College Football 2011: 7 Players Who Will Have the Biggest Impact in 2011
As we enter the first weekend of the 2011 college football season, the nation is about to be treated to another year of epic struggles, epic victories, and spectacular failures.
Every year, the preseason Top 25 encounters seismic changes, as some teams clearly aren't exactly what we all expected, and some teams unheralded in September are competing for conference or national championships come November, December, and January.
The trend over the past has been slanted towards solid teams with one or two outstanding players. Even teams that don't fare well do better than would ordinarily be possible with the contribution of impact players.
So who will make the biggest impacts in 2011?
Denard Robinson, Michigan
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We have to face facts: Michigan has been absolutely terrible the past few seasons. Aside from leading Michigan to its worst record in the program's 133-year history, former head coach Rich Rodriguez also brought the program's first-ever sanction from the NCAA.
But in the end, Rodriguez should get credit for at least one thing: he recruited Denard Robinson.
In just a few games as U-M's starter last season, Robinson shattered most quarterbacking records at Michigan—at least all the records that had to do with a quarterback's feet.
Robinson is absolutely magic when carrying the football. While he's not going to be impressing anyone with his stellar passing game, it's decent enough to keep the secondaries honest, giving Denard a chance to really break open on the ground.
It doesn't matter if you're talking about the 7-5 Michigan Wolverines, or a 13-0 team, the inclusion of Robinson on the roster will make a huge difference.
The only question now becomes his health. Will Robinson be able to avoid the injury bug in 2011 that plagued him last season while carrying the ball 30 times per game?
Danny O'Brien, Maryland
When the 2010 season began, almost no one had ever heard of Danny O'Brien.
He was a relatively unheralded recruit landed by Maryland, who was expected to fill a backup role on a team that wasn't expected to be competitive in the ACC.
By season's end, O'Brien had landed the starting role, began putting up impressive numbers, and eventually won recognition as the ACC Freshman of the Year.
As 2011 begins, O'Brien is the starting Terrapin signal-caller, and he'll be expected to lead Maryland into a new era of success under new head coach Randy Edsall.
Maryland still isn't expected to compete for a conference title this season, but with O'Brien now the full-time starter, you can expect the Terps to fare better, especially in the early part of the season—where they struggled mightily in 2010.
While O'Brien probably won't turn the program around all by his lonesome, he's clearly going to be an integral part of the Maryland Renaissance.
Case Keenum, Houston
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There aren't many people who follow Houston Cougars football closely, but for those who do, Case Keenum's sixth year of eligibility was a major boost to the morale of a program in desperate need of good news.
Keenum began the 2010 season within spitting distance of a handful of FBS career records, including passing yards and passing touchdowns. That all vanished when Keenum tore his ACL against UCLA in Houston's third game of 2010. The NCAA granted him a medical redshirt, and he'll return as a sixth-year senior in 2011.
Keenum was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2007, C-USA Offensive Player of the Year in 2008, and was C-USA MVP and Second Team All-American in 2009, when he captured the Sammy Baugh Trophy, awared annually to the top passer in the FBS.
Okay, so Houston won't be winning any BCS games anytime soon. But with Keenum in the lineup, the 2011 Houston squad looks more like the 10-4 Cougars of 2009 than the 5-7 Cougars of 2010.
Andrew Luck, Stanford
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It shouldn't surprise anyone that Andrew Luck appears on this list.
After all, this Heisman finalist is returning for one more season at Stanford, and begins the year as a Heisman favorite.
Additionally, Stanford is dealing with the loss of quite a number of starters. While there is a good deal of experience returning for the Cardinal this season, much of the starting talent from 2010 has moved on.
It's entirely possible that had Andrew Luck opted for a guaranteed top five selection in the NFL Draft, Stanford would have been nowhere near the top ten in many preseason polls. But Luck is back, and Stanford is a clear top ten team heading in to 2011.
