College Football Predictions 2011: Champions of Each BCS Conference
Before we know it, the 2011 season will be bearing down on us with fresh news, scrambled lineups and a renewed determination for each team as it guns for a coveted BCS bowl game.
While the majority have only a fool's hope, the nation's elite are expected to at least make a run year after year.
But to be among that group, one must first go through the Gauntlet—otherwise known as the conference schedule.
Although some of the lucky ones can hardly call their schedules gauntlets, the fact remains: To make a BCS game, you are all but required to win the conference. And in any of the Big Six conferences, doing so is almost never an easy task.
While a few BCS slots go to remarkable second-placers and unblemished non-AQ teams, a program's best bet to be invited is a conference championship under its belt.
As the 2011 season inches closer, only to rush upon us come August, we look at the AQ teams best equipped to reign conference champions.
Sources: Rivals.com, ESPN.com
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Winner: West Virginia
Believe it or not, I actually considered crowning the Louisville Cardinals the winners of the Big East.
Once you all get done laughing, just hear me out.
The one reason that the thought crossed my mind is Charlie Strong.
Louisville's head coach doubles as a defensive mastermind, leading the Cards to a No. 18 ranking in scoring defense in just his first year, not to mention a 26-0 drubbing of the eventual conference champs.
As the saying goes, defense wins championships, and you can bet the rest of the Big East will be afraid of the Cardinal defense.
But the problem that comes into play is on offense, which loses its top runner, passer and receiver from a year ago.
And take it from a Nebraska fan—great defenses still need at least little help from the offense.
West Virginia, on the other hand, returns its top passer and two of its top receivers. Although the Mountaineers lose an electrifying player in Noel Devine, quarterback Geno Smith and hybrid speedsters Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin should be able to pick up the slack.
With Pittsburgh, who is annually in the thick of the Big East race, amidst a tumultuous coaching change, their bitter rivals step to the front of the pack and take the conference.
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Winner: Florida State
Going with the popular opinion here, I decided the Seminoles may have the right pieces in place at just the right time.
Virginia Tech, who has been the perennial team-to-beat since the end of Miami's dominance in the early 2000s, loses its veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the NFL Draft.
Miami is having quarterback issues of its own, not to mention a transition period with new coach Al Golden.
The Wolfpack of NC State took a huge blow with the transfer of star quarterback Russell Wilson, and the North Carolina Tarheels suffered big losses to the Draft.
It seems the only other two teams that will seriously challenge FSU are Clemson and Boston College.
The Tigers reeled in a monster recruiting class that included four 5-star players according to Rivals.com, and the Eagles boast running back Montel Harris on offense and tackling machine Luke Kuechly on defense.
But against a Florida State team that includes EJ Manuel, Chris Thompson, Jermaine Thomas, Taiwan Easterling, Bert Reed, Brandon Jenkins, Nigel Bradham, Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, the rest of the ACC will get more than they can handle.
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Widely considered the preseason No. 1 for 2011, the Sooners are highly regarded for good reason.
The Sooners roster is speckled with All-American candidates, including returning 4,000 yard passer Landry Jones, 1,500 yard receiver Ryan Broyles and stud linebacker Travis Lewis, and flooded with youthful talent such as Kenny Stills, Roy Finch, Brennan Clay, Tom Wort, Jamarkus McFarland and many others.
Among OU's potential challengers are the Texas Longhorns, who get an infusion of young talent that includes one of the nation's top high school running backs in Malcolm Brown. Brown will look to jump-start the 'Horns after an uncharacteristic 5-7 season.
While the quarterback situation should be better no matter what, as Garrett Gilbert will be pushed hard be three or four other talented young gunslingers, the Longhorns just won't have enough to top the Sooners in 2011.
Texas A&M and Missouri will each make a push as well, but will ultimately be in the same boat as Texas.
OU may not win the Big Dance like they are popularly picked to do (when does the preseason No. 1 ever end up winning it all?), but they will still rule the Big 12.
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The race for the Pacific 12 Championship could be one of the most tightly contested in some time. With a plethora of talented players returning to school throughout the conference, this one projects to be exciting to the viewers.
The Trojans of USC return quarterback Matt Barkley, receiver Robert Woods , running back Marc Tyler and left tackle Matt Kalil to form a formidable offense. Defensively, they return a solid group that should outperform last season's relatively disappointing unit.
