College Football Preseason Power Rankings: LSU Tigers Take the No. 1 Spot

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IJuly 27, 2011

College Football Preseason Power Rankings: LSU Tigers Take the No. 1 Spot

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    Even though much of the national sports media’s attention will now be focused squarely on the NFL from here on out, you can bet that there will still be plenty of college football fans who will be keeping the sports chat stove warm with juicy college gridiron talk.

    By now, we all know which teams are expected to compete this season, so all the trash talk seems almost pointless.

    The time for talking is over. It's about time we get back to settling things on the field again. 

    All of the preseason predictions and hype may prove to mean nothing in just a few months time, but that won’t stop many fans from trying to forecast the future.

    Everybody has a few favorites for the upcoming season, and I’m definitely no different.

    Here’s a look at the 25 teams who I feel will make the most noise in 2011.

Honorable Mention

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    TCU Horned Frogs

    Miami Hurricanes

    Texas Longhorns

    Pittsburgh Panthers

    Ohio State Buckeyes

    Florida Gators

    North Carolina Tar Heels

    Auburn Tigers

    San Diego State Aztecs

    North Carolina State Wolfpack

    South Florida Bulls

25. Baylor Bears

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    Robert Griffin III has the chance to be college football’s next big star, and you better not be shocked or surprised to see the speedy junior quarterback throw his name into the Heisman hat this year.

    Griffin has dug Baylor out of the hole which kept them stuck in the Big 12 basement for the last decade and a half, and he’s finally made the Bears a viable bowl chaser.

    There aren’t many quarterbacks who can amass over 4,000 yards of total offense in one season, but Griffin managed to accomplish that feat in his first year back after an ACL tear.

    It makes you wonder what he’s going to do now that he’s fully healthy.

    Griffin has one of college football’s hidden gems, WR Kendall Wright, as his main target, and he’ll have a mammoth veteran offensive line blocking for him.

    With the departures of Byron Landor and Phil Taylor, the Bears lack many proven names on defense, but they do have a rising star at defensive end in sophomore Tevin Elliot.

    7-6 and a much-needed bowl vacation is a nice start, but now it’s time for Baylor to take the next step up the Big 12 ladder.

    With Robert Griffin III, the Bears have the right leader in place to make a conference climb this season.  

24. USC Trojans

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    Lane Kiffin’s first year in Los Angeles had an odd feeling right from the beginning.

    After the Reggie Bush scandal shook the program's once sturdy foundation, Kiffin’s Trojans seemed to feed into the negative energy, as they trudged their way to an 8-5 finish.

    It appears as if the dominant days of the last decade are over.

    The Trojans may still have blue chip talent, but it doesn’t appear that they still have a blue chip aura.

    USC may never again be the intimidating west coast bully that dominated the conference for a decade, but like I said, the Trojans still have blue chip talent.

    They’re going to win games.

    QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, OT Ryan Kalil, CB Nickell Robey, DE Nick Perry and S T.J. McDonald are all future high draft picks.

    Pete Carroll taught us that when you have the big players, you win the big championships.

    Well, Lane, you’ve certainly got the big players.

    Now, it’s time to start challenging for some championships.

    8-5 won’t cut it for long at USC.

23. Michigan State Spartans

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    Michigan State entered the 2010 season as a team sitting somewhat off the radar, but it didn’t take long for the Spartans to make the country take notice.

    After suffering a heart attack after a thrilling week three overtime win over Notre Dame, coach Mark Dantonio made a valiant return to lead the Spartans to an 8-0 record and a top five national ranking midway through the season.

    It’s true the season didn't end the way Michigan State fans had hoped it would.

    A 49-7 bludgeoning at the hands of Alabama probably didn’t do much for the Spartans' confidence and momentum. But this is a team that still has the makings of a Big Ten title contender.

    QB Kirk Cousins is developing into a sound and reliable starter who knows how to lead the offense down the field at crucial times. Cousins also has one of the strongest running back stables in the country right behind him.

    Edwin Baker, who ran for over 1,200 yards last season, is the face of that group.

