The 2010 college football season ended in dramatic fashion, with the Auburn Tigers pulling out an exhilarating 22-19 victory over the Oregon Ducks in the national championship. That wasn't the only big game this past season, though. Several powerhouse teams matched up against each other in unforgettable games that constantly shifted the college football landscape.
But since we've talked the 2010 season to death, it's probably time to move on and take a look at what's in store for next season. Here's an early preview of the top 25 must-see games in 2011.
What better way to start the 2011 college football season than with a matchup between two of the nation's top teams? Oregon returns LaMichael James and Darron Thomas in what promises to be another high-powered offense, while LSU welcomes a top recruiting class to an already stacked roster. This showdown will take place at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Broncos should have gone undefeated last season, losing only to lowly Nevada 34-31 in overtime. Their path to a possible BCS National Championship will have to go through Georgia in 2011, a team that is on the upswing with 18 promising incoming recruits. Since quarterback Kellen Moore is returning, the Broncos will be very tough to beat. Both of these teams have a lot to prove in just the first week of the season.
The Horned Frogs went undefeated last season, and even with quarterback Andy Dalton going pro, they're still one of the best teams that don't play in a BCS conference. TCU is aching for a shot at the national championship, but they'll need to beat good non-conference opponents to get there. Texas Tech should be a good test for them.
The Gators gave the Crimson Tide their first loss of the season in 2008. Then Alabama returned the favor in 2009, and again in 2010, dominating 31-6. Alabama returns many of its top players and should be early favorites for the SEC title. But Florida has one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, led by Jeff Driskel, and should be able to keep this game close on its home turf.
In one of the premier out-of-conference games all year, the Cornhuskers meet the Badgers. Nebraska returns Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead, while Wisconsin returns quarterback Scott Tolzien as well as running backs James White, John Clay and Montee Ball. These two very experienced teams will look for a statement win before beginning the conference schedule.
Texas opens its conference schedule at Oklahoma, a team that is expected to be a serious contender for a national title with superstar Landry Jones at quarterback. The Sooners topped the Longhorns 28-20 in a close game, but Texas has won four of the last six meetings. The Longhorns will have to win this one if they want a legitimate shot at the Big 12 South title.
Florida may not be the best college football team in the state anymore (Florida State and Miami can both lay claim to that honor), but the Gators are still a force to be reckoned with in the SEC. Last season the Tigers came to Florida and won a closely fought game, 33-29, and now the Gators will have the opportunity to return the favor on LSU's home field.
Michigan did not beat its cross-state rival in Rich Rodriguez's three years as head coach. But Rodriguez is gone and Denard Robinson is back, meaning the Wolverines could finally have a chance to get the monkey off their backs. They were thoroughly humiliated in a 34-17 loss to the Spartans on their home field, and then lost four of their next six games. If Michigan wants national respect, it'll have to beat Michigan State this time around.
Florida concludes its brutal three-week stretch against the top teams in the country with a matchup against the defending national champion, Auburn. These two teams haven't played each other in a while, so it will be interesting to see how they match up with Cam Newton expected to be gone and the Gators on the comeback trail.
Wisconsin's only regular season loss last year came against Michigan State, falling 34-24 to open conference play. The Badgers return most of their offense (which topped 70 points three times in 2010), but so do the Spartans with both quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker expected back. These are the two best teams in the Big Ten, and whoever wins may go on to clinch the conference title.
In a matchup between the yellow Tigers and the blue Tigers, who will win? Auburn handed LSU its first loss of the season last year, 24-17. LSU should have a better chance this time around playing at home, and with Auburn double-threat Cam Newton going pro. But LSU will also be playing without Patrick Peterson, one of the best college cornerbacks since maybe Charles Woodson. Anything's possible in this one.
The Razorbacks will say goodbye to quarterback Ryan Mallett, but they have some very talented potential replacements in Tyler Wilson. Arkansas is still a dangerous team and they pummeled the Rebels 38-24 last season. Ole Miss, meanwhile, is a slowly improving team that has a chance to make some noise in the SEC with a victory against Arkansas.
The Trojans won eight straight games in the series with Notre Dame before finally succumbing to fate and losing to the Irish, 20-16. USC will have a shot at redemption in 2011 and is in a good position to win with 26 highly touted incoming freshmen. The Trojans may need to save their energy for the next game on this list, though.
