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Final Report Cards for the Top 50 College Football Teams in 2011

David LutherFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2011

Final Report Cards for the Top 50 College Football Teams in 2011

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    The 2011 college football regular season is behind us, and conference champions have been crowned. Bowl bids have been handed out and the coveted BCS slots have been filled.

    As the post-season approaches, we have a brief respite providing us an opportunity to look back at the performances we saw over the course of the season.

    Some teams exceeded expectations while others were bitter disappointments to their respective fan bases.

    As college students across the nation take their final exams and eagerly await their final grades, we thought now was a perfect time for final marks to be posted by the professors at B/R. We know waiting for those final grades can be nerve-wracking, so In order to alleviate the anxiety here are the final report cards for the top 50 college football teams of 2011.

    The top 35 teams were taken from the latest B/R Top 25 poll, which includes “others receiving votes.” The complete poll can be found here.

Toledo

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    We begin our report cards with Toledo from the MAC.

    Toledo finished 8-4 (7-1), well above expectations. The Rockets captured a share of the MAC-West title, with Northern Illinois making the trip to the MAC Championship Game based on the Huskies' 63-60 victory over the Rockets on November 1.

    Toledo's play throughout 2011 was marked by Oklahoma State-esque offensive production while providing almost no defense throughout many of their games. It's not often you'll see a team put up 60 points in a football game and lose, but Toledo managed to do it.

    Impressively, however, Toledo managed to hold its own against then-No. 4 Boise State on September 16 through the first half before eventually falling 40-15. The Rockets also put Ohio State's streak of victories against Ohio teams in jeopardy on September 10, eventually falling to the then-No. 15 Buckeyes, 27-22.

    Toledo had some nice on-field successes this season, and those will provide a nice foundation for the future.

    Final Grade: B+

Temple

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    Another MAC team on our list, Temple, also had a better-than-expected season under new head coach Steve Addazio.

    The Owls finished 8-4 (5-3), which was good enough for second place in the MAC-East.

    After Al Golden left for Miami, a lot of questions were left pending for Temple, but the Owls managed to acquit themselves nicely in 2011.

    The Owls biggest game of the year was an impressive stand against offensively weak Penn State in Philadelphia, where the Owls eventually lost, 14-10, on September 17.

    Final Grade: B-

Ohio

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    We'll get out of the MAC soon enough, we promise, but when the entire conference is comprised of “middle-of-the-road” football teams, you have to expect a number of schools from the conference around the 40 to 50 range on any list.

    The Ohio Bobcats finished the 2011 season as MAC-East Champions, and their 9-4 (6-2) record was good enough to earn a berth in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on December 17 where the Bobcats will take on the Utah State Aggies.

    The real problem for the Bobcats in 2011 was the lack of a true “signature win.” Of course, that's kind of hard to produce when your schedule contains just one BCS-AQ opponent (Ohio lost to Rutgers, 38-26, on September 24).

    Final Grade: B-

Utah

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    Utah began its life as a member of a BCS Automatic Qualifying conference this season as the Utes competed in the Pac-12 for the first time in 2011.

    Things didn't exactly go as planned, however.

    Utah finished just 7-5, and had a losing 4-5 record in the Pac-12 with losses to USC, Washington, Arizona State, California, and Colorado.

    The season will conclude for the Utes on December 31, when they face Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

    Inconsistant production was a problem all season for Utah, but the Utes were able to take down perennial rival BYU—a team that finished the season much higher on our list of top 50 teams—by a whopping 54-10 final score.

    Perhaps we can chalk this season up to growing pains as the Utes have taken to heart the cliché of “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.” We're willing to give Utah some latitude, but if things don't start improving soon, we're not sure how much latitude Utes fans will continue to give their team.

    Final Grade: C+

Washington

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    When Jake Locker graduated, there were more than a few people who honestly believed that Washington was going to be in a spot of trouble.

    Let's face it: Locker was the best player for the Huskies, and they still weren't all that spectacular with him taking the snaps. What possible hope did the Huskies have without him?

    As it turns out, an identical conference record (5-4) and one more regular season win this year than last.

    Washington finished third in the Pac-12 North Division, behind Oregon and Stanford—two teams much of the nation was also looking up at in the rankings this season. It's probably safe to say at this point that Washington has established a solid place for itself in the Pac-12. The real challenge now is taking the next step towards the top tier of the conference.

    Final Grade: B

Air Force

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    For the second-consecutive season, the Air Force Falcons captured the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for winning the three-way race amongst the military academies.

    Air Force finished 7-5 overall, which included wins against rivals Army and Navy. But Air Force also finished a disappointing 3-4 in the Mountain West, and never really challeged for the conference crown, as many had expected when the season began.

    Also hurting the Falcons' final grade is the fact that two of their wins were against FCS opponents. That gives Air Force a final record against FBS opponents of 5-5.

    Air Force will take on aforementioned Toledo in the Military Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC on December 28.

    Final Grade: C

Iowa

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    Everyone expected Iowa to encounter that dreaded “R”word this season: rebuilding.

    Rebuilding years are a fact of life in the college game, where even the greatest recruiters only get the on-field services of talented players for four short years—if they're lucky.

    The rebuilding year was expected. What wasn't expected was an impressive, and important win against then-No. 13 Michigan on November 5.

