College Football 2011: 1 Reason for Every Top 25 Team to Be Optimistic

Kevin TrahanAnalyst IMarch 29, 2011

College Football 2011: 1 Reason for Every Top 25 Team to Be Optimistic

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    With spring practices beginning around the country, the buildup to the 2011 college football season is in full swing.

    However, much of the talk at this point in time is about teams' weaknesses and what they need to work on during spring practice.

    But even among the criticism there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for some of the top teams around the country. Here we examine one reason to be optimistic about each Top 25 team's national championship chances.

    Note: The Top 25 rankings came from

No. 25: Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Experience

    Tulsa jumped onto the national radar last season after defeating Notre Dame in a shocker in South Bend, and with 19 starters returning this year, it could be one of the best non-Big Six teams in the country.

    The Golden Hurricane will never "move the needle" as much as Boise State or TCU, but with both Oklahoma and Boise State on the schedule early, they have a shot to make some major noise in the BCS race and possibly snatch up a BCS bid.

    With both of those teams on the schedule, an unbeaten run certainly seems unlikely. However, with 19 starters returning, Tulsa has a chance to give either team a run for its money.

No. 24: Texas Longhorns

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Talent

    Last year was confusing for Texas fans and other college football fans alike. A year after making the BCS championship game, the Longhorns went 5-7 and left Mack Brown and the Texas fans wondering how a team chock-full of 5-star recruits could underachieve so much.

    There's no reason to believe the Longhorns will be good next year, except for the same reason we thought they would last year: talent. Fourteen starters return for Texas, including quarterback Garrett Gilbert, but the offense needs to get better for the Longhorns to avoid another letdown.

    Texas has the talent, but this year it has to deliver and live up to expectations.

No. 23: Arizona State Sun Devils

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Experience

    With 10 starters returning on offense and 19 overall, Arizona State will be one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12 next season. However, with the departure of quarterback Steven Threet, the Sun Devils' offensive production could decline in 2011.

    The experienced offensive line will need to step up to protect backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and open up holes for the run game if ASU wants to make noise in the Pac-12, and the defense also needs to step up.

    However, with 19 players returning, this is the Sun Devils' best chance in years to become relevant on the national stage once again.

No. 22: Florida Gators

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Talent

    Like Texas, Florida will always have talent. However, also like the Longhorns, the Gators struggled to turn that talent into wins last season, going 7-5 and employing a horrible offense.

    Quarterback John Brantley needs to be more consistent this season and he will need wide receiver Chris Rainey to step up as well.

    While the offense was rebuilding last year, the defense will be doing so in 2011, with only five starters returning on that side of the ball.

    However, Florida will always have the talent to compete with anybody. But to be great again, the Gators need to learn how to close out games.

No. 21: Missouri Tigers

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offense

    After one of the most successful seasons by a quarterback in Missouri football history, Blaine Gabbert announced that he would be leaving school early for the NFL. That came as no surprise to the Tigers, but leaves them with a major hole at the center of their offense.

    However, even with Gabbert's departure, Mizzou has a chance to be very good on offense once again. Nine starters return, including four on the offensive line who will give the new quarterback—likely sophomore James Franklin—plenty of time to throw.

    Franklin will be surrounded by an outstanding receiving corps that includes all-conference selection TJ Moe, and will have a good running game to lean on thanks to senior tailback De'Vion Moore.

No. 20: Notre Dame

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Schedule

    The Fighting Irish had plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2011 season, but with the possibility of losing star wide receiver Michael Floyd, Notre Dame's offensive production could slide next season.

    The real reason for optimism comes from the schedule.

    The season starts with a "gimme" home game against South Florida, and then the Irish visit rebuilding Michigan. A home game against Michigan State should provide a challenge, but that game is followed by games at Pittsburgh and Purdue. The next six games, against Air Force, Southern California, Navy, Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College are all winnable. The final game, against Stanford, should be challenging.

    In short, there is no game on this schedule that Notre Dame can't win. That isn't to say that the Irish will go undefeated, or even reach double-digit wins, but this could be the year that Notre Dame football gets back on track.

No. 19: Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: No More Texas

    OK, maybe that's not the only reason.

    This Nebraska team is talented and when it's good, it's great. However, the Cornhuskers were extremely inconsistent last season and much of that came because of the erratic play of quarterback Taylor Martinez.

    Only six offensive players return for the Huskers in 2011 and Martinez must mature to help guide his team through a miserable inaugural Big Ten schedule that includes road trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, and home dates against Ohio State, Michigan State and new conference border rival Iowa.

    The defense will also need to step up again after a solid 2010 season, and that shouldn't be a problem with All-American-caliber defensive tackle Jared Crick. However, the Huskers' fate this season will be decided by its offense.

    And finally losing Texas certainly can't hurt either.