Andrew Luck will be back in a Cardinals uniform next season, but so will running back Stepfan Taylor. Stanford has to be one of the favorites for the national championship, but the recently downtrodden Trojans gave them a serious game last year, narrowly losing 37-35. USC welcomes a terrific rookie class, including top prospect George Famar, so this should be an interesting rematch.
Wisconsin took care of the Buckeyes, 31-18, last season, and will be favored in this rematch. But Ohio State is not a team to be taken likely, especially with one of the nation's top incoming recruiting classes. The big question is how long will it take Terrelle Pryor and company to reintegrate themselves into the Buckeyes offense after their five-game suspension?
The Spartans face off against the Cornhuskers in Nebraska's first major test as a Big Ten team. Michigan State failed in its attempt to be recognized as a Top 10 national team with its blowout 49-7 loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, but it could have a second opportunity here by beating former Big 12 powerhouse Nebraska. The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to prove that they belong in the Big Ten by beating the reigning conference champion.
The Aggies return one of the most solid teams in college football, and they beat the Sooners convincingly 33-19 last year. But Oklahoma brings in an incredible 18 recruits next season, including six of the top 150 prospects. Oklahoma is also the defending Big 12 champion, so there is much to prove for both sides here.
Only one team was good enough to beat Stanford last season, and that was the Oregon Ducks. The high-powered Oregon offense rolled over the Cardinals for a surprisingly easy 52-31 victory. Neither of these teams will look much different in 2011, so it may be a bit of a stretch to expect a different result. But maybe home-field advantage and the best quarterback in the country will be enough to keep the game close.
These two long-time rivals face off in a rare Thursday night game to close out the season again. The Longhorns fell to the Aggies, 24-17, in 2010 but they won 49-39 in 2009 and dominated 49-9 in 2008. Texas has fallen off the college football map a little bit after a 2-6 record in the Big 12, but it could make a big statement by defeating Texas A&M. The Longhorns will have to figure out a way to stop Cyrus Gray and Ryan Tannehill first.
The Oklahoma rivalry will write another chapter, but the Cowboys may finally have the upper hand over perennial powerhouse Oklahoma. The Sooners beat Oklahoma State, 47-41, last season, but the Cowboys return all-star quarterback Brandon Weeden and a talented defense. There's not much separating the reigning Big 12 co-champs.
Stanford beat Notre Dame 37-14 in 2010, but second-year head coach Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish have just a little bit of mojo after ending the season on a high note. Could that be enough to power Notre Dame over one of the nation's top teams?
The Rebels and Bulldogs face off once again to close out the season. Mississippi State is one of college football's great under-the-radar teams. The only teams the Bulldogs lost to last season were Auburn, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, beating Florida, Ole Miss (31-23) and Michigan. The Bulldogs are a team to be reckoned with, but they will need to take care of rival Ole Miss to seriously contend in the SEC.
These two long-time rivals finish off their 2011 season against each other, again. The Seminoles trampled the Gators last season, 31-7, but Florida beat its crosstown rivals 37-10 in 2009. Florida State is expected to be one of the top teams in the nation with the second-ranked recruiting class, but Florida isn't very far behind. The two teams welcome 16 of the top 150 prospects in the country next season, so there will be plenty of fresh blood to be spilled in this rematch.
This used to be one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports before the Wolverines hired Rich Rodriguez and forgot how to win. Michigan has lost six straight in the series and were cut up, 37-7, last season, but with Brady Hoke as the Wolverines new head coach, they will look to finally turn things around.
This game should be extra important for the Buckeyes too, who will likely need a win in Ann Arbor to get a shot at a BCS berth. Ohio State will be without quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron and wide receiver DeVier Posey for the first five games of the season, so it will need to finish strong.
Hard to imagine a better way to finish off the the 2011 college football season. These two fierce rivals aren't just the favorites to win the SEC; they're among the favorites to win the whole thing. Auburn just barely scraped by Alabama, 28-27, to clinch the No. 1 ranking and a BCS berth this season, but can the Tigers do it again without Cam Newton?
The Crimson Tide lost running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones to the NFL, but running back Trent Richardson is more than capable of filling the void. Both of these schools have highly ranked recruiting classes and both need to win this game to make it to a BCS bowl. But only one team can win. Who will it be?