College Football 2011: What Is the Weak Link for Every Top 50 Team?
Every team has a weakness.
At least that's what any coach will tell you about their opponents. It doesn't matter if you are coaching Alabama facing LSU or if you're coaching Tulane facing LSU, you will tell your team that you can win because the other team has weaknesses.
Discovering those weaknesses, however, is not always an easy task—especially among the top 10 or so teams in the nation.
But what about the rest of the contenders? What about the top 50?
What weaknesses are they trying to cover up before the fall arrives?
Let's take a look inside the top 50 programs in the FBS and see if we can't discover a weakness for each of the teams.
No. ??? Southern California
Since USC is one of those enigmas for 2011, we'll start with the Trojans.
Some polls have declared USC ineligible to receive votes (most prominently, the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll). Other polls will rank them if they are deserving of a ranking.
We'll split the difference and not rank them, but include them as an “extra” team in our top 50 rundown.
The Trojans return 14 starters from 2010, seven on each side of the ball. Starting quarterback Matt Barkley will be back in action for his junior year, and he's clearly not the weak link for USC. But standing in front of him is the offensive line, and it will be a bit depleted for 2011.
The Trojans have three key losses on the O-line: Butch Lewis, Kristofer O'Dowd and Tyron Smith. Their replacements do have some game experience, and searching for a weakness on a USC team can be like looking for aliens on Mars, even with USC in its current condition. Still, if there's one weakness that opposing teams will try to exploit, it will be getting to Matt Barkley through a less-than-dynamite offensive line.
No. 50 Texas Tech
This one is pretty easy. Whenever you lose your field general, it's a blow to the team. When you lose your quarterback and your wide receivers, you better hope the youngsters stepping into those roles have some amazing talent.
If not, you're looking at what coaches like to benignly call “a rebuilding year.”
Tech loses two serviceable quarterbacks in Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield, and they lose some playmaking ability at wide out with the departure of Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong. That combined with the loss of starting running back Baron Batch means the Red Raiders will have an almost completely new offense.
At least the O-line is back from 2010 completely intact.
No. 49 California
A penalty here. A missed field goal there.
Last season may be looked upon as the season that might have been in Berkeley. After almost pulling off the upset of the year, Cal needs to move forward.
The Golden Bears will have to do that with an inexperienced defense, and Cal only returns five defensive starters for 2011.
One lineman, two linebackers, a corner and a safety are all that return, and the newcomers will need to grow up quickly if the Bears are to have any hope of ruffling some feathers in the new Pac-12 this season.
No. 48 Iowa
The Hawkeyes have long played the role of spoiler in the Big Ten. Always just short of breaking through to the top level of the conference, Iowa does manage to find ways to beat teams at the top of the conference.
The same was true in 2010, as the Hawkeyes ruined Sparty's bid for a perfect regular season, outright Big Ten title and Rose Bowl trip.
Will 2011 be their year to break through?
Probably not with this offense.
In fact, with the exception of the offensive line, it's hard not to find a weakness. New quarterback. New running back. New fullback. New tight ends. New receivers.
While being new and inexperienced isn't bad in-and-of itself, when the whole freaking offense is new and inexperienced, you must expect to experience some growing pains.
Iowa won't be chasing a Big Ten title in 2011, but if history has taught us anything, it's that the teams that are chasing the Big Ten title this season better pay attention to Iowa.
No. 47 South Florida
While the Bulls only return five offensive starters, it's the defensive side of the ball that might cause the coaching staff to lose a little sleep this summer.
With the exception of junior nose tackle Cory Grissom, the entire defensive line will need to be replaced. Add in at least one, open linebacker position yet to be filled, and one has to wonder how much pressure South Florida will be able to place on opposing quarterbacks.
At least most of the secondary is back in action from 2010.
No. 46 North Carolina
If you're wondering what else could go wrong with the UNC football program, you can rest easy if you thought the defense would be in trouble. The Tar Heels welcome back 10 starters from last season.
The offense, however, is another story.
T.J. Yates is gone, as are four experienced backs and two tight ends. Sophomore Bryn Renner steps into the starting role as quarterback for UNC, and he'll need to make some big, impact plays on offense to keep UNC in the ACC hunt.
Defense may win championships, but you don't win games unless you score points.
If UNC can find a way to be effective on offense with a new cast, the Tar Heels may raise a few eyebrows in 2011.
No. 45 Navy
While Navy's tired triple-option offense isn't going anywhere anytime soon, the offense is at least effective more often than not.
Navy's problem has been containing the skill-position players on the opposing offense. Navy almost never has the fastest players or the biggest players, but they have relied on their smarts and their experience to have a pretty impressive run over the past few years, not having missed a bowl game since 2002.
While the 2011 Midshipmen defense will certainly once again be smart, it will lack a lot of experience.
Two-thirds of the defensive line is gone. Half of the linebacking corps is gone. Half of the secondary is gone, including the all-important rover in the Navy defense, Wyatt Middleton.
One of Navy's proudest accomplishments has been winning three of the last four meetings with Notre Dame and winning the last nine against Army.