No. 18: Virginia Tech Hokies

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The ACC

    After a disastrous 0-2 start last season that included losses to Boise State and James Madison, Virginia Tech bounced back to win the ACC and receive yet another Orange Bowl berth. That team was talented, boasting star quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams.

    However, with only 13 starters returning, the Hokies have plenty of rebuilding to do before the fall. Luckily for them, the ACC should be dreadful this year.

    With a slate of awful non-conference games and an easy ACC schedule—every ACC schedule is an easy schedule—expect Virginia Tech to be back in the BCS and possibly make it through the season without a loss.

No. 17: South Carolina Gamecocks

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Youth

    South Carolina hasn't had much to be optimistic about over the past decade, considering that every time the team is hyped in the preseason, it has failed miserably during the fall. So with that being said, there shouldn't be very high expectations for the Gamecocks this season.

    However, thanks to an impressive group of young players and an impressive recruiting class, South Carolina has a chance to compete for another SEC East title in 2011.

    Running back Marcus Lattimore was outstanding last season and should continue his dominance this year. Incoming defensive end recruit Jadeveon Clowney was considered by many recruiting analysts to be the best high school player in the country and he should help replace the holes left by six departures on defense.

No. 16: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Defense

    After an impressive win against Michigan in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day, Mississippi State will try to gain more respect in the SEC and become a contender for the conference crown.

    With 15 returning starters, the Bulldogs will certainly have the experience, and their experience on defense will certainly be a key. The entire secondary returns, as do three players on the defensive line. However, MSU must find a way to replace all three of its linebackers.

    Dan Mullen has put together a solid program in his short time at Mississippi State, but now is looking to take the next step. The Bulldogs certainly are on the right track and will have a chance to prove themselves right out of the gate with games against Auburn and LSU in the second and third games of the season, respectively.

No. 15: Arkansas Razorbacks

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Defense

    A year removed from a BCS run, this Arkansas team won't have the same identity as the offense-driven team that rode a late-season surge to the Sugar Bowl.

    Only six starters return on offense for the Razorbacks, who lose star quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL, but the defense should be better, as three all-conference players return in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas.

    With so much youth on offense, having to go to Alabama early in the season won't help Arkansas' championship chances. If the Razorbacks want to escape Tuscaloosa with a win and become legitimate championship contenders, they will have to rely on their defense.

No. 14: Wisconsin Badgers

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Running Game

    With only 11 starters returning next season, Wisconsin may have a hard time replicating the Rose Bowl run that it had in 2010. However, with three players returning on the offensive line along with the impressive running back tandem of James White and Montee Ball, the Badgers running game could carry them back to a solid bowl game.

    Replacing quarterback Scott Tolzien will be tough and the secondary has some major holes to fill. The schedule is also daunting, as Wisconsin must play Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State within four weeks.

    However, if the Badgers running game produces at the same rate as last year, they will be just fine by the time the season kicks off this fall.

No. 13: TCU Horned Frogs

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: A Better Reputation

    After losing the 2010 Fiesta Bowl to Boise State, TCU finally broke through in the BCS and toppled Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The win helped the Horned Frogs gain respect around the country and they are headed to the Big East, a conference with an automatic qualifying bid, next season.

    Don't expect TCU to repeat its magical run, as only 10 starters return. However, the Horned Frogs have proven that they are a force to be reckoned with and they will receive an increased amount of national exposure in their final season before moving to the Big East.

No. 12: Michigan State Spartans

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offensive Skill Positions

    After an outstanding 2010 regular season that ended with an 11-1 record and a share of the Big Ten title, Michigan State's year ended in relative disappointment, as the Spartans weren't invited to the BCS and lost to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl 49-7.

    This year, MSU is back to prove that it belongs in the national conversation, but must do so without star linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon and much of its secondary.

    However, the Spartans' offensive skill positions could be among the best in the Big Ten. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is back, along with the outstanding running back trio of Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. Wide receivers Keith Nichol, B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin also return.

    While the defense certainly needs work, the Michigan State offense should be even better than last year and has a chance to carry this team to the BCS.

No. 11: Auburn Tigers

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: No More Cam Newton Jokes

    Why is Auburn here?

    There isn't much of a reason besides the fact that it won the national championship last year. Cam Newton and Nick Fairley (also known as the entire team) are gone and only eight starters return. Yes, Auburn fans, I know Michael Dyer returns. But honestly, he can't carry the team by himself.

    Don't expect the Tigers to make another big run this year, as it should be a rebuilding season.

    However, there is one thing for Auburn fans to be thankful for; the "you bought Cam Newton" jokes will finally be over.

No. 10: Florida State Seminoles

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Experience

    Florida State must replace quarterback Christian Ponder next season, but most of the offense returns for a team that has a chance to rival Virginia Tech for the top spot in the ACC.

