Boise State Broncos are ranked No. 1
Dan Hope’s 2011 Preseason CFB National Top 25 (Based on Season Projections)
It is that time once again. On Thursday, September 1st, the 2011 college football season officially commences, which means that months of week-to-week excitement that will shake up the ranks of college football are ahead of us.
In the preseason, it is impossible to know how the college football season will play out; never would have I predicted that Auburn and Oregon would be the top two teams in college football last year. However, I have projected all the games over the course of the season, and by doing so, have come up with projected records for all of the top teams. Using those season projections, I have come up with my preseason top-25.
Let me make it clear that my rankings over the course of the season will be very different than the standard polls; even if most of these teams win in Week 1, expect drastic changes, because I go by what happens on the field, not based upon preseason expectations. However, this is how my poll would play out at the end of the season if all of my projections were correct, and that is how I have come up with my preseason poll for 2011.
Teams are listed with their projected record (not including bowl game), along with last season’s final ranking in my end-of-season poll.
1. Boise State Broncos
Projected Record: 12-0
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 9th
This could finally be Boise State’s year to not only become the first non-BCS school to get the elusive invitation to the BCS National Championship Game, but also to become national champions.
As is always the case, the college football landscape has to fall their way for them to get a chance; they must go undefeated, and no more than one school from a BCS conference can go undefeated. Preferably, if one school is to go undefeated, that school would be from the SEC, for chances are higher that the BCS would select a one-loss SEC team over an undefeated Boise State than they would be to pick a one-loss team from any other conference.
Based on my projections, in which I picked all of the big games this year to come up with record predictions for all the contending teams, I believe this scenario could play out this season.
The scenario has to play out for Boise State to get their championship chance, but I believe they could be the most complete team in all of college football this year. This is a team with very few question marks in terms of personnel. The Broncos have one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, senior Kellen Moore, who will certainly be one of the Heisman favorites if he has a strong year. Wide receiver is a weakness with last year’s top two wide receivers gone, but senior running back Doug Martin and senior tight end Kyle Efaw return as big offensive weapons. The Broncos also have a very strong offensive line, led by one of the nation’s best left tackles, senior Nate Potter.
The Boise State Broncos have a tremendous defensive line group, with three very good returning senior starters in Billy Winn, Shea McClellin, and Chase Baker. Senior Aaron Tevis returns to lead the linebacker corps, while the Broncos have two studs in their secondary in junior cornerback Jamar Taylor and senior safety George Iloka.
If there is any year for the Broncos to win it all, this would be the year. The Broncos have a plethora of talent and experience, with many key players who are seniors and are likely to be headed to the National Football League next year. In a projected national championship game against Alabama, I believe that the Broncos can pull off their biggest upset ever, and prove that a small program can conquer the BCS.
The Broncos do have a tough series of obstacles to finish the season undefeated, including a very tough opening game against Georgia. The last time Boise State played against an SEC school was in 2005, a year in which they also opened against Georgia, and they lost that game 48-13.
The Broncos will have to be at their best to beat Georgia, but if they are to win, a victory over an SEC school will certainly help their case in impressing the BCS. The Broncos also play in a new conference this year, the Mountain West Conference, which will feature a more challenging schedule including last year’s Rose Bowl winner, TCU. The Broncos will have to play well all season to go undefeated, but if they can do that, they should earn their spot in the national championship game, where I think they can shock the world with their biggest upset win ever.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Projected Record: 13-0
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 13th
The national championship has been won by a SEC school the past five consecutive years. The Alabama Crimson Tide are certainly the favorites to win the conference’s sixth in a row. After a very disappointing three-loss season last year, the Crimson Tide come into this year as the favorites of college football’s most competitive conference.
For the Tide to go undefeated into the national championship game, they will have to play at their best week-in and week-out, with many tough tests throughout the season. Games that could put an end to the Crimson Tide’s championship run include September 24th vs. Arkansas, October 1st at Florida, November 5th versus LSU, November 12th at Mississippi State, and if they make it through all of those opponents, the SEC Championship Game on December 3rd, in which I project they will face South Carolina.
The Crimson Tide are loaded with returning talent. Alabama has seven players voted to the Preseason All-SEC First Team: junior running back Trent Richardson, senior center William Vlachos, junior guard Barrett Jones, senior nose tackle Josh Chapman, junior outside linebacker Don’ta Hightower, senior strong safety Mark Barron, and junior free safety Robert Lester. That group does not even include their best defensive player (in my opinion), senior linebacker Courtney Upshaw, and other stars on the team include junior cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and senior wide receiver Marquis Maze.
Like Boise State, the Crimson Tide are loaded with talent and experience. However, they do have one major area of concern: quarterback. With the graduation of Greg McElroy, it is now up to one of two underclassmen, sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron or freshman quarterback Phillip Sims, to emerge as an effective replacement to lead the Tide in their championship hopes.
The competition is still open, and this certainly leaves concern, for neither of these quarterbacks has any meaningful experience playing at the collegiate level, and while playing in the Southeastern Conference, subpar quarterback play could easily take the Tide out of contention.
I believe that McCarron will win the job and play well, and be able to lead the Crimson Tide through an undefeated regular season. If that happens, the Tide certainly have a great shot at winning their second national championship in a three-year span.
3. Stanford Cardinal
Projected Record: 12-1
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 4th
Last year, the Stanford Cardinal and Oregon Ducks competed for the Pac-10 title and a potential national championship berth, and in the new Pac-12 this year, I expect much of the same. While losing head coach Jim Harbaugh to the National Football League is a big loss for the program, the Cardinal maintained continuity by promoting coordinator David Shaw.
Returning to the program is redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck, who is not only the best quarterback in the nation, but the best player in the nation, and absolutely the favorite to go No. 1overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, where he would have gone had he declared for the 2011 draft.
