The AP poll is out, and we're less than a fortnight from the start of the season. The teams are the top of the poll will be working tirelessly to prove that they belong there, and those ranked lower—or even those not ranked—will be working just as hard, if not harder, to prove that they deserve a shot at the BCS this season.
But what are the chances of finishing the 2011 season ranking in the Top 25? For some, very good. For others, the odds are definably not in their favor.
Let's take a look at each team to try and determine their chances for finishing the season ranked in the AP Top 25.
We'll start at the very bottom, with those teams outside the Top 25, but receiving votes in the poll. Here is each team's odds of ending the season with an AP Top 25 ranking.
Penn State: 6:1
Arizona State: 3:1
Miami (FL): 30:1
Southern Mississippi: 25:1
NC State: 20:1
Air Force: 15:1
Northern Illinois: 20:1
The Trojans will begin their second year of postseason ineligibility as the No. 25 team in the nation, at least according to the AP (USC is ineligible to be ranked in the coaches poll).
While the impossibility of any championships or postseason play might turn a lot of people off, USC will have enough talent this season to have an impact on the Pac-12. Sure, the Trojans can't win the conference, but they can defiantly prevent others from winning it.
USC has 14 total returns coming back from last season (seven on each side of the ball), led by junior quarterback Matt Barkley.
Barkley hasn't exactly had the stellar SC career we were led to believe he would, but much of that isn't his fault. There's only so much a team can do on restricted numbers of scholarships. If Barkley does hope to leave his mark on USC, 2011 will be a perfect set-up season for the Trojans' return to relevance in 2012—Barkley's senior year.
Odds of finishing 2011 ranked in the AP Top 25: 3:1
The Mountaineers are looking for a return to the BCS in 2011, and with some talented players returning to an offense that's expected to be more prolific this season, those hopes of a BCS finale aren't out of the question.
West Virginia, now under the direction of Dana Holgorsen, should be primed for an offensive explosion this season with eight returning offensive starters. Additionally, Holgorsen himself has engineered some prolific offenses. In the past five seasons, as an offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Houston, and Texas Tech, Holgorsen offenses have amassed 34,244 yards of offense. To put it another way, Holgorsen has led his offenses to 19.5 miles of total output. There's also the little matter of 2,617 points.
Auburn is really an enigma. Officially, there are only eight returning starters (four on each side) from last year's BCS championship squad, but there are a lot of players returning that saw significant action in 2010.
Still, you can't go through the talent drain Auburn is facing without losing a few steps, especially in the SEC.
The bottom line is that Auburn won't be anywhere near as good in 2011 as they were last season, and the Tigers' schedule won't do them any favors, either. Low expectations and a low starting position means that a single loss could knock them out early, and Auburn would require some pretty impressive wins later in the season to climb back into the Top 25 before season's end.
Let the Will Muschamp era begin.
The Gators finished 2010, and the Urban Meyer years, with an 8-5 record. Not terrible, but not exactly what Florida fans have come to expect.
The good news is that Florida is returning some great offensive talent this season, and with eight returning offensive starters, there shouldn't be too much difficultly instituting the new offensive scheme masterminded by new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
The problems for the Gators could show up on defense, where only four starters return, including just a single defensive back. Florida will need to out-distance their opponents from an offensive standpoint this year rather than relying on big stops by the defense.
On the surface, Missouri looks to be a pretty good team heading into 2011. Even though the Tigers lost starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert to an early exit for the NFL, Missouri still has nine offensive starters coming back.
Still, last season, Missouri was unable to keep the Big 12's prolific offenses in check, and this season, Missouri is pretty depleted on defense—especially in the secondary, where only one 2010 starter returns.
The Bulldogs are looking to improve upon their impressive 9-4 finish in 2010, and with 15 returning starters, there's a good chance they'll be able to do just that.
Mississippi State has returning starters at every position in 2011, except for linebacker. The SEC is a tough conference to play in without some experience at linebacker. While the Bulldogs probably aren't ready to break into the upper reaches of the SEC quite yet, they're well on their way, and a favorable early-season schedule should keep Mississippi State ranked high enough that a few late-season losses won't knock them all the way out of the Top 25.
