The great thing about college football is that it's notoriously difficult to predict.
Sure, we know which teams will be pretty good and that we're not going to see a Sun Belt or MAC team in the BCS championship game, but the nuances of each season end up surprising most, if not all.
So what types of surprises are we in for during the 2011 season?
Arizona State was 6-6 last year. There was nothing great about the team, but there was also nothing terrible.
This season, the Sun Devils have 18 starters coming back.
With the Pac-10 expanding to the Pac-12 and starting divisional play, Arizona State will be able to take advantage of a couple things.
First, USC is in the midst of its rut. Sure, everyone expects the Trojans to break out eventually, but that probably won't happen until the NCAA sanctions expire.
Secondly, Arizona State will be able to ride its experience to wins in games it isn't expected to win.
Does all of this spell Pac-12 championship? Not necessarily. But it does put the Sun Devils in the conversation—a place they haven't been for a while.
The Wildcats have a number of things working in their favor for 2011.
First, Ohio State and Wisconsin are missing from the Wildcats' 2011 schedule.
Second, Dan Persa can take over a game single-handed.
Third, Pat Fitzgerald has proven that Northwestern is a program that can and will win games consistently.
Add in the fact that many Big Ten teams and others around the nation still insist on looking past Northwestern, and the Wildcats could be staring a BCS bowl squarely in the face come January.
Before the angry hate mail from Tallahassee starts flowing in, read the explanation.
Jimbo Fisher is a great coach.
Florida State has some top talent.
E.J. Manuel has been injury prone in the past.
On top of that, he's not quite "there" yet, and the spring game showcased some of his flaws.
The Seminoles suffer from a lack of depth. A couple of ill-timed injuries could sink their entire season.
Jermaine Thomas is back. Really? A guy with discipline problems in the past will now have the added frustration of not being the BMOC when it comes to carrying the football. That's a bad, bad recipe.
There's still no “go-to” receiver. While it's certainly possible one can and will eventually emerge, a quarterback like Manuel probably needs more than one.
Florida State will be a good team in the ACC this year. It's just probably not Top-10 material. Yet.
With all of the talk surrounding Ohio State this offseason, it's easy to forget that it has a college football season to play in a few months.
The suspension of five players, including starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, as well as head coach Jim Tressel, stands at five games (for now).
Granted, U-M doesn't face Ohio State until their traditional last week of conference play matchup (which, thanks to an expanded Big Ten, now comes a week later than normal), but Ohio State could be a seriously wounded team come late November.
Plus, the game is in Ann Arbor, at the newly renovated (and much, much louder) Michigan Stadium, and Denard Robinson will steal the show in front of a new college football and Michigan Stadium record of 114,000 fans.
Which only adds to this rivalry's untouchable position as the greatest rivalry in all of sport.
Speaking of Ohio State and the suspended Jim Tressel, we should all keep in mind that his five-game suspension has been handed down by the university, not by the NCAA. In fact, the NCAA has yet to make a final determination regarding the rule violations and Jim Tressel's lying about it.
Lying? Yes, lying. Absolutely no one who knows how college programs function can honestly believe that Jim Tressel “didn't know who to tell.” That, Mr. Tressel, is one large, stinky load of cow manure.
If you think your players might not be in compliance with NCAA rules, you tell Ohio State Compliance. Imagine that! There's actually an office called “Compliance.” In fact, all NCAA institutions have a compliance office; even Division II and Division III programs have compliance offices.
What's more, if you take a look at Ohio State Compliance's website, you even find a link where you can report a possible NCAA violation!
It's hard to imagine a head coach at one of the nation's top programs who has 24 years of NCAA coaching experience didn't know that you tell the compliance office about players not in compliance with NCAA rules.
Is this even really a surprise any more?
When then-No. 5 Michigan laid an egg against Appalachian State, it was supposedly the biggest upset in college football history.
But then a funny thing happened in FBS-FCS matchups: The FCS programs didn't seem afraid of the big boys any more.
Delaware beat Navy. North Dakota State beat Minnesota, Central Michigan and Kansas. Northern Iowa beat Iowa State. New Hampshire beat Army and Ball State. Richmond beat Duke. Gardner-Webb beat Mississippi and Akron. James Madison beat Virginia Tech. And perhaps most surprising, brand-spanking-new FCS program South Dakota (which had just moved from Division II) beat Minnesota.
