As spring college football fever concludes across the national landscape, fans, journalists and coaches are all given a taste of the future of their respective programs for the upcoming fall season. Although the quarterbacks are clad in non-contact jerseys, players are rarely wearing full pads, and big hits are few and far between on the practice field, we at least have a taste of what to expect from the offenses from a strategic standpoint when the teams reconvene late in the summer.
This slideshow is a list of 15 of the most prolific offenses predicted to finish atop the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2011. The rankings were based on returning starters, the amount of injuries to key personnel that could linger into September, as well as the strength of schedule.
Let’s start with the program that turned heads in the BCS Championship game, and returns two of the most dynamic players at their respective positions in the nation.
The Oregon Ducks came up just short of a perfect and glorious season when they lost the BCS Championship game to Auburn 22-19 on Jan. 10. Although two of their offensive superstars in Darron Thomas and Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James, as well as talented backup Kenjon Barner, will return for the 2011 season, the program will lose three starters on last year’s offensive line to graduation. Another concern for Ducks fans and coaches is who will replace first team All Pac-10 wide receiver Jeff Maehl, the team’s leading receiver who amassed 77 catches for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Josh Huff is an explosive threat that can score on any given play lined up as either a wideout or in the backfield. The sophomore will need to improve his route-running skills and better gel with the first unit. But the potential for a big season in the newly-formed Pac-12 North is a definite possibility for Huff given the spread offense that Oregon employs coupled with his immense talent.
If the Houston native is able to pick up where Maehl’s production left off, then expect Huff to serve as the team’s leading wideout. He’ll be needed as early as the Ducks’ first game, which takes place against Southeastern Conference powerhouse LSU at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3.
The Broncos continued their ascension as a premiere program in the FBS in 2010 with an impressive 12-1 season, giving them another first-place finish in their final season as a member of the WAC. Although the program will move to the Mountain West Conference in 2011, Boise State will enjoy the return of senior quarterback and Heisman finalist Kellen Moore, who has passed for almost 11,000 yards and 100 touchdowns in three seasons as BSU’s starting signal caller. While BSU fans will happy to see Moore under center for one more year, they’ll miss his two favorite targets.
Wide receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young combined for 141 catches, 2,166 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2010. Both are set to graduate, which opens up windows of opportunity for sophomore Geraldo Hiwat and senior Tyler Shoemaker to enter the starting lineup. Hiwat led all receivers with five catches for 97 yards in the Blue & Orange Spring Game on Apr. 16, and projects to be an integral part of the BSU passing attack moving forward. Shoemaker ranked third on the team in 2010 with 32 catches, 582 yards, and five touchdowns, and his 18.2 yards per catch led the program.
With 338 yards receiving in 2010, running back Doug Martin is also an adept pass-catcher out of the backfield, but the senior’s biggest contribution will be in the ground game. Coming off a season in which he accumulated 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns, Martin will team up with D.J. Harper to balance BSU’s offensive attack that will likely keep their new Mountain West rivals off-balance.
But before the Broncos focus on their new slate of conference foes, they’ll have to first deal with the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta on September 3 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
The Sooners have as much depth and returning experience as any top 25 program in the nation. Wide receiver Ryan Broyles, who tallied a ridiculous 131 receptions in 2010, will return for his senior season, and should continue to serve as the key playmaker in the Sooner passing attack.
Quarterback Landry Jones improved in almost every statistical metric from his freshman season in 2009 to last season, and figures to be part of the Heisman discussion with a stellar supporting cast around him. The one facet of the OU offense that remains in a state of flux is the running game.
DeMarco Murray served as the Sooners’ featured back for the entirety of 2010, but wore down a bit towards the second half of the season, as he experienced a drop in yards-per-carry in the final games. Head coach Bob Stoops wants more of a timeshare in the Oklahoma backfield in 2011, which will include a cadre of backs. Each has a unique skill set that will benefit the offense differently.
Sophomore Roy Finch has an ability to make tacklers miss, and figures to get the lions’ share of the carries.
Fellow sophomore Brennan Clay is known for exceptional playmaking ability as well as soft hands, and could play a significant role in the passing game.
Jonathon Miller is finally recovered from knee surgery two years ago, and is eager to prove he can play at pre-injury levels.
Freshman Brandon Williams came to Norman with much fanfare, but has room to improve after posting a disappointing seven yards on 13 carries, including a fumble in the annual Red White game.
Walk-on Dominique Whaley led all rushers in the aforementioned spring game with 10 carries for 65 yards, but it’s currently unclear how far his performance launched him up the depth chart.