Luck’s return to the program for one more season makes the Cardinal an immediate favorite, but there is plenty of other returning talent as well. Junior running back Stepfan Taylor is a dangerous runner out of the backfield. The receiving corps did suffer big losses with the graduation of the team’s top two wide receivers, but tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver Griff Whalen are key returning weapons, and Luck is such a talented quarterback that he makes all of his receivers better, so I do not see those losses being a major concern.
Up front, senior Jonathan Martin is one of the nation’s best left tackles. Defensively, there are also many great players returning. Senior Matt Masifilo is a very good defensive end, while junior Shayne Skov and senior Chase Thomas lead a terrific linebacker corps. Senior safety Delano Howell returns to the star in the secondary.
With Luck at the helm, I predict that the Cardinal will defeat the Oregon Ducks at home in Palo Alto. However, the Cardinal will have to navigate a difficult Pac-12 schedule in order to go undefeated and get to the national championship game, and another very difficult game that looms is their game at USC on October 29th, a game in which I predict the Trojans get the better of them. However, the Cardinal are a team poised to be a top Pac-12 team once again, and if they do not go undefeated, I believe that they will still end up victorious in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and get a victory in the Rose Bowl.
4. Oregon Ducks
Projected Record: 11-1
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 3rd
The Oregon Ducks came as close as one team could to winning a national championship last year, losing to Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game on a field goal as time expired. Fortunately for Oregon, many key players from last year’s run to the championship game return this year, making the Ducks a top contender once again.
The star from last year’s team, junior running back LaMichael James, is back in the fold as one of the nation’s best running backs. Quarterback Darron Thomas, also a junior, is back as well, and he proved last year that he has the mettle and leadership to effectively lead the Ducks on a championship run.
The Ducks have many other dynamic weapons to work with offensively as well, including junior running back Kenjon Barner, sophomore runner/receiver Josh Huff, senior wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei, and senior tight end David Paulson. One area of concern could be the offensive line, which lost three starters from last year, and is unspectacular as a whole.
Defensively, the Ducks suffered some key losses, including middle linebacker Casey Matthews, but leading the returning talent is star junior cornerback Cliff Harris, who has struggled badly with inconsistency, but his ability to break up passes and return interceptions for six points makes him the nation’s most dangerous defensive back.
The defensive line could have a tough time making up for the losses of three senior starters, but the linebacker corps features senior Josh Kaddu and sophomore Boseko Lokombo, looking to fill the voids left by Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. The secondary should be the strength of the Ducks’ defense, led by Harris but also featuring junior free safety John Boyett and senior strong safety Eddie Pleasant.
As was the case last year, the Oregon Ducks will have to get through the Stanford Cardinal to go undefeated and win the Pac-12, and that is going to be a very difficult task. The Ducks also have a very challenging opener versus LSU, and face a tough challenge against USC on November 19th. I expect another great year from the Ducks, but a defeat to the Cardinal could cause them to fall short of the Pac-12 title, and leave them playing in the Sugar, Orange, or Fiesta Bowl.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
Projected Record: 11-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 21st
Under the tenure of Steve Spurrier as head coach, the South Carolina Gamecocks have been a program steadily on the rise. This year could be their chance to win their first-ever Southeastern Conference title.
Like the SEC favorite Alabama Crimson Tide, the Gamecocks do have uncertainty at the quarterback position, with competition still open for the starting job between senior Stephen Garcia and sophomore Connor Wood. However, while both have had their issues with decision-making and inconsistent play, both have also played very well for the Gamecocks at times, and I think whoever establishes himself as the starter will have a strong season leading the South Carolina offense.
The quarterback of the Gamecocks has the benefit of working with both an elite running back in sophomore Marcus Lattimore, and an elite wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery, both of who are college football superstars who can both arguably be considered the best at the nation at their positions. Lattimore can do it all as a running back, while Jeffery is a tremendous big-play threat.
The Gamecocks defense also features superstars. Junior Devin Taylor is a tremendously imposing defensive end at 6'7" with great athleticism, and he could be poised for a breakout season, while the Gamecocks also added the No. 1 overall recruit and another very tall, very athletic future superstar at the defensive end position in Jadeveon Clowney.
After missing nearly all of last season due to injury, junior Shaq Wilson returns to lead the linebackers. The Gamecocks’ secondary is loaded with talent, led by junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but also featuring junior safeties DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger.
The Gamecocks won the SEC East title with a 9-3 record last year, but I believe they are in for an even better season this year. This team is loaded with talent, and they are on a pattern of steady improvement under coach Steve Spurrier. The schedule is full of tough games, including September 10th at Georgia, October 15th at Mississippi State, November 5th at Arkansas, and November 12th versus Florida. I believe that the Gamecocks are a good enough team to get through it all this year with only one loss, but of course, winning the SEC East again means a likely SEC Championship date against Alabama.
In last year’s SEC Championship, the Gamecocks were blown out in a 56-17 defeat to Auburn. This year, I believe the Gamecocks will be good enough to compete with Alabama, or whoever else comes out of the SEC West, and potentially win the SEC Championship, which could equal a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. It will certainly be tough, but they are a team loaded with star talent, and I would not be surprised if this is the year they conquer the nation’s strongest conference.
Even if they were to lose in the SEC Championship game, I still believe this team is poised for a berth in a BCS bowl this year, likely the Sugar Bowl.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Projected Record: 11-1
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 7th
On paper, the Oklahoma Sooners may be the best team in the nation. They are the favorites to win the Big 12 this year, but in recent years, the Sooners have been known to have an annual midseason letdown, in which they lose a game they should win, subsequently costing the Sooners their chance at a championship.
