College football season is finally here, but who are the teams to watch as they battle for a chance to play in Glendale on Jan. 10? Reigning champ Alabama is on the short list of true favorites, but who else is on the list? This is a brief look at the Crimson Tide and 20 other teams dreaming of playing for a championship, and whether these teams have a real shot to win it all.
Alabama might not be the best team in the SEC or even its own division, let alone the nation. Still, the Tide have a lot working in their favor. Penn State is breaking in a freshman quarterback and likely won't be more than an 8 or 9 win team at best. Bama gets Florida at home early in the season, hopefully before Gator QB John Brantley finds his groove in the offense. Unfortunately, the Tide's two toughest games come back-to-back, as Bama travels to Arkansas before playing the Gators. They won't win both, but 11-1 heading into the SEC title game for a rematch with Florida is a likely scenario.
The Razorbacks are a popular sleeper pick to upset Alabama in the SEC West. Their Sept. 25 showdown isn't getting nearly enough preseason hype. While Arkansas doesn't have the chops to run the table in the SEC, they do have enough firepower to upset the Crimson Tide. QB Ryan Mallett has an entire ACE Hardware store of tools at his disposal, but with games at Georgia and Auburn, along with Bama and LSU at home, the Hogs will stumble at least once, and likely more. Even if Arkansas beats Bama, don't expect them to win the division without some help.
It's been well-documented that this is basically a one or possibly two game season for the Broncos. Beat Virginia Tech on Labor Day, and Boise is poised to roll its way into the BCS title game if another contender or two slips up. Oregon St. won't be an easy game, but the Smurf Turf makes the Broncos nearly unbeatable. QB Kellen Moore is a legit Heisman candidate, and a statement win over the Hokies makes Boise St. a very real threat to win a championship.
Even at #4, Florida seems to be flying under the radar. Life after Tebow may have its ups and downs, but with John Brantley under center, the offense should be more explosive than it ever was with Tebow. The Gators have to replace all kinds of talent, but when was the last time that was in issue for Urban Meyer? Both lines should be dominant, allowing all the other athletes to make plays on both sides of the ball. Don't be surprised if Florida loses at Bama early in the season, but repays the favor with a beating in Atlanta. By November, this could be the best team in the country.
Someone has to win the ACC's Atlantic Division, and the Noles miss Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, beatdowns at the hands of Oklahoma and Florida, as well as a loss at Miami, will keep Florida State far away from the BCS title game. The Seminoles could surprise and upset Virginia Tech or Miami and grab an Orange Bowl berth, but their national title hopes will be dashed by halftime on Sept. 11.
This is a severely underrated team with an easy early schedule to give the Bulldogs plenty of momentum heading into the showdown with Florida on Oct. 30. The Gators are better, but if Georgia pulls off the upset, they could easily be 10-0 before playing at Auburn and Georgia Tech at home. Georgia is probably a top-10 team, but unless they beat Florida, a BCS bowl is out of reach.
Verdict: Contender, but unfortunately likely to be left out of the BCS picture entirely with more than one loss.
A brutal November schedule featuring Virginia Tech, Miami, and Georgia should quickly end any title dreams the Jackets may have after a likely 8-0 start. Still, Tech could win the Coastal division with an upset over the Hokies or Canes. However, the defense is suspect again and there aren't enough playmakers on either side of the ball.
The Hawkeyes will once again be a force defensively. And the offense, led by QB Ricky Stanzi and RB Jewel Hampton, has enough firepower to contend again for a Big Ten title. The key will be a brutal four game stretch in October, featuring Penn State, Michigan on the road, and Wisconsin and Michigan State at home. Win all four, and a BCS bowl is on the horizon no matter what happens against Ohio State. It's not out of the question that Iowa goes 11-1, but the Big Ten is loaded at the top and potentially deeper than it's been in years. 10-2 or even 9-3 with a disappointing loss to Penn State or one of the Michigan teams is more likely.
The Hurricanes have a hellish schedule even with UNC about to be decimated by the NCAA. September road trips to Ohio State and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks will end any championship hopes for the Canes. Miami is talented enough to win the ACC and gets its toughest conference games at home, but there are just too many tough teams on the schedule to expect anything less than 3 losses.
If things click on offense for the Cornhuskers, Nebraska has a two game season. The Huskers should be favored in every game but Texas and the Big 12 Championship. The defense is there to carry them to a BCS bowl, and the offense has enough talent to upset Texas if Nebraska can find a playmaker at quarterback. This is a very dangerous team, but it will have to go undefeated to even sniff the BCS title game.
Verdict: Contender, but like Georgia, there's no room for error at all.