    Unfortunately, Iowa wasn't able to follow up that success with another impressive win against the other ranked teams on the schedule, Michigan State and Nebraska.

    Iowa finished fourth in the Big Ten Legends Division, and will face No. 20 Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, AZ on December 30.

    Final Grade: C+

Southern Methodist

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    After more than two decades of futility in football, it seems as if SMU has turned a corner of sorts in the history of the program.

    The Mustangs against finished the season with a winning record and will play in a bowl game for the third-consecutive season.

    There were some noted successes for the Mustangs in 2011, including a 40-33 overtime victory over then-No. 20 TCU on October 1, where SMU captured the Iron Skillet for the first time in years, and was just the second victory of SMU over a ranked team since the NCAA “death penalty” was imposed on SMU in 1987. SMU was also the first team to defeat TCU in Ft. Worth since 2007.

    While the Mustangs finished just 7-5 (5-3, 3rd CUSA-West), the win over TCU along with a bid to play in the January 7 BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh should continue the forward momentum the program has captured over the past several seasons.

    Final Grade: B

North Carolina State

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    Managing expectations is part of any fan's preseason ritual. Some fans are better at it than others, but if you're an NC State fan, you've probably become pretty good at it over the years.

    With the departure of Russell Wilson, expectations were certainly measured coming into the 2011 season, especially with the prospect of facing some potentially great teams in the ACC.

    At the end of the season, the Wolfpack can look back and honestly say that they won most of the games they should have won (with the exception of a November 12 loss at Boston College). The real problem is that NC State didn't win any games it wasn't supposed to win.

    While a Belk Bowl invite is nice, the 2011 season can be summed up with one word: average.

    No better, no worse.

    Final Grade: C

North Carolina

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    We'll stay in North Carolina for our next team on our top 50 countdown.

    The North Carolina Tar Heels have the unfortunate role of playing second fiddle even on their own campus. No one who says “Tar Heels” instantly thinks of football, and there's a good reason for that. When your basketball team begins the season as the No. 1 team in the nation and your football team finishes 7-5 (3-5), of course you will gravitate towards the hardwood.

    North Carolina was actually able to find its way into the Coaches Poll Top 25 this season, earning the No. 25 spot in week four before losing to then-No. 24 Georgia Tech.

    As the season progressed, UNC appeared to be the perfect balance to their instate rivals, NC State: perfectly average, winning the games it was expected to win and losing those it was expected to lose.

    UNC's final grade, like NC State, reflects that mediocrity.

    Final Grade: C

Rutgers

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    It's no secret that the Big East was a total mess this season.

    Even if you ignore the fact that the league seemed to be imploding when Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia all jumped ship, the conference was clearly on a path to losing its status as a BCS Automatic Qualifier.

    No one is happy about seeing the Big East champion shoehorned into the BCS—well, no one other than the Big East, we suppose.

    Still, it is what it is, and Rutgers made a valiant effort towards earning that coveted BCS spot this season.

    Rutgers finished 8-4 (4-3), which was remarkably just one game out of a massive tie for first place in the Big East this season. Like so many teams we've already mentioned, Rutgers was without a signature win this season, and the Scarlet Knights failed to impress many people this season in or outside of the Big East.

    Perhaps the most exciting moment of the 2011 season is yet to come. Rutgers has been invited to play in the very cool Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY on December 30 against Iowa State.

    Final Grade: C+

Louisiana Tech

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    With all of the attention focused on LSU this season, it's easy to forget that there were two conference champions in the Pelican State this season.

    Louisiana Tech finished 2011 with an 8-4 (6-1) record this season, capturing the WAC title outright.

    While there weren't many great wins on Tech's résumé this season, there were some great losses, if you can call them that.

    Louisiana Tech almost saved us all from a lot of BCS-buster discussion early on as the Bulldogs fell just short against then-unranked Houston, 35-34, on September 17. The following week, Louisiana Tech almost pulled off the unthinkable by taking the SEC's Mississippi State to the brink on the road, eventually falling, 26-20 in overtime.

    The reward for the Bulldogs is a trip to the Poinsettia Bowl on December 21 where the No. 17 TCU Horned Frogs will be waiting.

    Final Grade: B-

Louisville

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    How do you grade an unranked 7-5 team from the Big East that managed to share the conference title with a 5-2 conference record yet finds itself relegated to the Belk Bowl?

    Since the Big East was such a hot mess this season, we chose to look outside of the Cardinals' conference play to try and grade the team's performance in 2011.

    What we found was a victory over an FCS team, a loss to Florida International, a win over an SEC team, a loss to Marshall, and a loss to UNC.

    Not good.

    That being said, Louisville did manage to finish the regular season with a 5-1 mark over their final six games, saving them from utter humiliation.

    Final Grade: C+

Tulsa

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    If you asked a random person on the street how many FBS programs there are in the state of Oklahoma, chances are most people would quickly answer “two” before giving it much thought.

    Tulsa fans are keenly aware of the fact that their beloved Golden Hurricane team is usually an afterthought, even in their home state. The 2011 season provided the perfect opportunity to change that perception, as both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State appeared on the schedule for the Golden Hurricane.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, Tulsa lost those two games by a combined 106-47 score.

    And the anonymity continues.