With an untried defense going up against faster and stronger opponents, it will be a challenge to keep the Annapolis Express going in 2011.
No. 44 San Diego State
With just five returning starters for the Aztecs defense, you would think that the defense would be a great place to start looking for weaknesses.
While the defense may be the Achilles heel for the Aztecs on the field, the overall weakness for San Diego State in 2011 will be its loss of head coach Brady Hoke to Michigan.
For people who think that Hoke couldn't have made that much of a difference for the Aztecs program, you need only look at two things.
First, San Diego State prior to Hoke's arrival. In 2008, they were 2-10. In 2007, they were 4-8. In 2006, they were 3-9. And on and on and on it goes.
Secondly, look at Ball State since his departure. After building the program to a 12-2 record in 2008, the Cardinals won just two games in 2009 and four in 2010.
Brady Hoke is one of those coaches who can definitely build a program up—which is probably why Michigan hired him (in addition to his Bo Schembechler-Lloyd Carr coaching resume). But once he's gone, much of the excitement surrounding the program goes with him.
No. 43 Baylor
When talking about defenses, we hear a lot about “the front seven.” Well, let's turn that around and talk about “the back seven.”
If Baylor hopes to have any chance of repeating their quick start from 2010, they'll need to find some quality play from their back seven, of which five are new to the starting role.
Big 12 teams can score points seemingly at will, and any opponent needs a great defense to have even a hope of keeping it close long enough for the offense to make a game of it. With just two players in the defensive backfield with starting experience (LB Elliot Coffey and CB Chance Casey), it's doubtful Baylor will be able to keep teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State out of the end zone on many drives.
Hopefully, the Bears' nine returning starters on offense can score points quick enough to keep it close.
No. 42 Southern Methodist
SMU is looking forward to a 2011 season where 18 starters return from 2010. While experience abounds for the Mustangs at every position, SMU will have a rough a tumble schedule for this upcoming season.
SMU can look forward to trips to Texas A&M and TCU and a visit from Navy. Add into the mix the fact that SMU has lost their do-it-all kicker Matt Szymanski (especially given how many big games were decided by kickers last season), and there's plenty of reason for concern.
If, however, SMU can overcome these non-conference roadblocks, even if they win just one of the two games against their fellow Texas schools, SMU could be looking forward to a truly special season.
No. 41 Brigham Young
BYU has made the decision to leave the Mountain West in favor of independence. While joining a conference more in line with their university and athletic philosophy in the other sports, it remains to be seen how the move will effect the football program.
BYU will still maintain many of its traditional matchups, and fans in Utah can still look forward to the bitter rivalry between the Cougars and the Utes.
BYU may have the problem of a lack of strength in the schedule in 2011, especially now that Boise State has joined the Mountain West. BYU does play Ole Miss and Texas, but they might not be able to be counted upon to produce the SOS points BYU will so desperately need.
In fact, were it not for the addition of a game against TCU at Cowboys Stadium on Oct. 28, the Cougars could have been in big trouble come BCS rankings time (assuming they don't stumble before then). Games against San Jose State, Utah State, FCS Idaho State, Idaho, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State are not exactly the type of schedules that will impress the BCS computers.
Add in a nearly completely new secondary for 2011, and BYU may not have the kind of independent outing they were hoping for in their first attempt.
No. 40 Northwestern
While BYU may suffer from a lack of quality opposition throughout the entirety of the 2011 season, the Wildcats from Northwestern won't have any problem finding tough, top-flight opponents.
In fact, Northwestern has one of the tougher schedules in the Big Ten this season, as the travel to face Boston College, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. If that wasn't difficult enough, the Wildcats won't get much of a respite at home with visits from Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State.
Senior quarterback Dan Persa is one of the best and most underrated quarterbacks in the entire country, and he'll be good for at least one win against a team Northwestern shouldn't beat. If he can do it two or three times, don't be surprised to find the Wildcats breaking into the BCS rankings come November.
No. 39 Tennessee
While Tennessee does have 14 starters returning for last season, the Vols are still a way off from returning to the top of the SEC.
Tennessee also won't get much help from the SEC scheduling gods in 2011, either, as they must play at Florida, Alabama and Arkansas while hosting Georgia, South Carolina and LSU.
Even their cross-divisional opponents are some of the top teams in the nation.
If Tennessee wants to climb back into the recruiting driver's seat and land some of those coveted SEC 5-stars, they'll need to show those prospects that coming to Tennessee means more than a chance to play on Saturdays. The Volunteers will need to show that it once again means a chance to compete for an SEC and BCS championship, too.
Tennessee's weakness is their lack of star power in a conference dominated by stars.
No. 38 Central Florida
The Knights were absolutely decimated on defense, as seven players were lost since the conclusion of last season. And that doesn't include the punter, either.
Of the four starters returning on defense, two were All-Conference selections from 2010. Still, it looks as though the Knights will have only one, possibly two senior starters on defense in 2011.
While a lack of experience may not be the end of the world against teams like Marshall, UAB or UTEP, it could spell disaster against BYU, Boston College, Tulsa or Southern Mississippi.