My prediction is that this letdown will occur this year in none other than the Red River Rivalry game, at Texas on October 8th. Of course, that is assuming the Sooners get through a very difficult schedule before and after that game, including tough tests at Florida State on September 17th, versus Missouri (the team against which last year’s letdown occurred) on September 24th, versus Texas A&M on November 5th, and at Oklahoma State on December 3rd. The Sooners are good enough to win every game on their schedule; whether that happens is much more uncertain.
The Sooners have one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in junior Landry Jones, and he has plenty of talent to work with around him. Senior Ryan Broyles is among the nation’s best dynamic wide receivers, while sophomore receivers Kenny Stills and Trey Franks should build off of strong freshman seasons. The Sooners also have a fantastic duo at the tight end position in seniors James Hanna and Trent Ratterree. Sophomore running back Roy Finch is a dynamic athlete out of the backfield, and the Sooners have a very strong offensive line up front.
The defense is also very strong. Senior defensive end Frank Alexander and junior defensive tackle Stacy McGee lead a strong line up front. The secondary is also very strong, led by sophomore cornerback Tony Jefferson, junior cornerback Demontre Hurst, and senior strong safety Sam Proctor.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, the one real area of concern on the Sooners is their linebacker corps. The tragic death of Austin Box this offseason, combined with star senior outside linebacker Travis Lewis’s broken foot, leaves the Sooners thin in the linebacker corps, although Lewis will hopefully be back midseason. The status of another star linebacker, junior Ronnell Lewis, is also uncertain, for he has not been with the team this summer.
The Sooners have all the ability to win a national championship. It is up to head coach Bob Stoops to keep his team focused on one game at a time, so that they do not suffer a letdown which could cost them that opportunity.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Projected Record: 12-1
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 19th
As an incoming freshman at one of the Big Ten’s flagship universities, The Ohio State University, the prospects that the Nebraska Cornhuskers could come in and win the conference title in their first year in the conference disgusts me. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I see happening. With Ohio State dealing with controversy, and Wisconsin dealing with several key losses, Nebraska is the Big Ten’s strongest team.
Returning to quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers this season is redshirt sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, a dynamic dual threat who makes their offense instantly dangerous. Martinez could be the team’s leading rusher, but junior Rex Burkhead is also a very good running back, while the Cornhuskers also have a very talented incoming freshman running back, Aaron Green.
Senior wide receiver Brandon Kinnie and junior tight end Ben Cotton return as top weapons for the passing offense. Up front, the Cornhuskers are led by a very talented young left tackle, sophomore Jeremiah Sirles.
While the Cornhuskers may have no impact player the caliber of Ndamukong Suh or Prince Amukamara on their defense this year, they do have many great talents. Senior defensive tackle Jared Crick is a fantastic all-around lineman, and senior middle linebacker Lavonte David emerged as a tackling machine in his first season with the school last year. The secondary took a major hit, losing three out of four starters, but they do return a very good cornerback in senior Alfonzo Dennard.
As the top team in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers have a great shot at running the table. Nebraska’s two toughest tests come at Wisconsin on October 1st, and versus Michigan State on October 29th. My prediction is that Nebraska will get the better of Wisconsin, and follow that up the next week with a victory over Ohio State, but have their undefeated season come to an end against the Spartans.
If the Cornhuskers can get through all three of those undefeated, only the Big Ten Championship game, which would likely be a rematch against either Ohio State or Wisconsin, could stand in their way between a berth in the national championship game.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Projected Record: 11-1
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 12th
The team who can contend with Oklahoma in the Big 12 is none other than their in-state rivals, the Oklahoma State Cowboys. With the Big 12 now down to 10 teams, there is still hope for a de facto conference championship game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Bedlam game at the end of the regular season, and that is exactly what I see happening. While I believe Oklahoma will win that game, this Oklahoma State team is good enough to potentially run the table and get a championship chance.
The Cowboys should have one of the nation’s best passing offenses, with efficient senior quarterback Brandon Weeden leading the way, and the nation’s best wide receiver, junior Justin Blackmon, as the star of the offense. Blackmon will be the offense’s big playmaker, but senior wide receivers Josh Cooper and Hubert Anyiam are also good weapons, along with two talented sophomore running backs in Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith. Up front, the Cowboys are led by one of the nation’s best left tackles, senior Levy Adcock.
The Cowboys do not have a great defense, but there is talent worth nothing. The defensive line will be led by senior defensive end Richetti Jones, but that is certainly a weak area on the team. The linebacker corps is also a weak point, with the loss of two starters, but sophomore Shaun Lewis is a very talented young player. The secondary, led by junior Brodrick Brown and senior safety Markelle Martin, is the strongest suit of the defense.
Oklahoma State’s defense is unspectacular, but their offense is good enough to carry them to a very successful season. That is why I see the Cowboys making a big run at the Big 12 title this season.
9. Georgia Bulldogs
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
South Carolina’s toughest competition in the SEC East this year should come from the Georgia Bulldogs. Head coach Mark Richt needs to lead his team to a strong season to get his name off of the coaching hot seat, and with a lot of talent to work with, the Bulldogs should be contenders in the Southeastern Conference.
The offense is led by a very talented redshirt sophomore quarterback, Aaron Murray. Murray had a very impressive freshman season leading the Bulldogs, in which he put his big arm and ability to pass the ball on display. The Bulldogs lost their top two running backs from last season, but true freshman Isaiah Crowell is a very talented player who should be able to make an immediate impact, joining sophomore Carlton Thomas and junior Richard Samuel at the position.
As for the receiving corps, A.J. Green will be very tough to replace, but junior wideout Tavarres King and junior tight end Orson Charles are playmakers. Up front, the Bulldogs are led by two fantastic seniors, left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones.
