College Football 2011 Predictions: 10 Unranked Teams Who'll Crack the Top 25

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2011

College Football 2011 Predictions: 10 Unranked Teams Who'll Crack the Top 25

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    PASADENA, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Malcolm Smith #6 of the USC Trojans tackles Nelson Rosario #83 of the UCLA Bruins during the first half at the Rose Bowl on December 4, 2010 in Pasadena, California. USC defeated UCLA 28-14.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Inevitably, the Top 25 polls will have quite a bit of movement over the course of a season. It happens ever year. Teams we all thought would be great end up being mediocre, and teams no one gave much credit end up making an impressive run.

    Let's look at 10 teams that may not start the year ranked, but will find their way into the Top 25 at some point before the 2011 season comes to a close.

First Things First

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    GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Travis Lewis #28 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts at the end of the game against the Connecticut Huskies during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl at the Universtity of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Ro
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Before we determine who might make it in later, we have to make sure we know who is already in.

    Here is our preseason Top 25, for the purposes of this list:

    1. Oklahoma

    2. Alabama

    3. Louisiana State

    4. Oregon

    5. Stanford

    6. Boise State

    7. Ohio State

    8. Oklahoma State

    9. Florida State

    10. Texas A&M

    11. Michigan State

    12. Wisconsin

    13. Auburn

    14. Texas Christian

    15. Arkansas

    16. South Carolina

    17. Mississippi State

    18. Virginia Tech

    19. Notre Dame

    20. Nebraska

    21. Missouri

    22. Texas

    23. Florida

    24. Georgia

    25. Michigan

    Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the teams not on this list who will be at some point in 2011...


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    Tulsa is a team that many people may not take seriously at the start of September, but the Golden Hurricane has some serious dark-horse potential for 2011.

    Tulsa is returning 19 starters from 2010, including 10 on offense.

    Do-it-all offensive standout Damaris Johnson will be back at wideout, and he'll also be getting the lion's share of return work, both on kickoffs and punts. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is also back for his senior season.

    If you think Tulsa isn't Top 25 material, just remember that it finished in the AP Top 25 last season (at No. 24), and was also ranked No. 5 in the nation in 2010 in terms of total offense—an offense that returns 10 starters.

Arizona State

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    There hasn't been much talk about the Sun Devils the past couple of seasons. That's mainly because people don't tend to talk about teams that go 4-8 and 6-6.

    But the Sun Devils are poised to raise some eyebrows in 2011 in the new Pac-12 Conference.

    Arizona State's 2011 season wasn't as awful as the 6-6 record would imply. Four of the losses were by a combined nine points, including one-point losses to Wisconsin and USC, and a four-point loss to Stanford.

    There were plenty of teams that didn't get that close to Wisconsin and Stanford in 2011.

    The Sun Devils don't have much to worry about on offense for next season, either. Every starter for 2011 has started for the Sun Devils in 2010. With the exception of one wide receiver (Kerry Taylor) and the kicker (Thomas Weber), everyone is back.

    The defense will be experienced as well, as only a handful of starters are gone, and nine defensive positions will have a player with at least some starting experience heading the depth chart.

    While a run at the Rose Bowl may still be a bit down the road for the Sun Devils, 2011 should see them back in the Top 25.

Penn State

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    Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions gave him his 400th career victory in 2010. JoePa will attempt to lead the Lions back to the top of the Big Ten in 2011, but they'll have a slightly steeper hill to climb, now that Nebraska is in the conference—and on Penn State's schedule.

    The Lions do get Nebraska at home, but the 'Huskers will be a tough team in 2011, and will be looking for a Big Ten championship game berth in the first season in their new conference home.

    Penn State will host Alabama as well in 2011. The Nittany Lions were thoroughly embarrassed by the Crimson Tide in 2010, losing 24-3 in Tuscaloosa.

    Another Week 2 matchup against the Tide could prove troublesome, as Alabama starts the year at No. 2. Lucky for the Lions, beyond Alabama, their first five games aren't too taxing, with Indiana State, Temple, Eastern Michigan and Indiana on the docket.

    History will also be made in 2011, as for the first time in 18 years—as long as Penn State has been in the Big Ten—the Lions will not play Michigan State in a Big Ten regular-season finale. The two rivals, who play for the Land Grant Trophy, were placed in opposing divisions in the Big Ten, and were not assigned as permanent inter-divisional opponents (Michigan State gets the game for the Old Brass Spittoon against Indiana, and Penn State gets newcomer Nebraska as yearly inter-divisional opponents). MSU and Penn State will still face each other on a rotating basis.

    With 16 total returning starters and a remaining schedule including Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois, Penn State could easily win six or seven of its first nine games, which would put the Nittany Lions squarely on the cut for the Top 25.


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    Maryland certainly had an improved 2010 season, and after a whomping of East Carolina in the 2010 Military Bowl, the Terrapins found themselves ranked in the final AP poll of last season, coming in at No. 23.