    Cousins and Baker, two of the most underappreciated players in the Big Ten, are sure to catch a lot of people’s attention this Fall.

    On defense, the Spartans have to figure out a way to make up for the loss of MLB Greg Jones, who led the team in tackles each of the last four seasons.

    Michigan State has three future pros (DT Jerel Worthy, CB Johnny Adams and S Trenton Robinson) all returning, so losing Jones may not be the end of the world.

    With Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa all on the slate, things won’t be easy for the Spartans in 2011, but this is a team that still has what it takes to contend in the Big Ten.

22. Clemson Tigers

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    With adversity comes positive change.

    Those are the words uttered by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney during a recent interview on ESPNU.

    It’s good to see that Swinney is maintaining a positive outlook for the upcoming season, because after last year’s underwhelming 6-7 campaign, there are questions starting to be raised about the security of the coach’s job.

    Luckily, Swinney has a great shot to have a bounce back statement season in 2011.

    The Tigers may have to break in new starting QB Tajh Boyd, but the rest of the offense is loaded with experience and talent.

    RB Andre Ellington hasn’t lived up to the comparisons to predecessor C.J. Spiller just yet, but he sure has given us a few flashes of greatness.

    Ellington, who ran for over 700 yards and scored 11 TDs in 2010, will have a strong and skilled offensive line in front of him this year. Tackle Landon Walker and center Dalton Freeman will lead a group that returns four starters and one that should be among the best the ACC has to offer.

    WR DeAndre Hopkins showed that he can be a difference maker as a freshman, leading the team with 51 catches. And TE Dwayne Allen, a formidable receiving threat, should help out the passing game quite a bit as well.

    On defense, the Tigers will undoubtedly miss the presence of DE Da’Quan Bowers, who left for the NFL a year early after a breakout junior season. But the defensive line should still be the strength of the unit with guys like DT Brandon Thompson and DE Andre Branch coming back.

    Ultimately, Clemson’s success this season will come down to three people: Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and Dabo Swinney.

    If Boyd can make a smooth transition to the starting role and if Ellington can continue to develop into an all-around home run threat, the offense should be fine.

    Once Week 3 hits, Clemson’s schedule will start to get grueling, so it’s up to Swinney to keep this team thinking positive and staying motivated.

    If the Tigers can do that, they should be able to give Florida State a run for its money in the ACC Atlantic division.

21. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    QB Ryan Mallett may be gone, but don’t expect coach Bobby Petrino to start shedding tears.

    Petrino is hard at work trying to mold his latest quarterback pupil, Tyler Wilson, into his next star gunslinger.

    We all got the chance to witness Wilson’s ability in some mop up work for Mallett last year, and it became quite evident that there wasn’t that big of a drop off between the two.

    Luckily for Wilson, he’ll have one of the best sets of skill position players in all of college football surrounding him this season.

    RB Knile Davis, the leading returning rusher in the SEC, is the total package who possesses a rare combination of speed and power.

    Wilson will also have one of the best receiving corps in the country, led by future pros Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright.

    The problem for the junior quarterback is that he won’t have much of an offensive line to keep him protected.

    While Arkansas may lack the reinforcements in the offensive trenches, the Razorbacks are certainly fully stocked on the defensive side of the line with preseason All-SEC pick DE Jake Bequette, tackles Bryan and DeQuinta Jones and fellow imposing end Tank Wright.

    The leader of the defense won’t be Bequette, though.

    LB Jerry Franklin, an accomplished and proven senior, will be the one who makes the Arkansas defensive engine tick.

    Bequette, Wright and Franklin will all be playing in the NFL some day soon, as will junior corner Darius Winston, who has a chance to be better than Chris Houston.

    The bottom line is that if Arkansas really wants to contend in the insanely difficult SEC West, the Razorbacks will need Wilson to pick up the offense right from the get go. They’ll need Knile Davis to produce on a similar level to what he was able to do last year. And they’ll need the defense to be at the very least, above average.

    If they get all of that, they could certainly make a run at the West division title.

20. Arizona State Sun Devils

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    I’ve already gone on record as saying LB Vontaze Burfict is my favorite player for the 2011 season and I plan on standing by that all the way through the year.

