College Football 2011: Who are the Real Contenders and Pretenders in the Top 25?
Summer is upon us, which means three things.
Temperatures are rising, kids are out of school and running amok and every college football publication and website is releasing their preseason top 25 lists.
Every season, these lists typically contain three roughly equal parts—spot on prognostications, omissions of worthy teams and lofty spots for teams that will prove unworthy once the whistle blows in September.
This season shall be no different.
While the definition of what a contender is varies from team to team, it boils down to whether a team is worthy of its ranking and deliver on the field relative to those expectations.
With that in mind, it's time to go through this season's top 25 and sort them out by who is a real contender and who is merely a pretender.
25. Auburn Tigers
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The celebration of Auburn's improbable national championship is still going strong, which may make the forthcoming jolt back to reality all the more startling.
First the good news.
The team is loaded at running back, with Michael Dyer (1,093 yards) and Onterrio McCallebb forming a potent 1-2 punch. Head coach Gene Chizik continues to attract top recruits to the program, helping to ensure that the Tigers will not be a flash in the pan.
Now the bad news.
No Cam Newton.
Four starters on the offensive line are gone.
The top two receivers need to be replaced.
Only four starters return on defense.
Add in that their SEC West division rivals Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas are all ranked, and this makes for a rebuilding year for these talented young Tigers.
24. Georgia Bulldogs
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The question that has been asked more than any other in Athens since the end of last season has been whether the Bulldogs' 6-7 record—their first losing mark since 1996—was a fluke or the beginning of a prolonged decline.
Bet on the former.
The main reason to expect a major rebound in 2011 lies with the right arm of sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray. As a freshman, Murray was sensational, throwing for 3,049 yards with an excellent 24-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
He'll be without top target A.J. Green but a talented backfield of Caleb King and top recruit Isaiah Crowell will help take the pressure off of Murray.
On the other side of the ball, the Dawgs return eight starters from the nation's 23rd best defense. That ranking should improve, as they will now have a full season in the newly installed 3-4 defense under their belts.
For most schools, the kicking game isn't typically mentioned, but Georgia may have the top kicker-punter duo in the nation in Blair Walsh and Drew Butler.
Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism in Athens is their schedule. Should they survive the first two games of the season—versus Boise State (in Atlanta) and home against South Carolina—the Dawgs should roll, as they don't face the cream of the SEC crop in Alabama, LSU or Arkansas.
23. Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State has long been one of the most underachieving programs in the nation, where buoyant preseason optimism regularly turns into soured indifference.
That ugly cycle should end in 2011.
The Sun Devils' 6-6 record last season is deceiving. A very young team—with only two senior starters—battled tough in every game and arguably should have beaten Wisconsin, Oregon, USC and Stanford had they not succumbed to fatal self-inflicted mistakes indicative of an inexperienced team.
Those mistake-prone kids of 2010 now the battle-tested veterans of 2011.
Offensively, the high-octane system ASU installed last season has a bevy of dynamic playmakers in running backs Deantre Lewis and Cameron Marshall and wide receivers Mike Willie and Gerrell Robinson. The question will be whether new starting quarterback Brock Osweiler can carry the hot end of his season over into this year.
The team's strength should be on defense, where the Devils have perhaps the nation's top defensive player in linebacker Vontaze Burfict and a pass rush that blossomed at the end of last season.
If ASU can play smarter—they ranked 114th in the nation in penalties—the Sun Devils should be in excellent shape to represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game.
22. Missouri Tigers
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From Missouri's perspective, Blaine Gabbert picked a bad time to become a top NFL draft pick.
Other than center Tim Barnes, Gabbert is the only member of the Tigers' high-flying offense not to return in 2011. On a pass-happy team in a pass-happier conference, that absence could very well be enough to keep Missouri from another 10-win season.
James Franklin inherits the starting quarterback job and thus far has failed to impress. With road games against Arizona State, top-ranked Oklahoma and Kansas State among Missouri's first five games, he won't have much time to get comfortable.
