2011 College Football Predictions: Who Starts Fall in Top 25?
Now that the 2010 college football season is officially behind us, it's time to step back and relax for a bit.
Since the new season is still such a long way off, we should take some time to look back and reminisce about the season that was. We should enjoy all of the other great sports that are still going on right now, like college basketball, and especially the NFL Playoffs.
Or, we should forget all that, and instead jump right into thinking about who's going to be back next year, who the best new recruits will be and how things are going to shake down this coming fall when all the pageantry and excitement of college football is finally back in all its glory.
Option two, it is, then.
25) Mississippi State
The Bulldogs ended their season on a high note, with a win in the regular season finale against rival Ole Miss, and a 52-14 blowout of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
They should be able to carry over enough positive vibes to crack the top 25 in 2011 and should bring back seven starters each on offense and defense. Coach Dan Mullen seems to be building something good here for the long haul.
Although they lose a few of their top linemen and linebackers, they bring in 4-star recruit Jermaine Whitehead, who projects to be a solid receiving threat.
It's a new era in Gainesville, as coach Urban Meyer stepped down (for real this time), and the Gators brought in former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to replace him.
One of his first big moves was to hire Charlie Weis away from the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs to be his offensive coordinator. With strong names on both sides of the ball, there figures to be a quick reloading process at Florida, and they should again be a competitive team in the SEC East.
They also lucked out with Janoris Jenkins, who had projected as a possible first round pick, decided to stay in school, keeping Florida's secondary strong. They won't compete for a national title again just yet, but give them another year or two, and that might change.
23) Arizona State
Not one of your usual suspects, Arizona State makes the cut because of the promising signs they showed down the stretch in 2010. They also bring back almost all of their starters on both offense and defense.
Their offense was already ranked 15th in the nation in passing, and 28th in scoring, so defense is what let them down the most in going just 6-6 this past year. But two of their losses were by just one point, and those games were at Wisconsin and at USC, so they were better than their record would suggest.
Their top recruit is also Gionni Paul, a linebacker who should be able to help fortify their run defense.
22) West Virginia
The Mountaineers defense gave up just 13.5 points per game in 2010, good for third in the country, but they'll lose eight starters from that lineup, so the key for them will be plugging those holes with guys who can fit into the system.
The good news, though, is that quarterback Geno Smith continues to mature, and now he'll be able to work with Dana Holgorsen, who joins West Virginia from Oklahoma State, to improve his efficiency even more. Holgorsen will take over as the offensive coordinator in 2011 and the head coach in 2012.
That means one more season with Bill Stewart at the helm, who should be able to lead his charges through the still weak Big East season relatively unscathed.
I know this pick is a bit of a stretch, but I'm trying to give some love to the non-traditional schools.
Utah has won 10 or more games five of the last eight years, including the last three in a row. Yeah, their season ended with a bit of a thud this year, as they lost three of their last five after starting the season 8-0, but they should still be a good team.
The Utes' 47th ranked passing offense should improve, with quarterback Jordan Wynn and top receiver DeVonte Christopher both due to return in 2011. Yes, they'll have to deal with a more rigorous conference schedule, but even with the increased competition courtesy of them joining the new Pac-12, they'll scare a lot of teams.
What? Auburn? Here? At 20? Blasphemy!
Well, not really, now that two major departures that had been widely speculated have been made official. Cam Newton and Nick Fairley are both forgoing their senior seasons with the Tigers to enter the NFL Draft.
Nobody can really blame either of them. Neither Newton nor Fairley's draft stock will get any higher with another year of seasoning. Newton won the Heisman and Fairley won the Lombardi Award, and both just won the National Title. What else do either of them have to prove in college? Plus, of course, there's always the specter of further NCAA investigations that Newton is wise to wash his hands of.
Those two won't be the only departures Gene Chizik and crew will have to endure. Much of the offensive line and a number of defensive starters are gone, too. So, sorry Tiger faithful. I can't in good conscience put them much higher than this.