Yes, it seems that a small level of parity between the top-flight FCS programs and the FBS is on its way.
So what will be surprising about FCS wins in 2011?
It will be the number of wins and which FBS teams are on the losing end. FBS beware!
It's probably unfair to expect Brian Kelly to pull Notre Dame all the way back from the brink in just two seasons.
But if there's one person who knows it can be done, and expects it to be done, it's probably Brian Kelly himself.
While Notre Dame isn't stocked with the nation's top athletes yet, it does have some talent on both sides of the football. What's more, Kelly has an unparalleled way of finding wins with less-than-top-flight athletes.
We won't go so far as to say that Notre Dame doesn't have good athletes, because it does. But the Irish don't yet match up with Alabama, and Ohio State, and Oregon.
But Brian Kelly led a Cincinnati team filled with college football players no one had ever heard of before to two straight BCS bowls and an undefeated regular season. If he can do that at Cincinnati, imagine what he can do at Notre Dame.
It's not a huge secret that the biggest critique of the BCS has been that it doesn't allow access for the “smaller” programs.
Over the past few seasons, there has been increasing pressure on those involved in college football, and even Congress, to try to effect a change to the system.
The BCS will need to show that the system is indeed fair for everyone—and they need to show it soon.
Expect an undefeated team from the Mountain West (be it Boise State or TCU) to earn a berth in the BCS championship game.
This surprise will become a near certainty if the six BCS conferences can't produce two undefeated teams by season's end.
Fans from the SEC, Pac-10 and Big 12 gleefully watched the past few seasons as the Big Ten struggled to find its footing.
Bowl game loss after bowl game loss. The Big Ten champion Buckeyes unable to win the “big games.” The winningest program in college football, Michigan, having a three-win season.
The schadenfreude, especially from the South, was palpable.
The Big Ten has slowly been climbing out of its funk the past few seasons, and the addition of Nebraska and a conference championship game will be the final shot of adrenaline needed to pull the entire conference out of the doldrums.
Expect a furious race for the Big Ten championship game berths this season. That competition will serve the conference well come bowl time.
If you live in the state of Alabama or Louisiana, you could probably get run out of town for saying something like this.
But there are several things working against the SEC in 2011.
First off, Auburn won't be anywhere near as good as it was last year. That's not to say the Tigers will be bad, but they won't be in BCS championship form, to be sure.
Secondly, Florida will be adjusting to a completely new system. Will Muschamp is bringing his brand of football to Gainesville, and it includes a Charlie Weis offense. While Florida will be back to thumping through the regular season before too long, it's probably a safe bet to assume that the first year with Muschamp at the helm won't be a BCS championship year.
LSU is about as big of a mystery as one can find in the SEC. Early on last season it looked as if it was nothing more than dumb luck that kept LSU from losing games. By season's end, it was a bona fide Top-10 team. There aren't a ton of things that have changed for LSU from 2010, so it'll be interesting to see if the Tigers are more consistent or if they'll need the good graces of lady luck again this season.
Clearly, the favorite this season in the SEC is Alabama. So why won't the Crimson Tide embarrass everyone they face and win another BCS title?
The simple answer is history. Just playing the odds, it's hard to imagine the SEC winning six in a row. Of course, it was hard to imagine five, but that happened.
The biggest problem will be the rest of the country. There are a lot of good teams this year across all of the other BCS conferences (with the exception of the Big East). The Pac-12 will have at least one, possibly two legit contenders. The Big Ten will have two or three contenders. The ACC will have a couple, as will the Big 12.
While the SEC worshipers will have a hard time understanding this, the BCS and the rest of the country will take any excuse to keep out an SEC program.
If there isn't an undefeated SEC team this season, they're out. If there is, but there are two or more other undefeated teams out there, they're out. If it comes down to a one-loss Big Ten champion or a one-loss Pac-12 champion and a one-loss SEC champion, they're out.
Alabama will need to go 13-0 to have a shot at the BCS title game, and no matter what team it is, that's always hard to do.