College Football 2011: Predicting the Champion of Every FBS Conference
School's out, temperatures are rising and summer practice is about to start on college football fields around the country. With that said, it's never too early to make some predictions about who will emerge as champion of every Football Bowl Subdivision conference.
Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Ohio State, Oregon, Auburn, Boise State, Central Florida, Miami (OH), TCU and Florida International topped their respective FBS conferences last year and will be out to defend their titles this fall.
Challengers abound as a new season approaches, with many contending and only a few earning those previous and lucrative Bowl Championship Series bids.
So who's going to win each conference next season? Read on to find out!
Western Athletic Conference
Only one thing matters for the Hawaii Warriors: QB Bryant Moniz is back for a senior season in Honolulu. The Rainbows lose a few prolific receivers from the vaunted offensive attack, but that position is famously interchangeable in Greg McMackin's system.
With Boise State gone to the Mountain West, the WAC throne is suddenly empty.
The Fresno State Bulldogs begin their final season in the WAC with a young and promising team. Junior running backs Robbie Rouse, A.J. Ellis and sophomore Jalen Saunders form a strong platoon that should improve last year's 65th-best rushing attack. The Bulldog defense must improve on last year's 30.0 points allowed, especially if they want any shot at beating Hawaii on Nov. 20 at Aloha Stadium.
Nevada derailed Boise State's BCS Championship campaign with a late November thriller, which allowed them to share the WAC title. The Wolf Pack lost a lot of talent and leadership in QB Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua. Still, Nevada has a strong run-oriented offense that ranked third in the country in yards. Junior Lampford Mark must come up big as the featured back, and Tyler Lantrip needs to be a quick study as the new QB in order for Nevada to approach last year's 13-1 record.
Sun Belt Conference
The Troy Trojans are out for blood after their 52-35 November loss co-champ FIU. Though their matchup at FIU will likely decide the league championship in late October, the Trojans have a great band of talent returning, including playmaking QB Corey Robinson and RBs Shawn Southward and Chris Anderson.
The team's hot finish last year was indicative of a greatly improved team. A lot of that was a result of Robinson, a true freshman, who matured rapidly during the season.
This year, he's primed to lead Troy to the Sun Belt title.
Florida International stumbled out of the gates in 2010, with preseason losses to Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Maryland and Texas A&M. With a 21-9 loss to Florida Atlantic on Oct. 30, the Golden Panthers were 2-5 and at their low point.
From there, the team rallied behind juniors QB Wesley Carroll and junior RB Darriet Perry to win four of their last five and beat Sun Belt co-champion Troy.
Carroll and Perry return this season and will again tussle with Troy for the conference title.
Middle Tennessee deserves to be mentioned in this group because they took down FIU on the road in the last game of Sun Belt play. They were throttled by Troy and finished just 6-7 for the season, but the third-place team finished only one game behind the co-champions. The Blue Raiders graduated a lot of leadership and talent from skill positions, so it will be an uphill battle to win the conference, though it is not out of possibility.
It's hard to pick a team because Alabama, Georgia and Auburn all had top six classes. All those teams, however, are losing their best player from experience-laden teams.
My pick is the team with the 15th-ranked recruiting class in 2011: the South Carolina Gamecocks. Indefinitely-suspended QB Stephen Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffrey return from the 2010 SEC East Champion. This offense will be the scariest in the SEC, and the defense will approach it with the commitment of top player in 2011, DE Jadeveon Clowney.
Things often go to hell in the SEC as an embarrassment of competitive teams beat the snot out of each other. This is one of the reasons that South Carolina snuck into the SEC title game in the first place; they put their heads down and grinded with every other team and when the clock was up, the Gamecocks were the ones left standing.
This pick is fully contingent on the assumption that Garcia will be reinstated from his fifth suspension in five years at South Carolina. If they have him, they're as good as anyone. If they don't, they'll sink quickly in the shark-infested waters of the SEC.
Georgia had a developmental season in 2010 with red-shirt freshman Aaron Murray got acclimated to the speed of the SEC. The Bulldogs fell behind the competition with a 3-5 record last year, but the fruit of the 2009 recruiting class is about to bloom.
Murray shone last year, throwing 24 TD passes as the starter. He'll throw primarily to 6'5", 250-pound WR Marlon Brown, who showed flashes of his great potential as well. This year's No. 6 class includes Isaiah Crowell, the No. 1 RB and several other players in the top five at their respective positions.
The Bulldogs will only be a little bit older, but the talent is too much to ignore and it should produce a top result this year.
The National Champion Auburn Tigers will again be a force, despite losing their heart and soul, Cam Newton. The Tigers hooked the No. 3 recruiting class, which includes top players DT Gabe Wright and OT Christian Westerman as well as second-ranked QB Kiehl Frazier.