The pressure will then fall to the Tigers defense, led by a defensive line featuring dynamic ends Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith. Their play up front will be critical, as the Missouri secondary will be replacing three starters, which could make for some long days in Big-12 play.
The Tigers will experience some early struggles and in a year when the conference features some top teams and may be in the "a year away" category.
21. West Virginia Mountaineers
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The popping sound you heard was the champagne cork being launched by the West Virginia fans after former coach Bill Stewart was forced out.
Replacing Stewart is Dana Holgerson, the architect of Oklahoma State's dynamic offensive attack.
Holgerson will have the luxury of utilizing Geno Smith, who earned second-team All-Big East honors in his sophomore season. Smith will also have a host of experienced receivers at his disposal and four returning offensive linemen offering him protection.
Last season, it was the Mountaineer defensemen who were the heroes, as they finished the year ranked third in total defense. However, the challenge for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel—a holdover from the Stewart regime—will be maintaining that success while replacing seven starters.
However, given the likely improvement on offense and the perpetual state of the Big East as the little sister of the BCS conferences (at least until TCU joins next season), West Virginia is in excellent shape to win the conference and make a BCS bowl.
20. Florida Gators
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For many teams, an 8-5 season would be cause for a parade.
For the Florida Gators, it's time tor panic.
Adding fuel to the fire was the unexpected resignation of two-time national champion coach Urban Meyer. He was replaced by heralded Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who then made Charlie Weis his offensive coordinator.
Weis' first job will be attempting to restore confidence in quarterback Jeff Brantley. The pro-style offense that Weis will install would seem to favor Brantley's skillset, but thus far in his Gator career, Brantley has yet to show he can be the player Meyer thought he could.
While the Gator offense is always stocked with speed, notably running back Jeff Demps, their skill position players have yet to prove capable of being true gamebreakers in the SEC.
Muschamp's defense, the ninth best in the nation in 2010, faces similar hurdles. They must replace seven starters, including their best player, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was kicked off the team due to repeated arrests.
The track record of the coaching staff and talent pipeline that Florida has in perpetuity suggest better days are ahead for the program. Just don't expect those to start this season.
19. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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In what seems to be an annual tradition, Notre Dame appears in the preseason rankings, only to appear unworthy once the season starts.
That could all change in 2011, as head coach Brian Kelly's second season possesses all the hype of a new Irish season, but 19 returning starts gives legitimacy to the hopes of proving them warranted.
On offense, Kelly must choose between quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, who each played well in extensive time last season. Whoever wins will oversee a pass-heavy attack that features many experienced weapons and will only get stronger once the status of suspended wide receiver Michael Floyd is resolved. The challenge for the offense will be to improve upon a 92nd-ranked rushing attack.
On defense, the question is whether the nine returning starters will play like the unit that surrendered 63 points in losses to Navy and Tulsa, or the one that gave up only 39 points over the season's final four games.
The schedule is also in their favor, with tough games against Michigan State, USC and Maryland all coming at home. If the defense comes together to the level of the offense, their season finale at Stanford could carry with it plenty of BCS implications.
18. Mississippi State Bulldogs
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Long a doormat of the SEC, head coach Dan Mullen has Mississippi State on the verge of having consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time in the school's history.
Those hopes will fall on the Bulldog offense, which ranked an impressive 16th nationally in rushing. Vick Ballard scored 20 touchdowns and quarterback Chris Relf added 713 yards rushing to lead the ground game.
The question will be if Relf can develop more as a passer to get the ball to a talented receiving corps that returns it's top four pass catchers. If the Bulldogs can establish a balance, they can become very, very dangerous.
The defense should be very strong up front along the line and back in the secondary, with seven of the eight positions returning. It's the linebacking corps that will be the Bulldogs' challenge, as all three starters will be new. That could very well prevent Mississippi State from posting a rushing defense as formidable as last season, when it was the nation's 15th best, allowing just 119 yards per game.