The defensive front seven is a major area of concern this season for the Georgia Bulldogs. There is young talent, but no proven standouts return. This means that the secondary, the Bulldogs’ defensive area of strength, will have to carry the defense. Senior cornerback Brandon Boykin is a standout, while junior cornerback Branden Smith is a big playmaker, and junior safety Baccari Rombo is a well-rounded player.
The Bulldogs have been disappointing over the past few seasons, but this could be the year they bounce back to become a contender in the SEC once again.
10. USC Trojans
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
The USC Trojans are in the second year of a two-year bowl ban, which makes them ineligible for the BCS standings, but they are not banned from my national top 25, and I believe that the Trojans are going to be one of the top teams in the Pac-12 this year. I do expect that the Trojans will be the best team in the Pac-12 South, although they are forbidden from playing in this year’s Pac-12 Championship Game. That limits how high up the polls they can go, but I do believe the Trojans will be a dangerous team to everyone they play this regular season.
The big reason for my confidence in USC heading into this season is in junior quarterback Matt Barkley, who I believe is poised for a breakout season to become one of the star players in college football. Barkley has all the tools to be a superstar quarterback, and he has many talented weapons to work with offensively.
Sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods is a big playmaker, while senior tight end Rhett Ellison is another big weapon. Senior running back Marc Tyler is suspended for the team’s opener due to inappropriate comments he made, but he will be a big offensive playmaker when he returns, as will sophomore back Dillon Baxter. Up front, the Trojans are led by one of the nation’s best left tackles, junior Matt Kalil.
The Trojans are loaded with talent defensively as well. Junior defensive end Nick Perry is a very talented pass rusher up front, leading the defensive line. The linebacker corps is also very strong, led by senior middle linebacker Chris Galippo and junior Devon Kennard. The secondary is also a strong suit, led by sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey and junior free safety T.J. McDonald. The defense lacks depth, due to USC’s decrease in scholarship for the past two years, but the talent is strong enough for the Trojans to have a very imposing defense.
The Trojans play Stanford at home on October 29th, and at Oregon on November 19th. This USC team is strong enough to contend with, and upset either of those teams, and my prediction is that on home-field, they will hand Stanford their first loss of the season. While the Trojans may not be allowed to play in a bowl, I expect a very strong regular season.
11. Florida State Seminoles
Projected Record: 11-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 16th
The Florida State Seminoles have a lot of returning talent, combined with the No. 1 incoming recruiting class. This makes the Seminoles a big favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Seminoles have a challenging schedule this season, including two non-conference games I believe they will lose, vs. Oklahoma on September 17th and at Florida on November 26th. However, the Seminoles have a great chance of running the table through their in-conference schedule, and winning a likely date against North Carolina or Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship.
The Seminoles have a tough task replacing Christian Ponder at quarterback, but junior quarterback E.J. Manuel is a very talented dual threat who should be able to take over the reins with success. The Seminoles have no star running backs, but are deep at the position, featuring junior Chris Thompson and seniors Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas, all who were productive last season. Senior Bert Reed and junior Willie Haulstead are decent receivers who present targets for Manuel to pass to. The graduation of left guard Rodney Hudson is certainly a big loss to replace up front, but left tackle Andrew Datko is one of the nation’s best offensive linemen.
Defensively, the Seminoles are loaded with talent. Senior defensive end Brandon Jenkins ranks among the nation’s top pass rushers. The Seminoles also have one of the best outside linebackers in the nation, senior Nigel Bradham, and one of the nation’s best defensive playmakers in the secondary, junior Greg Reid. Joining the defense this year are many highly-touted freshmen who should make an early impact, including safety Karlos Williams and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.
The Seminoles have no shortage of talent, but whether they are enough of a well-rounded team to make a real championship run and compete against tough non-conference foes in Oklahoma and Florida, that I am not sure about. Even so, an ACC championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl are very attainable for this team.
12. Michigan State Spartans
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 14th
Michigan State catches one big break on the schedule, as they get the opportunity to play Ohio State in Week 5, the final week before four suspended starters for the Buckeyes will be reinstated, giving the Spartans a great chance of winning that game. However, where the Spartans can really make a big splash is if they can upset one of the Big Ten’s other top two contenders, Wisconsin or Nebraska, as they play the two teams in consecutive weeks. I predict that the Spartans will do just that, by upsetting Nebraska for the Cornhuskers’ only defeat of the season.
Leading the Spartans’ quest to contend in the Big Ten is one of the nation’s best senior quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins. Junior Edwin Baker is a talented running back, while Cousins has many talented receiving targets to work with, led by a group of seniors in wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, and Keith Nichol, and tight end Brian Linthicum. The Spartans do not have a highly explosive offense, but Cousins will lead the team to offensive success.
Defensively, the Spartans’ star is junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, an impact player up front who is both a strong run stopper and a good interior pass rusher. However, the Spartans have lost much on defense, including their top two linebackers from last season, Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, and they do not have any clear replacements at the position. Junior cornerback Johnny Adams returns to lead the secondary, but that is another area of concern.
The Spartans are not a really strong team in terms of personnel, but they are well coached by Mark Dantonio, and in a relatively weak year for the Big Ten, I believe the Spartans can come together, find ways to win, and if they can pull off a big upset, a 10-win season is very likely.
13. Ohio State Buckeyes
Projected Record: 10-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 5th
Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor left the team and went to the Oakland Raiders in this year’s supplemental draft, while four other starters—running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams, and defensive end Solomon Thomas, are all suspended for the first five games of the season. This is going to make for a very challenging year for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
In those first five games, the Ohio State Buckeyes will have two very tough tests, at Miami on September 17th and versus Michigan State on October 1st. The Buckeyes will have a tough time beating those teams without their missing players; however, with Miami also missing players due to their own off-field controversy, I think they will be able to win in Miami, but I believe that beating Michigan State without those key players will be too tough of a task. Then, in the first game with the players returning, the Buckeyes will go to Lincoln, Nebraska to play the Cornhuskers, which also may be too tough of a challenge.