Although the Wolfpack will miss graduating QB Colin Kaepernick as he matriculates to playing pro football, head coach Chris Ault has already expressed confidence in Tyler Lantrip as a suitable replacement under center. Lantrip is considered more of a prototypical passer than Kaepernick had been, and will have to learn how to read defenses as effectively as his predecessor in order to run Ault’s Pistol offense properly. Unfortunately for Wolfpack Nation, Kaepernick isn’t the only offensive starter that needs to be replaced.
Running back Vaia Taua rushed for 1,610 yards and 19 touchdowns to lead the team statistically, but in 2011, Coach Ault will likely turn to senior Mark Lampford and Mike Ball to take the reins in the Nevada backfield. Lampford may not carry the same size as Taua, but his increase in yards-per-carry from 2008-2010 indicates that the Fresno, CA native carries legitimate upside. Ball is more similarly built to Taua, and could be featured in short yardage situations.
Wideouts Rishard Matthews, Tray Session, and Brandon Wimberly are all in line for bigger roles in 2011 given the presence of the pass-happy Lantrip. The question that remains is how closely will Nevada’s version of the Pistol resemble last year’s offense after opponents have had an entire offseason to dissect game film and find solutions to stopping the option-style attack.
Similarly to Oklahoma, the Cowboys return most of their offensive starters with exception of their tailback. Kendall Hunter is set to graduate, but Joseph Randle gained 39 rushing yards, and also caught six passes out of the backfield in the annual Orange-White spring game on Apr. 16. The sophomore’s big-play ability and soft hands will get him plenty of looks despite a pass-heavy attack that will be implemented by offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Senior quarterback Brandon Weeden completed 20 of 37 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s spring game, and will likely lead OSU to many a scoring drive come this fall based on his previous success running the prolific Cowboy offense. The offensive leader expressed optimism after the scrimmage. “We are leaps and bounds ahead of last year,” Weeden said. “We're operating fast, everyone knows what they have to do, we're really playing well and understand what we have to do."
Sophomore Clint Chelf will take over under center if injury befalls Weeden. In addition to comfortable depth at the quarterback position, head coach Mike Gundy will enjoy the maturation of a few wide receivers to take some of the pressure off 2010 Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon.
Sophomore Michael Harrison missed the spring game with an injured foot, but by most accounts, he has looked great this April, and should be fine by the time fall camp starts. Hubert Anyiam suffered through an injury-plagued 2010, but is expected to reemerge as an important part of the Cowboys’ offense since Blackmon, who tore up the Big 12 with 111 catches and 20 receiving touchdowns, will likely draw consistent double-teams from opposing defensive backs.
The Warriors boasted the top-ranked passing offense in FBS in 2010 after averaging 7.6 yards per play, and will enjoy the return of starting quarterback Bryant Moniz. After throwing for 5,040 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2010, the senior will look to take his program to the top of the WAC now that Boise State has left the conference for the MWC. Unfortunately, Moniz will be missing his top two receivers and four starting offensive linemen, all set to graduate.
Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares combined for 207 receptions, 3,195 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, and somebody will need to fill that offensive void left by the two outgoing wideouts. Royce Pollard looks to be a capable replacement for one of the two stars, and one of Hawaii’s running backs will need to step up to fill the shoes of Alex Green, who scored 18 touchdowns out of the Warriors’ backfield.
The remaining running back holdovers from 2010 combined for 10 carries all of last season. Hogan Rosehill, Jordan Monico, Sterling Jackson, and John Lister are all expected to compete for carries this fall, although Listen and Jackson received the most carries in the Apr. 15 Warrior Bowl. This Hawaii program runs a pass-first offense, and that doesn’t figure to change with Moniz under center for another season.
Heisman finalist quarterback Andrew Luck bucked conventional wisdom, leaving tens of millions in guaranteed NFL money on the table to return for his senior season in Palo Alto. Although former head coach Jim Harbaugh cashed in on Stanford’s recent success when he signed a $25-million contract to coach the San Francisco 49ers, the offense isn’t expected to miss a beat given that offensive coordinator David Shaw will take over head coaching duties for the Cardinal.
Luck is expected to pick up where he left off in 2010 when Stanford destroyed Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3. Although he lost a couple of key receivers to graduation in Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, he feels comfortable with the maturation of his wideouts. "I think we have great wide receivers outside," Luck said. "It just happened today that Zach was open three times in the end zone. ... We have a lot of great players. It could change from week to week." The star quarterback was referring to tight end Zach Ertz, who caught a trio of touchdowns in the Apr. 9 scrimmage.