    That's one heckuva turnaround from the 2009 season, where Maryland managed just two wins.

    The Terps turnaround also was the source of discussion once it was clear then-head coach Ralph Friedgen wasn't going to have his contract renewed (athletic department speak for “fired” without actually firing anyone). In comes Randy Edsall, who is aiming to keep the momentum going at Maryland.

    Edsall will have 14 returning starters to work with in 2011, and one of the brightest spots for Maryland could be at quarterback. Danny O'Brien had an impressive freshman year in 2010 after taking over the starting duties. The 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year had 199 yards and two touchdowns in the 2011 spring game, and cemented his spot at the top quarterback at Maryland. Reports have him throwing accurately and comfortably commanding the entire Terps offense—welcome news if Maryland does indeed hope to make some noise this year in the ACC.

    Maryland doesn't have the easiest schedule in 2011, but that could work to its advantage in terms of Top 25 rankings. A loss here and there won't come as a shock, and wins will certainly push the Terps stock higher.

NC State

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    The Wolfpack finished the 2010 season an impressive 9-4, and capped it all off with a not-so-close victory over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl.

    NC State will have 16 starters from last year returning, including starting quarterback Russell Wilson, and the entire backfield.

    While the Wolfpack do take a bit of a hit in the receiving corps, there are plenty of talented, able upperclassmen ready to fill the starting jobs in 2011.

    NC State's schedule also sets the team up for success, as the non-conference slate includes such opponents as Central Michigan, Cincinnati and two FCS programs: an impressive South Alabama and a laughable Liberty.

    NC State also avoids Virginia Tech on its ACC schedule, although there are looming games against Clemson, Maryland, North Carolina and Florida State.

    Even so, you can expect NC State to build on last year's success, and make a run towards a true breakout season in the ACC in 2011—and the Top 25 ranking that will go along with it. NC State is definitely a dark-horse candidate in the ACC for 2011.


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    The Utes were widely expected to make another BCS-busting run in 2010. The problem was, Utah wasn't quite as advertised, and it didn't live up to the hype.

    Utah's last season in the Mountain West was a bit of a bust, and after eight straight wins, its weaknesses were exposed for the whole nation to see against TCU and Notre Dame—both massively embarrassing losses.

    Then, of course, there was the thrashing at the hands of Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

    Most teams would be happy with a 10-3 season, but Utah fans expected more.

    Well, they're going to get what they asked for. With Utah's move to the new Pac-12 Conference, gone are the BCS-busting days of yesteryear. Utah has joined the ranks of the “enemy” and is now officially part of the BCS system (which means no more complaints from the Utah fans about the “unfair” BCS system, right?).

    Joining a BCS AQ conference is a complete package. Sure, there's the allure of an automatic bid to a BCS bowl, but instead of playing through teams like UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado State, the Utes will now face USC, Oregon and Stanford.

    Utah will also be bringing some new blood to the Pac-12 in 2011. The Utes return just five starters on defense, and seven on offense.

    Utah also has a difficult schedule in 2011, beginning with USC on Sept. 10 (after an opening-week game against FCS Montana State) and BYU on Sept. 17—both on the road.

    But if we've learned anything about Utah in the past few years, it's to expect Utah to win at least one game it shouldn't have any business winning. And when that game comes, expect Utah to crack the Top 25 polls.

West Virginia

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    In Rich Rodriguez's last three years at West Virginia, the Mountaineers won 11 games each season.

    After his departure for Michigan, WVU won “just” nine games in each of the following three seasons. That span has also seen a BCS bowl drought.

    The Big East may be in for a Mountaineer shock in 2011, and West Virginia is primed to break out of the mini-slump and return to the BCS.

    If you like flashy, fast offenses that score a bunch, you're going to want to watch every West Virginia game you can this season. WVU has smartly responded to the (silly) criticism of Bill Stewart's supposed lack of offense. One of the biggest coaching hires of the offseason wasn't a head coach, but an offensive coordinator—Dana Holgorsen leaving Oklahoma State to take over as WVU's new OC.

    Of course, it helped that he was promised the head-coaching gig in 2012 when Stewart will take a non-coaching position in the West Virginia athletic department.

    Holgorsen has an impressive resume when it comes to offenses, and West Virginia is certainly no stranger to prolific offensive teams.

    While the Mountaineers may not be in the position to beat teams such as LSU (Sept. 24), they will certainly have the talent and coaching to give each and every team in the Big East a true test. With eight returning offensive starters, the only question there will be how the team adjusts to Holgorsen and his offensive schemes.

    The question for WVU in 2011 has got to be its defense. Only four starters from a year ago are still around, and that raises some concerns.

    The good news is that the newcomers are talented, and should be able to compete with anyone in the Big East. But against teams like LSU, there is the potential for giving up a ton of points.