No. 37 Air Force
The Falcons are coming off of a very successful 2010, which saw them win the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, given annually to the winner of the three-way series between the three FBS service academies.
Air Force will try to follow up that success with a monster 2011 schedule, which includes obvious opponents like Navy and Army but also Notre Dame along with MWC foes TCU and Boise State.
In fact, outside of the BCS automatic qualifying conferences, Air Force may have one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2011.
While the Falcons will have many of the weapons necessary to win more than their share of football games in 2011, it's doubtful whether or not they can maintain that success through the gauntlet of tough opponents on their slate for 2011.
No. 36 Pittsburgh
Pitt certainly had an interesting offseason.
After the pressured resignation of Dave Wannstedt, Pitt named Mike Haywood as the new head coach of the Panthers. Two weeks later, Haywood was in a South Bend, Indiana jail cell after being arrested for felony domestic violence after grabbing by the neck a women with whom Haywood has a child.
Haywood was released from jail the following morning and was promptly fired by Pitt. That's a bad weekend.
Pitt moved on by hiring Tulsa head coach Todd Graham as Haywood's replacement in an effort to put the ugly mess firmly in the rear-view mirror.
Regardless of how quickly Pitt moved to resolve their coaching issues during the early weeks in January, that kind of flux has to be a distraction to players, assistant coaches and fans. Mix in the fact that Pitt has just six offensive starters returning to a program with a new head coach in a Big East conference that could see some legit BCS contenders this season, and there are plenty of warning signs for the Panthers heading into 2011.
No. 35 Miami University
The first—and only—MAC school in our Top 50 rundown has a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the 2011 MAC championship race.
Seventeen starters return from a 2010 team that went 10-4 en route to a MAC championship and GoDaddy.com Bowl victory.
But Miami's problem from really making some noise in 2011 will be the same issue they ran into in 2010. Of their four losses last year, the Redhawks have three of the same teams on their 2011 schedule.
While a loss to Ohio can certainly be rectified, losses to Cincinnati and Missouri are a little more difficult for a MAC program to avenge. Add in games against two improving programs like Minnesota and Army, and the Redhawks might just find themselves losing four of their first five games.
No. 34 University of Miami
We'll stick with out Miami theme for No. 34 on our run down and take a look at what might weaken the Hurricanes in 2011.
Much of the preseason talk about Miami has been regarding their much-anticipated rematch with Ohio State on Sept. 17. The Canes were embarrassed last season in a game in which they were supposed to put up quite a struggle. Now, Ohio State will be coming to Miami, and on top of that, the Buckeyes will be without the “Tattoo Five.”
Even though Miami only returns six offensive starters, its one of those starters that most concerns Hurricanes fans—and the rest of the nation. Jacory Harris.
Harris was expected to be the next great thing at Miami and was touted as a quarterback that could blossom into one of the best signal callers in the nation. To say that didn't pan out quite as expected is an understatement.
Harris has been so inconsistent, that a quarterback competition was underway during spring practices that no one would have believed could exist seven months earlier.
If you had hoped that the spring would provide some answers, you'll be disappointed. When asked at the end of spring ball about who would be the starting quarterback in 2011, head coach Al Golden basically said he had no idea. It's obviously a two-man race between Harris and sophomore Stephen Morris, who stepped in for the struggling Harris last season.
But clearly, the weak link for Miami in 2011 will be the quarterbacking. If the situation isn't resolved by the end of fall practices, it could remain a distraction all the way through November.
As the old saying goes, a team with two quarterbacks has no quarterback.
No. 33 Connecticut
The defending Big East champions have lost quintessential leader Zach Frazer. They've also lost starting running back Jordan Todman to the NFL.
On top of that, starting fullback Anthony Sherman is gone, so it's easy to see that the entire offensive backfield for the Huskies could be the prime source of worry for the 2011 season.
Oh yeah. Head coach Randy Edsall is alo gone, having left for the top job at Maryland.
Luckily the Huskies aren't taking any chances with their non-conference schedule in 2011, having one of the weakest non-con slates of any BCS AQ program.
FCS Fordham leads off followed by SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt. Big 12 doormat Iowa State is up next before a pair of pretty awful MAC schools (Buffalo and Western Michigan).
No. 32 West Virginia
We'll stay in the Big East for our No. 32 selection with West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are hoping for a big season, with a return to the BCS if they can handle the rest of the Big East in 2011.
The main obstacle to that goal will be the West Virginia linebacking corps. Of all the Mountaineers' units, the linebackers will go through the greatest amount of turnover. A quick check of the WVU official depth chart shows that fifth-year senior Najee Goode is listed as starting at strong side and weak side linebacker.
Unless WVU found another linebacker with the same name, this is one heck of a red flag. While Goode is talented enough to play either position, he can't play both. A lot of eyes will be on JUCO transfer and NJCAA All-American Josh Francis.
The Mountaineers will need a lot from Goode and Francis in 2011, but most of all, they need both of them to stay healthy. The Mountaineers are thin enough at linebacker without having to worry about replacing anyone.
No. 31 Utah
The Utes struggled through 2010, at least when compared to the expectations of another BCS-busting year.
