College Football Top 25: A Very Premature Look at The Top 25 Teams For 2011

David Fidler Correspondent IJanuary 17, 2011

College Football Top 25: A Very Premature Look at The Top 25 Teams For 2011

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    2011 looks to be another good year for the SEC. That is hardly a surprise, as the boys from the deep south have won the national championship five years in a row.

    However, despite the loss of Nebraska and Colorado, the Big 12 will look to challenge the SEC for next season's most competitive conference.

    Meanwhile, the ACC looks to be up from last season, while the Big Ten and Pac-10 look to be decidedly down in their first years of two divisions.

    The Big East and the Mountain West are in something of a state of flux, and the surprise conference of the year might be Conference USA.

    Of course, with competition comes very good teams knocking each other off. In the end, the two best teams are not always the teams that compete for the national title. The two best teams with the best records typically vie for the crystal football.

    That said, top 25 lists are a tricky business. Are they based on who is the best team? Are they based on who projects to have the best record? Is it based on how one thinks the list will end up, or how one thinks it should be at any point in time? Is there some combination of all of these criteria?

    In my case, I tried to take all of it into consideration.

    Obviously, this is complicated by the fact that a lot can and will change between now and late August, let alone between August and December. With so many players declaring for the NFL draft—53—quite a bit has changed in the last few weeks.

    Nevertheless, as of now, Jan. 17, 2011, this is how I see it.

A Bit Of Clarification

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    * means the player was first team all-conference.

    *** means the player was consensus All-American.

    # means the player left school with eligibility remaining.

    Only players that started at least four games were considered returning "starters." In effect, some teams had more than 11 actual "starters" on either side of the ball.

    Meanwhile, some players that saw considerable action during the season, but never actually "started" games, were not considered.

On The Outside Looking in (In No Particular Order)

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    Utah Utes: In their first year in an AQ-conference, the Utes will be bringing back seven on offense and five on defense. They skip Oregon in conference, but they have both Pitt and BYU on the road, out-of-conference.

    More than anything else, I'm hesitant in overrating the Utes until seeing how they react to an AQ schedule. How they do react, for better or worse, in their first AQ season might say a great deal regarding non-AQ teams.

     

    Auburn Tigers: It comes down to this: Is third-year coach Gene Chizik at a point where he can simply reload after losing seven on D, and six on O? This number includes a Heisman winner and two other All-Americans. Furthermore, can he do it in an SEC West that is going to be stacked in 2011?

    If you think he can, then you believe Auburn should be ranked. I don't think he is there yet.

     

    Wisconsin Badgers: The loss of QB Scott Tolzien will hurt the Badgers more than most think. The loss of DE J.J. Watt will hurt the Badgers as much as most think.

    Couple all of that with the loss of Lance Kendricks and the losses on the line, and I am a bit doubtful where it concerns Bret Bielema's bunch. Competitive, yes, but I think there will be a number of losses in there.

     

    West Virginia Mountaineers: The offense should still be strong. However, with only four starters returning from 2010's top-ranked Big East scoring defense, expect the Mountaineers to let up a lot more points.

     

    Florida Gators: If Urban Meyer were coming back, I'd have them in the top 20. However, you just don't replace a coach of his caliber.

    Moreover, the transition from Meyer's offense to a pro style could be bumpy.

     

    Iowa Hawkeyes: There is a lot more talent on this team than many think. Moreover, the Hawks, for whatever reason, do better when not under the spotlight.

    Nonetheless, after this season's letdown, Iowa will once again have to prove that they belong in the top 25.

     

    Tulsa Golden Hurricane: There is definitely plenty of talent returning on this team—10 on offense, nine on defense. However, there is one key element that will not be there, and that is coach Todd Graham.

    On top of that, Tulsa has a murderous out-of-conference schedule, and will need to improve on a pass defense that was ranked dead last in the country.

     

    Miami (Ohio) Redhawks: The cradle of college coaches will now look to bring up a new coach in former-MSU offensive coordinator, Don Treadwell.

    With eight offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning, the pieces are in place for a solid run. I am just always hesitant where it concerns a new head coach.

    The good news is that Don Treadwell's offense isn't that different from former coach Mike Haywood's.

