As 2010 draws to a close, it's time to make some 2011 predictions. After all, there's nothing we love more than to look ahead and try to figure out just what's going to happen in the sports world in the future.
Teams change every year. Some teams make the leap from bad to good, others from good to great. Still more teams go from being great to good, or good to terrible over the course of a season. Figuring out who to watch, who to follow, and who's next in line is one of sports' greatest mysteries.
Which is why we're bringing you this list. These 25 teams are going to be the ones to watch. They can fall into one of several different categories. Some of them have developed young talent that's ready to blossom; others have made massive changes to their rosters; and there are even a couple who could potentially switch home cities. All of these predictions relate to the 2011 season, or in the cases of the NFL, NBA and NHL, the 2011-2012 season.
But, no matter what, you can rest assured that these teams will be the ones worth watching in the coming year.
What Has Changed
Never before has an NFL team been uprooted by someone other than the owner, but the Jags could see it happen to them next season. After all, the NFL hates when a team gets blacked out as frequently as the Jags do, and they have little to no patience for it.
Why You'll Watch
This has little or nothing to do with the product on the field (although, if the Jags find some wideouts, and defensive help in the draft, they could make some noise). For those who don't know Jacksonville's plight, this is a pretty solid team trapped in a city that seems not to care about them in any way. No NFL market has had more local games blacked out than Jacksonville, and fans are seldom tuning in and watching when the team is on T.V.
In other words, you'll watch the Jags to see whether the NFL decides it's time to move them to a new city; are they the first team since the Browns to be uprooted and re-planted somewhere? Perhaps Los Angeles?
What Has Changed: Potentially, quite a bit. This will be a very different team in 2011, one way or another. For one thing, all the rumblings coming out of the NFL are hinting that perhaps the Metrodome's collapse coupled with the Vikes' lease running out after the 2011 season could mean the team could bolt for Los Angeles.
Then, there's the quarterback situation. And by "situation", we mean they have no idea what the situation is. Will Brett Favre be back? Will the Vikes stick with Joe Webb? Will they draft a Ryan Mallett-type player?
Why You'll Watch: Because, if it is the team's last season in Minnesota, you could see a riot in a state where the fans adore their sports teams. And because no matter who's at quarterback, things will be either really good (given the talent around the quarterback) or really bad (given the inexperience of the potential passers).
What Has Changed: Most of the lineup. After all, this team has done some serious shuffling since the end of the 2010 season. Super slugging first baseman (and the face of the franchise) Adrian Gonzalez is gone, and has been replaced by a cast of young players poised to make a big impact on the 2011 season. The pitching staff is loaded, and the lineup has plenty of young talent (Kyle Blanks, Will Venable, Cameron Maybin, Everth Cabrera) that could make them a legitimate playoff contender come 2011.
Why You'll Watch: To see one of baseball's youngest and most potential laden teams attempt to get over the hump they couldn't hurdle in 2010. These guys have the talent to make some big noise in 2011; they just need the chance to show what they can do.
What Has Changed: Well, for one thing, there's a new sheriff in Gainesville. That would be former Texas"Head coach in waiting" Will Muschamp, who's bringing a whole new style to the Gators talented team. The players will be a year older, and a year wiser, and you can bet that there's no way the Swamp plays host to another 7-5 team in 2011.
Why You'll Watch: Because the combination of a strong recruiting class (ranked fourth on ESPN.com), and a great coach mean the Gators aren't going to stay down for long.
What Has Changed: All of a sudden, this team seems to look like they know what they're doing. Sure, the offense has sputtered in recent weeks, but Colt McCoy looks the part of an NFL quarterback, and that's better than they've had since they returned to the shores of Lake Erie. The Browns feel like all they need are two or three pieces, and they're in areas (corners, wide receivers) where the draft is deep.
Why You'll Watch: To see the Browns make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and with a record better than 9-7 for the first time since 1994. These Browns feel like they're close to figuring it out; if they do, they'll make you pay attention next year.
What Has Changed: The Orioles have done quite a bit to boost a roster that could use a bit more offensive clout. They added J.J. Hardy at shortstop, and big bopping third baseman Mark Reynolds from Arizona, and didn't give up much from a deep pool of talented young arms. Their outfield is as good as anyones, and the O's have a new manager in Dave Trembley.
Why You'll Watch: Because while Baltimore's pitchers still can't hang with Boston's, they match up pretty well with just about anyone else in the division. The Oreos are poised to make noise in the AL East for the first time since 1997.
