College football season is in the early stages of its extended downtime, an unfortunate fact that I'm sure many fans are still coming to grips with. All the random bowl games have ended, even the postseason all-star games have come and gone, and now we're faced with the seemingly long wait until spring practices start up and actual football starts getting played again.
Even though the 2011 college season is still many months away, it's still never too early to start trying to project who the top 25 teams in the nation will be come opening weekend in September.
We've passed National Signing Day, so the judgments of who won and who lost in recruiting has been laid out by all the recruiting pundits. All that's left now is to size up each of the programs vying for positioning in the top 25 prior to the start of the season.
So here I'll give you what I think the top 25 would look like, if it were released today, in the middle of February. Feel free to chime in with who you think should be where, or if you feel a team was unjustly left off this list.
Blaine Gabbert's decision to head to the NFL is a tough pill for the Mizzou Tigers to swallow, but things are not all doom and gloom for a team that enjoyed a very strong season in the Big 12 a year ago. They return 17 starters (10 on offense, seven on defense) from their team of a year ago, which is a strong number. It will hurt Missouri to lose Gabbert, as well as defensive end Aldon Smith, but they have some help on the way. They are expecting big things from defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a junior college transfer. They also have another Gabbert waiting in the wings, as Blaine's brother, Tyler, will be competing for the starting quarterback gig.
They have a tough schedule in and out of the Big 12, including a non-conference road game against Arizona State. But to start the year, the Tigers deserve to be included in the nation's top 25 teams.
Arizona State is a trendy sleeper pick among many college football analysts heading into the 2011 season, despite slogging through a mediocre 6-6 season in the Pac 10 a year ago. Now, though, they head into 2011 in a new-look Pac 10, renamed the Pac 12 no less, as potential favorites to finish atop the Pac 12's South division.
The team returns 10 starters on offense, nine on defense, and in 2010 they were right there in a number of their losses. They amazingly lost four games by a combination of nine points, meaning a few breaks here and there turn in the Sun Devils' favor and their season could have been a whole lot better than 6-6.
Their toughest games will be on the road against Utah and Oregon, two conference foes, but this will be Utah's first season playing in the Pac 12. The other teams in the South portion of the conference (Arizona, Colorado, Utah, UCLA and USC) aren't world beaters themselves, and therefore ASU has a great chance to make some noise in 2011.
Year one of the Will Muschamp era won't carry huge expectations, even despite the great heights that the Florida Gators have reached in recent years under now-departed head coach Urban Meyer.
But Florida still has a lot of talent on their squad, boosted by the return to school of dynamic corner Janoris Jenkins. The Gators will have offensive guru Charlie Weis running his pro-style offense, and it will be put up or shut up time for quarterback John Brantley, the supposed heir apparent to Tebow in the swamp.
The Gators still finished at a respectable 8-5 despite having so many poor losses a year ago, and if Muschamp can rally his new troops and Weis can restore order on the offensive side of the ball, they can justify a spot in the rankings throughout the year.
Georgia had a rough go of it in 2010, finishing 6-7 and kicking up all sorts of speculation about coach Mark Richt's future at the helm of the Bulldogs. Star wide receiver A.J. Green heads out to the NFL, a tough loss for the offense, but the Bulldogs helped themselves out immensely on signing day. They landed the number one running back prospect in Isaiah Crowell, and also got junior college defensive tackle Jonathan Jenkins to pick Georgia over their bitter rivals the Florida Gators.
On top of these acquisitions, Georgia returns quarterback Aaron Murray, who had a very strong year in his first season starting under center. Their defense will be in its second year of adjusting to the 3-4, so there could be improvement ahead there despite losing Justin Houston to the NFL.
Also, their schedule on the road in the SEC is relatively light, only having to visit Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, while playing Florida in Jacksonville, a "neutral" location.
I think Georgia has a bounce back year in what's a make or break season for Mark Richt.
Texas had an extremely ugly 2010 season, and longtime head coach Mack Brown responded by basically gutting his coaching staff. He hired a new coordinator on each side of the ball, all told bringing in six brand new assistants to try and resurrect the quickly-deteriorated Longhorns program.
The key will be the quarterback play of Garrett Gilbert, who will work in the offense of former Boise State co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. If Gilbert blossoms with a young receiving and running back corps, the Longhorns could be due for a bounce-back.
A lot of pieces from the 9-4 2010 Mississippi State team will be gone, including defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, top offensive lineman Derek Sherrod, and defensive lineman Pernell McPhee. But the Bulldogs will have 14 returning starters, seven on each side of the ball, which will help them immensely as they try to re-create their strong 2010 season. The SEC schedule is always tough, and they'll have to visit Auburn, Georgia and Arkansas, but good things could remain in store for Dan Mullen's Bulldogs. They definitely warrant top 25 placement heading into the season, especially after the way their season ended in impressive fashion.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has a knack for rebuilding his program on the fly, and he'll have to do that in 2011 with the Hokies. Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor is gone, expected to be replaced by converted tight end Logan Thomas. Running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams are also gone, and the onus falls on the speedy David Wilson to make a dent in the running game.
Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule isn't as rough as it has been in years' past, and they are still one of the best teams in the ACC, if not the best. So I expect them to make another run at a 10 win season and a spot in a BCS bowl.
Nebraska will begin life in the Big Ten with an extremely tough schedule, but they still boast a talented team led by impressive quarterback Taylor Martinez. It's a big year for Martinez after a 2010 season that started high, but ended low, with him getting injured, playing poorly and seeming to lose confidence in his game.
If he gets off on the right foot, I expect Bo Pelini to coach up the newly-christened starters and replacement players on Nebraska's depth chart. Losing players like defensive back Prince Amukamara hurts, but there is still room for improvement for the Huskers.
The challenge will be facing so many strong Big Ten teams in their first year playing in the conference, as they'll take on seven teams that went to bowl games from the Big Ten a year ago. It's a trial by fire for Nebraska, but they should still start out as a top 20 team.
The Fighting Irish finished very strong a year ago, winning four straight to close out Brian Kelly's first season as head coach in South Bend. That's despite dealing with a lot of injuries to their offense, including starting quarterback Dayne Crist and star tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Notre Dame returns a lot of starters from last year's team, nine on offense and eight on defense. The biggest returnee has to be elite wide receiver Michael Floyd, who most expected to head into the draft and potentially become a first round pick.
The Irish recruited defensive line help, hoping to find the first great pass rusher to line up along Notre Dame's defensive line in quite a few years. They play nine bowl teams from 2010, so it will be tough going for Notre Dame, but they have the talent in place to make a run at a BCS bowl this year.
South Carolina had a rough ending to its season, losing badly in both the SEC title game and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But the Gamecocks still have a ton of talent on offense, with play making running back Marcus Lattimore at the forefront of the attack. Stephen Garcia will need to pick things up at quarterback, but South Carolina also enjoyed a strong recruiting class (and they're still waiting on the decision of prized recruit Jadeveon Clowney, said to be weighing the Gamecocks).
It adds up to what should be another solid year for Steve Spurrier's team, although things in the SEC are never easy. And the South Carolina schedule is a tough one, but the East division of the conference is still lacking in a big powerhouse team. So they could find themselves in the SEC title game yet again this year.
Replacing the big arm of quarterback Ryan Mallett will be tough for Arkansas, but they seemed to unearth the heir apparent last season when Mallett had to miss the game against Auburn due to injury. 2011 starter Tyler Wilson stepped in and made his case for unquestioned starter heading into this season by throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns. He will hope to step into Mallett's shoes and continue a strong offensive showing for Arkansas.
Also helping the Razorbacks' chances this year is returning running back Knile Davis, who had a good year in 2010 and will be leaned on to carry even more of a load in 2011.
Arkansas has it very tough in the SEC West with Auburn, Alabama and LSU to contend with, and they also have a very tough non-conference meeting with Texas A&M scheduled. But they should certainly start up the season in the top 15 of the rankings, at the very least.
Cam Newton and Nick Fairley heading to the NFL is a very tough pill to swallow for Auburn, but there is still plenty to be optimistic about for the defending BCS National Champions. The bigger issue might be replacing the four departing offensive linemen, although Auburn had the number three ranked recruiting class and bulked up their offensive line talent via new player signings. Michael Dyer, the team's explosive tail back, figures to be the focal point of the Tigers' offensive attack in 2011. They will have an inexperienced quarterback under center, and will need to lean on Dyer to control the ball and move the offense forward. It will be a tough transitional year for Auburn but they still figure to be a tough team to deal with in the SEC.
TCU is losing a whole bunch of starters from last year's Rose Bowl-winning team as they head into their final season in the Mountain West before making the leap to the Big East. They will once again rely on the strength of their defense, led by defense-first head coach Gary Patterson, in order to try and bust up the BCS party. Tank Carder and Tanner Brock are both returning to anchor the Horned Frogs' defense, and they will be asked to lead a team that will rely on an untested quarterback to guide it. Their biggest game could be against fellow BCS buster Boise State, set to take place on the blue turf up in Idaho.
Wisconsin will have some key holes to fill from their 2010 team that made it to the Rose Bowl before dropping a tough game to TCU, but they still have a ton of talent on offense and defense that should keep them in the thick of things in the highly competitive Big Ten. The running game will again be the focal point on offense, as standout runners Montee Ball and James White will be back for another season. The defense lost its leader, as defensive coordinator Dave Doeren heads to Northern Illinois to take over their football program. But they still have talent on that side of the ball, and will be a legit threat to make a run at the Big Ten title game (in its inaugural season).
Michigan State enjoyed a great season in the Big Ten, until they met up with Alabama in the Capital One Bowl and got resoundingly whooped. That has knocked the luster off the Spartans a bit, but they return quarterback Kirk Cousins and a number of other key players on offense. They should be a quality team yet again in 2011, no doubt a team capable of making a run at the Big Ten title.
