, junior) is another strong pass rusher, while DTs Karl Klug (6-4, 270, senior) and Christian Ballard (6-5, 297, senior) plug up the middle.
Binns was recently arrested and charged for drunken driving in Iowa City, so a suspension of at least a game may be pending. But expectations are still big as he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks and a team-best nine pass breakups.
Klug is an aggressive run stopper who has a knack of getting to the quarterback. He finished with four sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Ballard made a nice adjustment last year from end to the middle and had 5.5 sacks.
Runner-up: Ohio State Buckeyes
By choosing the Buckeyes there are a number of quality lines (North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Clemson and Oklahoma) that could make a great case to be here.
The Buckeyes had one of the nation’s best defenses in 2009 and if that trend continues in 2010 it will be because of the line. DE Cameron Heyward (6-5, 288, senior) leads this talented group. He’s one of the big reasons this group came in at No. 2. Heyward’s return for his senior season is the big reason, and if he improves just a little on his 2009 numbers (6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 46 tackles) it could result in a number of postseason honors.
Ohio State was a force up front last year, allowing eight rushing touchdowns and tallying 30 sacks. DT Dexter Larimore (6-2, 310, senior) is back for his third season as a starter and he’s a solid contributor (20 tackles in 2009). Also expected to start are DT John Simon (6-2, 270, sophomore) and DE Nathan Williams (6-3, 260, junior). Simon played in 12 games as a true freshman and had 1.5 sacks. He also made ESPN’s list of “Freaks.” DL Garrett Goebel (6-5, 280, sophomore) will also see plenty of action.
Best: North Carolina Tar Heels
For now, you have to keep the UNC linebacking corps on top. What could change this is the pending/possible disciplinary action against Quan Sturdivant (6-2, 235, senior) for a marijuana charge and the unknown results of NCAA investigators asking around about agents and money.
So if everything gets cleared up, Sturdivant and Bruce Carter (6-3, 230, senior) make up the most formidable group in the country. There are very few ACC foes who thought they see these two again in 2010, as many figured they would have left for the riches of the NFL.
Sturdivant can play either inside or outside linebacker, while Carter is an outside guy. Last year, Sturdivant had 79 tackles, 12 for a loss and one sack. He also returned a fumble 49 yards for a score. Carter finished with 65 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and one sack. He also returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels are also high on Kevin Reddick (6-3, 230, sophomore), who had 45 tackles as a freshman.
Runner-up: Oregon Ducks
Suspensions and off-season woes have been hard on Oregon, but one area that seems to have come out unscathed is the linebacking corps.
Casey Matthews (6-2, 237, senior) and Spencer Paysinger (6-3, 232, senior) are both back after an outstanding 2009 season. Matthews had 81 tackles, three sacks and one interception, while Paysinger also had 81 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
The most likely newcomer in the 4-3 alignment is Josh Kaddu (6-3, 220, junior), who had 21 tackles, four for a loss and one sack.
The Ducks actually return all three starters, but Eddie Pleasant (5-11, 208, junior) has moved to safety.
Top Defensive Backfield
Best: Florida Gators
Let’s see if I have this right? Florida loses CB Joe Haden, but the Gators are still loaded in the defensive backfield.
The Gators have the best safeties in the nation in SS Ahmad Black (5-9, 189, senior) and FS Will Hill (6-1, 204, junior). Black had an impressive 70 tackles and one interception last season, while also 2.5 tackles for a loss. Hill added 42 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
On the corners will be returner Janoris Jenkins (5-11, 186, junior) and Moses Jenkins (6-2, 188, senior). It’s also possible that Jeremy Brown (5-10, 182, sophomore), Joshua Shaw (6-0, 189, freshman) or Jaylen Watkins (5-11, 180, freshman) could replace Haden. But that just shows the Gators’ depth in the defensive backfield. Janoris Jenkins was overshadowed by Haden, but he still had two interceptions and 38 tackles.
What also helps the Florida corners and safety is a devastating pass rush. If that continues this year, this unit should be the best in the country.
Runner-up: North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels defensive backs aren’t the flashiest, but these four seniors are consistent and experienced.
The unit is led by two, first-team All-ACC performers in CB Kendric Burney (5-9, 190, senior) and FS Deunta Williams (6-2, 215, senior). However, both are at the center of an NCAA investigation into possible connections to a sports agent. If either is suspended, this unit’s effectiveness drops considerably.
Both would be major losses. Burney had 52 tackles and five interceptions, while Williams had 47 tackles, six interceptions and one fumble recovery last year. Burney is also a big return player.
North Carolina’s backfield is rounded out by CB Charles Brown (5-10, 205, senior) and SS Da’Norris Searcy (6-1, 210, senior). Brown finished 2009 with 66 tackles, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Searcy added 35 tackles and one interception to go with 24 punt returns, including one for a touchdown. So far, neither Brown nor Searcy have been linked to the agent report in Chapel Hill.