    Tulsa still finished the year strongly in their own conference, crossing the finish line with a 8-4 (7-1) record, good enough for second place in the West Division of Conference USA. That pesky blowout loss to Houston on November 26 was all that stood between the Golden Hurricane and the division title. Clearly there's a bit of a break between the top teams in the conference and the rest of the opposition, and Tulsa is unfortunately in the latter group.

    Final Grade: B-

Virginia

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    One of the pleasant surprises this season out of the ACC was the Virginia Cavaliers.

    No one envisioned the Cavs competing for an ACC-Coastal title when the season began, but Virginia played well enough that it wasn't mathematically eliminated from title contention until November 17.

    Virginia even played well enough to find their way into the Top 25 as the No. 25 team in the Coaches Poll for the November 26 showdown with then-No. 4 Virginia Tech (a game the Hokies won, 38-0).

    Still, impressively, the Cavs will be heading to the venerable Chick-fil-A Bowl to face Auburn on December 31.

    Final Grade: B+

Arkansas State

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    When you think of quality football, the Sun Belt Conference isn't exactly the first thing to pop into your head.

    But 2011 proved that even the Sun Belt is capable of producing some decent teams these days, as the Arkansas State Red Wolves finished 10-2 (8-0) under first year head coach Hugh Freeze (who promptly departed for Ole Miss).

    The only two losses for the Red Wolves came at the hands of Illinois and Virginia Tech, both on the road.

    Unfortunately, Arkansas State's weak conference schedule still left the Red Wolves from the ranks of the Top 25, and even a quality bowl bit was out of the question for the Sun Belt Champions.

    Arkansas State will meet MAC Champion Northern Illinois in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on January 8 in Mobile, AL.

    Final Grade: A-

Auburn

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    Sometimes you just have to face facts. Auburn fans kept their heads firmly buried in the sand for as long as possible this season, but eventually even they had to admit that the 2011 version of the Tigers was no good—at least by 2011 SEC standards.

    Without the skills of Cam Newton, the Tigers struggled this season even against the meager opposition provided by the likes of Utah State. Even after starting the year at No. 23, Auburn found itself missing from the rankings in week two, only to return after a win over Mississippi State (a team that proved to be nothing more than an SEC fraud this season). The Tigers ranking was restored just in time for a loss to the Clemson Tigers.

    Auburn's up-and-down season continued, winning games many thought impossible, followed by losses that seemed to deflate even the most die-hard of Auburn fans.

    Auburn was clearly outclassed in the SEC this season, finishing 7-5 (4-4), fourth in the SEC-West, and out of the Top 25.

    Some shaky losses will hurt the final grade for the Tigers, but some improbable wins keep the grade from inducing any shame.

    Final Grade: B-

Texas

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    In the grand scheme of things, no Texas fan will be satisfied with a sixth-place finish in the Big 12, which is exactly where the Longhorns ended the 2011 season.

    While this season was certainly an improvement over last year's 5-7 debacle, finishing the bottom half of the Big 12 isn't much cause of celebration.

    No one is questioning Mack Brown's coaching skills—yet—and his program is headed in the right direction, but things need to be kicked into overdrive soon. At this rate, Texas will be back in BCS form in about four to six seasons. If that happens, the quiet calls for Brown's retirement may grow into a increasingly loud chorus that even he can't ignore.

    Final Grade: C+

Northern Illinois

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    It's hard to imagine any MAC team receiving more recognition than the mighty Texas Longhorns, but that's exactly where we are today, with MAC Champion Northern Illinois receiving five poll points in the last B/R Top 25 compare to Texas's 3.

    But at the end of the day, we are still talking about the MAC, and Texas is headed to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego while the NIU Huskies have been relegated to the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

    Northern Illinois also provided Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas with one of the Jayhawks' two wins this season, losing 45-42 on September 10.

    NIU's 2011 schedule is full of quality MAC wins, but notibly absent of any real competition, even looking forward to the bowl meeting with Sun Belt champ Arkansas State.

    Winning the MAC is great and all, but that loss to Kansas really stands out as a testiment to the weakness of the MAC, as it basically highlights the fact that the best MAC team is worse than the worst Big 12 team.

    Final Grade: C

Notre Dame

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    There's no shame in an 8-4 season, and anyone who thinks Brian Kelly's fanny is feeling a tad warm is clearly in the dark about the mindset of the athletic administration at Notre Dame.

    Look at it this way. The last few coaches in South Bend have begun their careers on a tear over the first couple of seasons only to plummet in the seasons that follow.

    Kelly is clearly taking a different tack, perhaps not on purpose, but no less valid.

    At the beginning of the season, Notre Dame squandered opportunity after opportunity to win games, and the cumulative effect of each lass was apparent as the season wore on and the Irish became increasingly irrelevant to the BCS conversation.

    Kelly wasn't shy about the BCS being set as the goal when the season began, and when it was clear that goal wouldn't be met, the Fighting Irish shifted into neutral.

    That's not to say there weren't some successes this season. Kelly is clearly building a program the way he wants it built, and patience is the name of the game in that process. Once Kelly's recruits take the field as starters, the expectations for Notre Dame will begin to shift upwards. There's no shame in a quality bowl invite to the Citrus Bowl to face Florida State.