Competing for the starting quarterback job to replace Pryor will be senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller. Bauserman is likely to start the season out as the starting quarterback, but I expect that Miller will eventually take the position over, and have success. The Buckeyes should be alright in Herron’s absence with sophomore Jamaal Berry and junior Jordan Hall taking carries at running back, but wide receiver is a definite area of concern. It is going to be very important for sophomore wideout Corey Brown, along with junior tight ends Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel, to step up while Posey is suspended. Up front, sophomore Andrew Norwell will have the tough task of filling in Adams’s role at left tackle while he is suspended.
With only one key player lost to suspension on defense, the Buckeyes are in much better shape defensively. Certainly, losing Solomon Thomas for the first five games makes replacing Cameron Heyward on the defensive line more difficult, but the Buckeyes still have talent up front, with junior defensive tackle John Simon leading the way, and senior Nathan Williams a very talented pass rusher.
The Buckeyes have a tough task replacing two starters at linebacker, but the Buckeyes have a talented group at the position, led by senior Andrew Sweat. With three starters gone from the secondary, the defensive backfield could be a shaky area, but junior safeties Orhian Johnson and Travis Howard will be the keys to keeping opposing passing offenses in check.
It is certainly not going to be an easy year for the Buckeyes, replacing longtime head coach Jim Tressel with Luke Fickell, and making up for so much personnel lost, but they still have the talent to contend for a Big Ten title, and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
14. Wisconsin Badgers
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 6th
The Wisconsin Badgers made a great run to the Rose Bowl last season, but many key players from that team, including first-round picks left tackle Gabe Carimi and defensive end J.J. Watt, quarterback Scott Tolzien, and tight end Lance Kendricks, are all gone. The Badgers still have considerable talent on both sides of the ball, but they may not be the top contenders in the Big Ten this season.
The Badgers did get a huge bonus for this season when Russell Wilson, the former NC State star quarterback who had left the Wolfpack to play professional baseball, decided to enroll in grad school at Wisconsin, making him eligible to play football immediately. With one year of eligibility left, Wilson is set to be the Badgers’ starting quarterback this season, and may not only be a replacement for Tolzien, but an upgrade.
Wilson has plenty of talent to work with offensively. Sophomore James White and junior Montee Ball form a tremendous duo at running back, while senior Nick Toon is a playmaker at wide receiver. The Badgers’ biggest losses on offense come with the need to rebuild the left side of the offensive line, but they still have a fantastic center in junior Peter Konz.
Defensively, the loss of Watt is huge up front, but the Badgers still have talent up front, led by senior defensive end Louis Nzegwu and sophomore defensive tackle Jordan Kohout. Redshirt Sophomore Chris Borland returns to lead the linebacker corps, after missing nearly all of last season following a tremendous freshman year. Alongside him will be junior Mike Taylor, another very good linebacker. The Badgers’ secondary is the weak area of the defense, but senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus and senior safety Aaron Henry are solid players.
The Badgers’ losses will make it hard for them to repeat as Big Ten champs, but the addition of Wilson, combined with their dynamic running back duo, and the return of Chris Borland of defense, give the Badgers a legitimate chance to do so.
15. Virginia Tech Hokies
Projected Record: 11-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 15th
Last season, the Virginia Tech Hokies doomed their hopes of making a championship run early when they suffered a stunning defeat to FCS program James Madison, but the Hokies still recovered to be the top team in the ACC and win the conference title, and earn the subsequent berth in the Orange Bowl.
The Hokies will be well in the running once again to run the table in the conference and earn that berth in the Orange Bowl, although my prediction is that they will suffer a late-season loss versus North Carolina on November 17th, then lose again in the ACC Championship game to Florida State. However, they have the talent to reverse all of that, win the conference, and potentially go undefeated through a very weak regular-season schedule.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has graduated, but sophomore Logan Thomas is a talented young quarterback who has no meaningful collegiate experience, but has the skills to be a great leader of the offense. The Hokies will rely heavily upon their strong running game between speedy junior running back David Wilson and strong senior back Josh Oglesby. Fortunately for Thomas, he will benefit greatly in his transition to starting quarterback by having a tremendous group of receivers to work with, including three very good seniors Jarrett Boykin, Dyrell Roberts, and Danny Coale. The Hokies are weak on the left side of the offensive line, but seniors Jaymes Brooks and Blake DeChristopher make up a very good right side.
The Hokies’ defensive front seven is a definite area of concern. Junior defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins leads an otherwise suspect defensive line, while the Hokies lost starting middle linebacker Lyndell Gibson due to transfer this past offseason. The Hokies still have a lot of talent at linebacker, including junior Bruce Taylor and sophomore Jack Tyler, but the Hokies will need to get stronger up front.
The secondary is absolutely the strong suit of the Hokies’ defense, with junior cornerback Jayron Hosley, who may have the best ball skills of any defensive back in the nation, leading the unit. Sophomore safety Antone Exum and senior safety Eddie Whitley are also key players in the secondary.
The Hokies certainly have questionable areas on their team, but in a mostly weak Atlantic Coast Conference, they are a favorite.
16. LSU Tigers
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 10th
The LSU Tigers may be considered a major contender, and they are one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, but things are falling apart quickly for the Tigers—and the season has not even begun yet!
The team’s starting quarterback, senior Jordan Jefferson, is suspended indefinitely after being involved in a bar fight, leaving his status for the entire season in jeopardy, and forcing senior Jarrett Lee, who has been consistently shaky in his tenure as starting quarterback, to ascend back to the top of the depth chart. LSU’s top playmaker on offense, junior wide receiver Russell Shepard, is also suspended indefinitely, as is sophomore linebacker Josh Johns.