Boy, has the hype machine gotten a hold of the Buckeyes this year. This isn't even one of Tressel's most talented teams, but the half of the media not ready to give the Heisman and the BCS title to Ingram and Alabama is just waiting to hand them to Pryor and Ohio State. Penn State and Michigan won't provide the challenges that have derailed the Bucks in the past, so it will be up to Iowa and Wisconsin to play spoiler. Miami will be a tough game, but if Team Sweatervest wins, 11-1 sounds about right with a loss at Wisconsin or at Iowa.
Another team that should be ranked several spots higher, the Sooners are loaded enough to blow away everyone on the schedule, including Texas. Landry Jones has a season under his belt, RB DeMarco Murray is a Heisman sleeper, and the rest of the team is every bit as talented as it was two years ago. At Baylor is sneaky tough, but Oklahoma should be back to being Oklahoma and roll through the Big 12. Whoever wins the Red River Shootout has an inside track to the BCS title game, even if Boise knocks off Virginia Tech.
The schedule isn't bad, and the talent is definitely there for the Ducks to repeat as Pac-10 Champs. There are some questions on defense, and Oregon has to play at Oregon State to finish the season. This is a wide open year in the Pac-10, but the Ducks seem to be a half-step ahead of the competition. Two losses would be a solid year for Oregon, and expect the conference to be decided in the Civil War against the Beavers.
A big-time wild card this season, early games against TCU and Boise State will set the tone this fall. The Beavers may get some love from the polls if they win both, but don't have a realistic chance to run the table and challenge for the title game. More likely, Oregon State loses both games, but come into Pac-10 play battle-tested and hungry. James and Jacquizz Rodgers are dangerous enough to upset Oregon and steal the conference title.
The Panthers are more talented than every team on the schedule save Miami, and the Canes have to play at Pitt. The road opener at Utah will be tricky, but Pitt has the chops to go 11-1 if QB Tino Sunseri is halfway decent. RB Dion Lewis should be on everyone's Heisman watch list, and has the ability to carry the Panthers to a Big East title. Unfortunately, unless Pitt runs the table and gets serious help, a BCS title game appearance is beyond its grasp.
TCU is absolutely good enough to crash the BCS party once again. The offense and defense are both loaded, and the schedule isn't bad. Oregon State is typically slow to start the season, so home wins against the Beavers and Baylor sets things up nicely for a pseudo-MWC title game at Utah on Nov. 6. TCU is in a similar situation to Pitt; solid team with a chance to win 11+, but the Big East and Mountain West aren't the SEC and Big 12. 12-0 gets them into a BCS bowl, but no more unless the other contenders all falter.
Verdict: Pretender, but TCU might be a top-5 team. The Frogs just won't get a shot to be anything more.
Texas may have to take its lumps for a year before it truly has a shot to win it all again. That said, anything less than 10-2 would be disappointing. Oklahoma and Nebraska are brutally tough, but the Horns can still win both. The talent is there, but everything has to go right for new QB Garrett Gilbert and co. If Texas finds the running game it has so desperately needed, watch out. 2011 is when everything should fall into place, but the pieces are there for a title shot this year if the Horns catch a few breaks.
It's a simple equation for Utah: beat Pitt and TCU, go 12-0 and make a BCS bowl. If the Utes win these two, no one else should really challenge them. However, this isn't quite the Utah of the last few years. The offense will be good, but question marks surround the defense after the teams' two leading tacklers are gone. 11 or 12 wins is a possibility, but expect 9 or 10. A BCS berth would be a huge accomplishment.
The Hokies are the class of the ACC, and they have a chance to jump into the national title race if they beat Boise State. Beat the Broncos and Va Tech will be 8-0 heading into the make-or-break part of the schedule with Georgia Tech, UNC, and Miami. The offense will be among the most potent in the country, so it will be up to an inexperienced defense to push them over the top. If the Hokies beat Boise State, this is a sleeper pick to sneak into the title game with two months for the defense to jell.
Look, the Big East stinks. There are some decent teams in Pitt, West Virginia, and UConn, and others like USF, Rutgers, and Cinci could surprise. Still, this is basically a one game season for the Big East title when the Mountaineers meet Pitt. Expect a loss to a more talented LSU team, and West Virginia has a chance to 9-1 heading into the Backyard Brawl. The defense will be good, but Pitt is a better team. Even if West Virginia wins, expect 9-3 or 10-2. Anything better is icing on the cake.
The Badgers might actually be the best team in the Big Ten. The run game will be deadly, and the passing game led by QB Scott Tolzien will be good enough to keep defenses honest. At Michigan State, at Iowa, and at Michigan will be enough to trip the Badgers up at least once even if they do beat Ohio State. If the defense clicks, Wisconsin will be scary, but there's no margin for error. A BCS at-large berth is realistic.
Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon State
Sugar: Alabama vs. Boise State
Fiesta: Texas vs. Pitt
Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Wisconsin
BCS title: Florida vs. Oklahoma