     

    Michigan State Spartans: In 2010, MSU went 11-2. However, they did it with an extremely soft schedule, a fair amount of lucky bounces, and two losses that went for a combined score of 13-86. Is Sparty for real? They will have to answer that question this year.

    Moreover, they will have to do it without uber-linebacker Greg Jones and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell. They will also have to rebuild their O-line.

     

    Northwestern Wildcats: With the Big Ten West something of an open race, the Cats have nine returning offensive players and seven returning on D.

    The problem is NU has the tendency to win one game a year they shouldn't, and lose at least one game a year that they should win. If the Wildcats are to be contenders this year, they can't drop games to lesser opponents.

    Furthermore, last season's seven-win Cats did so with the help of a very soft schedule. They won't get so lucky this season.

    A first-week out-of-conference matchup at Boston College, as well as a very tough first month of Big Ten play, will test their mettle early.

25. Clemson Tigers

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    Record This Season: 6-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Kyle Parker QB#, Jamie Harper RB#, Chris Hairston OT*, Da'Quan Bowers DE***#, Jarvis Jenkins DT*, Marcus Gilchrest CB, Byron Maxwell CB, DeAndre McDaniel SS*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the ACC has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/17: Auburn, TBA: Florida State, at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech, at NC State, 11/26: At South Carolina

     

    Biggest Questions: In 2010, Clemson had an extremely disappointing season. With so many returning starters, if they have an equally disappointing season in 2011, head coach Dabo Swinney will be squarely on the hot seat.

    Losing Kyle Parker to a baseball career will hurt. However, as his efficiency rating was second-to-last of all starting ACC quarterbacks, it remains to be seen how difficult he will be to replace.

    The Tigers will have to rebuild their secondary. Losing Bowers early, as well as Jenkins, means the line will need a good deal of retooling.

    In the end, the Tigers didn't lose much, but what they lost was huge. Early departures hurt Clemson as much as any team in FBS football.

    Outside of FSU, all of Clemson's toughest in-conference opponents will be on the road.

24. Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Dion Lewis RB#, Henry Hynoski FB#, Jonathan Baldwin WR*#, Jason Pinkston OT*, Alex Karabin C, Dan Hutchins K/P*, Jabaal Sheard DE*, Ricky Gary CB, Dom DeCicco SS*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the Big East has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/17: At Iowa, 09/24: Notre Dame, 10/15: Utah, TBA: Connecticut, Syracuse, at West Virginia

     

    Biggest Questions: New coach, new system, new questions.

    Personnel-wise, Pitt shouldn't have to make too many huge changes. However, philosophy-wise and implementation-wise, the changes are substantial.

    The offense will have to go from a "slow," execution-heavy, pro-style to an up-tempo, speed-heavy, hurry-up offense.

    Todd Graham is not known as a developer of defensive-minded football teams. His 2010 Tulsa Golden Hurricane team was ranked dead-last nationally in pass defense.

    Next year's Panther defense will be extremely senior-heavy—all but two of the projected starters are seniors. Graham will need to keep the Big East's second-ranked scoring defense moving forward.

    Early NFL draftees Lewis and Hynoski are replaceable. Baldwin isn't.

    A tough out-of-conference schedule will not make Graham's first few weeks easy.

23. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Record This Season: 11-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Six

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Ten

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Kendall Hunter RB***, Dan Bailey K*, Chris Donaldson DT, Shane Jarka DT, Ugo Chinasa DE, Orie Lemon MLB*, Justin Gent WLB, Andrew McGee CB*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: Arizona, 09/17: At Tulsa, 09/24: At Texas A&M, 10/15: At Texas, 10/22: At Missouri, 11/26: Oklahoma

     

    Biggest Questions: The offense didn't lose much, but losing Hunter is substantial. Sophomores-to-be Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will need to step up in a big way.

    The Cowboys will undergo a major rebuilding project with the defensive front seven. That is saying quite a bit for a defense that wasn't terribly impressive to begin with. They ranked sixth in the conference in scoring D, and second-to-last in passing defense.

    However, they will have to rebuild quickly, as the Cowboys have arguably the toughest in-conference schedule in what looks to be an extremely competitive Big 12 in 2011.

22. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Record This Season: 7-6

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Evan Royster RB, Brett Brackett HB, Doug Klopacz C, Stephan Wisniewski OG*, Lou Eliades OL, Colin Wagner K, Ollie Ogbu DT, Chris Colasanti MLB, Bani Gbadyu OLB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: Alabama, 10/08: Iowa, 10/29: Illinois, 11/12: Nebraska, 11/19: At Ohio State, 11/26: At Wisconsin

     

    Biggest Questions: The offensive line will need major retooling. Of course, as the line has been something of a mess for the last two seasons, it remains to be seen how much further it could fall.

    Although Evan Royster has faced his share of criticism, he is still the all-time leading rusher at the university that has produced Larry Johnson, Franco Harris, and John Cappelletti. He will not be easy to replace.

    The Rob Bolden situation could be a big problem for PSU. If he doesn't start, I think a Matt McGloin-led Penn State has an eight-win ceiling.

    Furthermore, assuming he stays for the long haul, I worry that it could turn into a Zach Mills-Michael Robinson situation. That is, the better player will wait in the wings while the upperclassman flounders in mediocrity.  

    Finally, the Penn State defense let up an average of more than 20 points a game for the first time since 2003. This proud unit will have to rebound against a schedule that is decidedly backloaded.

21. SMU Mustangs

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    Record This Season: 7-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: 10

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Aldrick Robinson WR*, Matt Szymanski K/P, Youri Yenga SLB, Pete Fleps BUCK, Sterling Moore CB, Bennie Thomas CB


    Key Dates on Schedule (Conference USA has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/03: At Texas A&M, 10/01: At TCU, TBA: UTEP, at Tulsa and possible games against UCF and Southern Miss

     

    Biggest Questions: Last season, Conference USA's second-best defense failed to show up in their marquee matchups against Texas Tech and TCU.

    This season, in order to be taken seriously, they will have to beat at least one of their out-of-conference marquee matchups, as well as win what should be a very strong Conference USA.

    More than anything else, the Mustangs were killed last season by a minus-.86 turnover margin. This was 112th in the country. Flip that over, and SMU would have easily had 10 wins. That should be goal No. 1 this year.

    With Yenga and Fleps gone, there will be a substantial dearth of experience in the linebacking corps.

20. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Record This Season: 9-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Five

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Patrick DiMarco TE, Jarriel King OT, Garret Chisolm OG, Hutch Eckerson OT, Spencer Lanning K/P, Ladi Ajiboye DT, Cliff Matthews DE, Josh Dickerson MLB, Tony Straughter WLB, Chris Culliver CB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: At Georgia, 10/01: Auburn, 10/08: Kentucky, 10/15: At Mississippi State, 10/29: At Tennessee, 11/05: At Arkansas, 11/12: Florida, 11/26: Clemson

     

    Biggest Questions: While the offensive skill position players might be the best in the conference—lofty praise indeed—the line will have to be reworked.

    It remains to be seen how impressive QB Garcia, RB Lattimore, and WR Alshon Jeffery will be if the front five doesn't come together.

    The Gamecocks had the third-best rushing defense in the SEC. Now, they will have to replace four of their front seven.

    October will be a monster for USC. After two tough home games, they will be on the road for three straight conference dates (with one bye week).

19. Texas Longhorns

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    Record This Season: 5-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Justin Tucker handled kicking and punting duties and will be returning.


    Key Players Lost: James Kirkendoll WR, Greg Smith TE, Britt Mitchell OT, Kyle Hix OT, Michael Huey OG, Sam Acho DE*, Eddie Jones BUCK (LB), Chykie Brown CB, Curtis Brown CB, Aaron Williams NB#

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: BYU. 09/17: At UCLA. 10/08: The Red River Shootout vs Oklahoma, 10/15: Oklahoma State, 11/12: At Mizzou. 11/24: At Texas A&M.

     

    Biggest Questions: 2010 was, by far, Mack Brown's worst season at Texas. It was the first time a Brown-coached Texas hasn't made a bowl, and it was the first time since 2000 that the Longhorns haven't won at least 10 games.

    As such, Texas isn't used to this sort of adversity. It remains to be seen how they will respond.

    Offensive coordinator Greg Davis has "resigned." Moreover, the offensive line will be in rebuilding mode. How the Horns' offense bounces back from all this will play a large part in determining their fate in 2011.

    With Aaron Williams' departure, the Longhorns are now without any experienced cornerbacks. Expect that to put a lot of pressure on their two senior safeties.

