College Football 2011: 14 Players Who Will Carry Their Teams

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2011

College Football 2011: 14 Players Who Will Carry Their Teams

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    Football is a team sport, and there have certainly been some great teams in the history of the game. But there are many teams—like the Auburn Tigers last season—that ride the success of one player to ultimate victory.

    There are a number of college teams in 2011 that will not only need to follow the lead of a single player, but will rely on that one player to carry the team throughout the bulk of the season. While such a heavy burden is too much for the shoulders of some, others have found success for both their team and themselves.

    In that spirit, here are 14 players who will be relied upon to carry the team in the 2011 season.

Ken Proctor, Quarterback, Navy

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    Out goes Ricky Dobbs, and in comes Ken Proctor as the Navy signal-caller.

    Proctor is inexperienced, and hasn't thrown more than a handful of passes as the primary backup for the Midshipmen, but thankfully, he won't be called on to throw all that many as Navy's starter, either.

    Head coach Ken Niumatalolo isn't planning on doing away with the signature Navy option attack, and Proctor should have enough skill to execute the scheme. But if Proctor falters even slightly this season, there's not much else in Navy's kitchen—or galley—cupboard that can propel the Midshipmen to a ninth straight season with eight or more victories.

    When you run an option attack, you're only as good as your quarterback.

Denard Robinson, Quarterback, Michigan

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    The inclusion of Denard Robinson on this list won't come as much of a shock to anyone, especially if you take a glance at the rest of the Wolverines roster.

    While the talent level in Ann Arbor is unquestionably on the rise, it's still not the Michigan football program to which the nation is accustomed. Rather than being filled with top-flight names, Michigan has relatively few, and Robinson stole the show last season (along with numerous UM records).

    An improved 7-6 season wasn't enough to save Rich Rodriguez's job last year, but if Michigan and Brady Hoke have any hope of improving at all on the 2010 record, Robinson will need to shoulder most of the load himself.

Dan Persa, Quarterback, Northwestern

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    When one thinks of traditional Big Ten powers, Northwestern is probably the last team that comes to mind.

    Still, after three straight years of earning a bowl trip, Northwestern seems to be on the verge of pulling itself out of the Big Ten cellar once and for all. The Wildcats have been relying on the incredibly solid, sometimes spectacular play of quarterback Dan Persa.

    Last season, Persa again led the Wildcats to a number of impressive wins (and near losses) before being sidelined with injury issues.

    It's clear that Northwestern isn't a destination for the top recruits in the Big Ten, and the Wildcats probably won't be in a position to win a conference title (something they haven't done since 2000) anytime soon.

    If Pat Fitzgerald hopes to lead Northwestern back to a fourth straight bowl game, and first bowl win since the Wildcats won the 1949 Rose Bowl, he will not only need Dan Persa to perform to his usual high level, but he will need Persa to stay healthy all year, as well.

Ryan Tannehill, Quarterback, Texas A&M

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    Over the past three years, head coach Mike Sherman has guided the Aggies to a mediocre 19-19 record. If things pan out as expected, year four should be a breakout season.

    Last season, it was Tennehill and the passing game that kept A&M from pulling a Longhorns-esque embarrassment. The running game was the clear weak point of the Aggies offense. If A&M is going to perform up to the lofty preseason expectations, there will need to be a lot more production on the ground this season.

    Even so, Ryan Tennehill is probably the best weapon in the Aggies arsenal, and he'll need to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for scoring points. If there's a lack of production from the run game again this season, Tennehill's burden will be more than anyone can reasonably be expected to bear.

Aaron Murray, Quarterback, Georgia

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    The young Aaron Murray was one of the few bright spots for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2010. After posting a losing record for the first time in well over a decade, the Bulldogs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Murray as he enters his sophomore season.

    The one strike against Murray in 2010 was that he was young, and prone to some mistakes one would often see from a freshman. If he can build on his experiences from last season, he has the talent to make Georgia an SEC contender almost by himself.

    Luckily, he'll have a decent supporting cast back this season. Murray won't be the only player on the roster with some much-needed experience headed into 2011, but Murray will be the undisputed leader of the program. As goes Murray, so goes Georgia this season.

    If the Bulldogs hope to avoid a second straight losing season, Murray has to be a big part of the plan.

Kellen Moore, Quarterback, Boise State

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    Kellen Moore will be starting under center for the Boise State Broncos for a fourth year this season.

    To put it simply, Moore is one of the very best in the game, and is a legit Heisman Trophy contender, if not the front-runner.

    Boise State starts the year as the No. 7 team in the preseason USA TODAY Top 25 football coaches' poll, and much of that ranking has to do with Moore's return to Boise State. But Moore did lose a number of favored targets, and he'll need to develop some chemistry with his new receivers if Boise State is to be as successful this season, as many expect them to be.