With this level of talent on both sides of the ball, it would seem the Bulldogs would be sure-fire contenders. Unfortunately, they are in the SEC West, arguably the most difficult division in the country.
Games against division rivals Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas are augmented by games at Georgia and against South Carolina to give Mississippi State an uphill battle few others will face.
17. Ohio State Buckeyes
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Anyone who has followed college football in even the most casual manner knows the chaos in Columbus over the last few months.
The scandal of the "Tat 5" was then followed by Jim Tressel's "resignation" which was then followed by quarterback Terrelle Pryor's decision to leave school.
What once was an effort to hold the line for the first five games while the suspended players serve their time has now devolved into a full-fledged rebuilding effort.
Given that change, look for talented freshman quarterback Braxton Miller to take over the Buckeye offense. While Miller could eventually be a game-changer for Ohio State, the track record of true freshmen quarterbacks isn't pristine, and with the lack of weapons at his disposal due to the suspension, the Buckeyes could find themselves in a deep early season hole.
The news isn't much better on defense, as only four starters return. While a sharp dropoff from last season's fourth best defense is all but assured, it will at least give the Buckeye's large group of talented recruits plenty of game experience.
However, the Big Ten's new divisional alignment should help Ohio State, as only Wisconsin should provide a real threat to the Buckeyes.
That being said, due to the extensive turmoil the program finds itself in, Ohio State will take its lumps in 2011 with their eyes on getting their talented young players the experience needed to return to the top in 2012.
16. Michigan State Spartans
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The Spartans caught much of the college football world off guard in 2010 as they stormed to an 11-2 record and a shard of the Big Ten title.
This season, they won't be able to sneak up on their opponents, but with returning talent at key positions on both sides of the ball, they will be able to remain a top team.
It all starts in the backfield, where the combination of quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker form a potent duo as good as any in the conference. Cousins has proven to be an effective leader but Baker is the real star of the offense. After topping 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns, Baker has now set his sights on 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns.
With only two starters returning along the line, those goals may be a bit ambitious, but anything approaching last year's production should put the Spartans in good shape.
On defense, Michigan State is strong up front, with tackle Jerel Worthy—currently projected as a top 10 pick in next season's NFL draft—leading a group of three returning starters along the line.
The rush defense will likely suffer as all three linebackers, including two-time All-American Greg Jones, are gone. The secondary is in better shape, with three returning starters, including two All-Big Ten performers.
The Spartans get some breaks in the schedule as well. They face Ohio State during the "Tat 5" suspensions and face Wisconsin and Michigan at home. If they can win on the road at Nebraska, Michigan State could be the Legends champion.
15. TCU Horned Frogs
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There is only one team in the nation to finish the last three seasons ranked in the top 10, and they reside in Fort Worth, Texas.
If there is a team that personifies the old adage "offense gets the glory but defense wins the game," it's TCU. In those three seasons in which they've finished in the top 10, they've also led the nation in total defense.
Maintaining that success will be a challenge for Gary Patterson's defending Rose Bowl champions, but given their track record, it's difficult to discount their chances.
Even though six starters from the defense are gone, there are three All-MWC players among those returners. The strength will be at linebacker, with Rose Bowl hero Tank Carder teaming with Tanner Brock to form one of the most devastating duos in the country.
With the defense figuring to be strong once again, the rebuilding offense will have time to mature. The main focus will be on how Casey Pachall is able to replace TCUs' all-time leading passer Andy Dalton. His task will be helped by the return of Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker, who combined for 1,787 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
In their final season in the Mountain West Conference, TCU will be facing a stern challenge for the conference crown by newcomers Boise State, who TCU will visit on November 12th in what almost certainly will decide the title.
While TCU may not emerge victorious, 10 more wins and a nice bowl game are all but assured.
14. Arkansas Razorbacks
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Arkansas has tremendous talent at the offensive skill positions, with their top four wide receivers and star running back Knile Davis returning from last season's Sugar Bowl team.