What Has Changed: The offense is still as potent as ever, meaning that the Lions can invest another high draft pick in defensive help to make them better. The defense isn't that far off right now, and they're fully capable of fixing what ails them.
Why You'll Watch: To see the most exciting Lions team since Barry Sanders retired. To see this team make the right draft moves and fix some of the leaks in their defense, then contend for the NFC North title. Even if they don't win it next year, you can bet they'll give the Packers, Bears and Vikes a run for their money.
What Has Changed: The Habs have gone from has-beens to up-and-comers in 2010. They've got a fairly young team, led by goaltender Carey Price, who has figured himself out at age 23. The Habs don't have the young offensive talent of a team like, say Colorado, but they've got plenty of great young defensemen to build around, and could easily make the leap with some help up front.
Why You'll Watch: The Canadiens have their best goalie since Patrick Roy left Montreal in Price, and if they get some offense, Habs fans could be welcoming the Cup home again for the first time since 1993.
What Has Changed: Quite a bit. This team has managed to turn into a talented young corps, led by wideout Dez Bryant and a defense that is slowly but surely figuring itself out. Once Tony Romo returns, the Cowboys will be able to address their holes in the offensive line and the secondary in a draft deep in both departments.
Why You'll Watch: Because, with Jason Garrett as head coach, this team looks more like the one peopler were expecting in 2010, rather than the one they got for the first nine weeks of the season. They've got the talent to contend, and in Garrett, they may finally have the leader capable of getting them back to the Super Bowl.
What Has Changed: The Knicks have found an identity in 2010. They're beating the teams they should beat, and hanging tough with the Eastern Conference's elite. Amar'e Stoudemire has been fantastic for them, and they have a talented young core that's learning to win. If they trade for/sign Carmelo Anthony, look out.
Why You'll Watch: Because the idea of Amar'e and Carmelo on the same team should make you start drooling. The Knicks are closer to being relevant than they have been since before Isaiah came in and screwed them up so royally. Because when it's rocking, there isn't a more intimidating venue in all of basketball than Madison Square Garden, and it's time to have a good team there again.
But, mostly, it's because the media loves touting New York teams so much, you won't have a choice but to watch.
What Has Changed: The Oilers have suddenly become one of the most entertaining teams in the NHL. They've got a young core of talented players, and their wide open style of play suits them perfectly. Sure, their goalkeeping has been an issue, but even there, they've got top prospect Devan Dubnyk learning the ropes in the NHL.
Why You'll Watch: Because this might be one of the most entertaining young teams in the NHL, and if Dubnyk gets his sea legs under him, they could be dominant. The Oilers still have growing to do, but that's why this is a projection, isn't it?
What Has Changed: The Reds may have finally managed to unjam their starting rotation, by unloading Aaron Harang, and signing veteran starter Bronson Arroyo to a fairly trade favorable contract. They've got young arms out the wazoo, and with the bats starting to blossom (Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, in particular, but Drew Stubbs and a bumper crop of middle infielders as well), the Reds are poised to stay successful for quite some time.
Why You'll Watch: To see what they do with the talented Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have so many arms, it's hard to envision where Chapman fits in their plans. But he was so good last year, you know they'll find a place for him. Plus, with shortstops and second baseman coming, the Reds look like they could finish even better than they did in 2010.
What Has Changed: The Rams are close to becoming a force in the NFC once again. Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has shown he's capable of hanging in the NFL, and a slew of talented (but currently injured) wide receivers give the offense the potential for greatness. The defense is just as young, and seem to be gaining confidence every single week.
Why You'll Watch: To see the only functional team in the NFC West, and the only one who actually deserves a playoff spot.
What Has Changed: The Brewers made a couple of big deals this offseason, and suddenly, they have a functional pitching staff for the first time in recent memory. Add that to a big bopper offense led by Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Prince Fielder, and you've got a recipe for a potential breakthrough season.
Why You'll Watch: Because Zack Greinke is in an ideal situation for him now. He's not his team's only hope (thank you Yovani Gallardo), has a consistently potent offense behind him, and isn't in New York. The Brewers will challenge the Reds and Cardinals for the NL Central title this season.
What Has Changed: Taylor Martinez will be a year older and more mature. So will Bo Pelini, we hope. The Huskers were formidable with a young team in 2010, imagine what they'll do with another year of experience under their belts.
Why You'll Watch: The Cornhuskers are in the Big Ten now, and they're already one of the favorites to win the conference. With such a talented team, Nebraska's got the chance to contend for the national title again next year.