    With Moore's strength and accuracy, it shouldn't take too long for his passing stats to impress this season.

Case Keenum, Quarterback, Houston

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    Houston is probably the best example of a one-man team in the FBS these days. To find evidence of this, one need not look any further than 2010.

    In the two games that Keenum was completely healthy, Houston was 2-0. He tore his ACL in the third game of the year against UCLA, a loss, and Houston finished 3-7 over its last 10.

    Lucky for Cougars fans, Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and is back to try and lead Houston to a better finish in what is a pretty weak Conference USA field.

    Keenum has a cannon for an arm, and he possesses some decent accuracy, as well. If he had a decent offensive line in front of him and a star receiver or two, he's the type of quarterback that could shatter some single-season passing records.

    Alas, Keenum will have to work with what he has, but should still be able to easily put up 4,000 passing yards in 2011—if there are no lingering physical or mental side effects from his injury, and he stays healthy for the entire year. As we saw last year, there's no other player at Houston that has the ability to generate wins out of thin air like Keenum.

Brandon Weeden, Quarterback, Oklahoma State

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    There were very few teams in the FBS last season that were better at putting up points. In fact, only Oregon and Boise State outdistanced the Cowboys in terms of points per game.

    So how many points can Oklahoma State put up this season?

    That completely depends on Brandon Weeden.

    Last year, the Cowboys seemed to have a complete offensive package. There really weren't any deficiencies the Cowboys had with the ball (the defense was another matter). The running game was good (36th in the nation). The passing game was excellent (second in the nation). 

    The Cowboys seemed able to score at will, and there was never a shortage of fireworks for Oklahoma State fans to enjoy. And if you thought the offense was good last year, just wait until the 10 returning starters take the field in 2011.

    Of course, the one starter lost was Kendall Hunter. It's unclear what kind of change this, along with the loss of offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson, will have on Oklahoma State's offense. If the departure of Hunter in any diminishes the running game in Stillwater, senior quarterback Brandon Weeden will be relied upon to take almost total responsibility for offensive production in 2011.

    It's a good thing Weeden is easily talented enough to carry that load. After all, he amassed a whopping 4,277 passing yards and 34 touchdowns in 2010, averaging 329 yards per game through the air. Even if he just maintains his status quo, Oklahoma State will be a very good team this season.

Jacory Harris, Quarterback, University of Miami

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    It's now or never for Jacory Harris.

    As a recruit, Harris was highly touted. When he came to the University of Miami, the nation was assured that Harris would be racking up Heismans in no time. Miami would be back to winning ACC championships and ready to strut its way back into the BCS world.

    It turns out that absolutely none of that has come to pass.

    The one word that can best sum up Harris' Miami career to this point is underwhelming.

    After a promising beginning to his sophomore (2009) season, Harris finished the year with 3,164 yards and 23 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also threw 17 interceptions, and was very sack-prone. But not to worry. He was only a sophomore, right?

    Well, the 2010 season took a turn for the strange as Harris threw for just 1,793 yards, only 14 touchdowns and a head-scratching 15 interceptions. It was beginning to look more and more as if Miami's prized recruit was turning into a college bust.

    With new head coach Al Golden not shying away from a quarterback competition at "The U" this fall, Harris is faced with the prospect of finding himself riding the bench for much of his senior season.

    That may be just the motivation this talented, if underperforming, quarterback needs to really get things going. If Harris is able to secure the starting job once again, and can prove on the field that he deserves this last chance, Miami does have the potential to be a much better team than it was last season. If Harris struggles again, Hurricanes fans can look forward to nothing more than a very forgettable 2011.

    Whether or not Harris will carry the Hurricanes in 2011 has more to do with whether or not he can carry the team than it does with anything—or anyone—else.

Matt Barkley, Quarterback, Southern California

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    The 2011 season is all Matt Barkley has left to suffer through before he has the opportunity to leave his mark on the men of Troy.

    One can almost feel sorry for Barkley. He is, after all, a victim of bad timing and circumstance. He had nothing to do with the awful transgressions that led USC into its current predicament.

    USC isn't expected to be the best team in the Pac-12 this season, not that it would matter. The Trojans are still prohibited from participating in the postseason, and that includes the Pac-12 Championship Game.

    But the 2011 season will certainly have meaning for the Trojans. Specifically, this season will be used as a barometer for the 2012 season, when USC returns to the land of relevancy.

    While the Trojans will still have a whole host of issues to muddle through, there will at least be the opportunity for championships. Matt Barkley will have his one and only shot in 2012 to leave some sort of legacy at USC.

    Before he can get there, though, he has to again lead the Trojans through the darkness with some semblance of success, in order to even have a shot at regaining some of the lost glory in 2012.

Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford

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    It's probably safe to say that the 2011 Cardinal football team is going to be comprised of Andrew Luck and “the other guys.”

    When Luck announced he would return to Stanford for the 2011 season, the Cardinal's chances of success jumped tenfold.  Still, the real problem for Stanford this season is the lack of experience at pretty much every other position on the field.

    That being said, Luck could probably take a high school team out onto the field and still win more than a few games. But the Cardinal will be going up against some of the best teams in the nation, and it's unclear whether or not Luck will be able to carry the entire load himself.

    It would be enormously helpful if there are some unknowns at Stanford who step up this season to take some of the pressure off Luck.

Kirk Cousins, Quarterback, Michigan State

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    The 2010 season saw Michigan State do something it hasn't done since 1990: claim at least a share of a Big Ten title.

    Twenty years is a long time to wait for anything, much less returned success in football, but that's exactly what Mark Dantonio and Kirk Cousins have done in East Lansing.

    Mark Dantonio has established himself as one of the better coaches in the nation by taking a thoroughly bland Michigan State program and turning it into a team capable of winning conference championships. Dantonio has posted a 33-18 record over his four seasons thus far as chief Spartan, and last season's conference championship was due in no small part to the quality, confident play of quarterback Kirk Cousins.

    Cousins is an unassuming guy from the town of Holland, on Michigan's west coast. At Holland Christian High School, Cousins was not only a football star, but a baseball and basketball standout, as well. After redshirting in 2007, Cousins served as a backup to Brian Hoyer in 2008 before beating out Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol for the starting job in 2009.

    In 2010, Cousins quietly established himself as one of the best pocket passers in the nation, and is perhaps one of the most underrated players in the nation entering 2011.

    Cousins has the bulk of his receiving corps returning this season, and Edwin Baker returns in the Spartans backfield. While Baker is certainly a great player in his own right, perhaps the best advantage he gives MSU is his ability to draw off defenders, giving Cousins the chance to shine. Baker is just too good to leave undefended, and Cousins is so good that he'll pick a defense apart if it overprotects against Baker's running abilities.

    The biggest question for MSU in 2011 will be whether or not it will be able to capitalize on 2011. The Spartans of the past have had a nasty habit of falling flat on their faces when staring at the prospect of success. That didn't happen last season.

    If and when Cousins performs like he can this season, it may signal, once and for all, that Michigan State will no longer be its own worst opponent.

LaMichael James, Running Back, Oregon

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    It may seem a little odd to have any player from Oregon on this list. After all, the Ducks made it all the way to the BCS championship game last season, and weren't quite as decimated by graduations and early departures as some others were (like Auburn).

    The Ducks return seven offensive starters for the 2011 season, and two of them are probably the biggest names—Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.

    As good as Thomas is, he's just the spark that gets the engine humming. What keeps that engine in high gear is the leading rusher in the FBS from 2010, LaMichael James. After a season of 1,731 yards in just 12 games, LaMichael James will begin the 2011 season as an early Heisman favorite. Additionally, one of the few areas that Oregon did lose multiple starters is at wideout.

    If there's any player in the nation that can be counted on to make up production lost to graduation, it's certainly LaMichael James.

    As a side note, it's important to realize that James' inclusion on this list doesn't mean that Oregon would be no good without him—far from it. But if the Ducks have any hope of making it back to the BCS title game this season, LaMichael James must play a starring role for Oregon.

Landry Jones, Quarterback, Oklahoma

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    Like Oregon, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation has a number of very talented players returning this season. The Oklahoma Sooners are hoping to build off their 2011 Fiesta Bowl victory over Connecticut, and prove to everyone that the BCS “curse” has finally been exorcised from Norman.

    Like Oregon, the Sooners won't depend on a single player to be a good team this season. But if they are to live up to expectations, and earn their way to the BCS championship game in January, it's immediately clear that the Sooners must have stellar play from their signal-caller and Heisman hopeful, Landry Jones.

    Last season, Jones led the Big 12 in passing yards, and had nine more touchdown passes than any other quarterback in the conference. He set an OU record with 405 completed passes last season, and was the nation's No. 2 passer in terms of yardage.

    When Sam Bradford left Oklahoma, some wondered how long it would be before Sooners fans saw another like him. As it turns out, the answer was, “not long.”

    Oklahoma is absolutely stacked with talent. Nine returning starters on offense, and seven on defense will give Jones plenty of cover this season, and could even gloss over a few mistakes here and there.

    Another Big 12 title in 2011 won't be enough for the Sooners Nation, though.

    Winning the conference is nice and all, but OU has enough experience at that (winning seven of the last 11 titles). The goal for this season is clearly the BCS Coaches Trophy. Without a repeat of last year's performance (at minimum) from Landry Jones, that goal cannot possibly be realized.