AP Poll College Football 2011: Best & Worst Case Scenarios for Every Top 25 Team
After an arduous offseason, college football begins anew in less than two weeks. The two great stories last season were the Oregon Ducks and Auburn Tigers, who met for the BCS Championship game.
Heading into 2011, let's take a look at the best and worst case scenarios for each team in the recently-released AP Top 25. Which teams will triumph? Which will flop?
#25 USC Trojans
BEST CASE: Serving the second and final season of a bowl game ban, the Trojans must generate their own motivation. From a physical standpoint, USC is still the superior team in the Pac-12 Conference. Properly motivated, there is no reason this team can't win 10 games in 2011.
WORST CASE: Starting quarterback Matt Barkley continues struggle at fall practice. Head coach Lane Kiffin cited that two freshmen quarterbacks have a higher completion percentage than Barkley. If Barkley fails to get on track, this team could lose interest as the season progresses and a .500 record is not out of the question.
#24 West Virginia
BEST CASE: This will be a breakout year for junior quarterback Geno Smith. In the six years that new West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen called plays for Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, he never had a starting quarterback throw for less than 4,000 yards in a season.
Smith knows his performance can make all the difference. "Honestly, I put the pressure on myself," he said recently. "Even if I wasn't a Heisman candidate or whatever it may be, I always want to be the best, so I put all that pressure on myself to work hard every day and try to develop my skills, lead my teammates and become a better player."
WORST CASE: When a new coach comes in with an intricate new system, it can take a couple years for the system to be fully installed. The same holds true with the addition of a new coach. Those two aspects could lead to a .500 season.
BEST CASE: The Auburn football team recently took a break from practice and team meetings to view a screening of "Courageous," a gripping film set for release next month. Maybe courage is the Tiger theme this year as they begin life without superstar quarterback Cam Newton, who left for the NFL. The one for all, all for one mentality carried Auburn to last year's national championship. In a best scenario, that momentum carries them through the 2011 season to a 10-win season.
WORST CASE: Let's face it: When last year's games came down to the wire, Auburn would line up in shotgun and run the large and athletic Newton up the middle (the way Washington Steve Sarkisian SHOULD have used QB Jake Locker). But Newton is gone now, and his absence is the great equalizer between Auburn and the rest of the SEC. Like what often occurs to great NFL teams, the very next season can see them at .500.
BEST CASE: New faces abound at Florida this season. Head coach Wil Muschamp came in and hired Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator. It will be fascinating to watch the dynamics on both sides of the ball for this season and years to come.
Teammates are remarking on senior quarterback John Brantley’s confidence, saying that its going through the roof. “His swag, his confidence is just higher than it’s been the past couple of years,” wide receiver Deonte Thompson said. “He’s taking leadership and taking control of the team.”
With great talent abounding in Gainesville and burgeoning stars like wide receiver Robert Clark coming of age, a senior QB coming into his own could lead Florida to a major BCS bowl.
WORST CASE: With a Yahoo! Sports report that implicated Florida while detailing possible NCAA violations at Miami, possible media scrutiny and stigma could become a drag on Florida's focus and momentum.
Receivers coach Aubrey Hill was one of seven coaches accused if being aware of impermissible benefits given by former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro. The story indicated that Hill introduced recruits to Shapiro while he was on the Miami staff from 2008-2010.
Muschamp says he has spoken to Hill and has put his 100 percent support behind the assistant.
BEST CASE: The Tigers return a defensive line that is experienced and immensely talented. The offensive line also boasts four returning senior starters. The "big uglies" serve as the foundation of a team that could reach double digit wins.
WORST CASE: Missouri's quarterback situation is precarious and riddled with inexperience. Sophomore James Franklin is the only one on the current roster to have taken a snap. The defensive secondary is also green as can be. If either of these positions prove to be severely weak links, head coach Gary Pinkel might quietly wonder if he should have listened to Michigan's overtures during the offseason.