The predictions for 2011 should be a little more grounded, but ironically, Utah probably has a better shot now at a BCS bowl, having moved to the Pac-12.
The Utes' biggest offseason issue which could turn into a glaring weakness against the Pac-12's prolific offenses is the lack of experience and depth at cornerback.
Both starting corners, Lamar Chapman and Brandon Burton are gone, and that leaves three viable candidates competing for the two spots, although none of them has a ton of experience.
The smart money is on senior Conroy Black and junior Reggie Topps returning to action, this year as starters with sophomore Mike Honeycutt subbing in as a backup. But that lineup could change come fall, especially with the addition of some as-yet-unknown youngsters.
No. 30 Penn State
Joe Paterno returns for his umpteenth year as head coach in State College, PA, but he'll have to deal with the loss of do-it-all offensive star Evan Royster.
For the past couple of seasons, Royster could be counted on during game-critical situations, getting the extra yards needed for a first down or breaking into the open field just when the Nittany Lions needed it most.
The 2011 Lions will probably be looking more to the air, as sophomore Silas Redd steps into the starting tailback role this season.
Returning sophomore quarterback Rob Bolden received some invaluable experience as a freshman for Penn State, and it will help that his entire receiving corps from last year is returning in 2011.
No. 29 Maryland
Maryland is a team that isn't getting a lot of preseason press. Not too many people nationally or in the ACC are paying attention to the Terps, but they should be.
Danny O'Brien is back for his sophomore season as quarterback, and he has all the makings of turning into a truly special quarterback. Even Maryland's lack of any standouts on the offensive line are mitigated by O'Brien's ability with the football.
Because of that fact, you really have to look to the defensive side of the ball to find a Terrapin weakness that really causes concern.
Unfortunately, the same weakness the Terps had last season—the secondary—is probably going to be the main cause for worry in 2011. Not only did Maryland rank 10th in the ACC in terms of pass defense, but now they have to replace both safeties. Add in a new defensive scheme by new D-coordinator Todd Bradford, and it's easy to see why the secondary could be a weakness for the Terrapins in 2011.
No. 28 North Carolina State
Another program suffering from a lack of press ink is NC State.
With all the ACC talk focused on Virginia Tech and Florida State, a team like NC State or Maryland could be under the radar just enough to really surprise some people in 2011.
If NC State wants to have a shot at the ACC championship in 2011, though, it's going to need to figure out what to do at wide receiver and quarterback.
The Wolfpack are woefully thin at experience and depth at wideout and don't have any returning starters to catch passes. They also need some to replace Russell Wilson, who was released from his scholarship.
While the new quarterback and receivers will be thankful for an easy start to the schedule (FCS Liberty, followed by Wake Forest and FCS South Alabama), it won't be long before the NC State offense will need some solid production from their receivers and new signal-caller.
What is almost more troubling is the 2012 outlook at receiver. All three receivers currently listed on the depth chart are seniors. After 2011 is over, NC State will really need to load up on receivers to avoid becoming a run-only team.
No. 27 Tulsa
The Golden Hurricane finished the 2010 season ranked in the Top 25 (No. 24) and are just outside to begin the 2011 season.
Hoping for another strong season, the Golden Hurricane will need to solve some questions in the secondary. At the beginning of last season, the defensive backfield was pretty close to being a joke. It wasn't long before they buckled down as a unit and through sheer force of will improved as the year progressed.
Throughout the course of 2010, seven different players started at either corner or safety. Everyone is back from last season, except for Charles Davis, and it's likely that the limits of Tulsa's accomplishments in 2011 will depend on how much the secondary can improve from last season.
No. 26 Arizona State
Our last team outside of the Top 25 is Arizona State.
The Sun Devils are coming off a 6-6 season that saw them passed over for a bowl in 2010. With important wins over UCLA, Arizona and Washington in 2010 and one-score-or-less losses to Wisconsin, Oregon State, USC and Stanford, it's easy to get excited about the Sun Devils' chances in the Pac-12 in 2011.
And, by the way, they return all 11 starters on offense.
In fact, the only starters the Devils lose are both defensive tackles—which is why that position could cause the Sun Devils the most worry for this season.
While it's certainly not all about “who's not coming back,” when you're looking at a team like Arizona State, their biggest downfall last season was a lack of experience.
While the Sun Devils may not, at first glance, be as stacked with talent as Oregon or Stanford or USC, their grittiness and determination can level any playing field.
Just the added experience can help Arizona State close out games. After all, turn those close losses around and instead of 6-6, you now have a Sun Devils team that is 10-2 and headed to a pretty big bowl game.
No. 25 Michigan
Welcome to the Top 25, and our first team on the “inside,” the Michigan Wolverines.
It's springtime in Ann Arbor, both in terms of the current season and its football program. The Rich Rodriguez experiment is over and was a resounding failure. Michigan is returning to its coaching heritage with the hiring of bona fide “Michigan Man” Brady Hoke.
Hoke, a student of the Schembechler-Carr College of Advanced Football Coaching, has restored the spirit of excitement surrounding the Maize and Blue. His ability to quickly turn programs into winners is exactly what Michigan needs. His Michigan connection is exactly what Michigan wants.
