College Football Predictions: 17 Safe Bets for 2011

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2011

College Football Predictions: 17 Safe Bets for 2011

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    As we come down the home stretch of the offseason, it's time to pull a chair up to the table and place your bets.

    Predicting a college football season is a little like predicting the weather—for April of 2014—but that doesn't stop us from trying.

    There are many long shot bets, and there are some 6/5 and pick-em bets. But which bets are safest for 2011? What are the locks?

    Here are 17 safe bets for the 2011 college football season.

Michigan Stadium Breaks Attendance Record, Twice

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    With a new official capacity of 109,901, the University of Michigan is again home to the largest college football stadium in the land—and the third largest stadium in the world.

    In its first game with the new expansion, U-M packed in 113,090 against Connecticut to set the new NCAA modern-era mark for largest attendance. In 2011, the University of Michigan will have two perfect opportunities to set new marks that weren't available in 2010.

    In the first night game at Michigan Stadium since it opened 85 years ago, the Wolverines will host Notre Dame. Not only is this rivalry game being hosted under the lights for the first time at Michigan, it will also be the first meeting in a few years where both teams may be sporting a Top 25 ranking.

    Both U-M and Notre Dame have been in a bit of a coach-induced slump the past few seasons, and fans of both teams are hoping 2011 will be a breakout year.

    The second record-breaker will have to wait until the end of the season when Michigan hosts Ohio State in the annual grudge match.

    Not only is this game the greatest rivalry in all of sport, it's also the first time in quite a few years where Michigan actually has a chance to beat the Buckeyes. Expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 115,000 people to squeeze into the Big House to see if the Wolverines can finally pull one out against the now beleaguered Buckeyes.

Georgia and Florida Both Rebound from Disappointing 2010 Seasons

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    It probably isn't much of a stretch to assume that most fans of both Georgia and Florida were very disappointed with the way 2010 turned out.

    Georgia had their first losing season in umpteen years, and Florida was a lackluster 8-5.

    Florida is under new leadership, and with a wealth of returning talent and a healthy influx of new blood, the Gators should be ready to mount a charge in the SEC East this season.

    Georgia's woes in 2010 are a bit more difficult to explain. There was confounding loss after confounding loss for the Bulldogs last season, and you might be able to chalk the entire season up under the “aberration” category.

    But the silver lining for Georgia is that young freshman quarterback Aaron Murray was uncovered as a true rising star in the SEC. As talented as he is, there's no substitute for experience, and he certainly got enough of that last season. Hopefully, the losing experiences will leave a bad taste in his mouth, and this year the Bulldogs will be much improved.

    Even if an early loss to a powerful Boise State team brings out the Georgia naysayers, your money would be pretty safe betting on an improved Bulldogs team in 2011.

UCF Repeats at C-USA Champion, but It Still Doesn't Matter

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    When the Golden Knights moved from the MAC to C-USA after their 0-11 2004 season, they were unquestionably taking a step up in class.

    Unfortunately, it wasn't a giant step. The MAC is the doormat of the FBS, and most people expected a bad MAC program to flounder in Conference USA. But in a stunning turnaround, the Knights went from 0-11 in 2004 to 8-5 in 2005, earning a C-USA divisional title and Hawai'i Bowl berth in the first season in their new conference.

    After a string of up-and-down years, UCF has been able to string together a couple of decent seasons, going 8-5 in 2009 and 11-3 in 2010, including their second conference title in four years.

    UCF will certainly enter the 2011 season as one of the favorites in C-USA, as the Knights have seven offensive starters returning this season. But even if UCF can duplicate last year's success, it likely won't mean much more than another berth in the mediocre Liberty Bowl.

    While Conference USA is a step up from the MAC, a single step up from the basement doesn't get you a berth to anything better than bowl games that no one watches and even fewer people attend (51,231 attendance and a 3.2 rating last season even with an opponent like Georgia).

The MAC and Sun Belt Continue Their Complete Irrelevance in the NCAA

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    Speaking of the MAC, let's face facts. Along with the Sun Belt, these are the two worst conferences in the FBS. They're just plain awful.

    Part of the problem is geography. One must acknowledge that the Sun Belt runs right through the middle of SEC and Big 12 country, and the MAC is smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten. But at the end of the day, these two conferences don't amount to much more than cannon fodder for the larger conferences in the country.

    The last time anyone got excited about any team from these conferences, the team in question lived up to wider expectations and disappointed. The lesson was learned, and now the national media only pays passing attention to these programs, and only when they're the ritual sacrifice of the week to a team from a BCS-AQ conference.

    There are even some teams in these conferences that have been warned by the NCAA that they could be in danger of losing FBS status.

