Preseason College Football Rankings 2011: Who Has the Easiest Path to the BCS?

Tom PerryCorrespondent IAugust 22, 2011

Preseason College Football Rankings 2011: Who Has the Easiest Path to the BCS?

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    As the top-ranked team entering the 2011 college football season, Oklahoma is in a great position to win a national title. If the Sooners keep winning, then it’s inevitable they’ll get a shot at a championship.

    However, there are many factors that go into play before a team can win the BCS Championship.

    It helps to have the talent, but the schedule must line up just right as well.

    So let’s take a look—from the toughest to the easiest route—at 13 teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 that have a legitimate shot at playing for a BCS Championship.

13. LSU

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    Notwithstanding recent news out of LSU, the No. 4 Tigers are made to win a championship.

    Basically every offensive standout is back, and despite some key losses, the defense is still a nasty group.

    But if the Tigers actually run the table or even lose just one game, it will be amazing.

    LSU opens against No. 3 Oregon in the best game of the opening weekend at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

    Two weeks later the Tigers travel to No. 20 Mississippi State (Sept. 15), then it’s off to Morgantown, W.Va., to take on No. 24 West Virginia.

    Then LSU gets a four-game run over five weeks that includes No. 22 Florida (Oct. 8), at Tennessee (Oct. 15), No. 23 Auburn (Oct. 22) and at No. 2 Alabama (Nov. 5).

    The Tigers believe they can survive this crazy schedule, but it’s not an ideal slate for a team trying to win it all.

12. Nebraska

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    If Taylor Martinez stays healthy, the Cornhuskers could march through the Big Ten and secure a spot in the championship game.

    Of course, Nebraska would still have to get past that pesky Big Ten Championship game…probably against Wisconsin.

    Freshman Jamaal Turner caught everyone’s eye during spring practices, and he will be on the field to provide an offensive spark as well.

    Nebraska ranks near the bottom though because the Big Ten didn’t do the Cornhuskers many favors with the schedule.

    Bo Pelini’s team gets No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 18 Ohio State on back-to-back weekends, then the Huskers close the season with No. 17 Michigan State, Northwestern, Penn State, Michigan and Iowa.

    Nebraska will survive almost every week, but not all of them.

11. Alabama

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    As of today, No. 2 Alabama has five no-doubt victories—Kent State (Sept. 3), North Texas (Sept. 17), Vanderbilt (Oct. 8), Ole Miss (Oct. 15) and Georgia Southern (Nov. 19)—on the schedule.

    While there are other games that appear to be logical wins, nothing is guaranteed.

    Start with the Sept. 10 road game with Penn State. Alabama has more talent, and Nick Saban will easily out-coach whatever assistant is calling the plays while Joe Paterno tries to find his seat in the press box. But Beaver Stadium will be rocking that afternoon, and Penn State could pull an upset.

    Now add back-to-back games with No. 15 Arkansas (Sept. 24) and No. 22 Florida (Oct. 1), and you see why Alabama could have a tough time getting to October undefeated.

    ‘Bama gets a small break with a home date against Tennessee on Oct. 22, but that’s a heated rivalry, so anything is possible. There’s the showdown with No. 4 LSU (Nov. 5) and a road game with No. 20 Mississippi State (Nov. 12) as well, and the season closes with the Iron Bowl at No. 23 Auburn on Nov. 26.

    Wait a second, are we sure Alabama doesn’t have the toughest road?

10. Wisconsin

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    Give it up to Bret Bielema and the Badgers. It seems every season they at least put one solid non-conference game on the schedule.

    This year No. 11 Wisconsin hosts Oregon State Sept. 10. The Badgers are also playing Mid-American Conference power Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago Sept. 17.

    The Badgers get the privilege of welcoming Nebraska to the Big Ten at Camp Randall Stadium in a night game Oct. 1. If you love college football. you have to want to be at that game.

    Wisconsin also gets road games against No. 17 Michigan State (Oct. 22) and No. 18 Ohio State (Oct. 29). Both are also night games, and should be serious challenges to Wisconsin’s Big Ten and BCS aspirations.

    North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson is a nice addition for the offense, but playing in these hostile Big Ten stadiums is going to be a lot different than what he was used to in the ACC.

9. Oklahoma State

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    If the Cowboys are going to make a run to the BCS Championship game, Mike Gundy definitely has the personnel to pull it off.

    It all starts on offense with Brandon Weeden (4,037 passing yards and 32 touchdowns) and Justin Blackmon (102 receptions, 1,665 yards, 18 touchdowns). No. 9 Oklahoma State may also have the best offensive line in the Big 12.

    Now, if the defense can raise its game a bit, the Cowboys may actually get past No. 1 Oklahoma. Of course that’s a season finale, and the potential for both teams to be 11-0 going into that game is not that crazy.

    Before everyone gets too far ahead, the Cowboys have two decent non-conference challenges with Arizona (Sept. 8) and Tulsa (Sept. 17).

    From there, Oklahoma State never has an outrageous back-to-back test. The toughest is mid-October when the Cowboys go on the road to Texas (Oct. 15) and No. 21 Missouri (Oct. 22). There is also a road trip to No. 8 Texas A&M on Sept. 24.

    The Cowboys may not make the BCS Championship, but a BCS bowl game is a realistic possibility.