    While there are plenty of reasons for optimism at West Virginia, 2011 probably won't be a year in which the Mountaineers try to chase down a BCS title. But a Big East title and a BCS bowl are certainly possibilities, and a Top 25 ranking is almost a foregone conclusion.


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    Speaking of Big East championships, let's take a look at the 2010 Big East champion Connecticut Huskies.

    It's not going to be often that we see an 8-4 team in a BCS bowl. The addition of UConn to the BCS bowl lineup last season did nothing to quiet the discussion about the Big East being the weakest of the BCS AQ conferences.

    Yes, there were teams more deserving of a BCS bowl berth than Connecticut, but the BCS system is what we have to live with, so there's no sense in arguing the point, no matter how horrible the Big East was last year or how undeserving a nearly unranked Connecticut team was.

    The Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma had a predictable outcome, and absolutely no one was surprised to see the Sooners trounce the Huskies by 28 points.

    In fact, the 48-20 final score was the surprising part, as many people were surprised Connecticut was able to score 20 points against Oklahoma.

    Regardless of the outcome, Connecticut is the defending Big East champion, and wasn't totally embarrassed by Oklahoma, and that will give the Huskies a little early cred heading into 2011. When you take that recognition, and add in wins against FCS Fordham, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo and Western Michigan, you will have a team ranked in the Top 25.

    Even if UConn were to lose one of those games, it's likely the Huskies would still find themselves in a position to crack the polls.

Miami (FL)

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    Hurricanes fans have suffered enough, haven't they?

    From national powerhouse and “The U” to suspensions, arrests and “Thug U,” to going through a season where the only Florida school the Hurricanes beat was FCS Florida A&M before a frustrating loss to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl.

    If Miami has a season for redemption, 2011 is it.

    All eyes are on the Sept. 17 rematch with Ohio State, and this time, Miami should have the upper hand. Not only is the game at home, but the Buckeyes will be without four of their top offensive starters, including Terrelle Pryor, and head coach Jim Tressel will also be absent, as the group serves its suspension.

    If Miami can hold things together against Maryland and not get caught looking ahead to Ohio State, a 2-0 Miami Hurricanes should find themselves in the Top 25.

    Following the Ohio State game are two should-win games against Kansas State and FCS Bethune-Cookman.

    Al Golden is the fourth new head coach in 12 years at Miami, and he brings with him an entirely new coaching staff. But don't expect miracles right away. This new staff will have many of the same headaches as the old staff, particularly with the quarterback situation.

    Jacory Harris is back for his senior year, and not everyone is convinced that's such a good thing. Harris' junior year could have been described as "shaky" to "concerning." The real problem is that primary backup quarterback, sophomore Stephen Morris, isn't any better.

    If Miami wants to improve in the very short-term, better play from Harris is a must.

    If Miami wants to improve in the long-term, the coaching staff must prove to the university, the alumni and the nation, that it can finally control the players, recruit quality athletes who are also quality people and win games.


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    It doesn't matter what anyone says.

    Until proven otherwise, USC is still USC.

    When could that be proven otherwise? A lot of people thought it was going to be 2010. Sure, an 8-5 season isn't exactly USC-esque, but with everything the Trojans program was going through, it's a bit of a minor miracle they even emerged with a winning season.

    The 2011 season could be a defining moment for the Men of Troy. Fourteen starters return for SC's last season of postseason ineligibility, and USC's ability to jump back into Pac-12 championship contention and BCS bowls in 2012 and beyond may rest on their shoulders.

    After a warmup against woeful Big Ten doormat Minnesota, the Trojans host Utah for the first time in Pac-12 play. Following a visit from Syracuse, USC travels to Arizona State for what could be a real test before hosting Arizona prior to an off week.

    That opening stretch of games for USC will be of prime importance, not just for 2011, but for the years that follow.


    If SC can start the season 5-0 (or even 4-1), it will broadcast to the nation that 85 scholarships or 55 scholarships, the Trojans can and will still win football games. But the real concern is the future. Another down season could place USC in the position of being surpassed by other Pac-12 schools in the recruiting arena.

    We're living in a crazy college football world where parity is becoming a reality. Gone are the days of USC, Notre Dame and Michigan being the end-all and be-all of the college football world.

    Schools like Boise State, TCU, Michigan State, Oregon and Virginia Tech have just as much of a chance of landing that 5-star recruit as the traditional powers. If USC becomes a non-factor in the Pac-12 championship race, even for a short time, it can have serious repercussions for its future prospects of returning to glory.

    Lane Kiffin and the Trojans know that, and the program has too much pride to allow USC to go quietly into the good night of college football anonymity.

    USC will win four or five of its first five games, and will be rewarded with a Top 25 ranking, no matter how empty that gesture might seem to the outside world.

    For the USC world, it will mean that USC is indeed still USC.