Now if only he could magically transform the entire defense into a unit that could stop anyone from scoring.
A lot of attention was paid to Denard Robinson last season and rightly so. After all, he's not the prototypical, statuesque pocket passing quarterback that U of M has become known for. But were it not for his nearly 500 yards of offense games last season, Michigan would have had another year that ended without a bowl game (not that the 2010 bowl game went very well).
Michigan's defense is best described as beatable. So beatable, in fact, that Michigan gave up 34 or more points nine times in 2010, including 35 to Indiana and a whopping 65 to Illinois. And let's not forget the 52 points surrendered to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
Michigan is returning 18 starters from last season, eight of them on defense.
Let's hope all that experience can be translated into being able to stop opposing offenses. Otherwise, it could be another long season in Ann Arbor.
No. 24 Georgia
Coming off their first losing season since 1996, the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them in 2011.
The good news is that Aaron Murray is not only broken in as the starting quarterback, he's turned out to be a star. On second thought, that's not good news. That's great news. With seven total offensive starters returning and eight on defense, the Bulldogs probably won't be expected to post another losing season.
Far from it. In fact, Georgia should find themselves right in the hunt for the SEC-East come November. They also have a relatively favorable SEC schedule this year, as LSU and Alabama are noticeably absent.
The major concern for Georgia is actually their opening week game against giant killer Boise State.
The Broncos have made a name for themselves by winning games exactly like this one, and Georgia is coming off a 6-7 season and is perceived to be wounded.
Should Georgia lose to Boise, expect another round of silly calls for Richt to be fired. Obviously, he won't be, but that unneeded and pointless distraction could lead to another disappointing season for Georgia.
No. 23 Florida
Moving down to our second Top 25 team from the SEC, Florida is coming off a slightly less-worse season than Georgia.
While 8-5 might be alright with some programs, much more is expected at Florida. It will be up to new head coach Will Muschamp to deliver the goods in Gainsville.
The Gators seem to still be suffering from a post-Tebow hangover, and John Brantley's abysmal spring game performance did nothing to calm the fears at Florida. You really have to excuse Florida fans for having a minor nutty over questionable quarterback play when they spent so many years watching “best person in the history of the world” Tim Tebow throw the ball around.
Still, Muschamp is standing firmly behind Brantley, and no matter how much Florida fans believe there should be, there doesn't seem to be much of a quarterback competition in Gainsville. But if you read between the lines, you'll see that it's not a matter of Muschamp having a ton of confidence in Brantley, but rather a complete lack of a replacement for him that has any prospect of doing any better.
No. 22 Texas
We'll stick with the quarterback theme as we move westward to Texas.
Right now, if you asked three Texas fans who was probably going to start for the Longhorns in the fall at quarterback, you'd probably get three different answers.
Garrett Gilbert's 2010 season was, shall we say, lacking. It was lacking in production. Lacking in touchdowns. Lacking in not throwing interceptions. Lacking.
Case McCoy is what everyone thinks is the next big thing at Texas. But beyond his last name (yes, he's the younger brother), what else has he got? The short answer is we don't know.
Then there's Connor Wood. This redshirt freshman from Houston has probably the best arm out of the three, depending on who you ask.
Even Coach Mack Brown doesn't have a clue what to do yet. He's made some unusual statements to the media about having two quarterbacks by the time fall camp is done. And here we were always taught you wanted just one quarterback.
At the end of the day, it'll probably come down between Gilbert and his inconsistency and McCoy and his genes similar to that of Texas' all-time winningest quarterback.
No. 21 Missouri
No one is really talking much about Missouri, and it's a little confusing as to why not. After all, their main nemesis in the north, Nebraska, has departed for the Big Ten. Now, there is no north. Or south. It's just the Big 12, and Missouri finished 2010 ranked in the Top 25 and begins 2011 ranked in the Top 25. So why is no one giving them much of a shot?
It's probably because of the giant vacuum left by the departure of starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
With Gabbert at the helm, the quarterbacking position was considered one of Mizzou's great strengths. It's now clearly a weakness as there isn't a clear front runner for the job, and obviously isn't anyone even near the same caliber as Gabbert.
Gabbert probably left Mizzou a little early, and unfortunately for Tiger fans, it will once again keep Missouri from having a complete package team in 2011.
No. 20 Nebraska
Since Nebraska was mentioned, now is a good a time as any to discuss our No. 20 team.
The weakness for the Cornhuskers in 2011 could end up being a combination of two things: loss of heavyweights on the O-line and the move to the Big Ten.
First off, the move to the Big Ten in and of itself is definitely not a weakness. In fact, it will probably prove to be very much a benefit for Nebraska football and for Nebraska athletics as a whole.
But when you're talking Big Ten football, you're talking big, strong, powerful football. In order to be successful in the type of conditions that you have to play in week in and week out in the Big Ten, you need those giant buffet-busters anchoring your offensive line.
This isn't the Big 12, where you occasionally get a trip to Colorado late in the season, and it's cold. Any road game from the second week in October on will pretty much guarantee you frigid temperatures, and if you're talking about Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Michigan State, quite possibly snow.