    What I love about Burfict is that he's the type of player who plays with a Gladiator-esque approach, and it seems like he takes pride in frightening opposing ball carriers.

    The junior ‘backer has already racked up over 150 tackles in just his first two seasons, and his hunt is really just beginning.

    Burfict will be the leader of a Sun Devils defense that will enter the season as one of the most underrated units in college football.

    Sure, losing CB Omar Bolden for the season was a big blow, but guys like DE Junior Onyeali, LB Brandon Magee and S Eddie Elder all look like they're ready to elevate their game.

    On offense, Arizona State doesn’t have a Burfict-like stud to flaunt, but the Sun Devils do have some intriguing pieces to the puzzle.  

    At 6'8", new starting QB Brock Osweiler is an absolute skyscraper, and the tall junior actually showed that he could play after back-to-back spectacular showings to close out the 2010 season.

    Osweiler would have likely taken the job away from last year’s starter Steven Threet, but Threet made it easy on him by opting to leave the game due to head injury concerns.

    Coach Dennis Erickson could use a big year after three straight so-so seasons, and the time could finally be right to make a move up in the conference food chain.  

19. Georgia Bulldogs

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    The Aaron Murray lovefest is already well underway, but I caution the Murray maniacs to remember one thing.

    Your quarterback hero has a losing record as a starter.

    6-7. Remember?

    No matter what kind of promise you show in your first season at the helm, 6-7 is still 6-7, so let's not get too carried away.

    Oh, and then there was that bowl game in Memph.....OK we won’t get into that.

    A new season brings with it a new set of expectations, so there’s no need to worry about the past.

    What we do know is that Georgia just lost superstar receiver A.J. Green and two top producing backs, Washaun Ealey and Caleb King.

    And that was just on offense. 

    The Bulldogs will also have to deal with the loss of pass-rushing extrorindaire Justin Houston. 

    Still, there’s no reason to lose hope in Athens.

    WR Tavarres King may not be A.J. Green, but he’s a special player in his own right, and he’ll have a chance to shine and step out of his former teammate's shadow.

    Orson Charles, the top tight end in the country, will also help pick up the receiving slack as Murray’s new No. 1 target.

    RB Isaiah Crowell, a former 5-star recruit,  is already causing quite a bit of buzz, and he might be the latest freshman rusher to take the SEC by storm.

    On defense, OLB Cornelius Washington looks like he could be this year’s version of Houston.

    Washington will be a key player for a defense that also returns CB Brandon Boykin, S Bacarri Rambo and DE DeAngelo Tyson

    Adding monster tackle Kwame Geathers won't hurt either.

    If Crowell turns into a freshman sensation and if Murray is as good as some are saying he is, the Bulldogs could challenge South Carolina for the East division title.

18. Iowa Hawkeyes

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    If his performance in the 2010 Insight bowl is an indication of things to come, then RB Marcus Coker primed for a monster campaign in 2011. 

    Coker looks exactly how you would picture the perfect Hawkeye back to look.

    The big sophomore is the type of strong, tough and physical powerhouse who is capable of carrying the ball 25-30 times a game and slowly surging his team to victory.

    Coker will be a huge security blanket for new QB James Vandenberg, who takes over for fan favorite Ricky Stanzi.

    Vandenberg only has two starts under his belt, but he doesn’t have to worry about being a star this year; he simply has to be efficient.

    The Hawkeyes defense, led by DT Mike Daniels and CB Shaun Prater, is better than a lot of people think, even though the defensive line was severely weakened by the departures of Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard.

    Iowa may only return four proven defensive starters, but the Hawkeyes know how to produce stable defenses, even if they have to patch up a few weak spots.

    Coach Kirk Ferentz was disappointed by the results of last year’s promising 2010 season, and he’ll be hoping that his senior leaders like Daniels, Prater and WR Marvin McNutt will be motivated enough to rally the team.

17. West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Geno Smith plus Dana Holgorsen equals....

    That's an equation that has West Virginia fans mighty excited for the 2011 season.

    Last year, QB Geno Smith played remarkably well in his first season as a starter, throwing for over 2,700 yards and 24 TDs. And remember, that was in an offense that was built on bubble screens.