#20 Mississippi State
BEST CASE: If I was writing a novel featuring a running back protagonist, I would name him Vick Ballard. But unlike a fictional hero like Jack Bauer, Vick Ballard is a real person. As MSU's primary running back last season, he rushed for 968 yards and 19 TDs. QB Chris Relf made giant strides last season and has everyone's confidence heading into the season. Combined with a strong returning defense, bright times might be ahead of the Bulldogs.
WORST CASE: With three new starters at linebacker, this area could prove to be an Achilles heel for the team and cost them some games in the tough SEC.
BEST CASE: QB Aaron Murray has matured into one of the top QBs in the south and is protected by a sizable and strong offensive line. In regards to special teams, the Bulldogs boast some of the best in the country. This could be enough to bounce back from a disappointing season and reestablish Georgia to national prominence.
WORST CASE: Georgia is very thin at the offensive skill positions and on defense. An underlying question is whether head coach Mark Richt has been slowly wearing out his welcome and whether new blood is needed to lead the program. Another .500 or worse season could facilitate the desire for a new coach.
#18 Ohio State
BEST CASE: The overriding factor for Ohio State's immediate future stems from the amount of resilience the team can show in the wake of head coach Jim Tressel's resignation and scandal. It was shocking how quickly the university turned its back on Tressel given the allegations. The coach and program were deserving of some sort of punishment, but to allow Tressel to take the bullet seemed absurd.
If the team can keep focus, this roster is loaded with talent and will be just fine by season's end.
WORST CASE: When you cut off the head of a program, a situation can tend to spiral out of control. The barometer for out of control for Ohio State would be the .500 mark.
#17 Michigan State
BEST CASE: The Spartans marched to an 8-0 record last year which remarkably didn't garner enough attention around the country. Their sterling final record of 11-2 marked the fourth year in a row that they made a bowl appearance, which tied a school record for 1987-90 (ahh, the days of workhorse tailback Lorenzo White).
The offense is in good shape with QB Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker. The Spartan will always play second fiddle to the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, but the ability to reach nine wins this season is imminently possible
WORST CASE: Should Michigan State get beaten badly by Notre Dame in their September 17th match up in South Bend, it could set a tone heading into the tough conference schedule that is an annual reality in the elite Big 10 Conference.
#16 Notre Dame
BEST CASE: The Fighting Irish are looking to return to the elite level of their glorious past. If that's to happen in 2011, it will be primarily due to their defense. Most of the starters are back. Three in particular are line for potential All-American honors: linebackers Manti Te’o and Darius Fleming, and safety Harrison Smith.
WORST CASE: The Irish are paper thin at running back and therefore the Dayne Crist to Michael Floyd connection better dial it up big time or the offensive woes might remind fans of the Willingham years.
BEST CASE: The Razorback defense and special teams have made giant strides under coach Bobby Petrino, who still remains one of the cretins of the game for the manner that he bailed on Louisville and later the Miami Dolphins. What might make this team a BCS power this season would be the electrifying receiving corps (led by Jarius Wright) and a power running game (led by tailback Knile Davis.
WORST CASE: Tyler Wilson, a fourth-year junior quarterback, lacks experience and has some concerned in terms of his ability to run the Arkansas offense. Add to that an inexperienced offensive line, and the recipe for disaster remains a possibility. True, the game of football has examples of teams with sub-par quarterbacks winning championships (Trent Dilfer and the Baltimore Ravens comes to mind). But nothing derails a team faster than terrible quarterbacking and a line that can't protect him.
#14 Texas Christian
BEST CASE: Quarterback Casey Pachall fired up onlookers during the spring as he demonstrated great mobility and accuracy. Combined with Ed Wesley, one of the best running backs in the country, this is an offense that could carry TCU to great heights and double digit wins again.