8. Oregon

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    The Ducks have a realistic chance to make it back to the BCS Championship—at least the odds are much better than reigning champion Auburn has of repeating.

    No. 3 Oregon led the nation in scoring last year with 47 points a game and also had one of the stingiest defenses.

    The offense should be as good, if not better, than last year. Quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James lead the offensive unit, and both are Heisman candidates.

    The defense lost some key components, so a perfect season may ride on them.

    Oregon will find out early enough if it has what it takes for another shot at the championship. The Ducks open with No. 4 LSU on the first Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

    Oregon’s toughest Pac-12 contests come on consecutive weekends—traveling to No. 7 Stanford on Nov. 12, then hosting No. 25 USC on Nov. 19.

7. Oklahoma

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    Starting the season as the prohibitive favorite by most, as well as ranked No. 1 by both major polls, provides enough pressure.

    The veteran Sooners should be able to handle that just fine.

    What should have Bob Stoops and his staff worried is having to play three Top 10 teams this fall.

    In Oklahoma’s second game, the Sooners travel to No. 6 Florida State in a game that could decide one of the two programs that will eventually reach the title game.

    OU also gets a home game with No. 8 Texas A&M (Nov. 5) and a road game at No. 9 Oklahoma State (Dec. 3) to close the season.

    The Sooners must make sure they don’t slip up again with No. 21 Missouri (Sept. 24) as well.

    And any Oklahoma fan will tell you not to overlook Texas, as the annual Red River Rivalry is slated for Oct. 8.

6. Stanford

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    If No. 7 Stanford can remain one of the more balanced teams in the country again, the Cardinal might become the team with the highest collective IQ to ever play in the BCS Championship.

    Our last image of Stanford is when Andrew Luck and the Cardinal picked apart Virginia Tech in a big Orange Bowl victory.

    Working against Stanford is one huge loss—coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL.

    The schedule also has a few obstacles that could preclude the Cardinal from reaching this goal. Within the Pac-12 is No. 25 USC (Oct. 29) and No. 3 Oregon (Nov. 12). After a pretty even first half, Oregon handed Stanford its lone loss of 2010.

    Now it could be time for payback.

    That could also be the case when Stanford closes the season with No. 16 Notre Dame. The Irish believe they can play in a BCS bowl this year, and avenging last year’s loss to the Cardinal is a key way to make that happen.

5. Florida State

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    If you believe Jimbo Fisher has the Seminoles on the verge of returning to their glory days, then you have to think FSU can make it to the championship game.

    Florida State’s schedule is not void of quality opponents, but it is manageable.

    The toughest stretch is back-to-back games with No. 1 Oklahoma (Sept. 17) and Clemson (Sept. 24). A loss to the Sooners may not completely dash FSU’s hopes, but tripping up at Clemson would.

    FSU should be favored in every game after this, including at Nov. 26 date with No. 22 Florida in The Swamp.

    The Seminoles’ defense is up to the challenge under second-year coordinator Mark Stoops, and if E.J. Manuel plays up to his potential at quarterback, Florida State should earn the early season praise and make a run to the BCS Championship.

4. Georgia

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    Georgia has been trending down over the past three seasons, but the time is right for the Bulldogs to get back into the SEC fight.

    The first two weeks are tough, though.

    Georgia gets a winnable, but tough test with No. 5 Boise State at the Georgia Dome. Then Mark Richt’s team hosts No. 12 South Carolina.

    There are many of the other typical SEC games with No. 20 Mississippi State, Tennessee, No. 22 Florida and No. 23 Auburn. But what is missing from Georgia’s schedule is No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 LSU and No. 15 Arkansas.

    Aaron Murray is a serious talent, and if he steps up his game, Georgia is going to be back in the race.

3. Boise State

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    Boise State upgraded conferences, but the fifth-ranked Broncos still have just three formidable tests on their 2011 schedule.

    Of course, one of the toughest games comes the first week when Boise takes on No. 19 Georgia in Atlanta.

    Then the Broncos are on easy street until a home game with No. 14 TCU on Nov. 12. The following week is another serious challenge, as Boise travels to San Diego State.

    With all of that being said, Boise may never get a chance, as the BCS folks aren’t looking to invite a team like the Broncos.

    So maybe their path is a lot harder than this.

2. West Virginia

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    No. 24 West Virginia has a two-week run in late September that could decide if the Mountaineers have a shot at being a national player this year.

    It starts with a road game against Maryland, who should be better than last year’s 9-4 squad, on Sept. 17. One week later, WVU plays the biggest home game of the season with SEC power LSU coming to town.

    If the Mountaineers find a way to survive these two games, Dana Holgorsen’s team will be favored the rest of the season.

    The only roadblock at this point would be a season finale at South Florida on Dec. 1.

    Unless it’s another one of those seasons where everyone loses, WVU will have to go undefeated to be a BCS contender.

1. Virginia Tech

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    The Hokies are a solid pick at No. 13, but have you looked at that schedule?

    Not every game is a pushover, but Virginia Tech is better than every team on it.

    The toughest game is more than likely going to be Clemson on Oct. 1 at Lane Stadium. You could also go with a road game against Georgia Tech on Nov. 10, but either way, the Hokies should win.

    The only thing standing between Virginia Tech and the BCS Championship is a potential showdown with No. 6 Florida State in the ACC Championship.