    Smith and his big arm will finally be unleashed in Holgorsen’s Air Rad attack in 2011.

    The junior quarterback has plenty of sure-handed receivers at his disposal, and the duo of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey should be downright disgusting.

    A 4,000 yard passing season isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

    On defense, the Mountaineers lose most of their key players from last season’s top 10 ranked unit, but they do get back DE Bruce Irvin, one of the best pass rushers in America, as well as CB Keith Tandy, possibly the best defensive back in the Big East.

    The Smith/Holgorsen combo is the most interesting storyline surrounding the team this season, and if all goes according to plan, it will be that duo that guides the gold and blue back to a BCS bowl.

16. Wisconsin Badgers

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    If you’re looking for a dynamic running back duo, just head up to Madison, Wisconsin.

    Wisconsin's Montee Ball and James White combined to rush for over 2,100 yards in 2010, each averaging over six yards per carry.

    Ball and White both have the type of strong workhorse mentality to carry the Wisconsin offense as far as it needs to go this season.

    The fact that the Badgers just happened to add dual threat quarterback Russell Wilson, who was the best quarterback in the ACC last year, is just an added bonus.

    Wilson will take some time learning the Wisconsin system during camp, but if he picks up the playbook quickly, the senior transfer should have a chance to shine.

    Wisconsin loses Outland Trophy winning offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, but his replacement, Ricky Wagner, might have what it takes to be the next Badger to bring home the award.

    Carimi wasn’t the only loss for the Badgers..

    Gone are DE J.J. Watt, the No. 11 pick in this year’s draft, TE Lance Kendricks and Blake Sorensen, the team’s leading tackler.

    The Badgers do, however, get back LB Chris Borland, a former Freshman All-American who missed last season with an injury.

    Wisconsin will miss Watt, Carimi and the rest of last year’s strong senior group, but with a backfield made up of Wilson, Ball and White, the Badgers will still have a great chance to make it back to Pasadena for the second straight year.

15. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Through the first two years of the Dan Mullen era, we’ve seen the coach take one of the SEC’s least desirable horses and turn it into a competitive thoroughbred much quicker than anyone expected.

    Mullen led the Bulldogs to a 9-4 campaign last season, culminating in a 52-14 dismantling of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

    Now it’s time to see if Mullen and his Bulldogs can capitalize on their early success and step up and compete with the big boys of the SEC West, LSU and Alabama.

    Mullen will have the ever-improving Chris Relf to lead his spread offensive attack in 2010.

    Relf, now a senior, may not be the next Tim Tebow, but his arm and athleticism make him a truly versatile weapon who fits in perfectly with Mullen’s system.

    The senior signal caller will be joined in the backfield by Vick Ballard, a junior college transfer who busted up defenses in 2010.

    The Relf-Ballard tag team is one of the strongest and most potent in the SEC this season, and it’s one that Mullen could potentially ride to the top of the SEC West.

    If the defense can bend but not break, this Mississippi State team has the opportunity to do some real damage in the SEC this season.

14. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Before the start of the 2010 season, if I had asked various college football fans to list their picks for the top quarterback-wide receiver tandems, I have a feeling that very few of them would have listed Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.

    Both were unproven commodities before last September. Weeden had only completed 16 passes in his career, while Blackmon entered the season with a pedestrian 20 catches on his resume.

    Still, that didn’t stop the two from quickly making a huge splash in the waters of the Big 12.

    In his first year as a starter, Weeden threw for over 4,200 yards and 24 TDs. And Blackmon became one of college football's biggest breakout stars, leading the country with 20 TD catches and earning the prestigious Biletnikoff Award.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of dynamic there will be now that pass-happy coordinator Dana Holgorsen, along with highly-productive running back Kendall Hunter, are both gone.

    The Weeden-Blackmon combo should still be one of the best passing duos in the business, but the Cowboys will have to figure out how to find a proper offensive balance if they truly want to compete for a Big 12 crown.