19) Notre Dame
I've toyed with the idea of placing the Fighting Irish even higher than this, and they very well could eventually prove themselves worthy of the Notre Dame legacy.
Until they actually do, though, I'm faced with the sobering reality that the Irish have traditionally fallen well short of expectations in most recent years and have just one 10-win season since 2003.
But they did show signs of improvement down the stretch in 2010, finishing 7-2 after starting just 1-3. And they got good news the other day when star wideout Michael Floyd announced that he's returning to South Bend for his senior season.
Coach Brian Kelly may just have things back on track, and all Irish eyes will certainly be smiling on that.
18) Ohio State
Ohio State is another team that would be higher under different circumstances.
A 12-1 team that finished 2010 ranked fifth in the nation, their circumstances are the fact that star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas have all been suspended for the first five games of next season by the NCAA, after it was determined that they sold various trophies and other items improperly.
That's a major blow to the Buckeyes, who will face tough tests in those five games, including matchups at Miami and against Michigan State. It will also probably take at least another game or two for the players to get back up to full speed, and by then it may be too late.
Ohio State fans, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
17) Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech didn't look so hot as this season came to a close, bowing to Stanford in an unceremonious 40-12 pounding in the Orange Bowl.
But all is not doom and gloom in Blacksburg, as the Hokies still had a strong season, running through their ACC conference schedule undefeated. And looking towards 2011, their schedule is far from daunting.
They do lose talent on offense, including quarterback Tyrod Taylor. But their offensive line remains largely intact, which should allow them to insert Logan Thomas without missing too much of a beat. And a defense that ranked 26th in the country in points against should allow them to be competitive in most games.
Goodbye, Big 12. Hello, Big 10!
The Huskers might at first glance be happy to be rid of traditionally fearsome foes like Oklahoma and Texas, but they face a difficult first season in their new conference, with road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan.
Luckily for them, they're well equipped to traverse such a minefield, with a system that produced the nation's 9th ranked rushing offense and 9th ranked scoring defense generally allowing Nebraska to control the ball and stay in games, regardless of the opponent.
They're down in the low teens because when it counted last season, they lost three of their last four, and they lose star defensive back Prince Amukamara to the NFL.
You can't do things much better than the Horned Frogs have recently, with five seasons of 11-plus wins in the last six years, and nary a regular season loss in sight since November 6, 2008 (against Utah).
They capped that run off with an impressive upset win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl this year to finish a perfect 13-0. They didn't get a chance at an official national title, but you know fans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area aren't letting that little detail get in the way of their celebrations.
Unfortunately, they get hammered by a bevy of losses, from quarterback, to wide receiver, to linemen. The upside is that they still have coach Gary Patterson leading the charge, and they've finally built the kind of reputation for themselves that top recruiting classes are built on.
14) Michigan State
How quickly dreams can be shattered. Michigan State was riding high, with an 11-1 record and a top 10 ranking, but reality hit hard in a 49-7 drubbing at the hands of Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Ok, enough of that, on to the positive: quarterback Kirk Cousins returns, as well as the effective running back tandem of Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. It'll be more difficult now as a threat that teams will see coming, rather than the spunky upstart, but coach Mark Dantonio wants this challenge.
Now he has it.
The Badgers will go into 2011 as a bit of an enigma.
Their departures are not insignificant, including quarterback Scott Tolzien, Outland winner Gabe Carimi and J.J. Watt, their super defensive end. Replacing the holes those luminaries will leave is no small task.
On the other hand, they're a system team that can work well despite large turnover, and running back James White should be able to handle shouldering an increased offensive load.
With Ohio State weakened by suspension, and Michigan State appearing to have seen their own shadow a bit, look for Wisconsin to again be the team to beat in the Big 10.
They suffered an upset loss to Iowa in the Insight Bowl, and they'll lose quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who figures to be a high first round pick in the NFL Draft.