    The Seminoles return 16 players next season, but must find a way to live up to the hype this season, as they have gained a reputation for crumbling under pressure.

    This team is experienced, however, especially on offense, and a group this chock-full of seniors shouldn't allow another letdown to happen.

No. 9: Texas A&M Aggies

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offense

    With 10 starters returning on offense, Texas A&M should have one of the most explosive units in the Big 12 on that side of the ball.

    Quarterback Ryan Tannehill could have a breakout season and running back Cyrus Gray should be among the best in the Big 12. The wide receivers will also be stacked, as all three return, including all-conference pick Jeff Fuller.

    The defense should be OK as well, with eight starters returning, but the Aggies will need to find a way to replace Von Miller, who was arguably the best linebacker in the country last season.

No. 8: Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offense

    The Oklahoma State offense will be stacked next season and could be one of the best passing offenses in the nation come November.

    Ten starters return for the unit, including quarterback Brandon Weeden and star wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who could end up as a Heisman finalist.

    The defense only returns six players, but the Cowboys are never built on defense anyway. If the offense shows the firepower it is capable of producing, there could be no stopping Oklahoma State in 2011.

No. 7: Ohio State Buckeyes

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offensive Skill Players

    Yes, yes, we all know that Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and two other players must sit out for the first five games of the season, along with head coach Jim Tressel.

    However, if the Buckeyes can get through those games—the Michigan State game may be the only real challenge—then there may be no stopping them for the remainder of 2011.

    Terrelle Pryor will be on a mission after coming back from suspension, and look for Herron and Posey to have big years as well. Suspensions and all, expect nothing less than another Big Ten championship for Ohio State next season.

No. 6: Boise State

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: No "Great" Team in College Football Next Year

    Boise State has consistently been left out of the BCS championship because two undefeated teams with tougher schedules have gotten in instead. However, there may not be a "great" team this season, which could open the door for the Broncos if they go undefeated.

    Fourteen starters return for Boise, including quarterback Kellen Moore, who will be a Heisman Trophy candidate for the second straight season, and the schedule will be easy once again.

    Boise State's championship chances won't be in its hands once again; however, this may be the year that the Broncos finally break through and receive that elusive BCS championship berth.

No. 5: Stanford Cardinal

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Andrew Luck

    After defeating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season, Stanford went 1-2 in the offseason in regards to personnel. Star quarterback Andrew Luck decided to stay with the Cardinal for his senior season, but head coach Jim Harbaugh bolted to the NFL to take the San Francisco 49ers job.

    Only 11 starters return for Stanford, but Luck can make all the difference and he should challenge for the Heisman Trophy again this season.

    With a solid schedule—the Cardinal get Oregon at home—and a star quarterback, Stanford has the ingredients to make a second straight BCS run.

No. 4: Oregon Ducks

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offense

    Only 12 starters return for this Ducks team that reached the national championship game last season, but among those players are star quarterback Darron Thomas and star running back LaMichael James, both of whom could challenge for the Heisman Trophy in 2011.

    In order to make another title run—and win it this time—the offense needs to stay at the ultra-productive pace it was at last season. Oregon was simply too fast for many opponents and it needs to exploit that advantage once again. If it can, the Ducks could be headed to the BCS for the third time in three years.

No. 3: LSU Tigers

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: The Offense

    Defense is never a problem for the Tigers under Les Miles, but LSU has struggled to get its offense rolling numerous times during Miles' tenure.

    However, that shouldn't be the case this year, as nine starters return for the Tigers, including quarterback Jordan Jefferson.

    The defense must replace five starters, but it should be solid once again. However, the question is whether the offense can step up and make big plays throughout the season. With so much experience, don't expect the offense to be a letdown in 2011.

No. 2: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Everything

    After a down year (by Alabama standards) that ended with a blowout victory over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, the Crimson Tide will try to regain their winning ways and return to the BCS in 2011.

    The defense will be stacked, as 10 starters return from a very productive unit last season, and the offense should be good as well. However, questions remain about how to fill the voids left by quarterback Greg McElroy and wide receiver Julio Jones.

    But the Tide reload, they don't rebuild, and with such a good defense to showcase in the fall, expect Alabama to return to greatness in 2011.

No. 1: Oklahoma Sooners

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    One Reason To Be Optimistic: Everything

    After a disappointing 2009 season, the Sooners got back on track in 2010, winning 11 games, winning the Big 12 and defeating UConn in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Quarterback Landry Jones became much more consistent and led an explosive offense that returns nine starters. Jones should be excellent in 2011 and will have an outstanding receiver to throw to in Ryan Broyles, who could be an All-American by the time the season is over.

    The defense will be solid as well—a rarity in the Big 12—especially the front seven, which includes All-American linebacker candidate Travis Lewis.

    Nothing is ever a guarantee in college football, but if everything falls into place, expect the Sooners to be heading to the national championship come January.