13. Stanford Cardinal

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    QB Andrew Luck didn’t make things easy on himself by deciding to return to Stanford for another year instead of becoming the top overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

    Luck and the Cardinal will now have to deal with increased pressure and expectations as they battle for the new Pac-12 title.

    Stanford will have to adjust to life without Jim Harbaugh, who built the program into what it is today and then went on to use it as simply a stepping stone to land a dream NFL gig in San Francisco.

    David Shaw, last year’s offensive coordinator, now takes control of the ship, which should please Luck because he had so much success in Shaw’s system in 2010.

    The star quarterback will miss receivers Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, but he’ll still have enough playmakers around him to be successful.

    RB Stepfan Taylor and WR Chris Owusu have the chance to be upper echelon players in the Pac-12, and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, two preseason All-Americans, have already proven that they are elite level talents.

    The defense takes a substantial hit at each level, but there are also three important leaders, S Delano Howell, LB Shayne Skov and DE Matthew Masifilo, who return to ease the pain.

    We know that this year’s Stanford team is going to revolve around Luck, but remember, he isn’t the only future pro suiting up for the Cardinal this season.

    Taylor, Owusu, DeCastro, Martin, Masifilo, Skov, and Howell will all be playing in the league with Luck one day, but before that happens, they’ll all try their best to bring a Pac-12 title to Cardinal country.

12. Missouri Tigers

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    With QB Blaine Gabbert off to the NFL, it’s unlikely that this Missouri team is going to get a ton of national love this summer.

    The Tigers will probably be picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 after the likes of Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

    But as we’ve seen before, if there’s one team and one coach who you should never underestimate and count out, it’s Missouri and Gary Pinkel.

    The Tigers have averaged 10 wins over the last four years under Pinkel’s watch, and he’s the type of coach who has learned a thing or two in the past about losing a talented quarterback.

    Gabbert might be gone, but his replacement, James Franklin, is no slouch.

    Franklin is a former 4-star recruit out of Dallas, and there’s no doubt that he’s got the versatile skill set to add a new dimension to Missouri’s spread based attack.

    At his disposal, Franklin will have one of the best receiving corps in the country, led by the likes of Michael Egnew, T.J. Moe, and Jerrell Jackson .

    On defense, the Tigers lose top 10 pick DE Aldon Smith, but somehow, their defensive end depth will still be as deep as any other team's in the country.

    Ends Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith are a devastating pass-rushing duo that combined for 13 sacks in 2010.

    They aren’t the only premier duo on defense either, as Missouri also has one of the best linebacker combinations in the nation with Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner.

    In all, Missouri returns 15 starters from the 2010 squad, and the only major question mark is how well Franklin will perform right out of the gate.

    If the sophomore signal caller plays well, Missouri could be set up for a monster season.

11. Oregon Ducks

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    It’s common for baseball pitchers to struggle against a lineup the second and third time through the order because hitters become more familiar with what’s coming as the game progresses.

    Oregon’s high powered offense, which annihilated nearly every defense it faced last season, could face a similar problem this year.

    Defensive coordinators will have a whole offseason to dissect and study all the intricacies of Oregon’s fast-paced, no-huddle spread attack.

    The Ducks will still be in good shape with the dynamic backfield duo of QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James, but don’t expect them to overwhelm teams in the same fashion that they did in 2010.

    We know Oregon will still score enough to win any game, but the real question is if the defense, which could be without its best player CB Cliff Harris for a substantial amount of time, can play at a championship level this season.

10. Texas A&M Aggies

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    At the midpoint of last season, Texas A&M sat at 3-3 with a starting quarterback, Jerrod Johnson, who was slowly dragging the team into the abyss.

    If coach Mike Sherman hadn't made a much needed quarterback switch, there’s a good chance Sherman wouldn’t be coaching at Texas A&M right now.

    Sherman knew his job was on the line and he had to do something, so the coach chose to move receiver Ryan Tannehill into the starting quarterback role, and it’s a decision that paid off and saved Texas A&M’s season as well as Sherman’s job.

    Tannehill proceeded to reel off six straight wins, including victories over Oklahoma, Nebraska and archrival Texas.

    The former receiver will return for his senior season as the leader of a team that has the type of talent to climb all the way to the top of the Big 12 mountain.