After finishing one of the most trying seasons in the past two decades, the Georgia Bulldogs are ready to get the 2011 season started. The first losing season in nearly two decades has Georgia fans a bit on edge, but don't expect the Bulldogs to start 2011 by losing four of their first five games.
Aaron Murray had an impressive freshman season at quarterback, and he is showing early signs of being a real star in the SEC. He'll have some challenges this season, particularly a relatively inexperienced receiving corps and a depleted offensive line.
The Bulldog defense, however, returns eight starters from last season, and hopefully that extra experience will have Georgia back in SEC East contending form in 2011.
With an opening-week showdown with Boise State looming, it's possible (if not likely) that Georgia could find themselves on the cusp of dropping out of the Top 25 after only one game. Georgia fans should worry so early, though (like last year when there were ludicrous calls for Mark Richt's firing). The rest of the Bulldogs' schedule sets up nicely for a decent Top 25 ranking by season's end.
Ohio State is a real question mark this season.
There has been so much occurring this offseason, what with NCAA investigations, coaches resigning in disgrace, star quarterbacks leaving despite promises to stay, inept leadership from athletic department and university administration. It's enough to make anyone's head spin.
How are the Buckeyes supposed to ignore everything crashing down around them and still win games?
Well, it is Ohio State, and regardless of everything that's happened up to this point, the Buckeyes are still going to be a formidable opponent this season in the Big Ten.
While winning the conference is probably out of the question this season (either because of other teams beating Ohio State or the NCAA imposing sanctions), it's not out of the question Ohio State will find itself ranked come December.
The world is still waiting for the “same old Spartans.” When is the inevitable collapse going to happen?
As MSU kept winning last season, en route to a share of the Big Ten championship, everyone kept expecting the wheels to come off any second. When MSU lost to Iowa in embarrassing fashion, there were more than a few people who thought that was it for the Spartans.
But Mark Dantonio rallied the troops, and MSU went on to beat Minnesota, Purdue, and Penn State to finish the regular season 11-1.
After a beat down at the hands of Alabama in the Capital One bowl, there are again questions about Michigan State's true nature. Are they a top competitor in the Big Ten? Do they have the staying power that has eluded so many Spartan teams of the past? Can they overcome their own demons, ignore history, and find their way to the Big Ten Championship Game?
All valid questions.
Michigan State has a very talented quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and there is enough talent in his returning supporting cast for us to believe Michigan State probably won't be losing game after game this season.
Brian Kelly hasn't been shy this offseason about his goal for the Fighting Irish in 2011: the BCS.
With a lot of talent returning to Notre Dame this year (a whopping 19 returning starters), it's easy to believe Kelly. Notre Dame seems to have all of the pieces in place to make a run at the big time this season, and a relatively favorable schedule should be a help.
The Irish do have big games against Michigan and Michigan State in weeks two and three, respectively, plus there's a season-ending showdown at Stanford to look forward to, as well. But the Irish look as if they're returning to the form we expect from Notre Dame. And when Brian Kelly sets a goal, the safe bet is on him reaching that goal.
When Ryan Mallett left, there was still reason for Razorbacks fans to hope. After all, an explosive, talented running back named Knile Davis was anchoring what was sure to be an impressive running attack for Arkansas.
After Davis's season-ending injury in fall practices, the sky has turned decidedly darker for the Hogs, and the prospects for 2011 now probably don't include a return trip to a BCS bowl.
The Razorbacks have just five returning offensive starters remaining healthy for 2011, and there are mounting reasons to be pessimistic about Arkansas's chances this season.
No matter how you look at TCU this season, there's just no way it stacks up to the 2010 Horned Frogs.
With the possible exception of Auburn, no team in the FBS suffered such a massive talent drain as TCU. The Frogs are returning just ten total starters from their 2010 Rose Bowl championship team. While other programs may be able to absorb such huge losses, it remains to be seen how a BCS outsider will cope with this kind of depletion.
TCU is also penalized for their strength-of-schedule, or rather the lack thereof. Any potential loss in 2011 could be devastating to their chances at remaining in the Top 25.