    Still, with no conference to judge against, we have just Notre Dame's own stated goals to go on. With that measuring stick, the Irish came up a bit short.

    Final Grade: B-

Arizona State

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    Back in August, there wasn't much focus placed on the Pac-12's South Division. Most people were talking about Stanford and Oregon, and for good reason. Both of those programs began 2011 in the top ten of pretty much every major poll, and both teams ended up in the top ten, as well.

    But there were a few people who pointed out that last season, Arizona State's 6-6 campaign was due to four losses by a combined nine points. With nearly every starter returning for 2011, expectations were high, and with USC's ineligibility, most observers were picking Arizona State to win the South Division crown this season.

    Instead, the Sun Devils stumbled down the stretch en route to another 6-6 finish, and a 4-5 conference mark, good enough for 2nd place in the Pac-12-South.

    Not good, especially for a team predicited to easily win the South, and once ranked as high as No. 18 in the AP Poll.

    After five years of trying to rebuild a once-proud program, Dennis Erickson was finally fired, and the Sun Devils stare the prospect of facing mighty Boise State in the Maaco Bowl in Las Vegas on December 22.

    Final Grade: D+

Missouri

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    Texas wasn't the only team that didn't live up to preseason expectations in the Big 12.

    Missouri finished 7-5 in 2011, but unlike the Longhorns, the Tigers actually had a winning conference record at 5-4.

    Still, for a team ranked in most preseason polls, Missouri fell fast and hard after opening Big 12 play 0-2.

    Missouri's final Big 12 season was underwhelming for most Tigers fans, and the future doesn't look to be much brighter in the SEC in 2012. If Missouri hopes to be a relevant team in its new conference home, things will need to change rapidly.

    Missouri get the same grade as Texas, even though the Tigers finished one spot above the Longhorns mainly because the Longhorns improved upon last season whereas the Tigers didn't live up to expectations this season.

    Final Grade: C+

Florida State

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    If there was one team in the preseason that was the beneficiary of media hype, it had to be Florida State.

    It seemed as if everyone (including us here at B/R) was talking about the Seminoles.

    All we can say now is, “What happened?”

    After beginning the year ranked No. 5 in the Coaches Poll, FSU rose as high as No. 4 before its precipitous fall from grace—and the rankings.

    By Week 4, the 'Noles had fallen to No. 24, and in Week 6, Florida State received votes on only Harris Poll ballots. FSU didn't find its way back on to a single AP ballot until Week 9, and had to wait until Week 11 before finding its way back into the rankings (before falling out again the following week).

    There's always the explanations of injuries and things beyond the control of coaches or players, but in the end, it's clear that Florida State was one of those teams that had us all fooled in August.

    Final Grade: D+

Georgia Tech

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    In contrast to Florida State, no one thought much of Georgia Tech in the preseason. In fact, the Yellow Jackets didn't appear on a single AP ballot, and didn't crack the Top 25 until Week 3.

    But after a 6-0 start, combined with some unexpected losses in the ACC, the Rambling Wreck rose all the way to No. 12 in all three major polls before experiencing their first loss of the season.

    Tech finished 8-4 (5-3), which was much better than most expected from a largely anonymous team in August, and as such the Yellow Jackets receive a much higher final grade than the Seminoles, who finished with an identical record.

    Final Grade: B

Brigham Young

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    Brigham Young was one of several teams to change their conference affiliation over the course of the off-season, but unlike everyone else, BYU opted to go it alone amongst the ranks of the independent football programs.

    While it seems to have worked out for BYU in terms of their final record (9-3), the fact remains that BYU's top games of 2011—Texas, Utah, and TCU—all ended in losses. In fact, with the exception of conference bottom-feeders Ole Miss and Oregon State, BYU didn't beat a single BCS-AQ opponent in 2011; something that likely kept the Cougars out of the final B/R Top 25.

    Final Grade: B-

No. 25 Cincinnati

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    We've reached our Top 25 with our second Big East co-champion, Cincinnati.

    The Bearcats had a decent season by most accounts, finishing 9-3 (5-2), but the losses suffered by Cincy, especially a 45-23 thrashing at the hands of a Tennessee team that turned out not to be very good this year, really hurt the Bearcats' BCS hopes.

    Still, Cincinnati held it's own fate in its hands until narrow 24-21 loss to then-unranked West Virginia on November 12 when the Bearcats were sporting a No. 18 ranking from the Coaches Poll. Had the Bearcats won that game, it's likely they would be preparing for a trip to the Orange Bowl right now, rather than the Mountaineers.

    Final Grade: B

No. 24 Penn State

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    The season was certainly turbulent for Penn State, as off-field issues dominated headlines for the last quarter of the season.

    Joe Paterno was fired, and it appears certain that the entire coaching staff will be cleansed once Penn State completes their TicketCity Bowl game against Houston on January 2.

    Rather than focus on what happened away from the field, we're intent on grading the Penn State football team, that is to say the play of Penn State on the field this season.

    Penn State finished 9-3 (6-2), which was good enough for a share of the Big Ten Leaders Division title. Due to the Nittany Lions' loss to Wisconsin, the other Leaders Division co-champions, the Badgers earned the right to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

    Perhaps its just as well as Penn State's offense didn't seem to be up to the task of taking on the top teams in the Big Ten this season.

