College Football 2011 Preview: The No. 1 Contender in Each BCS Conference

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College Football 2011 Preview: The No. 1 Contender in Each BCS Conference
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Will LSU reign supreme in the SEC in 2011?

Good news, college football fans, June is upon us and the first kickoff of the 2011 college football season is within sight.

As we speak, dozens of different college football preview magazines are hitting the shelves, each of them proclaiming which teams are the cream of the crop for the upcoming campaign.

If the 2010 season taught us anything, it’s that preseason predictions are often meaningless.

Last summer, you’d have been hard-pressed to find many college football fans outside of Alabama who thought Auburn had a shot at a national title or that Cam Newton was worthy of the Heisman Trophy.

While preseason predictions and summer smack talk usually hold little weight once September rolls around, that certainly doesn’t seem to deter college football fans from speaking their mind.

Everyone has their different favorites and there is sure to be a wide variety of opinions on who the best teams are for 2011.

Here’s a look at the six BCS teams that I’d rank as the No. 1 contenders in their respective conferences.

 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
LB Nigel Bradham will be the leader of a much improved Florida State defense

ACC: Florida State Seminoles

In 2009, the Florida State defense was an utter disaster.

The Seminoles ranked last in the ACC in total defense and gave up an average of 30 points and 434 yards per games.

Two years later, that defense now looks like one of the most formidable units in the country.

Florida State’s defensive depth chart is loaded with NFL prospects at almost every position on the field.

DE Brandon Jenkins, LB Nigel Bradham and CB Xavier Rhodes are some of the best players in the ACC and they're surrounded with plenty of reliable help.

With the type of talent they’ve been bringing in over the past few years, there’s no doubt that the Seminoles should have one of the most stout defenses in all of college football.

On offense, the main focus will be on the development and progression of new quarterback E.J. Manuel.

The junior signal caller has shown flashes of greatness in spot duty, but it remains to be seen if he can stay consistent for a full season.

Manuel will be surrounded by strong skill position play in the backfield.

Florida State has a two-headed monster at running back with Chris Thompson and Jermaine Thomas.

Thompson and Thomas combined for over 1,300 yards on the ground and 12 rushing touchdowns in 2010.

Coach Jimbo Fisher was a success story in his first year on the job and now it’s time to see if he can keep the momentum going and bring his team back to the national stage.

ACC Power Rankings

Atlantic
1. Florida State Seminoles
2. Clemson Tigers
3. North Carolina State Wolfpack
4. Maryland Terrapins
5. Boston College Golden Eagles
6. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Coastal
1. Miami Hurricanes
2. Virginia Tech Hokies
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
4. Virginia Cavaliers
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
6. Duke Blue Devils 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
West Virginia QB Geno Smith should flourish in Dana Holgorsen's offense

 

Big East: West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart failed to recapture his Fiesta Bowl magic over the last three seasons, as Stewart’s Mountaineers have failed to meet high expectations, annually coming up short in their quest for a BCS berth.

AD Oliver Luck ran out of patience and opted to bring in a reinforcement in the form of Dana Holgorsen, the team’s new offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting.

Mountaineer fans have suffered and endured through three years of Jeff Mullen’s lousy and wasteful play-calling, so Holgorsen’s high-flying Air Raid style of offense will be a welcome change in Morgantown.

The biggest beneficiary of the switch will be junior QB Geno Smith.

Smith has the strong arm and the overall skill-set to develop into a star as the trigger man in Holgorsen’s pass-heavy system.

Smith will have two rising star receivers to throw to in junior Tavon Austin and WR Stedman Bailey.

He should have no trouble finding the time to get the ball to Austin and Bailey.

If OG Josh Jenkins returns to full health, West Virginia's veteran offensive line will return four starters from a year ago and should be among the best in the country.

The defense will have to replace seven starters—including four NFL draft picks—from a unit that ranked in the top 10 in total defense last season.

The Mountaineers will be in good shape up front with DE Bruce Irvin and DT Julian Miller, two of the top defensive linemen in the Big East, and All-Conference corner Keith Tandy and safety Terence Garvin should keep things steady in the defensive backfield.

The linebacker unit, led by sole returning starter Najee Goode, will need some patchwork, but there are quality replacements like Doug Rigg available.

The bottom line is that if the offense can put up the type of points it's expected to, the defense should do a decent enough job of keeping the opponent under control.

The pressure will be on Holgorsen to produce in his first year and set the tone for his following head coaching career.
 

Big East Power Rankings

1. West Virginia Mountaineers
2. South Florida Bulls
3. Syracuse Orange
4. Pittsburgh Panthers
5. Cincinnati Bearcats
6. Connecticut Huskies
7. Louisville Cardinals
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

 

Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers

With perennial Big Ten powerhouse Ohio state now simply a program in turmoil, it looks as if there could be an opportunity for a new bully to take over the block.

That bully could end up being new conference arrival Nebraska.

On defense, the Cornhuskers are loaded with future pros like DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard, and it looks as if the unit could be the best in all of college football.

On offense, the team will be paced by sophomore QB Taylor Martinez, who swayed between bouts of greatness and immaturity as a freshman last season.

If he keeps his cool and his focus, Martinez could be a star in the Big Ten.

The 6’1’’ sophomore is a dynamic athlete who can change the complexion of any given game with just one run.