The Hokies began 2010 with two losses, the first to a very good Boise State team, and the second to an FCS program, James Madison.
Luckily, Virginia Tech rebounded from these early setbacks, and earned a berth in the ACC championship game. By virtue of their victory over Florida State in the ACC title game, Virginia Tech found itself headed back to the BCS. Is another ACC title run in store for Hokies fans in 2011?
The loss of Tyrod Taylor can't be overstated, but there are still plenty of experienced Hokies left over for a new season of Beamerball in Blacksburg.
The Ol' Ball Coach led the Gamecocks to their first-ever SEC-East title last season, and the Gamecocks come into 2011 as the odds-on favorite to again win the SEC-East.
South Carolina will be talented and experienced this season, as the offense returns seven starters, including most skill position players, and the defense has a healthy sprinkling of returning starters at every position.
If oft-troubled quarterback Stephen Garcia can keep his nose clear this year (which given his history is not to be taken for granted), you can expect South Carolina to be right in the middle of a battle for the division this season.
In addition to Michigan State, Wisconsin also won a share of the Big Ten championship last season, and even though the Spartans were the victors in the head-to-head meeting, it was the Badgers who won the trip to Pasadena last season.
Much of the 2010 team has moved on, and head coach Bret Bielema will have to move forward with just 11 returning starters from last season. In addition to breaking in a new quarterback, there will be plenty of new faces on the offensive line. If Wisconsin hopes to have a shot at winning the Leaders Division in the Big Ten this season, they'll likely need to rely on their tried-and-true offensive philosophy of running it straight at their opponents, and daring them to stop it; the new starters at running back will need to build on some of the experience gained last season if the Badgers are to earn a trip to Indianapolis in December.
There is one lingering concern about Nebraska and their chances in their first Big Ten season: Taylor Martinez.
There's no question about the kid's athleticism. He is fast, agile and strong. There is some question about his quarterbacking ability. He threw for less than 1,800 yards last season, only 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Granted, he can torch defenses with his feet, but if Nebraska really hopes to break out in the Big Ten this season and earn a BCS trip, Martinez will need to show that he can throw the ball with some consistency.
Losing to teams like Washington probably won't do much for Nebraska this season; the “easy” games need to be won because the Cornhuskers have more than their fair share of “hard” games looming in 2011.
Is it possible for Oklahoma State to put up even bigger numbers than it did last season? We're about to find out.
Brandon Weeden and a whole host of experienced starters are back in orange this season for the Cowboys, and based on the fireworks we all saw in 2010, it should be a fun ride.
In a Big 12 that is generally viewed as weakened, Oklahoma State may finally be ready to break out as a top BCS contender this season. A preseason top 10 ranking will help the Cowboys towards the ultimate goal—the BCS—but before they can punch their ticket, they still need to find a way to beat Oklahoma and Texas A&M, not to mention the rest of the Big 12.
In any other season, the Aggies would be an easy favorite to win the Big 12 with the talent and experience they have lined up for 2011.
But the Big 12's top three teams are so good this season, it's not going to be an easy conference to win.
The Aggies have offensive starters returning this year at every position, and senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be looking for any number of a host of talented receivers. But before you go thinking it's going to be a complete aerial assault this season, don't discount the run game of A&M.
Really the only question mark for the Aggies this year is at linebacker. With only one player with starting experience returning from last year's squad, the nine returning starters will need to provide some cover until the new blood can settle into a rhythm.
Andrew Luck is back for another season calling the signals under center for the Cardinal. That fact alone probably catapulted Stanford into the preseason top ten.
But if you remove Luck from the equation, the Cardinal have just four other bona fide starters returning from last season, and none of them are receivers. The offensive line is depleted, as well.
Still, Luck is that good, and he'll be able to take up much of the slack himself. But he can't do everything. The defense also lost some key players from last season, but has a nice collection of returning starters (six) spread around the field.
Can Andrew Luck carry the Cardinal through the 2011 season almost single-handedly (or at least until the rest of the team gets up to speed)?
Well, it's almost time to put up or shut up.