    In fact, were it not for some stellar play on defense in 2011, the Nittany Lions would have been in some real trouble in many of their games this season. If some major advances on offense aren't seen before next fall, you can expect Penn State to continue to struggle against teams like Wisconsin and Nebraska.

    Final Grade: B-

No. 23 West Virginia

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    We come to our final of three Big East co-champions, and as the highest-ranked co-champion in the final BCS rankings, West Virginia gets the nod to play in the 2012 Orange Bowl.

    In many ways, West Virginia is a very lucky team. Almost no one outside of Morgantown wants to watch an under-performing West Virginia team play in a BCS bowl while teams like Boise State, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kansas State, Michigan State, and TCU are left to play in lesser bowls.

    But the system is the system, and West Virginia is what we get.

    The 9-3 (5-2) Mountaineers rose as high as No. 11 in the AP Poll before crashing down to earth after a stunning loss to Syracuse on October 21. After a November 5 loss to fellow Big East co-champion Louisville, WVU fell out of the rankings all together before creeping back in during the final week of the season.

    West Virginia has been a real Jekyll and Hyde team this year, being able to put up impressive yardage numbers against mighty LSU and barely surpassing those numbers against lowly Syracuse. While much of that could be excused under a first year head coach, it's clear Dana Holgorsen wasn't pleased with the play from his team at points this year, and he'll be looking to make a statement in his return to the Big 12 next season, should West Virginia's exit from the Big East not run into any legal snags.

    Final Grade: C+

No. 22 Nebraska

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    Welcome to the Big Ten.

    Nebraska fans were really looking forward to the 2011 season, and with good reason. After all, the Cornhuskers were one of the top Big 12-North teams for quite some time, and the move to the Big Ten was seen by a few people as moving into a downtrodden conference.

    Should have been easy pickings for the mighty Cornhuskers from the Big 12, right?

    As it turns out, the Big Ten plays some tough football, and Nebraska didn't dominate their way to a conference title, after all.

    The 'Huskers finished a respectable 9-3 (5-3) this season, but that was good enough for just 3rd in the Big Ten Legends Division.

    Nebraska was absolutely dismantled and humiliated on national network television in prime time by the Wisconsin Badgers early on, and both Northwestern and Michigan exposed some flaws in the Cornhuskers that proved to be fatal to Nebraska's Big Ten title dreams.

    Still, it was a good first outing for Big Red in its first Big Ten season, and there's plenty to be happy about, including an invitation to play in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina on January 2.

    While 2011 didn't turn out to be the title year Nebraska fans were hoping for, it's clear that the Cornhuskers have positioned themselves to be a force in the Big Ten for years to come.

    Final Grade: B-

No. 21 Southern Mississippi

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    Was there really anyone who gave Southern Mississippi much of a chance against Houston, at Houston last Saturday in the Conference USA Championship Game?

    The only ones who seemed to believe the Golden Eagles could win were the Golden Eagles themselves.

    What transpired was a dismantling the likes of which Case Keenum had never experienced in conference play, and the Eagles not only walked off the field with the C-USA trophy, the had exposed Houston as a BCS fraud (more on this later).

    Unfortunately, losses earlier in the season to Marshall and Alabama-Birmingham kept the euphoria from becoming big-time bowl invitations, but the Golden Eagles will still be headed to the Hawai'i Bowl as C-USA Champions, their first conference title since 2003.

    Final Grade: B+

No. 20 Oklahoma

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    How far the mighty have fallen.

    The consensus preseason No. 1 team in the nation was not only supplanted by a dominating LSU team this season, the Sooners fell victim to their own success, attempting to sleepwalk through a weather-delayed game against Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders remained focused throughout.

    Before long, OU had fallen victim to Robert Griffin, III and his Baylor Bears before finishing the season with an uncharacteristic third conference loss, this time to in-state rival Oklahoma State.

    In the end, OU finishes the season 4th in the Big 12, and not only without an expected BCS National Championship Game invite, but no BCS invite of any kind.

    The 9-3 (6-3) Sooners are instead off to the Insight Bowl to face Iowa on December 30.

    Final Grade: D

No. 19 Houston

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    Houston may be one of the most difficult teams to grade this season.

    On one hand, record-setting quarterback Case Keenum took the program to heights never seen by the Cougars in the BCS era, rising as high as No. 6 in the BCS rankings heading into the conference championship weekend.

    The Conference USA Championship Game is where Houston met their only ranked opponent all season, and the Cougars were absolutely undressed by Southern Mississippi.

    While Houston fans were quick to point to a season-opening win over UCLA as proof that their Cougars were BCS worthy, it turns out that a four-point win over a team that finished 6-7 wasn't adequate preparation to face the best their own conference had to offer.

    While Houston is unquestionably a decent team, capable of beating teams like Tulane and UAB, it's important to note that Houston struggled mightily against even the quasi-decent teams faced in 2011, like UCLA (Houston won 38-34), Louisiana Tech (Houston won 35-34) and UTEP (Houston won 49-42).

    While a 12-1 record is certainly cause for congratulations, the praise must be tempered with the realization that Houston clearly has no business pretending it was a legit BCS contender in 2011. In the end, Houston's failure against their only ranked opponent this season keeps the Cougars from receiving an A or A-.