    WR Jeff Fuller has displayed game-changing ability and the backfield duo of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael should be one of the most productive in all of college football.

    The defense loses key impact player Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, but emerging sophomore pass-rusher Damontre Moore has what it takes to eventually fill his shoes and become a terrorizing threat on the edge.

    The defense will miss Miller, but players like CB Coryell Judie and LB Garrick Williams should rally the troops.

    A whopping 18 starters return for Texas A&M, making them one of the most experienced and talented squads in the country.

    If Sherman can keep his team focused, Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 had better watch out because the Aggies have the pieces in place to make a big move this season.

9. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    I’ve always felt that Virginia Tech is one of those programs that never really got the national accolades and attention it probably deserved.

    When some college football analyst just starts randomly spouting off the top power programs in college football, how many times does Virginia Tech come up?

    Never.

    Alabama, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma?

    Yes. Virginia Tech, no.

    The Hokies currently have a string of seven straight double-digit win seasons, accumulating 73 victories in that time frame.

    Somehow, though, they never get put up on that pedestal with the other big names of college football.

    Sure, Blacksburg may not be as happening of a place as say Los Angeles or Austin, but the product they’ve built there is just as good.

    This year’s team loses QB Tyrod Taylor, the school’s all-time leading passer, two ultra-productive running backs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, as well as a few top defenders like CB Rashad Carmichael, DE Steven Friday and S Davon Morgan.

    Something tells me, though, that Frank Beamer isn’t about to let his streak of consistent dominance end in 2011.

    This year’s Hokies team has some unproven players at key positions, but those unproven players, QB Logan Thomas and RB David Wilson, just so happen to be potential breakout stars.

    If Thomas and Wilson handle their new roles well and produce as expected, the defense, led by CB Jayron Hosley and LB Bruce Taylor, two of the most dependable defenders in the country, should be stout enough to handle another run at a double-digit win season and an ACC championship.

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Last year, during Brian Kelly’s first season as head man in South Bend, Notre Dame fans found out that Kelly's brand of football is certainly not something that any team can just easily adapt to without a few setbacks or slip ups

    Sure, there were times when Kelly’s spread offense was moving the ball all over the field, resembling the well-oiled offensive machine we saw at Cincinnati in 2009. However, there were also instances when the Irish just looked unforgivably outclassed.

    Losing to Navy and Tulsa in consecutive weeks was a huge hit to the program’s already weakened ego, but it had to feel good beating both USC and Miami to finish out an 8-5 campaign.

    Kelly’s team has a good deal of momentum going into the 2011 season, and it doesn’t hurt that they welcome back an All-American on both offense and defense.

    WR Michael Floyd, a top NFL prospect who was suspended for a DUI during the spring, should be back and better than ever after putting up his first 1,000 yard receiving season of his career in 2010.

    Floyd’s counterpart on defense is the equally as talented and equally as feared LB Manti Te’o.

    Te’o, who is just a junior, already has nearly 200 tackles in his career, and he’ll definitely be looking to rack up quite a few more takedowns in 2011.

    The Irish will go into the fall with an ongoing quarterback battle, pitting Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees against each other.

    Both have proven to be reliable starters, but neither has separated themselves in the race just yet.

    If it were up to me, I would throw Crist in there and let him sling the ball around, but I have a feeling that whoever ends up starting should be just fine.

7. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Every team in America would love to have an offensive trio like the one South Carolina will be putting out on the field on Saturdays this fall. QB Stephen Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery combined forces to carry the Gamecocks to the SEC Championship game last season, and they’ll be hoping to do the same thing once again in 2011.

    Lattimore and Jeffery, who are both preseason All-Americans, are two of the premier offensive weapons in college football and both will have a major influence on South Carolina’s success this year.

    Lattimore, a star sophomore, lived up to his 5-star recruit billing, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and scoring 19 TDs in his first year in Columbia.

    Jeffery established himself as one of the top receivers in college football by hauling in a conference best 88 catches for over 1,500 yards.

    Up front, South Carolina returns three All-SEC caliber offensive linemen with Rokevious Watkins, T.J. Johnson and Kyle Nunn.