With only two returning starters, the Nebraska offensive line will need to grow up very quickly in order to have a shot at the Big Ten championship game in 2011.
No. 19 Notre Dame
The Irish finally had a season where they lived up to or exceeded expectations. When Brian Kelly is the coach, things always seem to turn out that way. But 2011 may be a different story, at least in part.
Notre Dame isn't expected to be bad in 2011. In fact, with 10 offensive starters and nine defensive starters back in action, the expectation is there for an improvement over last year's 8-5 finish. It's not that Notre Dame can't improve, it's that it will be difficult to improve by leaps and bounds. Still, a bowl game should be a foregone conclusion for the Irish this season.
As in years past, the Irish still seem to have an issue with the run game. Notre Dame is certainly a program that attracts the top talent from all over the nation. So why can't they seem to find a quality, go-to running back? It seems as all Irish backs are good for these days is keeping the safeties honest.
Sophomore Cierre Wood will most likely get the starting nod again with senior Jonas Gray serving a more utility role. But, as mentioned, their best effect on the team will be helping to relieve some pressure on quarterback Dayne Crist.
No. 18 Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech began 2010 with two losses, first to Boise State, which didn't shock the world and then to FCS James Madison, which did.
Don't expect the same start from the Hokies in 2011. Their first two games are against FCS Appalachian State and East Carolina. While Appalachian State certainly is capable of knocking off top FBS opponents, it's doubtful Va Tech will let another FCS team slide past.
Even after the horrible start, the Hokies still finished as ACC champs and earned a berth to a BCS bowl.
While Virgina Tech will be replacing the entire backfield, the most important replacement comes at quarterback. The importance of Tyrod Taylor cannot be overstated. For four years, he guided the Hokie offense. You can't just plug someone else into that position and expect to get the same type of production they Taylor provided.
While sophomore Logan Thomas will undoubtedly be serviceable and may even end up being pretty good, he's not Tyrod Taylor, and Virginia Tech will lose a powerful weapon in terms of having a multi-threat quarterback who can make game-breaking plays at any moment.
No. 17 Mississippi State
Mississippi State is working hard to break into the top echelon of the SEC. Last season was another step toward that goal, and if finished off with a bang as the Bulldogs absolutely made the Michigan Wolverines look silly.
As Mississippi State gears up for 2011, the only major area of concern is the complete lack of experience at linebacker. While Mississippi State has to replace other starters here and there, all three linebackers from last season are gone, and the Bulldogs will need to break in a new squad quickly if they hope to remain relevant in the rough-and-tumble SEC this season.
No. 16 South Carolina
Last year, the Gamecocks won their first-ever SEC-East title. Of course, they got throttled by Auburn in the SEC championship game, but winning a division title in the SEC is nothing to scoff at.
But did the Gamecocks win the East because they were that good or because the East was so bad last year?
In all honesty, it's probably a little of both. Going forward, however, it's clear that South Carolina is, for now, the team to beat in the East.
Their biggest weakness in 2011 was one of the great strengths in 2010: Stephen Garcia. This oft-troubled quarterback was suspended for the fifth time since coming to South Carolina this offseason after showing up to a SEC-mandatory leadership seminar drunk and causing disruptions before being kicked out.
For some odd reason, Steve Spurrier continues to reinstate Garcia, and there's no indication that Garcia won't be back for his senior year at South Carolina.
The issues come in if and when Garcia crosses the line yet again. After all, if history has taught us anything, it's that Garcia cannot be trusted to get through a season without being a knucklehead at least once or twice. With all of the media attention surrounding Garcia this offseason, you have to expect him to be on a very short leash.
What happens when he screws up again?
No. 15 Arkansas
The 2010 season proved that the Hogs still know a thing or two about football. After an impressive run and an at-large BCS bowl berth, Arkansas is looking to build on last season and continue its successes on the field.
Of course, they'll have to do that without the services of Ryan Mallett. Off to the NFL, Mallett will be replaced by junior Tyler Wilson as the starting quarterback for the Razorbacks. We saw Wilson in limited action last year, and there's nothing that is overly concerning about him.
In fact, he looks pretty impressive, and if you're an Arkansas fan, you're hoping for more from this guy. But when you add in the fact that Arkansas will also be replacing half of their offensive line for 2011, there are some chemistry concerns.
No. 14 Texas Christian
TCU could not have had a better season last year, finishing 13-0 and Rose Bowl champions.
TCU could not have had a more devastating offseason, losing 12 total starters from last year's Mountain West Conference champion squad.
The biggest loss is easily quarterback Andy Dalton. His leadership on the field was instrumental in the success the Horned Frogs have enjoyed over the past few seasons. Replacing him won't be easy, and it remains to be seen if sophomore Casey Pachall or junior Yogi Gallegos will be up to the task.
Even if they perform to the absolute best of their abilities, it's still doubtful if they can reach the lofty expectations set by Dalton. Expect the Horned Frogs to fall off slightly this season, and a 13-0 season and BCS bowl is probably out of reach.