Coach Bo Pelini obviously wasn’t satisfied with how last season ended and you can bet that he won’t be happy with another second-place conference trophy this year.

Pelini will have his talented team ready to takeover their new territory this season.

Eric Francis/Getty Images
If Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez develops as a passer, the Cornhuskers could contend for a championship

Big Ten Power Rankings

Legends
1. Nebraska Cornhuskers
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
3. Michigan State Spartans
4. Northwestern Wildcats
5. Michigan Wolverines
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Leaders
1. Wisconsin Badgers
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
5. Purdue Boilermakers
6. Indiana Hoosiers

 

Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners

It’s fairly clear who the No. 1 ranked team will be when the season begins. 

This year, Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners will start the season off in the top spot with the target placed firmly on their back.

It’s the same exact spot where the Sooners were midway through last season before they had their national title dreams crushed by the Missouri Tigers.

Oklahoma will head to Tallahassee on Sept. 17 for a meeting with Florida State, a game that is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated of the season.

That certainly won’t be the only tough test that the top team will have to deal with in its quest for perfection.

The Sooners will have plenty of challengers to their appointed throne.

QB Landry Jones and WR Ryan Broyles, two All-American caliber players, are back to guide the Oklahoma offense, but watch out for RB Brandon Williams, a true freshman who has a chance to shine this season.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Oklahoma QB Landry Jones is an early Heisman favorite

The defense will be playing with a heavy heart after the tragic loss of LB Austin Box this spring.

LB Travis Lewis, DE Ronnell Lewis and LB Tony Jefferson will guide the talented unit, which should be the best in the Big 12 this season.

This group has the look of one of those vintage Oklahoma teams that’s oozing playmakers all over the field.

If coach Stoops can keep his team focused, the Sooners have a good chance to go wire to wire.
 

Big 12 Power Rankings

1. Oklahoma Sooners
2. Texas A&M Aggies
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
4. Texas Longhorns
5. Missouri Tigers
6. Baylor Bears
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders
8. Kansas State Wildcats
9. Kansas Jayhawks
10. Iowa State Cyclones 

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
The backfield duo of RB LaMiichael James and QB Darron Thomas will once again cause headaches for Pac-12 defensive coordinators

 

Pac-12: Oregon Ducks

Yes, it’s true, Oregon loses some key components from a squad that finished the regular season undefeated last year. But don’t be fooled, the Ducks still have the speed to fly past the competition in 2011.

QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James may be the most explosive backfield duo in America.

Thomas and James combined for over 4,000 yards in 2010, and they were the two main forces for the country’s most dangerous offense.

Now that opponents know the potency of the quack attack, Thomas and James will have to work extra hard to replicate their fantastic production from a year ago.

Oregon will be fine on offense, we know that, but on the other side of the ball, star corner Cliff Harris will lead a secondary that absolutely must be efficient because the defense will be forced to break in five new starters in the front seven.

As they say, it’s easier to get to the top than to stay at the top, and this year the Ducks are going to have to deal with QB Andrew Luck and Stanford clawing at their heels in the North division race.

Chip Kelly is one of the brightest coaches in America, though, and you can tell that there’s a certain winning energy that is permeating through Eugene these days.

Kelly should have his crew ready to defend their conference crown with a renewed tenacity in 2011. 

Pac-12 Power Rankings

North
1. Oregon Ducks
2. Stanford Cardinal
3. California Golden Bears
4. Washington State Cougars
5. Washington Huskies
6. Oregon State Beavers

South
1. USC Trojans
2. Arizona State Sun Devils
3. Arizona Wildcats
4. UCLA Bruins
5. Colorado Buffaloes
6. Utah Utes

 

SEC: LSU Tigers

I didn’t read any of the comments on my "Jordan Jefferson is a Legitimate Heisman Contender" article, but I’m sure I had at least a few flames flung my way.

Jefferson has been mocked by many college football fans for his poor performance in 2010, but you have to remember that the kid has talent.

The former four-star recruit failed to get into any type of rhythm last season, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the skills.

Jefferson made great strides this spring and new coordinator Steve Kragthorpe could be the perfect savior to help revive the struggling senior’s career.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
LSU QB Jordan Jefferson has dealt with tons of criticism but it may have ultimately made him a better player

If Jefferson can get going, the Tigers are built to dominate this season.

The defense may have lost DT Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson, but there are plenty of up-and-coming stars to help ease the pain of the departures.

To let you know the kind of defensive depth this team has, there are legitimately five LSU defensive ends—Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Kendrick Adams, Lavar Edwards and Chancey Aghayere—that could probably start for any other team in America.

Plus, they have DT Michael Brockers, LB Ryan Baker and CB Morris Claiborne to help replace Nevis, Sheppard and Peterson.

It’s pretty much a given that the Tigers will shut opponents down, now all that remains to be seen is if Jordan Jefferson can jump-start an offense that finished near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every statistical category last season.

If Jefferson can stay consistent, LSU should survive the grueling battles that the SEC West has in store this year.
 

SEC Power Rankings

East
1. South Carolina Gamecocks
2. Florida Gators
3. Georgia Bulldogs
4. Tennessee Volunteers
5. Kentucky Wildcats
6. Vanderbilt Commodores

West
1. LSU Tigers
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
3. Mississippi State Bulldogs
4. Arkansas Razorbacks
5. Auburn Tigers
6. Ole Miss Rebels

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