    Final Grade: B+

No. 18 Georgia

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    Mark Richt, you can officially consider yourself off the hot seat.

    After guiding the Bulldogs to an SEC-East title this season, Mark Richt can breathe a little easier this off-season, and focus on building the program rather than keeping his job.

    Looking back, it was a little silly to hear all of the calls for Richt's ouster as the head coach at Geogia. But even the harshest of critics are willing to accept Richt's leadership after a 10-3 (7-1) finish.

    The real challenge for Georgia (and perhaps measuring stick for the season) will come on January 2, when the Bulldogs face the Michigan State Spartans in the Outback Bowl. There's nothing SEC fans like more than wins over the Big Ten in bowl games, and besides the BCS National Championship Game, the Outback Bowl will probably be the top SEC-watched bowl game this season.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 17 Texas Christian

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    TCU wasn't able to follow up on their 2011 Rose Bowl championship, as the Horned Frogs stumbled out of the gates against a Baylor team that turned out to be very, very good.

    After a relatively embarrassing loss in overtime to SMU on October 1, it seemed as if TCU's hopes of yet another BCS berth were gone, to say nothing of the huge mountain of Boise State left in their path.

    But on November 12, the Frogs did the unthinkable. TCU actually beat then-No. 5 Boise State, and they did it in Boise! While that may not seem like much to the casual observer, consider the fact that Boise State was 82-2 at home leading up to the game, and had a 65-game regular season home winning streak snapped by TCU. It was also the Broncos' first conference home loss since the 1999 season.

    TCU went on to capture the Mountain West title outright. Were it not for that pesky loss to SMU, it's very possible TCU would be the top non-AQ program in the nation today, not Boise State. Still, TCU's epic win over Boise State in Boise earn the Frogs major extra credit this season.

    Final Grade: B+

No. 16 Southern California

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    Before USC fans fly off the handle about the Trojans appearing at No. 16 in the B/R Top 25, keep in mind that a number of voters didn't put USC on their ballots because of the NCAA-imposed sanctions.

    Equally important to remember is the fact that USC was entirely ineligible to be ranked by the Coaches Poll and Harris Poll, meaning a BCS rankings was impossible. Also keep in mind that USC is currently the No. 5 team in the nation in the AP Poll.

    Now that we have that out of the way, we can focus on the actual play of the Trojans this season.

    USC began the season against a hapless Minnesota team, and USC seemed entirely unmotivated in the 19-17 victory. Similarly, USC relied on some late theatrics to defeat Utah in the Pac-12 opener for both teams a week later.

    After dispatching Syracuse, USC was absolutely dismantled by a surging Arizona State team that everyone thought was headed for a Pac-12 South Division title in 2011. The victory for the Sun Devils even gave ASU some street cred, eliminating the threat of USC fans retorting with “we all know who really won the South this season.”

    Well, as it turns out, that loss to ASU may have served as a wake-up call to the Trojans, as the team began its tear through the conference.

    USC even came within a hair of knocking off mighty Stanford in a triple-overtime loss, 56-48. Since USC finished the season 10-2, including a Pac-12 South-best 7-2, it seems those Trojan fans can actually begin printing up the t-shirts lauding their fictitious Pac-12 true South Division Championship.

    Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the 2011 USC season is what it means for 2012 and beyond. Those who were hoping that NCAA sanctions and post-season bans meant that USC would be a deflated team for years to come have been proven wrong so far. USC is still USC, and right from the get-go next season, they'll be an early favorite to win the Pac-12 and return to the Rose Bowl.

    Hats off the Lane Kiffin and his players for refusing to quit, and playing with purpose and determination down the stretch. We'll even give USC some extra credit for knocking off eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon (we still would love to see a rematch).

    Final Grade: A

No. 15 Baylor

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    If you're a Baylor football fan, this was certainly a year to remember.

    Not only did Baylor win back-to-back games against hated Texas for the first time since the early 1990's, but Baylor has a legitimate Heisman hopeful in Robert Griffin, III.

    In addition to RG3 being named a Heisman finalist, the Bears are headed to the Alamo Bowl, in what should be a home game against the Washington Huskies.

    For a team that is usually considered an also-ran in the Big 12, the past couple of successful seasons have really provided some much needed excitement around the program, and big wins in a big conference like the Big 12 will lead to the singing of some big recruits in the future.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 14 Clemson

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    Clemson is another team that's a little difficult to grade this season.

    Do we grade the Tigers based on preseason expectations, or should we issue a grade based on their performance down the stretch after expectations had been raised to stratospheric levels mid-season?

    The ACC Champion Tigers began the season unranked, not even appearing on a single AP ballot. After a home victory over Auburn, the Tigers debuted at No. 21 in the Coaches Poll en route to a peak of No. 6 in Week 8 (No. 5 in the BCS).

    Clemson recovered from a loss to Georgia Tech with a win against Wake Forest before the wheels seemed to come off with back-to-back losses to NC State and South Carolina.

    Still, Clemson clinched the ACC-Atlantic title, and easily dispatched then-No. 4 Virginia Tech for the second time this season in the ACC Championship Game.

    So, from the perspective of the preseason, an unranked team winning a BCS-AQ conference championship merits high marks. But if we travel back in time to late October, there was talk of a run at the BCS National Championship Game—a goal of which the Tigers fell well short.