Alabama has the best recruiting class in all the SEC, but must replace its top three players, QB Greg McElroy, RB Mark Ingram and WR Julio Jones. Had it not been for two of their three losses coming by a field goal or less, the Crimson Tide would have prevented Auburn from even making the SEC Championship. A.J. McCarron, the sophomore QB, will be thrown to the wolves in a high-pressure situation this fall.
Florida returns QB Jeff Brantley, RB Jeffrey Demps and several other important skill players. The Gators roped top five classes in 2009 and 2010, which should really show up on the field this year in explosive talent. They lost a couple bad games last year, which they must avoid if they have any hope of winning the SEC East.
The LSU Tigers played a brutal schedule last year and performed valiantly in its only losses to Auburn by seven and Arkansas by eight. A third consecutive top 10 recruiting class means that a new crop of seeds can grow and nurture slowly, because those from the last two years are ready to sprout.
The Tigers could be ranked in the top five to start the season, showing how strong the SEC competition is.
The Oregon Ducks fell short in the BCS National Championship against a team that was no better than they. Fortunately for coach Chip Kelly, every impact player (there were a lot, too) except for WR Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis returns. QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James, RB Kenjon Barner, TE David Paulson, WRs Lavaisier Tuinei and Josh Huff all come back for the nation's top scoring offense.
With how much better they're getting with top recruit DeAnthony Thomas joining the fold, this squad will again be a nightmare to play against.
Stanford came within one blowout loss to Oregon from being in the National Championship game. They had their best season since 1940 and consistently made the top headlines in a season crossed with major stories. Heisman hopeful QB Andrew Luck is shockingly back, but coach Jim Harbaugh is not. David Shaw is the new guy with the 21st best class of freshmen arriving in tow.
Luck's only real losses are his top handful of receivers, which makes for an adjustment period. Overall, this team will be back in the thick of the Pac-12 race, with a Nov. 12 showdown with Oregon to maybe decide the leader.
The USC Trojans have been swimming upstream against extreme sanctions for almost a year now. Lane Kiffin's done a pretty good job with all things considered. He managed the No. 2 recruiting class (easily No. 1 if DeAnthony Thomas doesn't de-commit to choose Oregon) with scholarship restrictions and the stink of infidelity. The Trojans have their most important player, QB Matt Barkley, back to lead as a junior, plus the best group of receivers in the nation, hands down. The Trojans pick up a commit or red-shirt seemingly everywhere they lost a player to the NFL or graduation. They were horrible on defense last year, but were inexperienced in key places. Their success hinges on how well the defense stops the pass this season.
USC has a shot to be sanctions-free if their appeal wins in June, which re-opens the possibility of a bowl game. That's a highly motivating factor for a team that is still as talented as any in the country, just without the depth.
The Sun Devils of Arizona State are quietly lurking in the Pac-12 desert, hoping to strike at the perfect time to topple the giants to win a conference title.
Though they haven't had a winning season since 2007, hope abounds in Tempe because of how many impact players are returning. QB Brock Osweiler performed well for the injured Steven Threet at the end of last season. Vontaze Burfict, a dominant linebacker, is back to anchor the defense.
A bevy of tough games on the road await ASU at Oregon, Utah and UCLA. They'll have to be perfect in every facet to win the Pac-12, but this season represents as much hope as any for Dennis Erickson's squad.
Mountain West Conference
The Boise State Broncos lose quite a bit of skill to graduation, but they still have plenty in the fold. Heisman candidate senior quarterback Kellen Moore is coming off a fantastic season in which he tossed 35 TD to just six INT. He no longer has draft picks Titus Young and Austin Pettis to throw to, but tailback Doug Martin, WR Tyler Shoemaker and TE Kyle Efaw are ready to fill the holes created in the offense.
The Broncos will have more competition as they move to the Mountain West, but conference champion TCU is likely to return from last year's heights.
The Horned Frogs of TCU return nearly every skill player excepting QB Andy Dalton from last year's Rose Bowl Championship team. The 2010 Horned Frogs proved they belonged with the heavy hitters in the nation's top five with wins over Oregon State, Baylor, BYU, Utah and Wisconsin. Nobody doubts the talent level or coaching of Gary Patterson anymore.
The Horned Frogs will still be very strong, though breaking in new sophomore QB Casey Pachall might result in a few losses.
TCU is in a dead heat with Boise State, forming a formidable pair that can compete with any other conference's. By virtue of Nov. 12's showdown being in Boise and not Fort Worth, I give the win and Mountain West title to newcomer Boise State.
The Northern Ilinois Huskies took a 12-0 record into the MAC Championship against Miami of Ohio, then lost their perfect season in a heated 26-21 loss. It was a frustrating end for the team that proved itself to be the MAC's best all year long.