18. TCU Horned Frogs

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    Record This Season: 13-0

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Five

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Five

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Andy Dalton QB*, Jeremy Kerley WR, Jimmy Young WR, Evan Frosch TE, Marcus Cannon OT*, Jake Kirkpatrick C*, Josh Vernon OG, Zach Roth OT, Kelly Griffin NT, Cory Grant DT, Wayne Daniels DE*, Jason Teague CB, Colin Jones SS, Tejay Johnson FS***, Alex Ibiloye WS

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the MWC has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/03: At Baylor, 09/10: Texas Tech, TBA: Boise State, at Air Force, at San Diego State

     

    Biggest Questions: Gary Patterson will have his work cut out for him this season. The most obvious issue is at quarterback, where sophomore Casey Paschall will look to replace Mountain West offensive player of the year Andy Dalton.

    However, the real work will lie with the line, which will need major reworking. If Patterson can restructure this group, then the offense should be fine.

    The same is true on the defensive side of the ball, as the line loses three up front. Complicating the matter, the secondary will also need major restructuring.

17. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Record This Season: 9-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter


    Key Players Lost: Owen Spencer WR, Jarvis Williams WR, Jake Vermiglio OT, Josh Czajkowski K, Natanu Mageo DT, David Akinniyi DE, Nate Irving MLB*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the ACC has not released 2011 schedules yet): TBA: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, at Boston College, at Florida State

     

    Biggest Questions: Though NC State is a pass-first team, they need a consistent running game. Last year's Wolfpack had the second-to-last ranked rushing game in the ACC. They also let up the most sacks in the conference.

    With four linemen and their starting back returning, that will have to turn improve.

    Moreover, three of their top five pass catchers are gone.

16. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Record This Season: 6-6

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Nine

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: 11

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither


    Key Players Lost: Kerry Taylor WR, Saia Falahola DT, Lawrence Guy DT#, Thomas Weber K, Trevor Hankins P

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: Missouri, 09/17: At Illinois, 09/24: Southern Cal, 10/08: At Utah, 10/15: At Oregon, 11/05: At UCLA, 11/19: Arizona

     

    Biggest Questions: The Sun Devils had the third-best scoring offense in the Pac-10. That is third-best behind Oregon and Stanford, so that's pretty good. They also had the fifth-best scoring defense.

    They had and did enough to win more than six games, so what gives? More than anything else, it was turnovers. ASU was second-to-last in conference in turnover margin. They also missed a number of key field goals that led to three losses of three points or less.

    All the pieces are in place for this team. Now, after the last three disappointing years, head coach Dennis Erickson has to prove he can make this team a contender.

    A deceptively tough out-of-conference schedule, as well as a daunting in-conference road slate, won't make it easy.

15. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Record This Season: 9-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Kicker

     

    Key Players Lost: Patrick Hanrahan FB, Derek Sherod OT*, J.C. Brignone C, Pernell McPhee DE*, Emmanuel Gatling SLB, Chris White MLB*, K.J. Wright WLB, Heath Hutchins P

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: At Auburn, 09/17: LSU, 10/01: At Georgia, 10/15: South Carolina, 10/12: Alabama, 10/19: At Arkansas, 10/26: Ole Miss

     

    Biggest Questions: There will be some slight reshuffling on the offensive line, but the majority of the most important pieces from the O return. However, they will need to do better than 10th-ranked scoring offense in the conference.

    The biggest questions are at linebacker, where all three starters have to be replaced. All indications are that 2011's starters have been penciled in. Nevertheless, depth and experience are an issue.

14. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Record This Season: 6-7

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Shaun Chapas FB, Kris Durham WR, A.J. Green WR#, Chris Davis OL, Clint Boling OG*, Josh Davis OT, Demarcus Dobbs DE, Akeem Dent ILB, Darryl Gamble OLB, Justin Houston ILB*#

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/03: Boise State at the Georgia Dome, 09/10: South Carolina, 10/01: Mississippi State, 10/29: Florida in Jacksonville, 11/12: Auburn, 11/26: At Georgia Tech

     

    Biggest Questions: Georgia's offensive line had a decent amount of experience the last couple of years, and they still didn't field a 1,000-yard rusher. This season, the offensive line will need to be rebuilt, and it will have to produce immediately.