    Current NCAA rules state that a program must average 15,000 fans in home-game attendance at least one year over every two-year period. As recently as 2005, there were six MAC programs and five Sun Belt programs that didn't meet this requirements (all made the mark in 2006, many by giving tickets away).

    If you can't even get 15,000 fans to come watch an FBS football game, you must have a pretty lousy product.

The SEC-West Continues Its Dominance over the East

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    The SEC East was a train wreck last season.

    South Carolina finished 5-3 in conference last year and earned a trip to the conference championship game without tie-breakers.

    Florida was 4-4, and Georgia and Tennessee were both 3-5.

    By comparison, in the West, there was only one team with a record worse than 4-4, and three teams finished with conference records better than that of South Carolina. The West also finished the 2010 season with five of the six teams ranked in the Top 25, with the lowest ranking at No. 15.

    South Carolina was the only East team ranked at No. 22.

    Looking ahead to 2011, there's not much reason to believe that the West won't continue onwards, and the early favorites appear to be LSU and Alabama. There's also a bit of talk surrouding Arkansas and Mississippi State.

    All from the West.

Ohio State Won't Be Competing for a Big Ten Title

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    With the forced resignation of Jim Tressel and the departure of Terrelle Pryor, not to mention the suspension of several other players for the first five games of the 2011 season, there's a lot of room for doubt in Columbus.

    Of course, if you live in Columbus and you're an Ohio State fan, it's doubtful you can see anything other than the positive when it comes to the Buckeyes, thanks to those giant scarlet and gray blinders. You might still love Jim Tressel, but keep in mind that he's ultimately to blame for the next several years of Ohio State's relegation to the Big Ten's second-tier.

    Even with the losses that come with Tressel and Pryor leaving the program, you would expect Ohio State to be able to continue to compete at the highest level in the Big Ten, and you'd probably be correct. But with scandal comes consequences, and Ohio State will soon learn their fate from the NCAA.

    It is almost a foregone conclusion that Ohio State will suffer through some sort of postseason ban, similar to USC. The Big Ten is already on record as saying that a postseason ban from the NCAA would include the Big Ten Championship Game.

    It's difficult to see how Ohio State escapes sanctions that don't at least equal the totality of punishment received by USC's football program.

The 2011 Heisman Comes Down to All Quarterbacks, Again

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    Even if you only take a cursory glance at the Heisman list for 2011, you can't help but notice the lack of non-quarterbacks in any great number.

    Andrew Luck, Kellen Moore, Denard Robinson, Landry Jones, Brandon Weeden... the list includes not only a plethora of quarterbacks, but a collection of truly very good quarterbacks.

    Over the past decade, the award has been won by a non-quarterback only once (Mark Ingram in 2008), and only twice if you count Reggie Bush's award in 2005, that no longer exists. In the 10 awards previous to the last 11 (counting 2005), a non-quarterback won six times. Before 1989, quarterbacks rarely won.

    Clearly, the Heisman Trophy Trust has slanted towards quarterbacks. There's no reason to believe that trend won't continue, and with the output we're expecting from the signal-callers in 2011, it's safe to bet on another quarterback hoisting the 25-pound likeness of NYU's Ed Smith in New York this December.

Texas Won't Lose Seven Games Again

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    Mack Brown has been one of the most successful coaches of the past decade, amassing a record of 133-34 since taking over the Longhorns program in 1998.

    Prior to last season, the worst record ever posted by Texas under Brown was 9-5 in 1999 (Texas was 9-3 twice, in 1998 and 2000). Since 2001, Brown had never failed to lead the Longhorns to double-digit wins—until last season.

    Not only did Texas fail to reach the 10-win plateau for the first time this century, they also posted a record the likes of which hadn't been seen in Austin since before Brown arrived.

    A 5-7 season certainly wasn't expected in Austin, and it's probably not expected again this season. Trouble is, the Longhorns won't be much different this season than they were last season. Most of the problems still exist, and many of the same underperforming players are still going to be starting for Texas.

    The difference this season is the fact that Texas is coming off a losing, bowl-less season. There's not much talk of winning a conference title this season—which is probably good, considering Texas has trouble winning the Big 12 even when they don't post 5-7 seasons (winning just two conference titles under Mack Brown). This season is all about redemption. This season is all about pride.

    And if there's one thing Texans have plenty of, it's pride.

The SEC Makes It Back to the BCS Championship Game

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    If you were to listen to an SEC fan tell the story, you'd think that there weren't any other conferences in the nation. After all, the SEC has won five consecutive titles, right? The SEC has won seven overall titles. The SEC has never lost in the BCS title game.

    Why should any other conference even get the time of day? They should just give the trophy to the SEC champion every year! The entire conference is simply amazing!