Whether they'll have much help remains to be seen.
With star quarterback Ryan Mallett and three starting offensive linemen gone, the Razorbacks may have a tough time putting points on the board, especially once they get into the teeth of SEC play. They will lean heavily on Davis, a 220-pound bruiser who topped 1,300 yards a season ago, but if new quarterback Tyler Wilson can't produce or get protection, it will be a long season in Fayetteville.
The situation is better on defense, where seven starters return. The front seven is in good shape, with All-SEC linebacker Jerry Franklin anchoring an unit that ranked 36th nationally in total defense. The line returns five players who made starters last season, but will need to improve their performance against the run.
For Arkansas, the greatest hurdle to overcome in 2011 is not a new quarterback, revamped offensive line or losses on defense. It's their schedule.
They have to travel to their top two competitors in the SEC West, Alabama and LSU, and face off against Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State and South Carolina. That murderous slate will likely be too much for Arkansas to overcome.
13. Wisconsin Badgers
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In an era in which the spread offense is the current offensive craze, the Wisconsin Badgers remain a living history exhibit of a bygone age.
Last season, the Badgers came within four Montee Ball rushing yards from having three running backs with over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns each. That is quite simply a dominant ground game and the reason no Badgers are missing former Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay, who made an ill-advised decision to leave for the NFL.
The success on the ground is both a product of the talented running backs as well as the perpetually giant offensive line, which should be able to replace two starters.
Where it gets interesting is at quarterback. The presumption was Jon Budmayr would take over for Scott Tolzien, but the Badgers got some great news when the ultra-talented Russell Wilson chose to play his final season in Madison. A former All-ACC selection, Wilson would bring a dynamic aspect to Wisconsin, as evidenced by his 72 total touchdown over his final two seasons at North Carolina State.
The Badgers were 26th in both run and pass defense, but while their experienced defensive line and secondary should help with the latter, losses at linebacker could make them vulnerable to the run in the run-happy Big Ten.
The schedule helps Wisconsin as they don't have a true road game until Week 7 against Michigan State. With fellow Leaders division opponents Penn State, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana all behind the Badgers in terms of talent and the turmoil that has engulfed Ohio State, Wisconsin should be once again seeing 10 or more wins and BCS contention.
12. Virginia Tech Hokies
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Pop quiz: Which teams have posted 10 or more wins over the last seven seasons?
Trick question. Only one has done that and they play in Blacksburg.
For head coach Frank Beamer, it seems that no matter who is in the lineup, the Hokies will win. That kind of consistency is truly remarkable and that same magic will be needed again in 2011.
ACC Player of the Year Tyrod Taylor will be replaced at quarterback by the talented Logan Thomas. Thomas will be hard pressed to match Taylor's success in his first season, but with four returning linemen up front—two who earned All-ACC honors—and the top three receivers at his disposal, he has a lot of help.
The defense should be tough once again as each level returns multiple starters, with cornerback Jayron Hosley as the star. His nine interceptions helped the Hokies top the nation in turnover margin.
The schedule is also very favorable, with their two key division games against Miami and North Carolina both at home and they also avoid Florida State—at least in the regular season. Thankfully for Hokie fans, the schedule is also free of James Madison.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
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It was a tale of two seasons for Nebraska.
The first was a 9-1 start, a No. 8 national ranking and a Heisman Trophy contending quarterback in Taylor Martinez.
The second was a 1-3 finish, a Holiday Bowl loss to Washington and an unraveling Martinez who was losing both games and confidence.
Since then, the 'Huskers have left the Big-12 for the Big Ten, where their commitment to defense and the run will fit right in.
Whether coach Bo Pelini can restore Martinez to his Heisman-caliber ways remains to be seen, but the three holes left on the offensive line may be of greater concern. A soft spot of three games to open the season will be critical in getting Martinez and line ready for conference play.
