AP Poll College Football 2011: 6 Teams With Potential To Be 2011's Auburn
Last season, Auburn began the season ranked No. 23 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll and No. 22 in the preseason AP Poll.
They had 15 returning starters, a record of 8-5 the previous season and the No. 4 recruiting class in the country.
So there was reason to be optimistic.
But when the pundits crunched the numbers in August, nobody saw the Tigers competing for a national title. Not with a JuCo transfer at quarterback. Not with a rebuilt secondary. Not with their schedule.
Yet, when the smoke had cleared from the SEC championship game against South Carolina, it wasn't preseason No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Florida, No. 16 LSU or No. 17 Arkansas that found themselves 13-0 and looking toward a national championship.
It was the Auburn Tigers.
This Saturday, the AP will release its preseason poll, and there are sure to be some sleepers somewhere in there.
Which team can come out of nowhere and be this season's Auburn?
Arizona State Sun Devils
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 26.
Last season, ASU went 6-6, but that record is misleading.
To begin with, they were the third-best scoring offense in the conference that included Oregon and Stanford. Secondly, they were the fifth-best scoring defense. With those numbers, they should have had more wins.
Three of their six losses were to Top 10 teams—Wisconsin, Oregon and Stanford. Four of their losses were by a touchdown or less. Three were by a field goal or less. Two were by one point.
In 2011, 10 of their offensive starters and nine defensive starters return.
Though they have tough out-of-conference games against Missouri and at Illinois, they miss Stanford and Washington from the Pac-12 northern division. Also, they have to travel to Oregon, but they get Southern Cal and Arizona at home.
With USC on sanctions, Oregon losing the majority of their defensive front seven and Stanford without Jim Harbaugh, this team has as good a shot of going 12-0 as any team in the Pac-12.
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 31.
Last season, Northwestern went 7-6. They were 7-4 before their quarterback, Dan Persa, went down with an Achilles tendon tear.
After his season ended, the Cats were never the same.
This season, he will be back at full strength. Most that don't follow the Big Ten probably think Denard Robinson is the best quarterback in the conference. But you'd be wrong.
Persa is not only the best passing quarterback in the conference, but he is Northwestern's best rusher, and is the most valuable player in the Big Ten. In fact, if he played for Notre Dame or Texas, he'd be on a short list of Heisman candidates.
That being as it were, Persa is surrounded by one of the best receiving groups in the conference, as well as the second most experienced offensive line in the country.
The defense will have to step up, but with most of the line and secondary returning, the pieces are in place.
This year, the Big Ten will be down. NU misses two of the favorites to win the conference in Wisconsin and Ohio State. Furthermore, outside of road dates at Nebraska and Iowa—the latter of whom they've owned recently—the Cats' toughest conference games are at home.
It is unlikely, but if any team would be a true Cinderella story, it is Northwestern.
Virginia Tech Hokies
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 13.
Virginia Tech will come into the season with some issues to work out.
The Hokies will have to replace a three-year starter at quarterback. Their top rusher is gone. They have to replace both their kicker and their punter. They only have one returning starter on the defensive line.
This certainly doesn't look like a team poised to make a national championship run.
But one look at their schedule will convince any disbelievers otherwise.
Virginia Tech doesn't play one team against who they are likely to be underdogs.
There are only three teams against who the spread might be less than a touchdown, and all three of those games are in Blacksburg.
On top of that, Frank Beamers' teams have won at least 10 games every season since joining the ACC, and that was without an easy slate.
Add to that the 13th most experienced offensive line in the country and six starters returning from the defensive back seven, and you've got an opportunity for Frank Beamer to win a national championship before he retires.
Penn State Nittany Lions
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 25.
Last season, Penn State went 7-6. The Nits had the worst defense they've had this decade and only so-so linebacker play. That is unthinkable at Linebacker U.
The quarterback position was in limbo all season, and the running game was only mediocre.
So why should there be any optimism?
First of all, PSU returns seven offensive players and eight defensive players.
Secondly, the Penn State defense was massacred by injuries last year. That not only was part of the reason for the poor defensive play, but it also led to a wealth of depth this season.
Thirdly, this decade, Penn State has been much more successful with a dual-threat quarterback under center. In fact, with a dual-threat quarterback, they have gone 33-5 (previous to 2010). Without, the results aren't anywhere near as impressive.
With that in mind, dual-threat sophomore Rob Bolden is the likely starter at signal caller.
Finally, as previously mentioned, the Big Ten is down this season.
If the Nits can get past an early home game against Alabama, and an early October home meeting against Iowa, they should be able to cruise into the final three games of the season.
At that point, games against Nebraska at home and Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road will seal their fate.
And there are many reasons to think that fate will include 12 wins.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 20.
All the talk this year concerns most of the other teams in the SEC West. Specifically, Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn.
Mississippi State gets mentioned, but nobody is taking them seriously as a potential SEC champion. Which sounds an awful lot like Auburn last season.
This will be Dan Mullen's third season in Starkville. In his first year, his team went 5-7. In his second year, they improved to 9-4.
This season, the Bulldogs return eight players on offense and seven on defense. This includes their quarterback and their top four receivers. Moreover, MSU returns the second most experienced offensive line in the SEC (behind Alabama).
Their out-of-conference schedule is a cakewalk. Their in-conference is a bear, but they play in the SEC. A vicious schedule is par for the course.
Right now, Mississippi State is ranked behind four other SEC teams. Just like Auburn was last year.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
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Current Spot in USA Today Preseason Poll: No. 18
I'm not going to try to claim that Notre Dame is, was or ever will be "under the radar." In fact, some might claim for a team that hasn't won more than eight games since 2006, the Irish's ranking is absurd.
Also, it is understood that Notre Dame gets a bit more love from the AP than almost every other team in the country.
Still, the 2011 incarnation of the Fighting Irish is a really good team.
Last season, in Brian Kelly's first year, Notre Dame went 8-5. They finished the year with four straight wins against bowl eligible teams. In the process, they allowed an average of 13 points per game despite the fact that two of their four final opponents averaged over 30 PPG on the season.
Finally, the Irish won these games despite being decimated by injuries toward the end of the season and losing their starting quarterback early.
This season, Notre Dame returns 10 on offense and nine on defense. Michael Floyd is one of the best receivers in the country, and Manti Te'o is a preseason All-American at linebacker.
Notre Dame's schedule is competitive, but the only opponents that project to be elite next season are Stanford and maybe USC. And the latter will be a home game for the Domers.
12-0? They might not need the luck of the Irish to do it.