It is uncertain how long each of these players will be suspended, but it is known that none of them will be eligible to play in the season opener, which looms large as the Tigers take on the Oregon Ducks, one of the nation’s best teams. Without their top quarterback and top wideout, their chances of winning that game are severely diminished, a game I already would have picked them to lose.
If those players are gone for the entire season, it will be absolutely critical for senior quarterback Jarrett Lee and junior wide receiver Reuben Randle to step up in their absence. The Tigers have other talent at wide receiver, but it consists mostly of untested freshmen, leaving the Tigers’ passing offense in serious jeopardy. It is going to be critical for the Tigers’ strong sophomore running back duo of Spencer Ware and Michael Ford to step up and carry the offense. The Tigers are shaky at offensive tackle, but have a strong interior line led by senior center T-Bob Hebert to lead the way for the ground game.
On the front line of the defense, the Tigers have two talented pass rushers to lead the way in junior Lavar Edwards and sophomore Barkevious Mingo. Graduated linebacker Kelvin Sheppard is tough to replace in the middle of the LSU defense, but seniors Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois are very solid outside linebackers. The secondary also has to make up for the departure of star cornerback Patrick Peterson, but they remain loaded with talent, with two very talented cornerbacks in junior Morris Claiborne and sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, along with senior nickel back Ron Brooks. The safeties are also tremendous, led by senior Brandon Taylor and sophomore Eric Reid.
If the Tigers are going to remain contenders in the Southeastern Conference, they better hope to get their suspended players back, or that they are able to develop talent quickly at the affected positions to fill in adequately for their losses. If neither of those happen, it is going to be a disappointing year in Baton Rouge.
17. Arkansas Razorbacks
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 11th
In the West division of the SEC, the Arkansas Razorbacks are among the toughest competition for the favored Alabama Crimson Tide. While the Razorbacks have lost star junior running back Knile Davis for the season due to a knee injury, the Razorbacks are still a very talented team who can contend with anyone in the Southeastern Conference.
Ryan Mallett is gone, but fortunately for Arkansas, they have another strong-armed and potentially better all-around quarterback in junior Tyler Wilson. In spot duty last season, Wilson was very impressive, and he has a plethora of weapons at his disposal. The Razorbacks are absolutely loaded with playmakers at the wide receiver position: seniors Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, and Joe Adams, junior Cobi Hamilton, and sophomore Julian Horton.
While losing Davis, one of the SEC’s best running backs, is a huge loss, senior Broderick Green and junior Ronnie Wingo make up a decent running back tandem. The one area of real concern offensively is the offensive line, which features a very good sophomore center in Travis Swanson, but is faced with the difficult task of replacing three starters.
The Arkansas Razorbacks have a very talented group on the other side of the line, led by senior defensive end Jake Bequette and junior defensive end Tenarius Wright. Senior Jerry Franklin is a very good and well-rounded middle linebacker. The cornerback position is an area of concern, with no standout cover guys, but the Razorbacks do have a strong pair of safeties in seniors Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas.
The Razorbacks’ deficiencies on the offensive line and in the secondary is going to make it difficult for the Razorbacks to beat top SEC teams in Alabama, South Carolina, and LSU, but they are good enough to beat everyone else on their schedule, including home games against Texas A&M on October 1st and against Mississippi State on November 19th.
18. Florida Gators
Projected Record: 8-4
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
It is certainly going to be a year of transition for the Florida Gators. Stunningly, head coach Urban Meyer left the program last winter, but the Gators found a great replacement staff, with Will Muschamp hired as head coach, and Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator. Muschamp’s mentality of defensive toughness, combined with Weis installing a pro-style offense to a team known for using the spread, should make for an interesting transition, but I expect it to lead to success sooner rather than later.
John Brantley struggled last year in his first season taking over for the great Tim Tebow as Gators starting quarterback, but playing in Weis’s offense should be great for Brantley, and I expect him to perform much better this season.
Having been named the outright starter, Brantley will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, including the two other players who lined up at quarterback last season, sophomores Trey Burton and Jordan Reed. Burton is a tremendous athlete who can line up at quarterback, running back, or wide receiver, but in the Gators’ new offense, he should be used primarily as a receiver. Reed, who also played tight end last year, now becomes the Gators’ starter at the position, and he is also a terrific athlete, who possesses the athletic ability to be an impact weapon for the offense.
The Gators have a terrific group of fast running backs in seniors Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey, combined with junior Mike Gillislee. Senior Deonte Thompson and sophomore Andre Debose are also big playmakers at wide receiver. The offensive line is an area of concern, but sophomore right guard Jon Halapio is a bright spot up front.
Senior Jaye Howard and sophomore Sharrif Floyd make up a tremendous run-stopping and gap-penetrating duo at the defensive tackle position. Another stud sophomore, Jelani Jenkins, leads the linebacker corps. The secondary suffered a major blow this offseason when star cornerback Janoris Jenkins was kicked out of the program (a tough but necessary decision), leaving the Gators’ secondary full of unproven players.
The Gators certainly have a major transition and development to make over the course of this season, but one aspect that does play in their favor is that they start out the season with a relatively easy first four weeks. Tennessee on September 17th is a dangerous team that should not be slept on, but the Gators should be able to get their feet wet in September before going into a murderous schedule at home versus Alabama on October 1st, two consecutive road games at LSU and Auburn, and then the neutral-field rivalry game versus Georgia on October 29th.
Chances are high that the Gators could lose at least three of those four games, which is exactly what I see happening, and that could take them out of being a major SEC contender.