If Stanford wants to repeat last season's BCS success, the Cardinal will need to once again rely on Luck to have a monster season, both on the ground and through the air.
Aaron Murray, Georgia
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Georgia certainly had a rough go of things in 2010. After the Bulldogs' first losing season in nearly two decades, it's difficult for many Georgia fans to find a silver lining.
But there is one, and it goes by the name Aaron Murray.
The young freshman showed some early glimpses of greatness last season during his freshman campaign. By the time the season was over, Murray had amassed over 3,000 passing yards, racked up 24 passing touchdowns (with four more on the ground), and threw just eight interceptions while completing over 61 percent of his passes.
Murray's numbers weren't eye-popping, but for a freshman in the SEC, they were downright impressive—and they should give even the most pessimistic Bulldogs fan reason to hope.
Last year, Georgia started 1-4 en route to a 6-7 finish. This season's early schedule doesn't look a ton easier, with Boise State, South Carolina, and Mississippi State all in the first five weeks. If the Bulldogs can find a way to upset just one of those teams, a 3-2 start is a big leap forward from 1-4. And if you're looking for upsets, Aaron Murray is the guy you want taking your snaps.
LaMichael James, Oregon
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The top rusher in the FBS from 2010 is back, and people are already talking Heisman.
The Ducks have won the past two conference championships in what is now called the Pac-12. If they have a three-peat in them, the Ducks will have to rely on the feet of speedster LaMichael James to get the most of the way there.
Sure, the Ducks have plenty of offensive weapons returning this season, and there are many who believe Oregon has the ultimate motivation: losing in the BCS Championship Game last season.
But James is something special with the ball in his hands. If you're an offensive coordinator or head coach of a team with LaMichael James on your roster, you'd do well to put the ball in his hands, and watch his feet carry you to the land of milk and honey.
With over 1,700 rushing yards last season, it's not crazy to think that James could flirt with 2,000 this season. If he does, he better plan on making a Heisman-shaped space in his trophy case.
Kellen Moore, Boise State
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One of, if not the top returning college football player for 2011 is Boise State's Kellen Moore.
Moore, yet another 2010 Heisman finalist on this list, returns for his fourth year under center for Chris Petersen and the Boise State Broncos. It's been a successful three years with Moore taking the snaps thus far.
So successful, in fact, that if Moore can guide the Broncos to just eight wins this season (which seems like a foregone conclusion, as long as he stays healthy), Moore will become the winningest starting quarterback in FBS history.
Perhaps more importantly, the Boise State Nation will be looking to Moore for more than leadership on the field or the usual production of wins. This season is probably the last, best hope for Boise State to win a BCS Championship.
There has been so much talk over the past few seasons about whether or not a team like Boise State—that is to say, BCS non-AQ programs—belong in BCS games, much less the BCS Championship Game. Some outspoken critics, like Ohio State President, E. Gordon Gee (you know, the guy who hoped that Jim Tressel wasn't going to fire him) and ESPN's Craig James (the guy who whines about his kid not getting to play at Texas Tech, and sicks his PR firm on the head coach, leading to that coach's dismissal) contend that teams like Boise State don't deserve BCS berths because they don't play a tough enough schedule during the regular season.
Boise State has done everything one could expect of a team in their position to try and schedule top opponents, including travelling to play one-game series against programs like Virginia Tech and Georgia. And when teams like Boise State do make the big games, they frequently win (Boise State over Oklahoma, Utah over Alabama, TCU over Wisconsin).
There's been a lot of talk about Boise State losing Moore's top targets, Austin Pettis and Titus Young. While their receiving output will certainly need to be replaced in a hurry if Boise State hopes to return to the BCS this season, with Kellen Moore as the quarterback, you have to believe Chris Petersen has found someone, anyone to catch his freakishly accurate passes.
If Moore has some new favorite targets that can reliably haul in his passes, Moore will be on his way to the record books, and Boise State will be on its way to the BCS.