No. 13 Auburn
Is there anyone in the country who doesn't know what Auburn's chief weakness will be in 2011?
As if losing 14 starters wasn't enough, one of those starters was Heisman winner and consensus greatest player from 2011 Cam Newton.
Without Newton, it's doubtful that Auburn would have achieved half of what they did last season, and his contribution to the Auburn BCS championship was monumental. But with all great players, he was supported by a pretty darned good supporting cast. Auburn now has to replace not only Newton but most of that supporting cast as well.
Heck, even most Auburn fans admit that the 2011 season won't look anything like the 2010 season. There certainly won't be a BCS championship this season and almost certainly won't be a SEC championship, either.
No. 12 Wisconsin
Wisconsin isn't known for their passing attack, so the specter of having to replace a quarterback like Scott Tolzien is mitigated by the typically solid run game in Madison.
But it usually helps if the quarterback replacement has some experience. Jon Budmayr, the sophomore stepping into the starting role, had just 10 pass attempts in his freshman season. While no one would blame Wisconsin for leaning on their running game this season, Budmayr and a crop of new receivers will need to find a way to take some of the heat off the running backs, lest Wisconsin's offense become too predictable in 2011.
No. 11 Michigan State
Michigan State had their best season of football since the 1990s and their first sniff of the Big Ten championship in what seems like forever.
Even beating Wisconsin during the regular season didn't earn the Spartans that coveted trip to Pasadena in 2010, and the goal is clear for 2011: earn a Rose Bowl berth.
Michigan State will start 2011 with one of their highest preseason rankings in a generation, and it's going to be up to the returning starters to guide MSU through a much trickier Big Ten schedule this season.
MSU has had the traditional weakness of being an inconsistent team, as a loss (especially an early one) can derail the entire season. Once bad things start to happen in East Lansing, it's as if the wheels completely come off, and the harder the Spartans try to keep from collapsing, the faster they implode.
That trend was bucked in 2010 when MSU came back against Northwestern after falling behind by a few scores in the first half. The Spartans didn't let a crushing loss to Iowa spoil the last few weeks of the season. But it remains to be seen how a beat down at the hands of Alabama in the Capital One Bowl will affect MSU.
Sparty will also need to replace All-American and leading tackler Greg Jones at middle linebacker. That one single loss could affect Michigan State's Big Ten championship hopes more than any other single player loss in the entire conference.
No. 10 Texas A&M
Amazingly, the only position at which the Aggie offense doesn't return a starter is center. The defense, however, looks to be a little short on experience at the linebacker position.
Still, the Aggies are stacked with enough talent all around the field to earn them a Top 10 ranking to start the 2011 season.
With all of the talent and top teams running around the Big 12 this season, the conference looks to be in prime position to dethrone the SEC as “God's Gift to the Football World” in 2011.
If A&M hopes to have a shot at offing Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in 2011 and win a Big 12 championship, they'll need to find a way to replace the huge contributions provided by departing linebackers Michael Hodges and Von Miller. Garrick Williams is back as the lone returning starter. He'll be joined by Damonte Moore and Jonathan Stewart who step in to the starting roles to replace Miller and Hodges.
If they can contribute early and often, the Aggies are legit contenders in the Big 12. If not, high-octane offenses like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma will exploit the center of the field every chance they get.
No. 9 Florida State
The preseason hype surrounding the Seminoles is pretty unbelievable. A Top 10 ranking is one thing, but the way some people talk, you'd think they were already in the middle of a new dynasty and winning national championship after national championship.
The fact remains that Florida State is a good team with a few unproven spots on the roster, most notably at quarterback.
EJ Manuel is a talented young man, and has some starting experience when he stepped in for Christian Ponder when Ponder began to struggle over the past two seasons. But Manual has yet to be called upon week in and week out to play 60 minutes, and he's just 4-2 as a starter.
If Manuel can mature into the starter everyone expects him to become, the quarterbacking position could turn into one of the Seminoles' greatest assets.
Because of that, perhaps the greatest weakness for Florida State headed into 2011 is the lofty expectations. While an early favorite to win the ACC, Florida State has a tough schedule in 2011, including a September 17 showdown with No. 1 Oklahoma.
Florida State must take care not to let any potential disappointment during the season detract from their potential as a BCS bowl candidate. Keep in mind Virginia Tech started 0-2 including a loss to an FCS team before winning the ACC by beating Florida State in the ACC championship game and earning a trip to the Orange Bowl.
No. 8 Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has an offense that can score so many points so quickly, it almost nullifies the fact that the Oklahoma State defense allows opponents to score so many points so quickly.
On top of that, the Cowboys only return six starters from last year's porous defense.
Most of the secondary is back for 2011, but they have yet to prove they are capable of stopping the powerful passing attacks they're going to see in the Big 12 this season. The front seven lost five starters and will need some big contributions from unexpected places in 2011 if they hope to get over the Oklahoma hump and win a Big 12 championship.
No. 7 Ohio State
Ohio State's 2011 weakness has been plastered all over the news for months. In fact, for a time it was all anyone could talk about.