    The defense has two future first round draft picks, DE Devin Taylor and CB Stephon Gilmore, along with solid foundation players such as hybrid safety DeVonte Holloman, DT Travian Robertson and CB Akeem Auguste.

    Oh, and adding the top rated recruit of the 2011 class, DE Jadeveon Clowney, probably won’t hurt either.

    We’ll find out a lot from South Carolina’s trip to Athens for a crucial conference showdown with Georgia on Sept. 10, and that could be the game that either puts the Gamecocks in the driver’s seat or the one that knocks them off course.

    Now we’ll get the opportunity to see if last year was actually a true breakthrough season or not.

6. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Nebraska welcomes back three of the country’s top defensive players, DT Jared Crick, LB Lavonte David and CB Alfonzo Dennard, to a defense that should be among the top five in the nation this season. 

    All three could be playing on Sundays this season, but instead, each will return to lead a different level of the Cornhuskers defense.

    Crick, one of the top defensive tackles in the country, will be the face of a potentially dominant defensive line, which also features standouts DT Baker Steinkuhler and DE Cameron Meredith.

    David will attempt to replicate his success from 2010, when he set a single season school record with 152 tackles.

    Dennard, possibly the top overall defensive back in the nation, will be the key player for a secondary that loses three NFL Draft picks from a year ago, including first rounder Prince Amukamara.

    We all know that the defense should be stellar, but if the Cornhuskers have hopes of winning the Big Ten, they’re going to need a bigger effort out of their offense, most notably the passing game, led by QB Taylor Martinez.

    Martinez became an instant overnight celebrity in his first season as a starter, as he paced Nebraska to a 9-1 record and showed off his elusive running ability. But the rising star sophomore ran into trouble in a late season loss at Texas A&M, and the team proceeded to fall apart, losing three out of their last four games to finish the season at 10-4.

    If the young quarterback can stay focused for a full season, Nebraska has the kind of top notch talent on both sides of the ball that's needed to make a run at both a Big Ten championship as well as a national championship this year.

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    It’s rare that you see a team get better after losing a quarterback who finished his career with a 23-3 overall record, a Heisman-winning running back and a top 10 draft pick wide receiver.

    Then again, most teams don’t have a defense as good as the one Alabama will put on the field in 2011.

    Yes, Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones will all be missed, but remember, this is Alabama; there’s enough talent stockpiled to reload on a yearly basis.

    RB Trent Richardson is a more than capable replacement for Ingram. Receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should be able to team up and match Jones’ 2010 output. And if A.J. McCarron ultimately prevails in the quarterback battle, he has a chance to be even better than McElroy.

    The Tide offense may look a bit different this year, but there’s no reason to expect a big drop off.

    The offense will do enough to win game;  however, it’s really up to the defense to carry this team to a championship.

    With the best linebacker corps in the country, a secondary that features three future pros and a disruptive force up front in DT Josh Chapman, there’s no doubt that this Alabama defense is capable of shutting down every opposing offense it battles with in 2011.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Oklahoma is set to enter this season as the No. 1 team in college football, but the Sooners will have to survive more than a few tough Big 12 battles if they want to go wire to wire.

    On offense, Oklahoma will be able to rely on one of the most potent passing duos in America, made up of QB Landry Jones and WR Ryan Broyles.

    Jones is already being included in the Heisman discussion, and Broyles, who led all receivers in catches last year, could enter the conversation if he puts up another big season.

    This is undoubtedly Oklahoma’s best team since the 2008 group that made it to the BCS Championship game. But you have to wonder how Big Game Bob and his boys will handle the pressure of being the most scrutinized team in America.

    This is a team with a bunch of seasoned veterans like Broyles, Jones, LB Travis Lewis, CB Jamell Fleming and the rest of the 16 returning starters. But Florida State, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State will all be looking to make a statement when they play the Sooners.

    It definitely won’t be easy to make it through that kind of gauntlet without a scratch or two.

    Oklahoma certainly has the talent to make a run at the whole thing this year, but you have to remember that this is a Bob Stoops coached team, and any time there’s major pressure on a Stoops-led squad, results tend to vary dramatically.