WORST CASE: Graduation decimated TCU on both the offensive and defensive lines. If the Horned Frogs are to win the Mountain West crown, they'll need to steal a victory on the road against rival Boise State. That might prove to be impossible in a rebuilding year for the lines. Should they be unable, TCU might end up in Boise a second time—for the Humanitarian Bowl.
#13 Virginia Tech
BEST CASE: Appalachian State. East Carolina. Arkansas State. Marshall. These are the first four opponents for the Hokies to start the 2011 campaign. The skids have been greased for an illegitimate 10-win season.
WORST CASE: The Hokies enter the season breaking in a new quarterback, likely sophomore Logan Thomas. If his inexperience causes some hiccups. VT might only win eight or nine games. Still, if a schedule ever warranted an asterisk, it's this one, along with the 1984 BYU Cougars.
#12 South Carolina
BEST CASE: The Gamecocks, led by legendary coach Steve Spurrier, are as loaded as anyone in the nation in terms of experienced skill position players. Their attacking defense should be as strong as last year and a great deal of fun to watch. If the stars align properly, South Carolina could finally lay claim to a SEC title.
WORST CASE: When graduation forces a team to replace 60 percent of its starting offensive line, it always lingers as the wild card capable of destroying the best-laid plans. Such is the case with the Gamecocks this season.
It also merits mentioning that the defensive secondary struggled a bit last season and must be improved in '11 for this team to attain greatness.
BEST CASE: This team could easily return to the Rose Bowl or even reach the BCS National Championship game. Led by the highly respected Bret Bielema, the Badgers are loaded on both sides of the ball. The downfall of Ohio State only makes a Big 10 title easier to grasp.
WORST CASE: If the transition of Russell Wilson, the touted QB transfer from NC State, fails to pan out, this would be the only conceivable way that this powerful program won't reach 11-13 wins this season.
BEST CASE: 10-11 wins seem also a lock for the Cornhuskers in their inaugural season as a member of the Big 10 Conference. The schedule lines up four easy wins to start the season before the beginning of conference play. Sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez is an electric and talented player running the offense.
WORST CASE: The offensive line is being rebuilt, and that always creates a cause for concern. Playing in the hard-hitting Big 10 Conference, if the line can't protect Martinez and create openings for the running game, the onus might fall to the defense to carry the team. In such a case, a "disappointing" eight-win season could be in the offing.
#9 Oklahoma State
BEST CASE: Much like Michigan State of the Big 10, Oklahoma State rolled along toward a season for the ages last year with an understated degree of national fanfare. From a quality of life point of view, Stillwater, Oklahoma is one of the least desirable places to live and recruit. And yet, coach Mike Gundy has done a bang up job in his time there. His teams have won at least nine games in three consecutive seasons there. With considerable offensive firepower returning in 2011, the winning trend should continue.
WORST CASE: The loss of offensive coordinator Dana Holgersen (now the head coach at West Virginia) could have quite an adverse impact on the Cowboy offense. In much the same way that USC had a drop off in production when Norm Chow left, it remains to be seen if this loss will render Oklahoma State to also-ran status.
#8 Texas A&M
BEST CASE: Double-digit wins are reachable for the Aggies. A high-powered offense led by the talented Cyrus Gray at running back averaged 442 yards per game a year ago. Virtually everywhere you look on the roster, you see talent and experience.
WORST CASE: If A&M doesn't finish the season in the top 10, it will be due to the linebacking corps being a weak link. A freshman taking over at punter is causing some concern over the ongoing field position battles during the season.
BEST CASE: What's not to like? Quarterback Andrew Luck is back and many starters return from a team that went 12-1 a year ago and demolished Virgina Tech in the Orange Bowl. It's incredible to think that it was five years ago that this program went 1-11.