    Those arguments are a little silly. After all, why should Vanderbilt get so much credit for simply being in the same conference as Alabama and Florida? Why should Ole Miss get the benefit of the doubt simply because they play Auburn and LSU? Each team needs to stand on its own merit, and that's just as true in the SEC as it is in the Big East, Pac-12 or any other conference.

    It just happens that for the last five years running, there's been a single team from the SEC that has been a cut above the rest in the nation—but it's not the same team every year.

    The SEC is able to produce some excellent college football programs. That's nothing new. And there's no reason to doubt that 2011 will see yet another quality BCS contender from the SEC. But one team from the SEC making the BCS Championship Game doesn't give a pass to the rest of the conference.

The Huddle Goes the Way of the Dodo

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    As the talent pool expands, and the overall level of talent in the nation increases, the game gets faster. Over the past few seasons, there have been an increasing number of offensive schemes that rely on the no-huddle offense.

    Defenses that aren't well prepared or are comprised of less-than-top-tier talent quickly find themselves playing catch-up. Once the huddle goes away, it's very difficult to bring it back. Once the defenses adjust to the fast pace of a no-huddle offense, the offense slows down at their own peril.

    As more and more teams find talented defensive prospects, more and more offensive coordinators around the nation will switch to the no-huddle spread simply to keep up.

Notre Dame Makes a Run for the BCS

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    Brian Kelly was recently asked about the goal for the Irish in 2011.

    “I don't want to take anything away from the Sun Bowl, but you don't have that up in your locker room as the [desired bowl] destination,” Kelly said. “Going into year two, it's BCS.”

    Kelly and the Irish certainly had a pretty successful year one. No, they didn't win a national title, and no they didn't make a BCS bowl, but all things considered, it could have been a lot worse—Charlie Weis could still be the coach, for instance.

    With the returning talent in South Bend, Notre Dame appears to finally be putting all of the pieces in place to return to the BCS. Maybe in the end, they just needed the right guy as head coach. It's still early, but it looks like Brian Kelly is the right guy.

Arizona State Will Win the Pac-12 South

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    If this prediction surprises you, then you probably haven't been paying much attention this off-season.

    The Sun Devils finished 2010 with a completely unimpressive 6-6 record. But if you dig just beneath the surface, you'll find that four of those games were by pretty slim margins, including a couple of one-point losses. In fact, the Sun Devils were just a handful of points away from being 10-2 last season.

    So what will be the “X” factor this season? Experience. The Sun Devils return every offensive starter this year, and nine defensive starters. Even if nothing else changes, you'd have to expect that much experience to be good for nine points—last year's combined difference in four of ASU's six losses.

West Virginia Will Win the Big East

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    When WVU was in their BCS heyday, Rich Rodriguez was busy guiding some pretty prolific offensives in Morganstown.

    While the Rodriguez years are long gone, Mountaineer Field is about to see a new brand of offensive production, this time brought to you courtesy of new head coach Dana Holgorsen.

    Holgorsen was the mastermind behind the offensive explosion seen at Oklahoma State, and he's now the head coach at West Virginia. While there's no guarantee that an amazing offensive coordinator will make an amazing head coach (Charlie Weis, we're looking at you), don't expect WVU to be in any other position in late November than one to win the Big East outright and claim a return trip to a BCS bowl.

    With eight offensive starters returning, the only question for WVU's offensive is how effectively can they execute Holgorsen's plans.

    If the answer is even only moderately well, the rest of the relatively weak Big East could be in trouble.

Florida State Will Win the ACC

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    Have you bought into the Seminoles hype yet?

    It's hard not to, considering all of the coverage Florida State has been getting this off-season.

    With 16 combined starters returning from 2010, there are a lot of people who are very high on FSU's chances this season in the ACC. In reality, this pick is probably less about Florida State's meteoric rise than about Virginia Tech's projected fall off with the loss of Tyrod Taylor. After all, when you have a quarterback like Taylor, you can't just replace him. Guys like that don't come along every day.

    But let's not take anything away from Jimbo Fisher and the 'Noles. Fisher seems to have most of the pieces in place in Tallahassee, and if EJ Manuel pans out as a quality starting quarterback, it's entirely possible that Florida State could turn a lofty preseason ranking (Top 10 in some polls) into a BCS title chase come November.

Boise State Will Win the Mountain West

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    The Mountain West Conference will be an interesting beast this year.

    For one year, and unfortunately only one year, we will all be treated to a non-automatic BCS qualifying conference that contains at least two legit BCS teams—Boise State and TCU (you might also be able to throw Nevada into that mix). In fact, with a pair of programs like Boise State and TCU in the same conference, it's not a stretch to argue that, at least for 2011, the MWC probably deserves an automatic BCS berth more so than the Big East.

    In reality, no such automatic berth will likely be necessary as the team that emerges as conference champion will likely have the ranking to make the BCS on their own merit.