    Losing A.J. Green will hurt tremendously. With him and Durham gone, the Dawgs lose their top two pass catchers.

    Linebacker is a huge issue. There is returning experience, but is there enough talent to replace Houston and Dent?

    This season, the SEC East is wide open. UGA has to take advantage of that. If they don't, it is unlikely that head coach Mark Richt will be in Athens in 2012.

13. Missouri Tigers

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    Record This Season: 10-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Six

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Kicker

     

    Key Players Lost: Tim Barnes C*, Blaine Gabbert QB#, Aldon Smith DE*#, Andrew Gachkar SLB, Kevin Rutland CB, Jerrell Harrison FS, Matt Grabner P

     

    Key Dates on Schedule:  09/03: Miami (OH), 10/22: Oklahoma State, 10/29: At Texas A&M, 11/12: Texas.

     

    Biggest Questions: The Tigers will have to rebuild their secondary.

    Also, with Nebraska gone and arguably the softest schedule of any of the Big 12's top teams, the pressure is on Gary Pinkel.

    The Tigers have everything in their favor. After 40 wins over the last four seasons and no conference championships to show for it, this is the year they have to win the Big 12.

    Anything less will be a disappointment.

    Losing Gabbert is a big blow. However, whoever steps in for him will have plenty of experience around him.

12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Record This Season: 8-5

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Nine

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Armando Allen RB, Kyle Rudolph TE#, Chris Stewart OG, David Ruffer K, Ian Williams NT, Kerry Neal OLB, Darrin Walls CB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: At Michigan, 09/17: Michigan State, 10/22: Southern Cal, 11/12: Maryland (at Fed Ex Field), 11/26: At Stanford

     

    Biggest Questions: The Irish have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. Junior-to-be Cierre Wood came on at the end of 2010. In just over 100 carries, he led the team with 522 yards. He will be expected to step up in 2011. 

    In the end, it comes down to this: Notre Dame has the talent. They have always had as much talent as any team in the country.

    This season, they've got the experience. In year two of Brian Kelly's tenure, the Irish will be expected to deliver. Less than nine wins will be a letdown.


11. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Record This Season: 10-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither


    Key Players Lost: Roy Helu IB, Niles Paul WR, Keith Williams OG, Ricky Henry OG*, D.J. Jones OT, Pierre Allen DE*, Eric Hagg NB*, Prince Amukamara CB***, Rickey Thenarse SS, DeJon Gomes FS

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/17: Washington, 10/01: At Wisconsin, 10/08: Ohio State, 10/29: Michigan State, 10/12: At Penn State, 10/19: At Michigan, 10/26: Iowa

     

    Biggest Questions: The Huskers will have to overhaul their offensive line. It remains to be seen just how much magic true sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez can come up with if he is running for his life.

    Complicating that, Nebraska doesn't pass much—109th nationally in passing attempts—but when they do, they need a big-play receiver. At the moment, they don't appear to have any.

    Furthermore, one of 2010's best secondaries will also need a substantial facelift.

    Over the last four seasons, Alex Henery has made 89.4 percent of his field goals. He hasn't missed an extra point since 2008.

    He has been the punter for the last two seasons and averaged 42.25 yards per punt. Think Nebraska won't miss him?

    Finally, it is evident that the Big Ten chose to throw the works at Nebraska in their first year in the conference.

10. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Four

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight (four would-be starters will be suspended for five games)

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Brandon Saine TB, Dane Sanzenbacher WR*, Justin Boren OG*, Bryant Browning OG, Devin Barclay K, Cameron Heyward DE*, Dexter Larimore DT, Ross Homan WLB*, Brian Rolle MLB*, Chimdi Chekwa CB*, Devin Torrence CB, Jermale Hines FS*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/17: At Miami (FL), 10/01: Michigan State, 10/08: At Nebraska, 10/15: At Illinois, 10/29: Wisconsin, 11/19: Penn State, 11/26: At Michigan

     

    Biggest Questions: The suspensions are going to put the OSU offense behind the eight ball. 

    The time they will miss will not only leave the offense shorthanded for five games; it will also mean that the O will never really have a chance to develop chemistry and cohesion with one unit.