Quarterback Kellen Moore is back, a big boost to the Broncos' chances in their first season playing in the Mountain West. They will also still have running back Doug Martin, meaning their offense should once again be high-powered and threatening despite the change in conference. The questions will arise from how their defense fares in the wake of losing a number of key players on that side of the ball. They start the season on the road against Georgia, on national television, which will be a huge game. They also will have to face TCU, a new Mountain West conference foe, and those two games could ultimately decide how Boise State fares on the year.
Ryan Tannehill broke out late in the 2010 season, and Texas A&M enjoyed a strong campaign thanks to his play, alongside an impressive defensive performance throughout the season. Overall the offense has 10 returning starters, a big plus for the Aggies' chances in the highly competitive and deep Big 12. Linebacker Von Miller will be their biggest loss, but the defense as a whole might improve given that it's their second season playing 3-4. They could make a run at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State if their defense steps up and the offense keeps developing.
Oklahoma State will be a force to be reckoned with thanks to the dual return of both quarterback Brandon Weeden, and elite wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The two combined for big numbers in the passing game a year ago, and if they stay healthy in 2011, they should put up big plays yet again. The defense will be the question, although defense wasn't the team's strong suit a year ago. But they still lost six starters on that side of the ball, and will have to play some tough games on the road in the Big 12 against Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri.
10 wins a year ago in coach Jimbo Fisher's first season after taking over for longtime leader Bobby Bowden is a great start for Florida State. They also landed arguably the best recruiting classes in the country during the declaration of intent rush. They will need a big year out of pass-run quarterback E.J. Manuel, but they will surround him with experienced players, as nine offensive starters are returning. The Seminoles avoid playing the ACC's other usually strong teams during the regular season, but they have a huge test in mid-September when they take on Oklahoma in a non-conference affair.
This could be a huge year for Florida State, especially if they are able to knock off the Sooners early in the season.
The first five games of the season will be very tough for Ohio State since they'll be missing quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other starters, but Jim Tressel will have to rely on a pool of talented young players to fill in in the early going. If they come out of that early stretch in good shape, Ohio State could once again be favored to win the Big Ten title. Their defense took a beating in terms of losing talented players, but the expectations are still high for the Buckeyes despite a number of setbacks.
Andrew Luck surprisingly came back for the Cardinal, but head coach Jim Harbaugh headed to the NFL and the San Francisco 49ers' top job. New coach David Shaw will look to keep things mostly in tact on offense for Stanford, and with Luck under center, they have a great chance yet again to make a lot of noise in the Pac 10 (now 12). Stanford's biggest losses come on defense, where seven previous starters are gone and in need of replacement. The biggest game on their schedule looks to be a home tilt with North division rival Oregon, taking place in Palo Alto. Win that game and Stanford can perhaps dream of winning the Pac 12 entirely.
The offense should still be there for Chip Kelly and company, thanks to Darron Thomas and LaMichael James both returning to Oregon for another year on campus. So points shouldn't be an issue for the high-powered offense, unless they fail to replace the two veteran receivers that lead their pass-catching attack. It's arguable that they'll still have enough generated from just Thomas and James alone, but they will need to get some answers along the offensive line and at wide receiver.
They are still going to be one of the top teams in the Pac 12, but they will have to contend with a very tough non-conference meeting with LSU in the season's opening week. A Ducks win and perhaps they start dreaming of another trip to the BCS title game.
The Crimson Tide lost a lot of big names, like Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Marcel Dareus. But they return a ton of depth on both sides of the ball, joining a top five recruiting class harvested by master recruiter Nick Saban. It should be another strong year for Alabama despite some turnover, but in 2010 they leaned on a ton of first-year starters. Those that excelled have a valuable year of SEC experience under their belts and could emerge as much improved playmakers in 2011. Add that to an injection of new talent and it amounts to what could be another national championship-contending season for Alabama. Yes, they will need to develop a new starting quarterback, but with their strengths elsewhere they could get by with some growing pains under center.
LSU was another power house team to emerge from the SEC in 2010, and they bring back 10 starts on offense and eight on defense for a team that made a very strong run a year ago. They'll have a new offensive coordinator that will try to get their offense in gear after struggling a bit through an underwhelming offensive season last year. They have a tough schedule, starting the season against Oregon in what should be a huge game for both teams' national title hopes. But the Tigers have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball even with the losses of players like Patrick Peterson and Stevan Ridley. They will be in the mix for both an SEC and national title.
The big three returning for Oklahoma includes quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis. Those are key players that the Sooners will count on as they look to get to the BCS title game, and a big reason why I think they head into the season as the nation's number one ranked team. More importantly though, Oklahoma has a whopping 29 players returning to campus that have started before. They have the rough Big 12 schedule to contend with, as well as a tough non-conference meeting with Florida State early in the season, but Oklahoma to me stands as the team to beat in college football in 2011.