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USC#039;s still the team to beat

Is it too early to talk about how the college football season will shape up in 2005?

Nah.

When it comes to college football in the South, the sport is as much apart of life as each breath you take.

So with baseball season firmly in play and the NBA is just waiting to give Shaq and the Miami Heat a championship ring, it's never too early to talk college football.

Spring training has concluded at all of the major college campuses, so Sports Illustrated college football writer Stewart Mandel put together the first preseason poll of the 2005 season.

Mandel decided to rank the teams based on their performance during spring drills.

Needless to say the two-time defending national champions University of Southern California Trojans are still on top.

No surprise there. Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart will be back at quarterback to guide USC to its fourth straight national title.

So you have No. 1.

Then it gets interesting.

Mandel has Mack Brown and his Texas Longhorns No. 2.

Any Big 12 or Oklahoma fan out there can tell you that No. 2 is just a pipe dream for the Longhorns. As long as Bob Stoops is coach of the Sooners, Texas will continue to be the bridesmaid of the Big 12 and the national championship scene.

Bring in the announcer's voice here.

"Representing the Southeastern Conference at No. 3, the Tennessee Volunteers."

What?

That's right SEC fans. The Vols are on top on Rocky Top. Tennessee looks to be loaded. Of course that what was written about Phillip Fulmer's crew last year and Tommy Tuberville and his Tigers were 2-of-2 in games against the Vols.

Tennessee's super freshmen quarterbacks Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer couldn't survive the first quarter of the Oct. 2 showdown at Neyland Stadium much less the remainder of the season. Ainge was knocked out for the remainder of the season with an injured collar bone, while Schaeffer later left Tennessee.

Now that means Rick Clausen will have to be the Vols' saving grace.

Scary, don't you think?

Not far behind the Vols in Mandel's poll is the No. 5 Florida Gators. At first glance you would think that to be a solid pick with Chris Leak returning at quarterback under the direction of Urban Meyer. If Meyer can find a supporting cast for Leak, this Gator club could be dangerous and a national championship contender.

So we've got Tennessee and Florida, now LSU at No. 7 and where are the defending SEC champs?

You have four players pick in the first round of the NFL draft, so there you have Auburn at No. 13.

Could be worse Tiger fans, you could be No. 17 like you were last year and couldn't find a way to knock in the door to earn a national championship game berth.

Many may think Auburn's getting slighted again, but this is the perfect place for the Tigers. Auburn was considered an underdog leading up to its date with Georgia last season, so being lucky No. 13 is a perfect place for you Tiger fans.

Speaking of the Dawgs, they are right behind the Tigers at No. 14.

And those are your SEC representatives.

Again the Crimson Tide gets left out.

Rightfully so, but we could be singing the Tide's praises if Brodie Croyle can stay healthy and Mike Shula not try to run the ball three times in a row on goal to go from the one.

And let's not forget about one Steve "I am God" Spurrier, who is back in the college game.

As long as Spurrier is coaching college football, you can never count out South Carolina anymore.

Just remember who resurrected a floundering Duke program.

Need I say anymore?

See, football never goes away. It just takes a brief vacation.

Kevin Taylor is sports editor of The Greenville Advocate. You can e-mail him at kevin.taylor@greenvilleadvocate.com or call (334) 382-3111 ext. 122.