What Has Changed: For the first time since Curtis Joseph manned the pipes, and Ty Domi was lighting up opponents, there is hope in Toronto. They're not good yet, but they've got a talented young team that's getting it's growing pains out of the way now. The Leafs need some pieces still (mostly defensemen) but for the first time in almost a decade, they're close enough to make the jump next season.
Why You'll Watch: Because hockey is a religion in Toronto, and if this team is any good, which they should be, the fans will show you how devout they really are.
What Has Changed: The Chiefs surprised everyone with a fast start to 2010. While they're not a lock to make the playoffs this year, they could easily snag a spot with a few smart moves in 2011. They've got the offense more or less dialed in (lots of Jamaal Charles), and with a couple defensive additions, they'll be ready to go.
Why You'll Watch: This team is one of the NFL's youngest, and they've got the talent on the roster to make serious noise in 2011, even if they can't do much in the 2010 postseason.
What Has Changed: Nothing. And that's just what the Buckeyes need. With Terrelle Pryor almost living up to his potential this season, he could get there in 2011. And the Buckeyes were somewhat young this season, meaning they'll be downright terrifying next year. A top two ranking is all but assured.
Why You'll Watch: Because this team is good. They had a bad loss to Wisconsin in 2010, but in 2011, it's a whole new ballgame in Columbus. The Buckeyes have the talent to take home that crystal football next season.
What Has Changed: The Bulls have emerged as one of the best young teams in the NBA this season. They've got weapons galore, they're deep, and hungry. They may lack the experience to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy in 2010-2011, but with another year of experience (and a healthy Joakim Noah), this team will make the leap next year.
Why You'll Watch: Because the Bulls could contend for the Eastern Conference crown this year, and next year, they'll be one of the favorites to do it again.
What Has Changed: The Bucs emerged as the most promising up-and-comer in the NFL in 2010. They probably won't make the playoffs this year, but with a strong offensive nucleus in place, and talent present (if developing) on the defensive side of the ball, Tampa Bay is thisclose to becoming a contender in the NFC once again.
Why You'll Watch: Because the Bucs are on your radar after this season, and next year, they'll be even better. Everyone will pick them to win the NFC South, and with good reason. If they get a safety and some pass rushers in the draft this year, they'll be a real force to be reckoned with.
What Has Changed: The Aves have announced themselves as the most talented crop of youngsters in the NHL. Colorado's farm system is bountiful, and this team has offensive and defensive potential coming out of it's ears. With centers Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny, the Avalanche have the kind of franchise players you can build around.
Why You'll Watch: They're already one of the most exciting teams in the NHL; with another year of seasoning, they'll be contending for the Western Conference title. With such a talented young roster, it's hard not to get excited watching them play.
What Has Changed: Nothing. And that's what needed to happen in Oklahoma City. The Thunder have the most talented young nucleus in the NBA, and are starting to play like it. Kevin Durant is a bona fide superstar, Russell Westbrook is almost one, and Jeff Green is the glue that holds it all together. Another year, and all three will have officially arrived.
Why You'll Watch: Because you've known about the Thunder for two years, and can't wait to see them hit their potential and soar. Because Kevin Durant is doing things no one thought someone with his build could do. And, mostly, because you know that the Thunder have the talent to flat out wax the Miami Heat.
What Has Changed: With one move, the Phillies went from having one of the most dominant staffs in baseball right now, to having one of the most potentially dominant starting rotations in baseball history. Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels; those four starters would be aces on any other team.
Why You'll Watch: To see just how dominant they can be. Even if the Phillies offense sputters on occasion like last year, they've got such a lockdown staff, it won't matter in the slightest. This team is poised to shoot into some rarified air as far as starting rotations go; if the offense comes along for the ride (and with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, it should), Philadelphia will be hanging another championship banner at Citizen's Bank Park.
What Has Changed: The big knocks on the Heat this season are their lack of depth, lack of a point guard, and lack of a true post player. Miami's got some contracts coming off the books next year, and they can address all of those needs.
Why You'll Watch: Even if Miami wins the NBA title this year (they won't), the Heat will still be the biggest storyline in the NBA. And with cap space to work with in 2011? Watch out for South Beach grabbing some help for Miami Thrice.
What Has Changed: Everything. With two fell swoops, the Red Sox addressed two of their biggest needs, shoring up first base, and the outfield and giving what was a ho-hum offense a much needed jolt of power. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford make the Red Sox the most balanced team in baseball.
Why You'll Watch: Because the Red Sox have the talent to run roughshod over everything outside of Philadelphia, and the World Series is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. They will improve across the board, and will be one of baseball's dominant storylines in 2011. Love them or hate them, the Red Sox will be the team to follow in the coming year.