3. Boise State Broncos

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    Say what you will about QB Kellen Moore, but whether you love him or if you think he’s overrated, there’s no denying the fact that Moore is a winner.

    His 38-2 record as a starter properly proves that.

    Moore has been the face of Boise State’s rise to national prominence, but it’s been coach Chris Petersen who has been the architect.

    Petersen has transformed the Broncos from a dangerous fringe team into a legitimate national title contender.

    Everybody who is saying that Boise State doesn’t have the players, please stop.

    During Petersen’s tenure, Boise has produced 10 draft picks, including first rounders Ryan Clady and Kyle Wilson, and the Broncos have another first rounder coming soon with senior DT Billy Winn.

    Winn isn’t the only future pro on the Broncos defense, either.

    Ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McLellin and safety George Iloka will also be playing on Sundays in 2012.

    With seven starters returning on each side of the ball, it’s easy to see that Boise State once again has what it takes to scare the heck out of the BCS folks.

    Replacing receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis, who were both day two draft picks, won’t be easy, but it’s the only major problem that the team has to solve in order to be successful this year.

    If Boise State can take down Georgia in Atlanta at the beginning of the season, it could set up a potential run to the elusive big game.

2. Florida State Seminoles

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    Remember two years ago when the Florida State defense was just a complete and absolute embarrassment?

    Seems like so long ago, doesn’t it?

    Since the dismal 2009 season, LB Nigel Bradham, DE Brandon Jenkins and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid have helped to change the defensive culture in Tallahassee, and they’ve managed to transform the unit from laughingstock into a formidable looking collection of talent.

    Bradham, Jenkins, Reid and Rhodes are all proven difference makers, and they’ll be the centerpieces of a defense that should be one of the best in the sport this season.

    On offense, it’s all about new QB E.J. Manuel.

    We’ve already seen glimpses of greatness from the up-and-coming signal caller, but that was in mop up duty. As we know, there’s a different type of pressure when the success of an entire season weighs on your shoulders.

    Because the defense should be so dominant, Manuel won’t have to be spectacular; he’ll just need to be smart with the ball, make a few big third down runs and keep everybody in the huddle focused.

    Coach Jimbo Fisher knows what this team is capable of, and you could hear it in his voice during spring practices.

    Fisher saw Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly, two fellow coaches who were also in their second year, battle for a national championship last season.

    He knows that the road to the top isn’t as long as it used to be. Great change can come in a hurry these days.

    With Fisher in charge, it shouldn't be long before Florida State is back on top of the college football world.

1. LSU Tigers

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    It's hard to narrow down one top team this year, but one squad that really sticks out of the crowd is the LSU Tigers.

    Now, I'll be the first to admit that the LSU offense has run out of excuses. It’s now time to either put up or shut up.

    Last year, LSU ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense, averaging just 343 yards of output per game. That type of production is certainly not going to get you to the national title game.

    This season, a lot is going to be asked of key offensive skill players like QB Jordan Jefferson, WR Rueben Randle and RB Spencer Ware, three players who have a ton of talent but also have a ton to prove.

    With the addition of new coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, the Bayou Bengals are hoping to regain some of their offensive luster.

    The key will be the maturation and development of Jefferson, who has the skills but has yet to produce the results.

    Jefferson doesn’t have to be a world beater; he just has to do a better job of moving the offense down the field with more consistency.

    LSU probably won’t need to score a ton of points if the defense can play up to its potential.

    It’s true, the Tigers lose their three best defenders from a year ago (CB Patrick Peterson, LB Kelvin Sheppard and DT Drake Nevis). But they’ve also got plenty of reinforcements who are making their way up the depth chart.

    Even though they lose Peterson, the Tigers will still have one of the best cornerback combos in college football with Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Matheiu.

    They’ll also have a plethora of pass-rushers on the edge with ends like Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Kendrick Adams.

    This is a team that can survive the grueling tests of the SEC West; all they’re going to need is more consistency out of Jordan Jefferson.

    If they can get that, a run to the big game is definitely a possibility.