The conference adds an instant contender in Utah, who is led by an extremely successful head coach in Kyle Wittingham. The Utes have a strong group of talent that includes quarterback Jordan Wynn, and many are tabbing them as the Pac-12 favorites.
Stanford returns arguably the best quarterback in the nation in Andrew Luck to go along with electric receiver Chris Owusu and hard-hitting linebacker Shayne Skov.
Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State are all dark horse contenders led by Nick Foles, Vontaze Burfict and James Rodgers, respectively.
But on top of all those I'm picking Oregon, not because it's one of the most popular picks, but because they return Darron Thomas, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Cliff Harris, among others, from the nation's runner-up in 2010.
The Ducks will be hungry to finish the job, and that's why I think they'll have that extra push in a close Pac-12 finish.
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As a Nebraska fan, I struggled with being this optimistic. The Huskers are learning a brand new offense and joining a brand new conference. That's not exactly a recipe for success.
But what they do have going for them is they seem to be joining at just the right time.
After news surfaced of Jim Tressel's resignation, Ohio State opened a door for all other Big Ten teams.
Although Ohio State will still be one of the favorites in the Big Ten, with their five stars eventually returning from suspension to rejoin players like Michael Brewster and Brian Rolle, they'll be fighting more of an uphill battle this time around.
During what will almost certainly be a rough transition period psychologically, windows of opportunity present themselves to other conference contenders including the Huskers, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.
While the Badgers return running backs Montee Ball and James White to go along with a usually solid defense, the offensive line and quarterback positions took a significant hit with the departure of John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi and Scott Tolzien.
The Michigan State Spartans also look strong at running back with Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell and look to have a strong passing game with quarterback Kirk Cousins and receiver BJ Cunningham. However, they were suspect on defense at times in 2010 and lose star linebacker Greg Jones.
The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions both look to have solid teams as always, but Iowa may have a stressful season in the wake of the player hospitalizations, and Penn State has disappointed in recent years when touted as a possible championship contender.
That leaves Nebraska, who admittedly has just as many question marks offensively as any or all of the above teams. The difference is on defense.
The Huskers return three All-America candidates, one for each level of the defense, in seniors Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard to lead what could be the Pelinis' best defense yet.
Pair that with a young but possibly explosive offense that will include Rex Burkhead, Taylor Martinez Brandon Kinnie, Kyler Reed, freshman sensation Jamal Turner and more, and the Huskers have the foundation laid for a run at dominance.
Whether that begins this year is a huge question mark, and I'll probably regret this, but I'll take the risk and pick the Big Red for the Big Ten.
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When it comes to the Southeastern Conference, anything can happen.
The premiere conference in the nation, teams from the SEC have won the National Championship an unprecedented six years in a row.
In this stacked league, which had a bit of a "down" year in 2010, I'm taking one popular pick, Alabama, over another popular pick, LSU, and a third team that may have the best shot otherwise, South Carolina.
LSU doesn't rebuild anymore; it reloads. With the loss of star corner Patrick Peterson, the Tigers simply insert another star. The cornerback positions will be locked down by Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne.
On offense is where the question marks begin. The lightning-quick Russell Shepard should lead a solid group of wideouts, but the quarterback battle is being fought between two very average players.
South Carolina returns some immense talent in Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore and will be quarterbacked by a solid talent whether that turns out to be Stephen Garcia or Connor Shaw.
However, Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have yet to prove themselves able to win a championship.
For those reasons, I'm taking the experienced Nick Saban and Alabama, led by Trent Richardson, Marquis Maze, Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Dre' Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and AJ McCarron, to take the SEC.
Will the Tide make it the seventh season in a row for the conference? Only time will tell, but they have as good a shot as anybody.
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Winner: Notre Dame
I'll keep it short and sweet: Notre Dame is the best independent team, period.
While Navy has really given them a run for their money in recent years, the tide seems to be turning in favor of the Golden Domers.
While the Irish have had a few down years, new coach Brian Kelly seems to be getting through to his players.
The 2011 unit should be significantly improved in Kelly's second year. Cierre Wood and Michael Floyd form a solid running back/receiver duo, while the quarterback position will be occupied by Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees.
Notre Dame should have a solid 2011 campaign, and a BCS bowl is arguably a possibility, but don't expect any kind of championship run just yet.