    Looking at the totality of the season, it's clear 2011 was a raging success, and we're chosing to reward Clemson with a well-deserved grade.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 13 Michigan

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    There are a number of Big Ten teams who finished about where the general public expected. Michigan is not one of them.

    Coming into the 2011 season, there weren't too many people who were holding their breath about the Wolverines. After all, Michigan had just fired Rich Rodriguez after three lackluster seasons, and there weren't a lot of on-field personnel changes from last season's porous Wolverine secondary.

    Really, what was the hope for in Ann Arbor? At best, people were looking at eight wins... if first year head coach Brady Hoke was as good as advertised, and lucky, too.

    Turns out Hoke is every little bit as good as advertised, and probably a bit more. He took some heat early on for refusing to wear a headset and talk to his coordinators throughout the game, but there's no one in Ann Arbor now who thinks he should ever put one on.

    The Wolverines finished 10-2 (6-2), but more importantly, the excitement surrounding the mythical Michigan football program has been restored.

    It may have been a thrilling last-minute win over Notre Dame in Michigan Stadium's first-ever night game (quite something for a stadium that opened in the 1920's) in front of 114,804 fans. It may have been the embarrassment Michigan doled out to then-No. 16 Nebraska on November 19. It may have been the fact that Hoke refused to say the words “Ohio State” and still refers to it as “that school in Ohio.”

    And, of course, it may be the fact that Michigan finally got a much-needed win over hated Ohio State this season.

    But in the end, the 10-2 Wolverines found their way back to the BCS: a feat no one even dreamed of back in August. Hoke is clearly a candidate for Coach of the Year honors, and Michigan is the feel-good story of the year... unless you live in Ohio.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 12 Michigan State

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    It's probably clear by now that this isn't your grandfather's Spartans.

    It seems as if Michigan State has put the days of building expectations only to completely collapse down the stretch firmly behind it. Mark Dantonio is rebuilding a quality program in East Lansing, and MSU was one floppy Wisconsin punter away from returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season.

    While MSU can't blame anyone but themselves for missing out on the BCS this year (okay, maybe they can blame a dramatic Badger, too), the Spartans have annoucned to the rest of the Big Ten and the nation that the Spartans are a force with which you will be forced to reckon. No more flash-in-the-pan teams. No more psych-out “are we good or not” teams. This is a new Michigan State.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 11 Virginia Tech

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    Considering Virginia Tech's ranking, it's understandable to find the Hokies in the BCS this season.

    What gets us is the fact that Virginia Tech is still ranked so highly after getting soundly beaten by Clemson. Again.

    We don't have anything against the Hokies, but Virginia Tech is taking up valuable BCS space from teams that are perhaps a bit more deserving.

    If you look at the entirety of Va Tech's schedule this season, it's clear that Clemson has been the bugaboo. The Hokies are 11-2, and both losses were thanks to the Tigers.

    Come to think of it, maybe Virginia Tech in the BCS isn't such a bad thing after all. We'll probably see once and for all what kind of team they really are.

    Still, an 11-2 record is an impressive accomplishment, considering the Hokies did this all without all-around awesome quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 10 South Carolina

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    What do you do if you're a team that could easily win a conference championship in any other conference, but you're stuck in a conference that's so good you can't even find your way to the top of your own division?

    That's the problem facing Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks right now.

    In all honesty, South Carolina is a very good, BCS-caliber team. It just so happens that an untimely loss here and a dominating division over there and South Carolina finds itself on the outside looking in once again.

    Take heart, SC fans. This is actually a good problem to have. A few years ago, talk of SEC Championships and BCS berths would have been laughed at.

    Final Grade: B+

No. 9 Kansas State

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    We've mentioned Brady Hoke as a solid candidate for Coach of the Year honors. Coach Hoke has some stiff competition from the venerable Bill Snyder at Kansas State.

    Another feel-good story this season has been watching Snyder, now in his third season of his second stint as head coach at K-State (20th season overall) guide the Wildcats to a most improbable BCS top ten finish.

    Starting 3-0 was great, if not expected. But when KSU began to pile up the victories against the likes of Baylor, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Texas, people began to sit up and take notice.

    We'll be the first to acknowledge that the Wildcats have a legitimate grudge against the BCS this season, as the Wildcats that finished No. 8 in the BCS but will be playing in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

    In fact, the whole Big 12 probably has a beef. How is the top-ranked conference (by the computers) left with just one BCS berth this season?

    Final Grade: A+

No. 8 Wisconsin

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    The Wisconsin Badgers have been impressive for most of the 2011 season.

    It's not every day you find a team with two bona fide Heisman candidates, but that's exactly what the Badgers had this season in Montee Ball and Russell Wilson.

    Montee Ball has several single-season NCAA records in his sights while Wilson has been solid for most of the year, if not downright impressive.

    Wisconsin lost to Michigan State in the regular season for the second straight year, but this season, the Badgers were able to exact revenge on MSU in the Big Ten Championship Game thanks to some late theatrics by Wilson, Ball, and the rest of the Badgers. In the span of a few minutes, Wisconsin seemed to shake off the back-to-back losses of 2011 (MSU and Ohio State) to emerge as a team that could give Oregon all it can handle and more in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 7 Boise State

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    If you're a Boise State fan, you're probably used to being screwed over by the BCS. But you finally have a vocal ally in head coach Chris Petersen.

