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August 19, 2008

Tight battle for title of best linebacker

More Power Rankings: Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive linemen | Defensive linemen

The Sept. 13 showdown between Ohio State and USC won't merely match two of the best teams in the nation. It also will pit the nation's top linebackers against each other.

Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and USC's Rey Maualuga enter the season as the top two linebackers in the Rivals.com Power Rankings, which measure the nation's top players and coaches at each position.

The matchup between Laurinaitis and Maualuga will feature one of the nation's top big-game performers and the game's hardest hitter.

Laurinaitis, the most recent winner of the Butkus Award that annually is given to the nation's top linebacker, has shown a knack for delivering on the big stage. He forced two fumbles in a victory over Texas two years ago, recorded 19 tackles in a victory over Wisconsin last season and made 18 tackles in the BCS Championship Game loss to LSU.

Maulauga doesn't deliver as many tackles as Laurinaitis, but his hits are more memorable. For example, his devastating stop of UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowan is still talked about two years later.

We're introducing our preseason power rankings on a position-by-position basis. We'll continue Wednesday with the introduction of our defensive back rankings.

The rating of a player and coach can fluctuate each week during the season depending on how they fared the previous week, but the power rankings measure overall career performances as well as their most recent results.

1. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State, Sr.
The buzz: Laurinaitis' surprising decision to return to school for his senior season should allow him to post his third consecutive 100-tackle season. Laurinaitis' nose for the ball is evident from his seven career interceptions.
2. Rey Maualuga, USC, Sr.
The buzz: He still needs to work on his consistency. If that ever happens, look out. He already is the most feared player in college football. Maualuga's hardest hits are so powerful they demand repeat viewings.
3. Brandon Spikes, Florida, Jr.
The buzz: Spikes ranked second in the SEC with 131 total tackles last season and was a model of consistency. He at least shared the team lead in tackles in 11 of the Gators' 13 games. Spikes also deflected seven passes.
4. Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri, Jr.
The buzz: Weatherspoon recorded 130 tackles and eight pass breakups as a first-year starter while displaying a knack for making big plays. He forced a fumble that teammate Pig Brown returned 100 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Illinois. He deflected two Cotton Bowl passes that were intercepted by William Moore, one of which Moore returned for a touchdown.
5. Gerald McRath, Southern Miss, Jr.
The buzz: McRath has made 243 tackles over the past two seasons and was Conference USA's defensive player of the year last fall. He recorded at least 15 tackles in a game three times last season: 15 against Tennessee, 21 against UCF and 17 against Arkansas State.
6. Brian Cushing, USC, Sr.
The buzz: This third-year starter is so versatile that he spent the 2006 season as a defensive end before moving back to his natural position. He was limited much of last year with a sprained left ankle that required arthroscopic surgery after the season.
7. Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh, Sr.
The buzz: McKillop led the nation with 12.6 tackles per game as a first-year starter last season while helping Pittsburgh rank fifth in the nation in total defense. McKillop showed his big-play ability by stopping Steve Slaton on a fourth-and-3 play late in the fourth quarter of the Panthers' 13-9 upset of West Virginia.
8. Joe Mortensen, Kansas, Sr.
The buzz: This fifth-year senior has made a habit of getting into opposing backfields. Mortensen has recorded 24 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, including 15 during the Jayhawks' Orange Bowl-winning campaign a year ago. He also delivered 106 total tackles last season.
9. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest, Sr.
The buzz: This fourth-year starter returned three interceptions for touchdowns last season to tie an NCAA record for linebackers. He finished the season with a school-record 226 yards in interception returns. Curry also recorded 99 tackles last year, including 13.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
10. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina, Sr.
The buzz: South Carolina's defense wasn't the same last season after Brinkley tore a knee ligament in his fourth game. The Gamecocks allowed nearly twice as many points per game when Brinkley wasn't in the lineup. Brinkley is healthy again and should rank among the SEC's top tacklers.