The Blackshirt defense will be ready regardless. The defensive line has two All-Big 12 players, including Jared Crick, who is arguably the best defensive tackle in the country. Behind the line is the usual glut of talent that should help minimize the loss of cornerback Prince Amukamara.
The 'Huskers will get their likely primary Legends division rival Michigan State at home. With their defense, it seems likely that Nebraska's first season in the Big Ten will end with a trip to the conference title game.
10. Texas A&M Aggies
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Like their former Big 12 rivals in Lincoln, Texas A&M's 2010 season comprised two distinct sections.
The first was a middling 3-3 start in which they trounced some small schools before being worked over by BCS-conference competition.
Their season turned around during their Week 7 win against Kansas when they turned over the quarterbacking duties to Ryan Tannehill, who had actually led the team in receptions the previous two seasons.
Tannehill wasted little time in leading the Aggies to six straight wins and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. That success, coupled with 18 returning starters, has optimism in College Station running rampant.
The offense returns nearly in tact, with the only loss at center. Tannehill will have All-Big 12 weapons in receiver Jeff Fuller and running back Cyrus Grey and an experienced line to give him time. This should result in an even better showing for the offense, which was still an impressive 23rd in the nation a year ago.
The defense lost Von Miller and Michael Hodges at linebacker, but should be formidable elsewhere. The pass defense returns all starters, which will be key in the Big 12.
As for the schedule, they get Oklahoma State and Texas at home, but have to travel to Oklahoma on November 5th in what could be the conference game of the year.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
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If there was an Arena Football equivalent in college football, it would be Oklahoma State.
In 2010, the Cowboys ranked second in passing offense (345.9 yards per game), third in scoring offense (44.2 points per game) and third in total offense (520.2 yards per game). Conversely, their defense ranked a paltry 88th, surrendering more than 400 yards per game.
Both trends seem like a lock to continue in 2011.
The Cowboy offense returns 10 starters, including their two Heisman candidates, quarterback Brandon Weeden (34 touchdown passes) and wide receiver Justin Blackmon (20 touchdown receptions). All five offensive linemen return, and it's with this level of returning talent that the loss of running back Kendall Hunter and his 1,548 rushing yards and 16 touchdown won't be a devastating blow.
Now for the bad news.
The Cowboys were devastated up front, with only two starters returning among the front seven, which was the defense's "strength." While their run defense ranking was somewhat better than one may expect (37th), it is in large part because the pass defense was so bad (115th). In the Big 12, a bad pass defense is an invitation for disaster.
At least Oklahoma State has the offensive firepower to make these track meets exciting.
8. Stanford Cardinal
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Just how far can a great quarterback take a team?
After losing 10 starters and their brilliant head coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford will find out in 2011.
The Cardinal could lose 21 of 22 starters and still be in good shape as long as the lone holdover is quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck is arguably the best quarterback prospect since fellow Stanford signal caller John Elway in the early 1980s. While he lost three members of an offensive line that allowed only five sacks all year, the remaining two are All-Pac 10 selections.
He'll also have running back Stepfan Taylor, who topped 1,100 yards last season. Taylor will be key, as Luck will be building a rapport with two new starting wide receivers.
The defense, which was the 10th best in the nation in scoring average, will be counted on as the offense gels together. The strength will be a secondary that features three returning starters, including second team All-Pac 10 safety Delano Howell.
The schedule works in their favor as well, as their top games—Oregon and Notre Dame—are both at home.
Then why are they pretenders?
A top quarterback, even one of Luck's caliber, can only take a team so far. While they will still be an excellent team, a No. 4 ranking and a return to the BCS seems just a tad out of reach.
7. South Carolina Gamecocks
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With an offense featuring wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, running back Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Stephen Garcia (when sober), the Ol' Ball Coach Steve Spurrier may have the best trio of playmakers in the SEC.
However, while Jeffery and Lattimore are stars and likely to be playing on Sundays one day, Garcia holds an equal chance of being the Gamecocks' hero or villain in 2011.