    If there's a favorite in the MWC horse race this season, it has to be Boise State. Not only do the Broncos enjoy a lofty preseason ranking (top five in some polls, top 10 in every other), but they have a schedule that will add in a few of those absurd strength-of-schedule points.

    Boise State starts their season with a trip to take on Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. While a number of people are high on Georgia in this game, the smart money has to be on Boise State. It's time to stop pretending like a loss to Boise State is an embarassment.

    Even though the Broncos aren't technically a “BCS program,” they're leaps and bounds above some programs that are (Vanderbilt, Oregon State, Indiana, Wake Forest, just to name a few of the many). Losing a close game to Boise State should fall under the category of “quality loss.” So many teams lose to Boise, so if and when Georgia loses to Boise, the sky won't come crashing down.

    Once Boise State gets past Georgia, there's a potential landmine on September 24 when Tulsa travels to Boise. Tulsa is a team that could be much better than anyone expects. Following the game against the Golden Hurricane, comes a visit from Nevada. We all remember how that game turned out last season. Don't expect Boise State to allow the game to remain so close that the kickers determine who wins and who loses.

    Once the conference season begins in mid-October (after a trip to Fresno), Boise State really only has two teams standing in their path. Luckily, the toughest foe will need to travel to Boise in November for the game. TCU comes north on November 12 in what is sure to be the marquee match up of the 2011 MWC season.

    Unfortunately, TCU is so depleted this season that it's really difficult to see how they could possibly upend a team led by a Heisman finalist quarterback. Add in the fact that Boise State hasn't lost a home conference game since 1998, are 77-2 since 1999 and are currently riding a 62-game home winning streak. It bears repeating. It's really difficult to see how TCU could possibly beat Boise State in 2011.

    Another regular season ending 12-0 will mean another BCS trip for Boise—and this season, it could be a trip to New Orleans on January 9...

An Undefeated Non-AQ Program Would Qualify for the BCS Championship Game

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    ...Which brings us to this safe bet.

    Boise State will enter the season around No. 6 in most polls.

    Two of the teams in front of them are guaranteed to lose before the end of the season, as three of the teams play each other (Alabama and LSU, and LSU and Oregon). If LSU were to go 1-1 in those games, it's easy to see how Boise State rises to at least No. 4 or in the nation with an undefeated season.

    Stanford, which will likely start at No. 5, is highly ranked because of one player—Andrew Luck. As good as Luck is, he's just one of a very small handful of returning starters from last season. Plus, head coaching success Jim Harbaugh is gone, and the Pac-12 is likely to be one tough gauntlet this season. Right now, Stanford doesn't appear to be the favorite in the Pac-12, meaning they'll have to lose at some point. Boise is now No. 3.

    That leaves Oklahoma and either Alabama, Oregon, or LSU (depending on how LSU fares against those two opponents). Boise then only needs one of those teams to lose to rise to the No. 2 spot and earn a trip to New Orleans.

    But wait a minute. We've seen an undefeated Boise State team left out for one-loss BCS AQ teams before. What makes 2011 different?

    A couple of things, actually, make 2011 different. The first thing is the asinine strength-of-schedule component to the computer rankings. This season, Boise State should have sufficient SOS points to overcome a handful of weak conference opponents that have killed them in the past. If not, then something is seriously afoul.

    Which brings us to the second reason. The US Department of Justice is currently making inquiries into the BCS and the way it operates. Specifically, the Justice Department is investigating the BCS for possible violations of US antitrust laws.

    The argument has been that the BCS isn't fair to the programs that aren't part of a BCS conference. The BCS contends that the current system is fair and equitable. Then, there are those who stupidly come down on neither side, claiming the system isn't fair, but should remain (as in E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State).

    In a nutshell, the best thing the BCS can do to alleviate the Justice Department's concerns is to admit an undefeated non-AQ program to the BCS Championship Game. The absolute worst thing the BCS could do is to reject an undefeated Boise State in favor of, say, a one-loss Oklahoma or one-loss Alabama.

    All due deference to the Sooners and Crimson Tide, but 2011 doesn't appear to be a year in which losing a game will do anything but disqualify you from the title game. This season may be more about preserving the current BCS system, and for that, the BCS now needs Boise State.

Most Predictions Will Be Wrong

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    We've talked about a lot of “safe bets” here, but there's one bet that's the safest of all to make:

    Most predictions (including the ones herein) will be incorrect.

    It's just one of the wonderful things about college football. You never can tell what will happen next week, much less next month.

    It's only July, and we're talking about what is safe bet.

    In the end, the only safe bet may be that there won't be any truly safe bets in this, or any other college football season.

    That's why they play the games, and it's why we watch with undying devotion and unending entertainment.