11. Jonathan Casillas, Wisconsin, Sr.
The buzz: The Badgers are hoping this third-year starter picks up where he left off last season. Casillas finished a 96-tackle campaign last year by tallying four tackles for loss in an Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee.
12. Zack Follett, California, Sr.
The buzz: Follett isn't a lineman, but he still has managed to lead the Golden Bears with 5.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons. He also has 12.5 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons, even though a neck stinger has forced him to miss two games. In addition, Follett has eight career forced fumbles.
13. Tyrone McKenzie, USF, Sr.
The buzz: McKenzie has compiled 250 tackles over the past two seasons, more than any other active Division I-A player. McKenzie followed up a 129-tackle season at Iowa State by recording 121 tackles last fall in his first year at USF.
14. Clint Sintim, Virginia, Sr.
The buzz: Sintim recorded nine sacks last season and led all linebackers in sacks per game. He delivered six sacks in the Cavaliers' final four games last season, including a three-sack effort against Virginia Tech.
15. Greg Jones, Michigan State, Soph.
The buzz: The highest-ranked sophomore on our list posted 78 tackles last season to become the first Michigan State true freshman to lead the Spartans in that category since 1976. Jones' big season included a 14-tackle performance against Ohio State.
16. Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State, Sr.
The buzz: Chaney's steady performances while delivering 89 tackles last season helped Mississippi State earn its first bowl bid since 2000. Chaney has been a major contributor since his arrival on campus and is entering his third year as a starter.
17. Dannell Ellerbe, Georgia, Sr.
The buzz: The versatile Ellerbe started games at each of Georgia's three linebacker positions last season. He recorded a team-high 93 tackles and came up huge in the Bulldogs' biggest games. He had eight tackles and a forced a fumble against Florida, and he compiled eight tackles and an interception in the Sugar Bowl.
18. Clinton Snyder, Stanford, Sr.
The buzz: Snyder tallied 96 tackles, forced four fumbles and recorded eight sacks last season. He closed the year on a rush with 5.5 tackles for loss in the Cardinal's final two games.
19. Marcus Freeman, Ohio State, Sr.
The buzz: Laurinaitis justifiably gets the majority of the acclaim in Ohio State's defense, but Freeman quietly has put together a solid career. Freeman followed up a 71-tackle season as a sophomore by making 109 stops last year. He has a total of 29 tackles in the past two BCS championship games.
20. Jason Phillips, TCU, Sr.
The buzz: This fourth-year starter has made the All-Mountain West Conference team three consecutive seasons, including first-team honors each of the past two years. He has increased his tackle total each season and enters his senior year as the preseason Mountain West defensive player of the year.
21. Tray Blackmon, Auburn, Jr.
The buzz: Injuries and off-field issues have prevented Blackmon from playing a full season thus far, but he's a force whenever he gets on the field. He made a critical fumble recovery against Florida two years ago in his Auburn debut and had a 49-yard interception return against Kansas State last season.
22. Scott Lutrus, Connecticut, Soph.
The buzz: Lutrus enjoyed quite a debut season last year, as he ranked third on the team with 107 tackles and picked off four passes. Lutrus also set a school record by returning two interceptions for touchdowns last year. His performances against Louisville and USF made Lutrus the first Big East player since 1999 to be named the league's defensive player of the week in back-to-back weeks.
23. Clayton Mullins, Miami (Ohio), Sr.
The buzz: Mullins led the Mid-American Conference with 143 overall tackles and tallied a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss last year to help Miami lead the MAC in scoring defense.
24. Eric Norwood, South Carolina, Sr.
The buzz: It may seem like a leap of faith to put a first-year linebacker in our power rankings, but Norwood deserves a spot if he performs as well at his new position as he did at his old one. Norwood set a school record with 19.5 tackles for loss and also recorded 69 overall tackles at end last season.
25. Dave Philistin, Maryland, Sr.
The buzz: Philistin is the latest in a long line of standout Maryland linebackers. He had 124 tackles last fall and seems poised for another 100-tackle season as a senior.

More Power Rankings: Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive linemen | Defensive linemen

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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