WORST CASE: The fact Stanford is ranked No. 7 by the AP speaks to the tendency for prognosticators to use the formula "last year = this year". But with former head coach Jim Harbaugh now off in the NFL, his absence might be felt in a profound way in Palo Alto. With offensive coordinator David Shaw beginning his first year as a head coach, it would be no surprise to see the Cardinal drop back down to the middle of the Pac-12 Conference (where one might argue that that is where they belong).
#6 Florida State
BEST CASE: BCS title game. Like an old uncle you haven't seen in several years, the Seminoles have suddenly returned to the preseason Top 10 rankings. First-year coach Jumbo Fisher led the Seminoles to a 10-win season last year. The schedule also features some severe lightweights to start things off until a Week 3 clash with Oklahoma (that game will be highly anticipated throughout the country). A win over the Sooners and there's little left to stop the high-powered Seminoles from going undefeated.
WORST CASE: With the lightweight schedule and solid depth on both sides of the ball, the worst this team could fare would be nine wins.
#5 Boise State
BEST CASE: Back in July, the Preseason Mountain West media day was held at at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. That's pretty cool. During those proceedings, they voted for the preseason offensive player of the year. That's ridiculous, is it not? In any event, the nod for that "award" went to the mega-talented Boise State QB Kellen Moore. This is Boise's first year in this conference, and all signs point to them capturing the league title.
WORST CASE: Kyle Bortozman's kicking travails against Nevada last season, which cost the Broncos a trip to the Rose Bowl, brought out the worst in some Boise fans. The guy received death threats, after all. It was painful to watch him miss consecutive chip shots that would have beaten the Wolf Pack. It was also probably the worst I've ever felt for a player, but those are the breaks of the game. The question is whether the sting of that late-season collapse will carry over to the team psyche in 2011. But even if it does, Boise is playing such a patty cake schedule that they could sleep walk through the season and still win 11 games.
BEST CASE: National championship. On both sides of the ball reign an embarrassment of riches. Even with the loss of the incredible Patrick Peterson, the mega talented secondary will smother and dominate. The sky is the limit for this team.
WORST CASE: Coach Les Miles is starting a new punter and placekicker. Sometimes close games can come down to field position and special teams, and this would seem to be the only way the Tigers could taste defeat in 2011, stemming from a breakdown in this area.
BEST CASE: The Ducks were picked by the Pac-12 media to win the conference. Led by quarterback Darron Thomas and a high octane offense, it would seem that there is nothing to stop Oregon from winning 12 games again, especially with USC still on probation.
WORST CASE: Head coach Chip Kelly's abrasive attitude toward the media is starting to catch up with him, especially in light of the scrutiny the program is under due to recent revelations of its alleged involvement with a recruiting "street agent". Furthermore, opponents seemed to start dialing in late last year in how to slow down and cope with Oregon's fast-break offense. If these factors slow down last season's inertia, the Ducks could find themselves falling back toward the rest of the Pac-12.
BEST CASE: Alabama boasts a powerful and active defense combined with great skill players ad a mammoth line on offense. In the SEC, Alabama and LSU are the benchmarks.
WORST CASE: There really isn't much of a downside to this team, they will win at least 11 games. QB Greg McElroy and wide receiver Julio Jones have departed and must be replaced. But Alabama is one of those teams that doesn't build, it reloads.
#1 Oklahoma Sooners
BEST CASE: The Sooners are in the process of replacing USC as the marquee team in terms of a major conference dynasty. The Trojans won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, and now the Sooners have won four of the past five Big 12 Championships. This team is so loaded on both sides of the football that the another conference crown is an inevitability. A BCS title game featuring Oklahoma and LSU would rivet the attention of the college football world. As a side note, QB Landry Jones is lots of fun to watch.
WORST CASE: Everyone seems to be writing the Texas Longhorns off as a powerhouse in 2011 based on their disappointing performance last season. But if the Longhorns rise up and knock off the Sooners in the Red River Shootout, it would likely derail the Sooners' hopes of a national championship.
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including his latest, Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. You can read a free excerpt at derekjohnsonbooks.com.