One moment, he can be a brilliant playmaker and then follow that up with a crippling interception. While his touchdowns have increased each season, so has his interception total, with a much-too-high 14 coming last season.
With the talent on offense, it is imperative for South Carolina that he play smart and utilize the weapons around him. For a player who is serving his fifth suspension in his collegiate career, doing anything in a "smart" manner is a coin toss at best.
Thankfully for the "other" USC, a stout defense should be able to give the Garcia and offense a greater margin of error.
It starts up front with defensive line that features dynamic Devin Taylor and the nation's top overall recruit Jadeveon Clowney. They'll need to play well, as a revamped linebacking corps sits behind them.
A Taylor-Clowney led pass rush will also be critical in helping the secondary. Despite three returning starters, a complement to All-SEC cornerback Stephon Gilmore must be found to help improve the 97th-ranked pass defense in the nation.
The schedule is also very much in the Gamecocks favor. They play only four true road games and avoid the two of the SEC's best in Alabama and LSU.
6. Florida State Seminoles
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The Seminoles are gearing up to be among the nation's elite, which means the 1990s are back or Jimbo Fisher had a great first season in Tallahassee.
And a great season he did have. Florida State won 10 games, including a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina, and with 16 returning starters, there is legitimate hope in northern Florida for the first time in years.
The strength of the team will be a nasty defense that should terrorize quarterbacks along the Atlantic coast. The Seminoles tied for the FBS lead in sacks with 48, and top pass rusher Brandon Jenkins looks to improve upon his 13.5 sacks from a year ago.
The strength doesn't end there, with an experienced secondary and even the linebacking corps, which loses two starters, returns an dynamic playmaker in Nigel Bradham.
On offense, the Seminoles have a talented trio at running back and their top six pass catchers return. That leaves the only question on the team at quarterback, where E.J. Manuel will finally have the chance to be the man for Florida State.
Manuel has seen some action, but has yet to display the on-field production his tremendous skill set would suggest. If he can make good on that with the weapons at his disposal, Florida State will be a contender for the national championship.
Their schedule is tailor-made for a ACC Atlantic division title, but there is one opponent that stands out—top-ranked Oklahoma. That Week 3 matchup Tallahassee will go a long way in proving whether the hype surrounding the program is warranted and provide the Seminoles a chance to avenge last season's 47-17 dismantling by the Sooners.
5. Boise State Broncos
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Is this the year that Boise State finally breaks through in their quest for the national championship game?
With ten starters having departed and a move to the tougher Mountain West Conference, the already long odds became just out of reach.
That's not to say that the Broncos won't be good. In fact, they should be very good.
Kellen Moore will make his seemingly annual charge at the Heisman Trophy. Now in his fourth season as the starting quarterback, Moore will be facing a difficult task as his dynamic wide receivers from last season—Austin Pettis and Titus Young—have both left.
However, Boise State and head coach Chris Petersen always seem to be able to find playmakers, and while that process is underway, the ball can be given to star running back Doug Martin.
The defense will be very strong up front. Three of the five returning linemen or linebackers earned all-conference honors last season and their play will be crucial to a secondary that is absent safety Jeron Johnson, who had led the team in tackles in each of the last three seasons.
It won't take long to find out how much the roster turnover has impacted Boise State. They open the season in Atlanta against Georgia in a game that will be most telling for both schools. After that, they get a break in that their toughest remaining games—including the epic November 12th duel against TCU—comes at home.
4. Oregon Ducks
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For 58 minutes in January, Oregon played well enough to be the national champions.
With many key players back and the bitter disappointment of being so close to the ultimate goal still very much alive, the Ducks will once again be in the title hunt.
Oregon will once again be built upon the "win the day" philosophy of running a quick-strike spread attack built on the run. LaMichael James returns to defend his national rushing crown and will once again have speedy backup Kenjon Barner behind him.
Quarterback Darron Thomas can beat opponents with both his arm and his legs, but without his top two receivers, his effectiveness may come more from the former.