    The first three games of the Big Ten season see the Bucks playing Michigan State, and then at Nebraska and Illinois. The suspended players will miss MSU. They might be rusty for the Huskers and Illini. If OSU can get over that early bump, they should be fine for the rest of the season.

    On top of that, the Bucks only return four players from the Big Ten's best defense. OSU reloads on defense, so that's not too big an issue. Still, with the offensive woes the team is likely to have, the defense will have to be lights out from the first snap.

9. Florida State Seminoles

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    Record This Season: 10-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Eight

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Christian Ponder QB, Rodney Hudson OG***, Ryan McMahon C, Markus White DE, Mister Alexander SLB, Kendall Smith MLB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the ACC has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/17: Oklahoma, TBA: Maryland, Miami (FL), NC State, at Clemson, 11/26: At Florida

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback E.J. Emanuel has looked solid as Christian Ponder's backup. Now, it will be time for him to step into the spotlight.

    Also, the line will need a bit of retooling, as the loss of Rodney Hudson is more substantial than it looks.

    More notably, FSU will have to develop some linebackers quickly.

8. Brigham Young Cougars

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    Record This Season: 7-6

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Six

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: 10

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Jason Speredon OG, Mitch Payne K, Vic So'oto DE*, Shane Hunter MLB, Brian Logan CB, Brandon Bradley CB, Andrew Rich KAT (hybrid safety)*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/03: At Ole Miss, 09/10: At Texas, 09/17: Utah, 10/15: At Oregon State

     

    Biggest Questions: In their first year playing as an independent, the Cougars face a fairly easy slate.

    Their schedule is front loaded with their toughest games mostly coming in September. In effect, a defense that will have a rebuilt secondary, and will be missing a few players up front, will be tested early.

    On top of that, sophomore-to-be quarterback Jake Heaps will have to step up. Though he improved as the season went on, he never looked particularly sharp against any of the better teams on the Cougars' 2010 schedule.

7. Oregon Ducks

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    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Five

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: D.J. Davis WR, Jeff Maehle WR*, Bo Thran OL, Jordan Holmes C*, C.E. Kaiser OG, Brandon Blair DT, Zac Clark DT, Kenny Rowe DE, Casey Matthews MLB*, Spencer Paysinger WLB, Talmadge Jackson CB*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/03: LSU at Cowboys Stadium, 09/24: At Arizona, 10/15: Arizona State, 11/05: At Washington, 11/12: At Stanford, 11/19: Southern Cal, 11/26: Oregon State

     

    Biggest Questions: The Ducks lost their top two receivers, and will also require a slight rebuilding project on the offensive line. However, it is safe to say the offense will still be very effective.

    On the other hand, the defense will undergo a massive reworking. Due to the strength and flashiness of the Ducks' O, people forget that they also had the 14th-ranked scoring defense in the country.

    That is a tremendous feat for a team that ranked 104th in time-of-possession.

    With five of the 2010 front seven gone, expect that output to fall. If it doesn't fall precipitously, then the D will have to be considered a success.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Record This Season: 9-4

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Eight

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: 10

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Matt Allen C, Lucas Patterson DE, Von Miller LB***, Michael Hodges ILB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/03: SMU, 09/24: Oklahoma St, 10/01: Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium, 10/29: Mizzou, 11/05: At Oklahoma, 11/24: Texas.

     

    Biggest Questions: It's easy to see eight starters returning on defense and get excited.

    However, losing Michael Hodges and especially Butkus Award-winning linebacker Von Miller will be huge projects for coach Mike Sherman.

    The rest of the returning starters will be expected to rise to the occasion while their replacements learn the ropes. 

    Moreover, with those losses, the third-ranked scoring defense in the Big 12 might slip a little. It will be up to the seventh-ranked scoring offense to increase their production, especially early in the season.



5. Boise State Broncos

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Record This Season: 12-1

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Punter

     

    Key Players Lost: Austin Pettis WR*, Titus Young WR*, Tommy Gallarda TE, Will Lawrence OG, Matt Slater OT, Kyle Brotzman K, Ryan Winterswyck DE*, Brandyn Thompson CB, Jeron Johnson SS*, Winston Venable NB/LB*

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the MWC has not released 2011 schedules yet): 09/03: Georgia at the Georgia Dome, 09/24: Tulsa, 10/08: At Fresno State, TBA: Air Force, at TCU

     

    Biggest Questions: Replacing Young and Pettis will be no small task. The two have been the Broncos' leading receivers for the past two seasons.