This time around, all but two skill players are back, led by seniors QB Chandler Harnish and RB Jasmin Hopkins. NIU will look to repeat last year's top 10 rushing attack and top 15 points scored and points against rankings.
If they do those, they should win the MAC whether they have to go through Miami or not.
The Miami (OH) Redhawks trailed just behind Northern Illinois all year long, then stunned the Huskies by beating them in the MAC title game. Before that result, no one thought that NIU would lose to a team that had lost four games already.
Turns out that those four losses taught the Redhawks how to improve. Three of the losses were to power conference teams: Missouri, Cincinnati and Florida. Miami used these blemishes to make themselves better instead of brushing off cupcake teams during the preseason.
Miami has a prolific passing attack led by junior QB Zac Dysert. His favorite target, Armand Robinson, is gone, but stud sophomore Nick Harwell and senior Chris Givens ease that burden immensely by stepping into primary WR roles.
NIU is mad about last year's MAC title game and will be gunning hard for Miami. I think that the Huskies will get the Redhawks this time if they meet again.
The fact that the Toledo Rockets are listed a challenger instead of a darkhorse is a testament to their legitimacy to the MAC throne. The Rockets lose zero of last year's skill players. That's right, zero. QB Austin Dantin leads a balanced attack that slightly favors the run game. Senior RB Adonis Thomas is ready to run wild as the Rockets shoot for the moon. Or the MAC title.
The SMU Mustangs. An unlikely choice to be sure, but the exploits of that powerful offense have won me over. Southern Methodist lost to UCF in the C-USA Championship game in a surprising low-scoring finish. This time around, they'll get the chance to beat them in the regular season to prove themselves ready for the league title.
Gun-slinging junior Kyle Padron has lots of shiny toys to play with, including fantastic sophomore RB Zach Line and senior WR Cole Beasley. Another tough preseason (Texas A&M, TCU) should prepare the Mustangs for conference play, where the level of play drops significantly. Even though losses likely await them in the preseason, they'll be better for it late.
The Central Florida Knights, obviously. The reigning C-USA Champion, UCF has but its impact receivers for 2011. That's not a major issue, though, because they ranked just 87th in passing yards. More importantly is that the running game is better than ever with sophomore QB Jeffrey Godfrey and senior RB Ronnie Weaver chewing up yards.
The Knights' defense, however, is what sets them apart; their 17.1 points allowed last year was good for eighth in the FBS. That will take them far, especially as they try to match wits with SMU's offense.
The Southern Miss Golden Eagles shot themselves in the foot last season with losses to UAB and East Carolina. Those were games they should have won that negated the win over UCF that gave them a shot at the C-USA Championship.
Next year, they'll have nearly everyone back, minus WR Johdrick Morris, who led the team in catches.
The Southern Miss offensive balance (35th in passing, 20th in rushing) should prevent opposing defenses from slowing them down. Any improvement on defense and this team could as easily be champion as UCF and SMU.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane was an even better balanced team than Southern Miss last year, and possibly the best in the country. Fullback Charles Clay is the only graduating senior moving on from the nation's 13th best pass game and 15th best run game. Tulsa is alike Southern Miss in a lot of ways: well-rounded offense and a defense that will control just how high the team can go.
Big Ten Conference
Michigan State gave away its undefeated season and likely Rose Bowl berth as Big Ten champ with a devastating 37-6 loss at Iowa at the end of October. With an 8-0 record and wins over Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Michigan under their belt, the Spartans made a fatal slip in that Iowa game that ruined a potentially historic season.
Fortunately, they have all but top WR Mark Dell coming back to the nation's 46th best pass and 64th best run offense. Most notably, QB Kirk Cousins and RBs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell lead the offense through a schedule that is tougher than last year's, but crosses Ohio State while it is still shorthanded in Week Five.
With several Ohio State stars suspended for the first five games, the door of opportunity has been kicked down for MSU and the following competitors to swoop the Buckeyes' usual BCS bid.
The Wisconsin Badgers lose steady QB Scott Tolzien, RB John Clay, OT Gabe Carimi and DE J.J. Watt, but the passer is utterly interchangeable in the nation's 12th best rushing attack. The real difference-makers, RBs Montee Ball and James White, are a two-headed monster that should continue to steamroll the Big Ten toward the fifth-highest scoring average in the country.
Jon Budmayr, the presumed starter at QB, needs only to manage the game so that White and Ball can lead the Badgers back to the Rose Bowl...or beyond.
Everyone knows about the grave violations committed by Ohio State and the penalties levied against the Buckeyes. Looking at the schedule, however, it's reasonable to foresee a 3-2 record before Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron and DeVier Posey return. Wins over Akron, Toledo and Akron are likely, with tough games coming at Miami (FL) and home against Michigan State. The Bucks will likely lose that game to the Spartans, but if they run the rest of the Big Ten slate, they've still got a great shot at winning the conference.