Seniors Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu are expected to play a much larger role in the receiving game, and could have breakout seasons with the intrepid Luck connecting with them all season long. The success of the passing game will, in all likelihood, open up holes for junior running back Stepfan Taylor, coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,137 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2010 despite being forced miss last year’s spring practices as he recovered from a torn ACL. In the month of spring practices, he has pleased coaches, fans, and himself with his marked improvement. “I’m doing a better job of getting fourth and fifth options on plays, getting through my read progressions, staying tall in the pocket and keeping the ball up when I move. Even if you are good, you can always get better,” he said. Griffin will need to improve seeing as how he lost workhorse tailback Jay Finley to graduation.
Finley will be replaced by a combination of 235-lb. senior Terrance Ganaway and 5’9” sophomore Jarred Salubi. Each back scored a touchdown in the Apr. 2 spring game, and figures to play a complementary role to each other this fall. The Bears ranked an unexpected 24th in rushing offense averaging 195 yards per game, and Big 12 opponents will surely take the former conference doormats more seriously in 2011 than they did in 2010.
The return of wideouts Kendall Wright and Josh Gordon will ensure that Griffin has downfield weapons he is already comfortable throwing to in clutch situations. Furthermore, junior Terrance Williams led all receivers in the spring game earlier this month with nine grabs for 123 yards and two TDs, and fills out an impressive trio of Baylor pass catchers.
Due to NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush investigation, the Trojans will have to wait until 2012 to become bowl-eligible again. In light of the fact that they are barred from postseason play for one more year, the Men of Troy will be a scary bunch not only because they’ll play this season with a chip on their shoulder, but also because of their immense talent.
With two gluttonous recruiting hauls and a full season at Heritage Hall under his belt, head coach Lane Kiffin will try and re-establish Southern Cal’s dominance in the newly-expanded Pac-12 Conference despite some stiff competition from Oregon and Stanford. Although Trojan stalwarts like tailback Allen Bradford and wide receiver/return man Ronald Johnson will be missed, Kiffin has some more-than-capable replacements ready to take over at those respective positions.
First, sophomore WR/KR Robert Woods brings game-breaking speed and elusiveness to the field, and will be counted on to play a larger role on both offense and special teams in 2011. Second, Markeith Ambles, who caught six balls for 76 yards in the Apr. 23 spring game at the Coliseum, should provide Barkley with a reliable downfield secondary target, although the No. 2 WR position is reportedly still up for grabs.
5-star tight end Xavier Grimble led all SC receivers with eight catches for 73 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, and the redshirt freshman could be a beast in the short-to-midrange passing game in 2011. Last but certainly not least, Barkley will enjoy the emergence of five-star freshmen wideouts George Farmer and Kyle Prater, who should provide the junior signal caller with more elite options that can make an offensive impact. Given that defenses are likely to play it safe with extra defensive backs in the secondary, the running game should find plenty of holes.
Tailbacks like sophomore Dillon Baxter, who scampered for 104 yards on 14 carries in the spring game, 2010 team rushing leader Marc Tyler, as well as junior Curtis McNeal, who scored twice on 4th-and-1 situations on Apr. 23, will all enjoy the extra attention paid to the passing attack with the cadre of burners that Southern Cal will put on the field in 2011.
G.J. Kinne will return for his senior season, and the quarterback should lead the well-oiled Golden Hurricane offense to more high scoring contests in 2011. In the annual spring game on Apr. 15, Kinne completed 16 of 20 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns.
If Tulsa’s QB posts similar stats to the numbers he accumulated in 2010, then Tulsa can expect to rise from mid-major Conference USA to another bowl game invitation. They may not be the most well-known nor the highest ranked program in the state of Oklahoma, but their offense can hang with just about any team in the country.
Another key player who will return to Tulsa in 2011 is home-run hitter Damaris Johnson. In Friday’s spring game, the multi-faceted wide receiver carried the ball twice for 60 yards, and also caught three passes, including a touchdown. With a more seasoned offensive line intact as spring ball concludes, new head coach Bill Blankenship can focus on improving the defense, which ranked 85th in the nation, surrendering over 30 points per game in 2010.
Case Keenum will return for a sixth season thanks to a medical redshirt that was granted after he tore his ACL in the Cougars’ third game against UCLA. Keenum didn’t play in the Red-White spring game on Apr. 10 for precautionary reasons, but his quarterback understudy, Cotton Turner, gave Houston fans hope for the future after Keenum exhausts his amateur eligibility. Turner completed 16 of 24 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the scrimmage. Cougar Nation should also be encouraged by the rushing attack.