    Furthermore, the offensive line will need a bit of reshuffling, while the secondary will need to be rebuilt.

    Finally, while changing from the WAC to the MWC shouldn't be that big an adjustment, it is still a change. As usual, for BSU, it's undefeated or bust.

4. Lousiana State Tigers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Record This Season: 11-2

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Nine

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Stevan Ridley RB#, Terrence Toliver WR, Joseph Barksdale OT, Josh Jasper K***, Lezarius Levinston DT, Drake Nevis DT*, Kelvin Sheppard MLB*, Patrick Peterson CB***#, Derek Helton P

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/03: Oregon in Arlington, Texas, 09/15: At Mississippi State, 09/24: At West Virginia, 10/08: Florida, 10/15: At Tennessee, 10/22: Auburn, 11/05: At Alabama, 11/26: Arkansas

     

    Biggest Questions: The defensive graduations leave some questions as to whether LSU will be soft up the middle.

    Moreover, the Tigers had the lowest ranked passing offense in the SEC. That will have to improve.

    Losing Peterson might hurt the return game more than it does the defense.

    Also, over the last two years, when Les Miles hasn't bumbled the play clock in the last few minutes of the game, LSU has had a knack for winning the close ones. A new kicker might reverse that trend.

    Finally, as if their SEC schedule wasn't enough, adding a neutral date against Oregon and an away game vs. WVU means there will be no rest on the Bayou.

3. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Record This Season: 11-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: Seven

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Six

     

    Specialists Returning: Neither

     

    Key Players Lost: Tyrod Taylor QB*, Darren Evans RB#, Ryan Williams RB#, Kenny Younger FB, Andre Smith TE, Beau Warren C, Chris Hazley K*, John Graves DT, Steven Friday DE, Rashad Carmichael CB, Davon Morgan ROV (S/LB-hybrid), Brian Saunders P

     

    Key Dates on Schedule (the ACC has not released 2011 schedules yet): TBA: Clemson, Miami (FL), at Georgia Tech

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been under center for the Hokies for three years.

    This season, VT was the top scoring offense in the ACC. Despite all Frank Beamer and his team have done over the last five years, this was his first top-ranked offense since 2005. Taylor was a huge part of that. He will not be easy to replace.

    The new quarterback's job will not be made any easier by the early departure of Williams and Evans. However, junior David Wilson should jump right into a starting spot at running back.

    On top of that, the defensive line will need a bit of retuning. However, most of the top players from the ACC's second-ranked scoring defense still remain in place to go against an extremely soft schedule.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Record This Season: 10-3

     

    Starters Returning on Defense: 10

     

    Starters Returning on Offense: Seven

     

    Specialists Returning: Both

     

    Key Players Lost: Greg McElroy QB, Mark Ingram RB#, Julio Jones WR*#, James Carpenter OT, Marcell Dareus DE#, Chavis Williams SLB

     

    Key Dates on Schedule: 09/10: At Penn State, 09/24: Arkansas, 10/01: At Florida, 11/05: LSU, 11/12: At Mississippi State, 11/26: At Auburn

     

    Biggest Questions: Quarterback, quarterback, and quarterback.

    If the Tide figure that out, this might be as talented and deep a team as Nick Saban has ever coached. And that's saying something.

1. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Record This Season: 12-2 


    Starters Returning On Defense: Nine 


    Starters Returning On Offense: Nine 


    Specialists Returning: Both 

     

    Key Players Lost: DeMarco Murray RB*, Eric Mensik OT*, Jeremy Beal DE*, Adrian Taylor DT, Quinton Carter FS ***


    Key Dates On The Schedule: 09/17: At Florida State. 10/08: The Red River Shootout vs Texas. 10/22: Texas A&M. 11/26: At Oklahoma State.  


    Biggest Questions: Put simply, the Sooners didn't lose much, but what they did lose will be hard to replace. Almost all of the departed players are either all-conference or All-American.

    Running back DeMarco Murray had 336 touches this season: 257 carries, 69 catches, and 10 kick returns. His backup, Mossis Madu, is also gone.

    Bob Stoops will have to find a way to fill that substantial void.