19. Texas A&M Aggies
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 20th
In recent weeks, the Texas A&M Aggies have been in the headlines for their desire to leave the Big 12 Conference to move to a new conference, which they hope eventually leads them to the Southeastern Conference. Nonetheless, the Aggies do have to play in the Big 12 this season, and will be playing the same round-robin schedule as the rest of the conference. This year, the question lies in whether they are strong enough to contend with the conference’s favorites, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
The Aggies have a very talented senior quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, a very efficient passer who took over the starting job in the middle of last season and excelled. Tannehill has great weapons to work with. Senior running back Cyrus Gray and junior running back Christine Michael set up a terrific rushing offense, while Tannehill has one of the nation’s best wide receivers to work with, senior Jeff Fuller. Fuller is the offense’s star as a big, talented wideout, but juniors Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu, and Kenric McNeal are also dangerous receiving playmakers.
Up front, the Aggies are led by the next in a long line of tremendous NFL lineage from the Matthews family, as Bruce’s son Jake is emerging as one of the nation’s best left tackles as only a sophomore.
With absolute defensive superstar Von Miller having graduated, the Aggies will be hard-pressed to replace his impact, but have some talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Aggies have a weak defensive line, but ready to follow in Miller’s footsteps as a pass-rushing hybrid outside linebacker is talented sophomore Damontre Moore, while junior Sean Porter will be the leader of the linebacker corps.
The strength of the Aggies defense comes in their secondary, with all four starters returning, led by their playmaking cornerback and kick returner, senior Coryell Judie, and senior free safety Trent Hunter. Senior cornerback Terrence Frederick, junior cornerback Dustin Harris, and junior strong safety Steven Campbell are also all very talented.
For the Aggies to make a run at a BCS bowl, they must win one of the three big games on their schedule: at home versus Oklahoma State on September 24th, versus Arkansas on neutral field on October 1st, or at Oklahoma on November 5th. I predict that the Aggies will lose all three, relegating them to a 9-win season of mediocrity, but they do have a very talented team that has a chance to win at least one of those games, and make a run at the BCS.
20. North Carolina Tar Heels
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
Less than a week before the start of the training camp, the North Carolina Tar Heels made a horribly timed decision to fire head coach Butch Davis, promoting defensive coordinator Everett Withers to interim head coach. While the Tar Heels will not have to deal with a change in system or philosophy with Withers as head coach, this move certainly created a lack of continuity that could hurt the Tar Heels heading into this season.
Additionally, the Tar Heels are forced to replace graduated quarterback T.J. Yates, leaving the team with talented, but unproven, sophomore Bryn Renner as the starting quarterback.
Renner has big potential, but he has no meaningful collegiate playing experience, making it daunting for him to be the outright starter. Fortunately for Renner, the Tar Heels have a very talented roster, even after losing so many players to the National Football League this past offseason. Running back is an area of concern, but senior Ryan Houston returns after missing all of last season, and if he returns to form, he is a very tough and big power back. Renner has a terrific group of wide receivers to work with, led by senior Dwight Jones and juniors Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd. The play of Houston and the offensive line will determine how difficult the season is for Bryn Renner, but at least he has big receiving weapons to throw to.
Yet again, the Tar Heels are loaded with talent defensively. Senior Quinton Coples and junior Donte Paige-Moss are both tremendous defensive ends, both of who are feared pass rushers as well as tough run-stoppers, and both could end up being first-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft. Another potential first-round pick is senior linebacker Zack Brown, who along with junior Kevin Reddick forms a tremendous duo to lead the linebacker corps. The secondary becomes the greatest area of concern, for they have the least talent available to make up for their losses, although the surprising return of senior Charles Brown after being suspended for all of last season is a big boost.
The Tar Heels certainly have considerable adversity to deal with heading into this college football season, but their sheer talent should allow them to get by as one of the top teams in a relatively weak Atlantic Coast Conference.
21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
Supporters of the Irish are anxiously hoping that this is the year that the historic powerhouse returns to glory with a 10-plus win season. The Irish have the talent to do so, but with an always challenging schedule featuring challenges at Michigan on September 10th, versus Michigan State on September 17th, versus USC on October 22nd, and at Stanford on November 26th, I predict that they will come up one game short of that mark.
Head coach Brian Kelly has put his stock in talented senior quarterback Dayne Crist, who missed the second half of last season with a torn patellar tendon, as the starting signal-caller over sophomore Tommy Rees, who performed well in Crist’s absence. This is a good decision if Crist is healthy: Crist has the better skill set of the two quarterbacks, and if Kelly can fully develop him this year, he has the potential to be a special player.
At wide receiver, senior Michael Floyd has battled serious off-field problems, but on the field, he is one of the nation’s best wideouts, and he can be a major weapon for Crist if he stays healthy and out of trouble. Junior receiver Theo Riddick and junior tight end Tyler Eifert are also major weapons in the passing offense. Junior back Cierre Wood leads the running game, behind a strong offensive line led by junior left tackle Zack Martin.
Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson is the leader of the defensive line, but the star of Notre Dame’s front seven will certainly be junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who is one of the nation’s elite defensive players. Also key to the defense will be whether their highly talented class of freshmen, led by defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Ishaq Williams, can make an impact in their freshman year, which will be necessary for Notre Dame’s defensive success. The cornerbacks, led by senior Gary Gray, are unspectacular, but senior Harrison Smith is one of the nation’s best free safeties.
The Irish have the talent to have a huge season, but will have to produce consistently on the field against a tough schedule to do so.
22. Baylor Bears
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
The team that is being completely slept on in the Big 12 is the Baylor Bears, but I think the rest of the conference needs to watch out for them. If the Bears can come out strong in their opener, and upset in-state rivals TCU at home in Waco, they will not be slept upon any longer, and I think they can do just that.