At the same time, though, every other offensive starter figures to return, and the Tigers actually have a pretty deep pool of potential replacement for Gabbert to choose from.
In addition, a defense that gave up just a shade over 16 points per game in 2010 will be able to keep them in a lot of games, even if they score less. Missouri is my sleeper team to sneak into the top 10.
Others have put Arkansas higher on their lists, and they will continue to be a difficult test for any foe.
Ryan Mallet's departure, however, will be a big blow for the offense to recover from, as the Hogs ranked 4th in the nation with 333.7 passing yards per game in 2010. They'll have to lean even more heavily on the running of Knile Davis, whose 2010 average of 6.5 yards per rush figures to take a hit as defenses load up more heavily to stop him.
Things are going in the right direction in Fayetteville, though, and the players buy into coach Bobby Petrino's system. They also boast a pair of top notch offensive line recruits, Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers. Soon enough, the school might legitimately be able to claim that they're more known for football than basketball.
10) Texas A&M
The Aggies have become kind of a chic pick among prognosticators heading into 2011.
Much of this owes to their terrific stretch run in 2010, when they ripped off six straight W's, including morale boosting triumphs over Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. But the wind came out of the sails with a loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl.
Nevertheless, quarterback Ryan Tannehill seems poised to step into a full-time starting role, and though Butkus Award winner Von Miller departs, most of the starters on both offense and defense will return, leading to a more experienced and confident group of players taking the field in the fall.
If there was ever a time for A&M to get back to their winning ways of the early 90's, this is that time.
9) Oklahoma State
Hopes are sky high for the Cowboys, after an 11-2 2010 season that was by far their best season in a generation.
The reason for the optimism is the fact that the team's best two offensive players, quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, both decided to stay in school, forgoing the NFL Draft for one more year. The team already boasted the second-ranked passing offense, and third-ranked scoring offense, in all of college football last year, so the sky is the limit.
They easily could have won both of the games they lost this past year, to Nebraska and Oklahoma, and they should have extra confidence and resolve knowing the weapons they feature. They'll have to make up for losing offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, and the attack will rely even more heavily on Weeden's arm with tailback Kendall Hunter no longer around, but their top recruit, running back Herschel Sims, is a 4-star athlete who may just be able to fill that hole nicely.
8) South Carolina
Despite the disappointing finish, the Gamecocks took a major step forward for their program in 2010, winning the SEC East and tallying big wins against conference rivals Georgia, Alabama (knocking them from number one) and Florida.
They also return much of their offense intact, including quarterback Stephen Garcia, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and star running back Marcus Lattimore. In his sixth season at the helm, coach Steve Spurrier's system finally seems to be taking root and reaping rewards.
South Carolina is also buoyed by playing in the relatively less daunting SEC East, where they should be able to defend their first place finish.
Cardinal fans far and wide rejoiced when they heard the news that broke last week of BMOC Andrew Luck's decision to turn his back on being the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft, and keep his rocket arm at Stanford for one more season.
That decision keeps Stanford in the top 10, even with the loss of head coach Jim Harbaugh up Highway 101 to the 49ers. They will have other departures to deal with as well, including three fifths of the offensive line, and well-liked two-way player Owen Marecic.
With offensive coordinator David Shaw taking over the head coaching duties, Harbaugh's system should be able to remain in place and any transitional loss of traction should be minimized. Shaw is well liked in the locker room and already has the ear of his players.
The Heisman Watch has already begun.
Yes, they lost three games in 2010, and tumbled from the lofty heights they reached a year earlier, but more than anything, Alabama suffered simply from the rigors of the SEC. In dismantling Michigan State 49-7 in the Captial One Bowl, they reached 10 wins for the third straight year and served notice that they're not going away.
Well, some of them are. Quarterback Greg McElroy's college career is over, and the Tide was rocked by the (not unexpected) departures of defensive end Marcel Darius, wide receiver Julio Jones and former Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram, all of whom are declaring for the NFL Draft after their junior seasons, and all of whom figure to be first round draft picks.
