The 2011 season is right around the corner. Spring ball has already begun and football talk and predictions are filling the air. Last season brought a lot of surprises. Auburn may have been the biggest surprise, with everyone in the country not knowing just how good Cam Newton was going to be.
We saw plenty of upsets and plenty of dominance. Of course the 2011 season will have plenty of surprises of it's own, but the usual suspects will be at the top. Oklahoma, LSU, Ohio State and Alabama should and will be fixated in the top 10, all with coaches who have already captured the crystal ball and have tasted what it's like to win a national championship.
Then there are the dark horses. Florida State, TCU, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Florida are all waiting in the wings for their chance at a national title shot and all those programs have coaches who have yet to capture the national championship glory.
This list compiles the coaches who could get a taste of a national championship this season. Many of them are in the same conferences so there will be plenty of battles, but only one team can reign supreme at the end of the year.
Bret Bielema has been the head coach at Wisconsin since 2006 after being promoted from defensive coordinator, and all he's done is won. His record is 49-16 with an impressive 11-2 record last season.
Bielema has a good team coming back this year at Wisconsin. Although John Clay and Scott Tolzien are gone, they still have players who can fill in nicely.
James White is back at tailback after having a monster freshman year and he will be joined in the backfield by Montee Ball. The pair combined for 32 touchdowns on the ground and 2,048 yards rushing.
The loss of Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the line will hurt, but as usual Wisconsin is loaded in the offensive line and will again be a force in the Big Ten this year.
The Big Ten has a lot of potential to be a power conference this year, with newcomer Nebraska coming over and the success that Michigan State and Ohio State produced last year likely coming back. If Wisconsin makes it through their schedule, we could see Bielema put to the test in his first national championship game.
The Bill Callahan days are gone and Nebraska fans can rest easy that the storied tradition of their program has been for the most part restored, except for the option of course.
Bo Pelini has a great deal to do with that and he has this team going nowhere but up.
After taking over in 2008, his record is 30-12 with back-to-back appearances in the Big 12 championship game. Now he'll be coaching in the Big Ten with a tougher schedule, but that also brings more potential.
After a disappointing loss to Washington to cap off their season, Nebraska will look to regain some of its poise that it showed flashes of around mid-year last season.
Pelini has a stout defense returning along with new offensive schemes and the return of Taylor Martinez.
On paper, this team isn't as good as the previous two seasons, but with Pelini at the helm and a good staff around him, don't be surprised to see Nebraska in the national championship game.
Mike Gundy has been the head coach at Oklahoma State since 2005. He's had some good teams and some not-so-good teams, but now it seems like his program is pointing in the right direction.
Oklahoma State finished 11-2 last year, losing only to Nebraska and Oklahoma. The good thing for Gundy is that almost every key player is returning with the exception of Kendall Hunter.
Brandon Weeden is back at quarterback after having a sensational year and Justin Blackmon returned for his junior season after making everyone forget about how good Dez Bryant was before him.
The offense is point happy and will put up large numbers, but, of course, the defense is the Achilles heel to this team.
Gundy won't have to worry about playing Nebraska this season, but there are still the teams in the South that could prevent him from making a title run. Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Texas are always threats, as are Texas Tech and Baylor.
If Gundy can defeat his rivals, we could see Oklahoma State in the national championship game.
This may or may not be premature, but the fact is that Will Muschamp took over a great program that is loaded with talent. Put that together with bringing in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and, of course, combine that with Muschamp's defensive schemes and you have a very dangerous team.
This will be Muschamp's first stint as a head coach at any level, but he has been ready for this opportunity for some time. Florida made the right decision in hiring him and he will have plenty to work with.
The most lingering problem for Muschamp is, of course, the schedule. Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State all pose problems for the Gators.
Anything is possible, though, and this squad is very talented; talented enough to win those games and make another appearance in the national championship.
Mark Richt has been head coach at Georgia for some time now and he's come close to getting there, but has always fallen short. In recent memory, he has started to slip a little more than expected, which resulted in his first losing season last year, with a 6-7 record.
Richt is a very good coach and God knows he deserves a shot at a national championship, but the pieces have to fall in line for him and that may very well be this year.
Richt brought in the dream team as a recruiting class, landing nearly every big name in the state of Georgia, including the top running back in the class, Isaiah Crowell.
Georgia brings back some talent, but also loses A.J. Green and Justin Houston.
The Bulldogs will need to get through their brutal SEC schedule as well, which is far easier said than done, but as always the SEC reigns supreme in college football and if Georgia can win the conference, Richt will finally get his shot at a national championship.
In just his second year as a head coach, Chip Kelly took the Oregon Ducks to the national championship and came up just short, losing 22-19 to Auburn, but that doesn't count Kelly out from going for Round 2 in 2011.