After missing nearly all of his sophomore season due to a torn ACL, now redshirt junior quarterback Robert Griffin bounced back with a great year last season, yet has not received the same recognition he did as an emerging freshman. Griffin is one of the nation’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks, and with him at the helm of the Baylor offense, they have potential to do big things. Griffin has a very talented senior wide receiver Kendall Wright to work with, along with two other talented wideouts in junior Terrance Williams and sophomore Tevin Reese. Senior Terrence Ganaway is a solid running back, and the offensive line up front is very solid. Baylor’s offense is among the Big 12’s most dangerous.
Defensively, the loss of nose tackle Phil Taylor is a big one, but they still have talent. Up front, sophomore defensive end Tevin Elliott is an emerging star, while senior Nicolas Jean-Baptiste will fill in as the big nose tackle in the middle. The linebacker corps is weak, while it will be critical for junior cornerback Chance Casey and junior safety Mike Hicks to step up in the secondary.
Baylor’s defense could struggle against top Big 12 offenses in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M, but with an explosive offense, I believe they can upset TCU and end up with a 9-win season, with a potential 10th win to come in a bowl.
23. TCU Horned Frogs
Projected Record: 10-2
Last Season’s Final Ranking: 2nd
The TCU Horned Frogs had a tremendous season last year, going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl, but they suffered heavy losses to graduation. The Horned Frogs still have talent on both sides of the ball, but as they adjust to a new starting quarterback, sophomore Casey Pachall, I expect that they will fall to Baylor in their season opener, and be unable to beat the Boise State Broncos in their lone meeting as conference rivals in the Mountain West before TCU joins the Big East in 2012.
Pachall is a talented quarterback, but the Horned Frogs will certainly have to adjust to life without Andy Dalton, who was tremendously consistent as a four-year starter at quarterback, becoming the NCAA’s all-time winningest quarterback. Pachall actually has more upside than Dalton, with better athleticism and a bigger arm, but following in Dalton’s large footprints is a tough task for a young, unproven quarterback.
Fortunately for Pachall, he has the benefit to working with a fantastic stable of running backs in juniors Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker, joined by sophomore Waymon James, who should continue to be among the nation’s top rushing offenses. Pachall also has the benefit of working with a talented receiving corps led by terrific sophomore playmaker Josh Boyce, and productive senior tight end Logan Brock. The biggest area of concern on the TCU offensive is the front line, which will be an inexperienced unit this year.
Defensively, the Horned Frogs lost six starters from last year, but are still led by two tremendous linebackers, senior middle man Tank Carder, and junior outside playmaker Tanner Brock. Up front, the Horned Frogs are led by pass rusher Stansly Maponga, who is only a sophomore coming off of a tremendous freshman year. The secondary also has two very good returning starters, senior cornerback Greg McCoy and senior safety Tekerrein Cuba.
The Horned Frogs are unlikely to repeat as an undefeated team this year, but a 10-win season should still be in the books for them.
24. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Projected Record: 9-3
Last Season’s Final Ranking: NR
While the graduations of quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Anthony Allen are big losses to their offense, the Yellow Jackets still have the personnel to be very productive in their triple-option offense yet again this season. Junior quarterback Tevin Washington is a similar quarterback to Nesbitt; he may not have quite as much running ability as Nesbitt, but is a somewhat better passer. Senior running backs Roddy Jones and Embry Peebles along with junior running back Orwin Smith form a solid trio of runners, while senior Preston Lyons takes over the blocking fullback role.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets are not loaded with talent. Senior defensive end Jason Peters leads an unspectacular defensive line group. The linebacker corps, led by junior Julian Burnett and senior Steven Sylvester, may not be star-studded, but they are the strongest unit of the defense. The secondary lost all four starters from last season, but junior Rod Sweeting does have high upside.
On paper, this does not look like a 9-win team, but in an Atlantic Coast Conference that should be fairly weak this year, I expect the Yellow Jackets to take advantage and have a solid season.
25. Missouri Tigers
Projected Record: 8-4
Last Season’s Final Rankings: 18th
As the Tigers try to make up for the loss of their two stars from last year’s team, quarterback Blaine Gabbert and defensive end Aldon Smith, I expect that Missouri will have a tough time against the Big 12’s top four teams: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Baylor. However, they are well-coached by Gary Pinkel, and have enough talent to remain ahead of everyone else in the conference.
Talented dual-threat James Franklin, a sophomore, takes over as the starting quarterback this year. Franklin is unproven, but he has high upside, and I expect that he will have a very good year.
The running game will be key to Missouri’s success this year, so they will need a big year from the solid running back trio of senior De’Vion Moore, junior Kendial Lawrence, and sophomore Henry Josey. Franklin has the advantage of having a fantastic group of receivers to work with this season. Senior Michael Egnew is among the nation’s best tight ends, while junior T.J. Moe is a very reliable possession receiver. Senior wideouts Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp are also playmakers.
However, the major area of concern for the Tigers will be their offensive line: senior left tackle Elvis Fisher suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving the team with a major void at that critical position.
The defensive line will not be the same without Aldon Smith, but junior Brad Madison and senior Jacquies Smith are decent players. The linebacker corps remains a strength, led by seniors Will Ebner and Luke Lambert, and junior Zaviar Gooden. The secondary lost many players, but senior safety Kenji Jackson and junior cornerback Kip Edwards return to lead the way this season.
It may not be a great season for the Missouri Tigers, but my projection has them doing just enough to slide into the bottom of the top 25.
For Auburn, No Cam Newton = No Top 25
Teams by Last Season’s Final Ranking Not in Top 25:
Auburn (1st Last Season)
Nevada (8th Last Season)
Mississippi State (17th Last Season)
Central Florida (22nd Last Season)
Utah (23rd Last Season)
Tulsa (24th Last Season)
Maryland (25th Last Season)