Redshirt freshman tailback Randall Hollimon ran the ball seven times for 62 yards for the Red Team, and head coach Kevin Sumlin has to be pleased at the thought of a balance being struck in Houston’s offense. Fellow running backs Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes combined for 20 rushing touchdowns in 2010, and with Keenum returning to the huddle, opposing defenses are likely to key on the Cougar aerial attack.
Keenum will enjoy the return of two of his most trusted wide receivers in seniors Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier. Each wideout has two seasons of at least 70 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards, and if Keenum’s knee is 100 percent come Sept. 3, then Houston will be fully loaded to exact revenge on UCLA, their first opponent on the 2011 schedule. The Bruins not only staged an upset victory at the Rose Bowl last season, but also knocked the star quarterback out for the season.
In 2010, quarterback Denard Robinson stole the spotlight by making game-breaking plays with both his arm as well as his feet. Although the Heisman chatter surrounding the signal caller quieted to a whisper after Michigan lost six of their final eight games, the dual-threat superstar has some returning weapons that will assist him in driving down the field early and often in 2011. However, it remains to be seen whether Robinson's skills will be held in check when the Wolverines implement a pro-style offense in 2011.
Tailback Michael Shaw has been nursing a broken hand that kept him out of spring practice, and he was unable to participate in the spring game on Apr. 16. However, the Trotwood, OH native will be fully healed in time for the start of his senior year, and he should form a solid one-two punch with senior Vincent Smith, who boasts soft hands in addition to blazing speed and escapability. If Hoke’s new offense is to succeed in Ann Arbor, then Robinson will require downfield threats to go along with his backfield tandem, which helped Michigan rank 13th in the nation in rushing in 2010 (238.5 yards per game).
Roy Roundtree was U-M’s most consistent wide receiver last season, and the junior is expected to hook up with his dynamic quarterback more often in 2011 given the offensive scheme switch. Should Roundtree draw double-teams from opposing defensive backs, 6’2” wideout Darryl Stonum will also be targeted in passing situations. Last but not least, Junior Hemingway, who will be a senior in September, also brings legitimate big-play potential to the Wolverine offense.
Although the Southeastern Conference is packed with powerhouse programs virtually across the board, one team’s offense whose arrow could be pointing up for 2011 is Steve Spurrier’s defending SEC East champion Gamecocks.
Regardless of one’s opinion the polarizing head coach, Spurrier has put together a competitive offense that could emerge as one of college football’s finest in 2011.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia has demonstrated gradual on-field improvement over his first three seasons in Columbia. Although he posted two consecutive clunkers in last year’s SEC Championship against national champ Auburn as well as the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31 against Florida State, Gamecock Nation is more concerned with Garcia’s off-field troubles.
The Lutz, FL native is currently suspended indefinitely for multiple incidents, most recently alcohol-related insolence, and did not participate in spring drills. But the embattled senior has owned up to past misdeeds, and seems likely to right the ship given that this will be his last season that will be heavily scrutinized by NFL scouts.
If Garcia remains in Spurrier’s doghouse, then sophomore signal caller Connor Shaw will provide a somewhat reliable albeit unspectacular substitute. His experience may be limited to 33 total passes in game action, but Coach Spurrier isn’t afraid to move forward with the developing Shaw if Garcia’s suspension isn’t lifted.
Assuming Garcia does return to the huddle with a clear head, he has the benefit of returning starters at key positions, a battle-tested coach who has enjoyed recent success in an ultra-competitive conference, as well as an influx of promising recruits who should facilitate moving the chains in 2011.
Returning for his junior season will be Biletnikoff Award finalist Alshon Jeffery. Already deemed to have a future in the National Football League, Jeffery will continue to build on his already impressive college resume. As a sophomore, he caught 88 balls for over 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. Incoming four-star freshman wideout Damiere Byrd (Erial, NJ) delivers a rare combination of speed, quickness and toughness which should translate well at the college level.
Redshirt sophomore DeAngelo Smith showcased his talent in the spring game with four catches for 118 yards and three touchdowns, and seems certain to emerge as the No. 2 wideout for the Gamecocks come fall. Another certainty of this program’s offense is the ascendance of the South Carolina running game.
Running back Marcus Lattimore proved he can be an every-down back based on gutsy performances against Florida (40 carries, 212 yards, 3 TDs) and Georgia (37 carries, 182 yards, 2 TDs), and his 19 total touchdowns also indicates the sophomore has a nose for the end zone. The emergence of Lattimore in the Gamecock backfield coupled with Spurrier’s unpredictable play-calling provides a combination that will keep opposing defenses on their heels provided injuries don’t befall the South Carolina offense.