Oregon returns almost every key player from their national title run and again will be an offensive juggernaut in 2011. Led by LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, this team should run through the Pac-12 with ease.
Of course, that doesn't always happen and Stanford and USC will be looming and biting at the bit for their shots to take down Oregon. Then there is cross-state rival Oregon State and Arizona and Arizona State that will look to take them down as well.
Chip Kelly is one of the most innovative offensive minds in all of college football and this won't be his one-and-only rodeo. He will bring his team to national championships for years to come because of his offensive schemes.
Don't count Oregon out from making another national championship appearance in 2011.
Gary Patterson is one of the best coaches in all of college football and he proved it last year by guiding TCU to a 13-0 record and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Who's to say TCU can't do it again in 2011? Sure the Horned Frogs lose Andy Dalton, but Patterson has players ready to step up and fill in for departed veterans.
While TCU won't make the jump to the Big East until 2012, it will still have to play against the likes of BYU and Boise State as well as Baylor in 2011. Besides those three games, their schedule is very manageable and, after winning a BCS bowl game last year, wouldn't it make sense to give them a shot at the championship if they go undefeated again?
Patterson will have his work cut out for him starting out against Baylor, and breaking in a new quarterback won't be easy, but this team has key returners that know the TCU system and are ready to make a title run.
I had to do it. No matter what conference they are in, Boise State is always going to be lurking around the top of the rankings and Chris Peterson has everything to do with it. All the guy does is win. He's 61-5 in his five seasons as head coach, including two undefeated seasons.
Peterson has made Boise State a household name and it's in large part because of the way he recruits and the type of players he brings in. Boise State does lose it's top two receivers from last year, but they have their star player back in Kellen Moore at quarterback.
Boise State came up just short against Nevada last year which cost them a potential shot at a national championship game, but with a wide-open field in 2011, it's hard to imagine them going undefeated and not getting that national title nod they have been trying to get for the past couple of years.
They will have challenges in front of them with games against Georgia, Tulsa and TCU, but besides those, their schedule is again a cakewalk. A win against Georgia will pay off huge in the end if they go undefeated.
After the beating Michigan State received at the hands of Alabama last year, it's hard to put the Spartans on this list, but they still had a great year by going 11-2.
Mark Dantonio is a very underrated head coach and he has been nothing but successful since taking over for the Spartans, a program that was in a world of hurt before him.
Now the key is going to be finishing games. Last season they won against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan, but then lost to Iowa and were embarrassed by Alabama.
If Dantonio can lead this team the way he did last season, combined with key players like Kirk Cousins and Edwin Baker returning, the Spartans could make another run at something special. That said, the schedule certainly isn't easy.
Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa are all on the schedule. If by some crazy chance of fate they win all of those games, there should be no reason for dropping any of the others and Dantonio will have punched his ticket to the national championship game.
Bobby Petrino wasn't exactly America's favorite guy when he bolted from the Atlanta Falcons and took over for the Arkansas Razorbacks, but the move has been a good one.
Last season, Arkansas went 10-3, losing to Ohio State in Sugar Bowl, but the Razorbacks proved they could be talked about among the favorites in the SEC.
Ryan Mallett is gone now and in steps Tyler Wilson, who many believe will be a better fit at quarterback for the system that Petrino runs. Tie in the fact that Knile Davis is back at running back after his monster season in 2010, and Joe Adams and Jarius Wright will be back to give Wilson capable targets.
That said, there's the schedule. Arkansas plays in the SEC, which is the best conference in football, so their road will be very hard and very rocky.
Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and LSU will be their toughest conference opponents and then there's Texas A&M in Week 5 that will provide some headaches.
If Arkansas is to prove they belong with the big boys, they will have to do it this year. The schedule is manageable, but it's also littered with must-win contests. As always, if they make it without a loss, they will be playing in the national championship.
Last year Jimbo Fisher capped off his first full season as a head coach with a 10-4 record and a huge bowl victory over South Carolina.
Now it's time for him to show why he was the man for the job after Bobby Bowden retired, and so far Fisher is proving just that. He brought in the top recruiting class this year to go with the class he brought in last year, which was also loaded with talent.
Fisher loses Christian Ponder, but highly-touted recruit E.J. Manuel has been waiting for his shot at the starting spot and he finally will have it in 2011. Besides losing Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon on the line, this offense has every key position player back.
Defensively the 'Noles will be stout once again under second-year defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. This entire offseason has been surrounded by talks of Florida State being a dark horse, and rightfully so. Miami and Florida are on the schedule, but many believe that if they can get past Oklahoma then there will be no speed bumps all the way to the national championship.
This is only Fisher's second year as a head coach, but this team is poised and ready for a national-title run.