    After years of refusing to say anything negative about the BCS, pollsters, of “the system,” Petersen has finally let loose—sort of—on how the top level of NCAA football is run these days.

    It might be hard to think about right now, especially for the Broncos, but Boise State was realistically one missed field goal away from having a legit argument to be placed in the BCS National Championship Game. With the loss to TCU, Boise State was clearly removed from that conversation, but Boise is now (rightfully) feeling slighted as they are the highest-ranked eligible team to not be selected to play in a BCS game (we'll explain about Arkansas in a moment).

    Still a great season, but Boise State will find its final grade depressed for a shocking and streak-ending home loss to a lesser TCU team and for the fact that Boise's loss meant the Broncos didn't even win the Mountain West this season.

    Final Grade: B+

No. 5 (Tie) Arkansas

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    As we mentioned, Boise State was the highest-ranked eligible team left out of the BCS. For those who don't know, each conference is limited to a maximum of two BCS berths each season. Since LSU and Alabama are both ranked higher than Arkansas, and all three teams are from the same conference, Arkansas gets the fuzzy end of that particular lollipop.

    But Arkansas' grade is fairly straight forward: the Hogs have two losses, and those losses were to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.

    Do we really need any more discussion than that?

    Final Grade: A

No. 5 (Tie) Oregon

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    When the season began, most people placed Oregon at or near the top of their lists as a likely repeat performer in the BCS National Championship Game.

    An opening week loss to LSU combined with a shocking upset loss at home to USC removed the Ducks from a possible trip to New Orleans on January 9.

    Still, a Pac-12 Championship and a Rose Bowl berth is a pretty nice consolation prize, and Ducks fans need to remember just how special a trip to Pasadena in January can be.

    No, the Ducks did not live up to expectations this season. Yes, the Ducks should still be very happy and proud of what was accomplished in 2011.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 4 Stanford

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    Years from now, what will Stanford fans remember most about 2011?

    Will it be the amazing Andrew Luck? Will it be a second-straight BCS berth? Will it be the thrilling overtime victory against hated USC?

    Chances are all three things will find fond places in the memories of those who follow Cardinal football, but for those of us on the outside, we're left wondering what could have been.

    What might have happened if Andrew Luck hadn't thrown those interceptions against Oregon? What would have been Luck had been just a bit more accurate? Was Stanford really all it was cracked up to be in the two-team Pac-12 North Division?

    In many respects, there are still a number of unanswered questions for the Cardinal. At times, Luck and company have looked absolutely brilliant. At other times, it looks as if the Cardinal are just barely managing to hold on with both hands and a rope.

    The Cardinal have one final, ultimate test: the 2012 Fiesta Bowl against No. 3 Oklahoma State. Win that, and the critics be damned. Lose, and the questions will be forever etched in stone.

    Final Grade: Incomplete

No. 3 Oklahoma State

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    Okay, so there might be one program beyond Boise State that has a right to feel hosed.

    Oklahoma State is, by more than a few people, judged to be at least as deserving of a shot at the BCS title as Alabama.

    First, Oklahoma State managed to win their conference—a conference which the BCS's own computers ranked higher than the almighty SEC.

    Second, Oklahoma State beat seven ranked opponents over the course of the season (compared to Alabama's three).

    Third, Oklahoma played more teams with a winning record than Alabama.

    Oklahoma State fans could probably add about 20 or 30 more reasons why they think the Cowboys should be playing in New Orleans instead of the Crimson Tide.

    But we're stuck with what we have, and the Cowboys have their first-ever Big 12 title, not to mention their first-ever trip to a BCS bowl.

    Baby steps, folks. Baby steps.

    Final Grade: A

No. 2 Alabama

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    How much can we say about Alabama this season?

    Probably enough to justify an entire article dedicated just to the Crimson Tide (and there are plenty of them out there).

    The season is going to be boiled down to a few bullet points.

    One, Alabama only has one loss, and it was an overtime loss by three points to the number one team in the nation.

    Two, the loss was, unfortunately, in Tuscaloosa in a game that was almost painful to watch for its similarity to a sorority pillow fight as opposed to the titanic clash we were promised.

    Three, Alabama did not win the SEC, nor did the Tide even manage to win the SEC-West.

    Four, Alabama can still be considered amongst the very, very best teams in the nation.

    But between now and January 9, no amount of argument will solve the debate about whether or not the Tide deserve a second shot at LSU.

    We hate to pull this out, but the argument in 2006 was that No. 2 Michigan had its shot at No. 1 Ohio State and missed. The Wolverines didn't get a rematch...

    Should be fun, though. And if you're a fan of car wrecks, you'll love what happens in the polls if Alabama actually manages to win.

    Final Grade: A-

No. 1 Louisiana State

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    Without question, the top team in the nation to this point is Louisiana State.

    The Tigers have dominated on the field for the most part, and have done so against a schedule made of steel. No other team in the nation played as many ranked opponents, and no other team in the nation played more teams win winning records.

    LSU is the only remaining undefeated team in the FBS, and while there is a fair amount of their debate about the opponent on January 9, there's no question LSU is right where they belong: in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

    Final Grade: A+

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