If Lattimore pulls up lame, junior Kenny Miles displayed something of a return to form in the Garnet and Black spring game on Apr. 10 when he rushed six times for 43 yards and a touchdown, and added three catches for 35 yards as well. Miles fell to third on the RB depth chart in 2010, but looks to have earned more playing time moving forward with this impressive performance.
The Razorbacks enjoyed a fine overall 2010 season with narrow losses at Auburn, at home to Alabama, and to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl serving as the only blemishes on their record. Moving forward, quarterback Ryan Mallett will skip his senior season and head for the professional ranks, but head coach Bobby Petrino has a more-than capable backup ready to take the reins of the Hogs’ spread offense in 2011.
Tyler Wilson has proven to be a reliable backup signal caller in limited action through three seasons, and he showcased his talent in the annual Red-White game on Apr. 16. The senior threw for three touchdowns and 242 yards, and demonstrated exceptional poise. Razorback fans have reason to be excited for the first game on Sept. 3 against Missouri State, as the spread offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Wilson under center, and he’ll have the luxury of a legitimate ground attack that will keep defenses honest.
Tailback Knile Davis was a force for Arkansas in 2010, as he tallied 1,322 rushing yards, 13 scores, and a 6.5 yard-per-carry average. The Missouri City, TX native didn’t look to have missed a beat in the spring scrimmage as he ran for 44 yards. Junior Ronnie Wingo paced all backs with 62 yards and a trip to the end zone. As solid as the corps of running backs looks in Fayetville, the returning batch of receivers might be even more promising.
Seniors Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams form an experienced trio of wideouts who will provide consistent targets for Wilson all season. Wright displayed big play ability as he exploded for 157 yards receiving and two TDs in the Red-White game, including a 57-yard score. Cobi Hamilton is another tall yet gifted burner who can score from just about anywhere, and is expected to play a larger role in the 2011 offense.
The loss of three starting offensive linemen and the starting quarterback would normally bode poorly for a program’s chances of continued success, but Wisconsin is an unusual program that churns out 300-plus pound linemen regularly, and demands relatively little from the quarterback position.
The Scott Tolzien era concludes with his graduation this year. Curt Phillips was expected to compete with Jon Budmayr for 2011 starting quarterback duties, but Phillips will miss the entire season after tearing his meniscus in the already-injured knee that he had been rehabbing. The mobile quarterback relies on his legs than more than a typical pocket passer, and his frustrating injury history has to have Badger Nation shaking its collective head. Instead, freshmen Joel Stave and Joe Brennan will compete with Budmayr for the starting signal caller job, although nobody stood out in an otherwise ugly performance from the trio of quarterbacks in the Apr. 23 spring game.
Since UW-Madison’s offense is of the smash-mouth, run-first persuasion, whoever is under center simply needs to be more of a game manager who doesn’t turn the ball over as opposed to a rifle-armed specimen who can chuck the pigskin 65 yards downfield. Hopefully for Badger fans, the QB situation will resolve itself by the time the team hosts UNLV on Sept. 1, but the strength of this offense lies in the ground attack.
John Clay decided to skip his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, so the battle for starting tailback has narrowed down to sophomore James White and junior Montee Ball. Ball has reportedly lost close to 20 pounds while maintaining overall strength. White has continued to improve since the program’s heartbreaking Rose Bowl loss to Texas Christian on New Year’s Day.
Redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis has big play ability, and could have a big year replacing Clay in the Badgers’ three-headed rushing attack. If Wisconsin continues to dominate the Big Ten in rushing, they won’t need to worry about the uncertainty of the passing game, although the program features some talented athletes at wide receiver.
Nick Toon suffered through chronic turf toe in 2010, and recently underwent foot surgery to repair a fracture. However, he should be fully recovered in time for training camp in a few months. Jarred Abbrederis is expected to start opposite Toon as the No. 2 wideout while redshirt sophomore Jeff Duckworth looks like he’ll be third on the WR depth chart. Kenzel Doe is a skilled true freshman who could be featured in the passing game, although it looks like he’ll start his college career as a returner on special teams.
Sophomore Jacob Pederson impressed coaches in spring practices, and looks like he’ll take over for the graduating Lance Kendricks as the starting tight end. Jake Byrne is more of a blocking-type TE as opposed to Pederson, who will be more featured in the passing attack.