The talent is all over the field, not just in the suspended stars. The Buckeyes will need to clamp down and really assert themselves early in the schedule until the big guns come back, which is imminently possible.
The inaugural Nebraska Cornhuskers season will be no opportunity to parade around the Big Ten in celebration. Bo Pelini's boys must roll up their sleeves and get to work immediately, because a brutal October schedule awaits them after a few preseason runs: Wisconsin welcomes the Huskers to the Big Ten on Oct. 1, Ohio State (with Pryor, Herron and Posey) comes to Lincoln the next week, Minnesota hosts them on the 22nd after a bye, then Michigan State arrives on the 29th.
That's all three conference powers in one month. The Huskers can't afford to lose more than one of those games if they have a shot at the Big Ten Championship game. QB Taylor Martinez and a handful of talented players are certainly capable of pulling it off, but the task will be tougher than what faces their competitors.
Big East Conference
The West Virginia Mountaineers, quarterbacked by super-athlete Geno Smith, will score a ton of points with big play weapons Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey at WR and junior Ryan Clarke at RB. The defense must replace seven starters from its third-ranked unit in the country, but will still be pretty stingy.
The Connecticut Huskies' 2010 season and Fiesta Bowl berth was a farce. They lost four games to Michigan, Temple, Rutgers and Louisville before squeaking by a superior West Virginia team in OT, then beating four Big East doormats to win the conference. The 28-point shellacking they took from Oklahoma in the BCS showed how average the Huskies were.
They lose QB Zach Frazer and RB Jordan Todman, who were the offensive focal points, to graduation and won't have the surrounding talent to hold the team up while QB Cody Endres gets his feet under him.
Big 12 Conference
Oklahoma Sooners QB Landry Jones struggled after being thrust into relief of the injured Sam Bradford in early 2009, but has been Heisman-caliber ever since grasping the offense as his own.
The Sooners are unfathomably loaded on offense, losing only RB DeMarco Murray of impact from the No. 3 passing attack in the country. WR Ryan Broyles' decision to return to Norman means that the Sooners can continue where they left off last season when they won the Big 12.
Of concern is whether All-Big 12 CB Jamell Fleming will be on the team after being suspended for academic misconduct. If he's allowed to play, the Sooners are the favorite for the BCS title, but without him, they'll need to be good enough on offense to make up for the defensive loss.
Oklahoma State returns everyone except stud RB Kendall Hunter to the Big 12's best offense. Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon's decision to stay in Stillwater to catch passes from Brandon Weeden was huge for the Cowboys' prospects this year.
With a win over Oklahoma last year, it would have been the Cowboys who had a shot at the BCS, which shows how big one game can be on a college football schedule. With five returning offensive lineman in addition to all the talent, Mike Gundy's squad has a legit shot to take down the rival Sooners and win the league. Their meeting in Stillwater on Dec. 3 will likely decide the South division's winner.
The Missouri Tigers will need sophomore James Franklin to step up big time in the wake of star Blaine Gabbert's departure. Skill players return all over the field, which will help speed Franklin's learning curve.
The defense might carry the load for the Tigers this year, who should possess one of the best lines in the country despite losing Aldon Smith to the draft.
With tough road games at Oklahoma and Texas A&M, Missouri faces an uphill battle even though they're among the best teams in the Big 12.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The Florida State Seminoles are back where they belong: comfortably atop the college football landscape. Even after losing surprise top 10 NFL pick Christian Ponder, the Noles look ready to own the ACC. EJ Manuel, the junior replacement to Ponder, looked capable and ready during spring practice to create impact on a full-time basis. The fruit of back-to-back top six recruiting classes, and this year's No. 1, is starting to show on defense, where several big playmakers loom for last year's 20th ranked defense.
The Seminoles also get help from the schedule, which avoids Virginia Tech altogether and gets Miami at home.
Tyrod Taylor, the school's all-time winningest QB, has left Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech Hokies. The team has a lot of work to do to repeat last year's undefeated ACC Championship team and Orange Bowl bid.
Fortunately for sophomore QB Logan Thomas, main weapons Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale are back at WR to ease the transition.
They could still be at the top of the ACC, but they will have to work to appear in the ACC Championship Game, and a championship over loaded FSU is unlikely.
If Miami (FL) has any chance to win the ACC, it must beat Florida State in Tallahassee on Nov. 12. Last year, they got blown out in Coral Gables by the Seminoles. The Canes lost top RB Damien Berry and WR Leonard Hankerson, but talented QB Jacory Harris is the type of player who can take over a game.