We've been hearing almost since January just how good this year's Seminoles team is supposed to be. On paper, there's nothing to make anyone think otherwise. There are 16 returning starters from last season, and that doesn't include EJ Manuel. The junior isn't technically a starter, but he has as much or more experience than any non-starter in the country.
Both the offense and defense look to be the class of the ACC this season, and there's ample room to doubt if anyone will be able to derail their conference championship quest this year. Virginia Tech doesn't appear on the regular season schedule, and a win against No. 1 Oklahoma on September 17 at home could really cement the Seminoles' place in the rankings. As it stands now, the Seminoles have the best odds we've seen so far of staying in the Top 25 at season's end.
We're now venturing into territory of the first-place vote getters.
Boise State will begin the 2011 season with a lofty No. 5 ranking, and they even pulled down two first-place votes in the preseason AP poll.
There's plenty of reason to be high on Boise this season. First, Heisman finalist Kellen Moore is back for his fourth season under center, and if the Broncos can win just eight games with him starting this season, Moore will become the winningest starting quarterback in FBS history.
In total, the Broncos return 14 starters from their 12-1 team from 2010. Boise State also has one of the weakest schedules for a top 10 team, thanks mainly to their membership in the Mountain West Conference that has lost Utah and BYU (and will lost TCU after 2011).
There's not too much on the Broncos' schedule to fear, other than a week one meeting with Georgia and a last-season visit from TCU. As we saw last season, even a surprising loss won't destroy Boise State's poll position, and Boise State remaining in the Top 25 is one of the safest bets you can make this year.
The LSU Tigers are the No. 4 preseason team, and it looks as if Les Miles has his team back in championship form.
Almost the entire offense returns from a year ago, with starters returning at nearly every position. Les Miles certainly knows how to coach, and he'll have plenty of talent lined up for a very tough 2011 schedule, which includes an opening week meeting with No. 3 Oregon on a neutral field.
It seems the Ducks have some unfinished business to take care of in 2011.
The BCS runners-up last season return a number of talented producers from last year's squad on offense, including Heisman finalist and FBS leading rusher LaMichael James, and all-conference quarterback Darron Thomas. Even though Thomas has again been found to be a passenger in a car that contained marijuana, his status as starter seems to be secure, as head coach Chip Kelly doesn't seem inclined to do anything to derail the Ducks' prospects in the Pac-12 this year.
The aforementioned showdown with No. 4 LSU in week one is probably the biggest game on the schedule for the Ducks, and if Oregon can find a way to get past the Tigers, there's nothing that will keep them off the Top 25 poll come season's end.
Nick Saban has his statue in Tuscaloosa. He's already brought a (legitimate) championship to Alabama. What more could you ask for?
How about another?
After winning it all in 2009, Alabama ran into a few road blocks last season. The curse of being the preseason No. 1 team bit the Crimson Tide squarely in the rear end, and the Tide had to “settle” for a berth in the Capital One Bowl to end their 2010 season.
If starting in the No. 1 spot is truly cursed, the the No. 2 spot has to be the best place, right?
While Alabama will certainly have some offensive muscle this season, there are 10 returning starters on defense. If the old adage is true, defense wins championships, then Alabama should be in a perfect position to win the SEC this season. There are more than enough potential points ready to pour from the Tide's offense, so if the defense can hold steady, Alabama fans may be in for another great season of football.
That brings us to the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, the Oklahoma Sooners.
There has been so much said about this team already, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to list off all of the reasons why Oklahoma is No. 1. We're interested in why they'll stay No. 1, or at the very least (for the purposes of this slideshow) stay in the Top 25.
Based on the plethora of talent and experience Bob Stoops has at his command this season, it would take something akin to an act of God to knock the Sooners from the Top 25 this season.
The Sooners have, with one notable exception, a cupcake non-conference schedule. On top of that, with the exception of Oklahoma State and Texas A&M (and maybe Missouri), the Big 12 won't provide too many challenges. Even if Oklahoma were to lose four games this year—as extremely unlikely as that sounds—it probably wouldn't be enough to knock them out of the Top 25 come season's end.
Nothing is a guarantee in college football, but Oklahoma ending 2011 in the Top 25 is about as close as you can come.