In the end, though, Nick Saban's team is capable of reloading instead of rebuilding, and Alabama boasts one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. They may not start as number one again, but they'll be in the picture all the same.
5) Florida State
A bold pick, for sure, Florida State looks to recapture the Seminole spirit of days gone by.
The school won at least 10 games, and finished in the top 5, for 14 straight seasons, from 1987 through 2000, but they had become borderline irrelevant of late, finishing out of the top 25 three of the last four seasons until this one, the first under new head coach Jimbo Fisher.
The turnaround was dramatic, as Florida State won the ACC Atlantic division, and defeated South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to cap their first 10 win season since 2003. And they have the structure and the players in place to take another step forward in 2011.
The Seminoles are a young team that will bring back most of its starters, and almost all of its impact players. They also welcome safety Karlos Williams to Tallahassee next year, who will bolster the secondary for a team that already finished 20th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up less than 20 points per game.
Bobby Bowden may not have liked the way the transition was handled, but it is looking like it was the right move for Florida State.
They would've dropped a few slots if head coach Les Miles had acted on his flirtation with Michigan, but now that he's officially back in the fold (he just signed a new seven-year contract extension), LSU should remain a force in the SEC, and in the national scene, for the foreseeable future.
This is going to be a stellar team in 2011, featuring a core offense that will be virtually unchanged from 2010, and a recruiting class that is second to none. Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson and offensive tackle La'El Collins, both 5-star recruits, should be especially helpful.
If they have an Achillies' heel, it may just be their schedule. In addition to the usual SEC West gauntlet, they face a season opening showdown against National Championship runner-up Oregon, at Cowboys Stadium.
3) Boise State
Yes, that's right, non-BCS conference haters. I'm putting the Broncos, garish uniforms, silly looking field and all, right up here at number three.
They stumbled at Nevada, but for all intents and purposes, they should have won that game (we still love you, Kyle Brotzman). And the fact that they've finished the season with either zero or one losses seven times in the last nine years speaks to the fact that head coach Chris Petersen (who turned town overtures from Stanford to head to the Bay Area) has built a sustainable system here, not just a freakishly talented collection of players.
Stepping up to the Mountain West should help their strength of schedule, and quarterback Kellen Moore will be back in Boise in 2011, making another run at a Heisman.
They'll have to tread carefully, as just like this year, one misstep will ruin their BCS dreams, but they should again be firing on all cylinders.
That has to be the worst way to lose a National Championship that I've ever seen. I know, I know, it was the right call, but there's no way anyone can tell me that play was in the spirit of the game. Maybe Auburn still gets into field goal range and wins even without the tackle-that-wasn't, but wouldn't it have been far more exciting if they had actually had to earn it?
Ok, rant over. Oregon should do a better job than Auburn of staying relevant in 2011, because their key players will still be on campus. Heisman finalist LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas will once again be the dynamic duo that leads as explosive an offensive attack as there is in the country, an offense that led the nation in scoring at 47 points per game.
Yes, their veteran offensive line will have some attrition, and both of their top receiving targets will have to be replaced as well, but Chip Kelly's system should work well in the new Pac-12.
The only question is, as we saw earlier this week, will it be able to work outside of the comfort zone of their conference?
Not a surprise pick, Oklahoma looks, at this admittedly very early stage, to be the team to beat as we turn the page towards next season.
The Sooners have failed to win at least 11 games only twice since the year 2000, and after a down year in 2009 due to the since departed Sam Bradford's injury woes, things look bright again in Norman. Oklahoma boasts yet another potential Heisman candidate at quarterback, as Landry Jones leads an offense that got a boost from wide receiver Ryan Broyles' decision to bring his astounding 131 receptions from last year back to school.
Plus, the defection of Nebraska will remove one traditional hurdle from the Sooners' schedule. Will we see them on top come January 9th, 2012 in New Orleans? We have a year to find out.
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