While the offense should be just fine, it's the defense that will prove troublesome in 2011.
Only two starters return from a talented front seven, including their heart and soul, All-American linebacker Casey Matthews. Complicating matters on the backend is the indefinite suspension of their best defender, cornerback Cliff Harris, who will at least miss the season opener.
Yeah, about that season opener...
It comes against LSU in Arlington, Texas, in a huge matchup between national title hopefuls. With the size and athleticism of the Tigers, Oregon's inexperienced defense will have their hands full and then some. As for conference play, they must face their chief competition in the Pac-12 North on the road.
While Oregon is extremely talented and building the kind of perpetual Pac-10/12 contender that USC did in the 2000s, this has the makings of an off year in Eugene.
3. LSU Tigers
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A team wins 11 games, takes home the Cotton Bowl title and finishes ranked No. 8.
A team's starting quarterback has a 7-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, gets pulled from games and leads a passing offense ranked 107th.
Common sense would tell you that those two statements would describe teams that went in very different direction. However, they are both accurate descriptions of the 2010 LSU Tigers. When you factor in the difficulty of the SEC, that's a testament to how absolutely loaded the LSU roster is.
Jordan Jefferson was unable to build upon his terrific 2009 season and regressed considerably. He will have an excellent receiving corps as he tries to carry over the momentum of his three touchdown Cotton Bowl performance. If Jefferson can complement the always strong Tiger rushing attack with a decent passing threat, LSU will be truly dominant.
The Tigers defense, an annual strength, will once again be among the best in the conference. The primary challenge will be replacing both defensive tackle's in the 4-3 scheme, but the linebackers and secondary will again be brutal for opponents. While they may struggle to once again be a top 10 pass defense without cornerback Patrick Peterson, LSU will still be among the elite.
If this enormously talented team can once again reach 11 wins, it will be quite an accomplishment. The schedule is brutal—a common thread among all SEC West teams—with trips Mississippi State, West Virginia and Alabama and a neutral site game against Oregon.
But if a team can win 11 games with a bad quarterback, then they must be given the benefit of the 2011 doubt.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
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After watching their hated in-state rivals succeed them as national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide are primed and ready to reclaim their throne.
For most teams, losing four players on offense that were first-round picks in the NFL draft would be cause for panic, but not for the Tide. With four returning offensive linemen and Heisman-caliber running back Trent Richardson, Alabama will be able to produce, no matter who wins the starting quarterback job between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims.
The main reason for that is that the Crimson Tide defense will make an opponent's score a relative rarity.
Alabama finished 2010 ranked fifth in total defense and third in the more important scoring defense category, allowing a meager 13.5 points per game. Only one starter will not be returning, leaving the Tide defense, behind four All-SEC performers, to roll over their opposition with frightening regularity.
In the SEC West, Alabama and LSU are clearly the class of the division, and the division winner will likely come from the winner of their November 5th meeting...which just so happens to be in Tuscaloosa.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
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Having proved that their five-loss 2009 season was a fluke, Bob Stoops and the reigning Fiesta Bowl champions are poised to take home the national title and are well equipped for the job.
No player threw more passes last season than quarterback Landry Jones, and he made sure to put all those balls to good use, throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns. Eight other starters return for one of the nation's best offenses, including four offensive linemen and star wide receiver Ryan Broyles and his video game-like stat line (131 receptions, 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns).
The offense will score. That is a fact. But can the defense be good enough to elevate the Sooners to national championship caliber?
Eight starters return, including five of the six defensive linemen and linebackers. While the Sooner pass defense—a necessity in the Big 12—ranked only 51st in the nation in passing yards allowed, they played best when it mattered, as evidenced by their ranking as the eighth best pass defense in terms of opposing efficiency.
The schedule is tough, with big road games coming against Florida State and the season finale against Oklahoma State, but this is a talented and experienced team that is very worthy of the top spot in the nation.
It's time to play ball.
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