The Buckeyes will be without the “Tattoo Five” for the first five games of the 2011 season. They'll also be without head coach Jim Tressel, who had his two-game suspension upped to five games to be more in line with the suspension his players received.
Even with the suspensions already in place, there's sure to be an investigation as the NCAA has delivered a “notice of allegation” to Ohio State—the equivalent to an indictment—regarding the improper benefits five players received and Jim Tressel's attempt to cover it up.
While Ohio State may get through their first five games relatively intact (only two games still have any chance of being losses for Ohio State), the NCAA investigation could drag on and on and remain as a distraction for much, if not all of the 2011 season.
No. 6 Boise State
The Broncos' 2010 season was undone by their kicker, Kyle Brotzman, after he missed two field goals against Nevada—one at the end of the fourth quarter that would have given Boise State the win and one in overtime that would have forced a second overtime.
Brotzman's years at Boise have come to a close, but the Broncos still have the services of Heisman candidate and 2010 finalist Kellen Moore.
Moore is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country, and he has amazing arm strength, making him a lethal threat to any opposing defense that doesn't cover every part of the field on every single play.
In 2011, however, Moore will have to find some new favorite targets, as Boise State will be without a returning starter at wide out. In order for the Broncos to be most successful, Moore's talents must be properly utilized, and top flight receivers are necessary. It remains to be seen if any of the new crop will materialize into playmakers for the Bronco offense.
No. 5 Stanford
When Andrew Luck announced that it was his intention to earn a degree from Stanford, the Cardinal fan base rejoiced.
The fact that a top NFL draft prospect was returning to Stanford was such big news, everyone seemed to forget that he was one of only a small handful of starters returning for 2011.
The Cardinal return just five offensive starters, including Luck and just six defensive starters. As with other teams and other players previously mentioned, the greats only become truly great when surrounded by a quality supporting cast.
Most concerning is the lack of consistency shown by the Stanford receivers during spring practice. You would think that the experience the receivers have would count for something, but as yet, it seems that the only thing you can count on right now is not being able to count on the receivers.
If Stanford wants to compete for a Pac-12 championship game berth this season, new head coach David Shaw has his work cut out for him.
No. 4 Oregon
After running the table in the Pac-10 last season and earning a trip to the BCS championship game, the Ducks appear to be ready for a Pac-12 title run and hopefully a return to the BCS. But in order to do so, the Ducks will need to replace five players on their defensive front seven. Additionally, these five players were all full-time starters, making the defensive experience a major cause for concern going forward.
At least there's not too much to worry about on the offensive side of the ball.
No. 3 Louisiana State
With nine offensive starters and seven defensive starters returning for the Tigers in 2011, it looks as if experience won't be a problem for LSU.
Hopefully, that experience will translate into consistency—something LSU lacked last season. Additionally, LSU was the beneficiary of several wins that Les Miles seemed to pull out of his nether regions. It should also be noted that LSU was helped out once or twice by crazy defensive miscues by their opponents in the final minutes (or even seconds) of a football game, handing LSU a win on a platter.
If LSU can eliminate some of the silly mistakes of 2010, and capitalize on their strengths and experience, they should be in prime position to compete for a trip to Atlanta and possibly a BCS championship game berth.
No. 2 Alabama
Seventeen returning starters headline the No. 2 team on our countdown.
Crimson Tide fans will probably admit that 2010 was a bit of a disappointment. Fresh off their BCS title after the 2009 season, the Crimson Tide were heavily favored to win another title but stumbled early against South Carolina before losing a nail biter to LSU and finishing the regular season with an embarrassing collapse against Auburn.
Alabama's biggest and perhaps only glaring question mark for 2011 is the position of quarterback.
Greg McElroy is gone, and sophomore A.J. McCarron will be stepping into the role as starter. Right behind McCarron is redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. If McCarron slips just an inch, Sims, the nation's top high school recruit last year, will be primed and ready to step in. In fact, this battle between McCarron and Sims may not even be settled before the fall practices.
It will be interesting to see what decisions Nick Saban makes regarding his signal caller in August.
Regardless of who gets the starting nod, it's clear that the only piece potentially missing from another SEC title and possible BCS title in Tuscaloosa is a top quarterback. If that piece falls into place for the Tide, they will be a very difficult team to beat this season.
No. 1 Oklahoma
Our preseason No. 1 team is Oklahoma and for very good reason.
The Sooners seemed absolutely stacked with talent and experience for 2011, and they're the early favorite to not only win the Big 12, but win the really big prize.
The biggest question and possibly only weakness the Sooners have for this season is their defensive secondary. With only one returning starter—junior corner Demontre Hurst—it will be interesting to see if the Sooners can over come some important losses and the academic suspension of Jamell Fleming to force opposing offenses to shorter drives this season.
Oklahoma has a very dangerous offense, but they can't be dangerous sitting on the sidelines. In 2010, Oklahoma was early one one of the more underwhelming teams, beating teams like Utah State, Air Force and Cincinnati by the skin of their teeth.
There's also the looming showdown with fellow Top 10 team Florida State in the middle of September. By the time that game comes to a close, a lot of questions will be answered about this Sooners team, and we'll know if they truly have any weaknesses at all.
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