Eleven Burning Questions for 2011
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College football is six painful months away from coming back around. Here are eleven questions to ponder as we face this long stretch until toe meets leather once again...
1. Will the SEC continue to be dominant?
As everyone from here to Neptune knows, the SEC has the last five BCS champions, as well as the last two Heisman Trophy winners (and three of the last four). In 2011, several teams again appear to be primed for the national spotlight. Auburn, the defending champ, loses all-world quarterback Cam Newton, but has recruited just about as well as anyone nationwide across the board. Expect the Tigers to be strong again, despite a new signal-caller. War Eagle's hated rival, Alabama, had the top recruiting class nationwide a year ago (according to several services), and as long as Nick Saban is coach, they will be in the hunt for big things. LSU takes the field with more positive luck (and talent to boot) than just about anyone, and some are even saying that South Carolina could be a national factor with the offensive trio of quarterback Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery returning, as well as a nasty defense. Florida anad Georgia have question marks, but both schools have the potential to make a run if the chips fall right.
2. Who will be the BCS-buster of 2011?
With TCU set to begin play in the Big East in 2012, they have one more season of running through a relatively easy slate. The Frogs are the leading contender to once again be the BCS-buster of college football in 2011. But there is a major roadblock, and it comes in the form of another regular BCS-buster opponent: Boise State. The date for this game is yet to be announced, but it will be played on the blue turf up in Idaho, and the Broncos are very difficult to beat on that field. Basically, this game will decide which of these two programs will crash the party. Nationwide, I see no other teams - at this point - ready to make a run at glory from outside of a BCS league. But college football never ceases to amaze me, and I'm sure someone will step up and make some noise. For now though, circle TCU-Boise as a huge game with national impact.
3. When will Notre Dame be a factor again?
A year ago, I was certain that Brian Kelly would come into South Bend from Cincinnati and immediately make Notre Dame strong again. I was right...and I was wrong. While Kelly did indeed have a decently successful season at 8-5 and a convincing bowl win over Miami, the Irish were certainly never a national factor as far as the BCS title race. But no coach should be expected to come in and win a championship right away, and so Kelly is back for more in 2011. The schedule is set up fairly well, with dates against a motley crue of suspects. Three lower-tier ACC teams dot the schedule (Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College) as well as should-be wins against Purdue, Air Force and Navy. South Florida is an interesting home game, and trips to Michigan and Stanford will be tricky. The talent returning is pretty good, and ND recruited well, also. They came in with an average ranking around 10th in Kelly's first class of guys. Notre Dame is a mystery program to me. They have a history that is perhaps the best out there. But let's face it, since Lou Holtz left town in 1996, they haven't done a whole heck of a lot.
4. Is Oregon the new class of the Pac 12?
For years, Southern California was the face of the league. But now, the Trojans are fighting to get back to the top. Their last league title came in 2008 - the last of seven straight crowns under Pete Carroll. I feel they now have a coach who is a huge, huge question mark. Lane Kiffin - to me - is unproven and rides the coattails of his legendary father, Monte (who is aging). Oregon is strong again and appears to be here to stay for the long haul. Stanford - despite losing Coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL - returns an excellent quarterback in junior Andrew Luck, and should again be a strong contender in 2011. In back-to-back seasons the Cardinal have had a Heisman finalist (Toby Gerhart in 2009). But still, despite questions abound, USC is USC, and they will be back. A new AD has come in, and in my view, a less than superb year will see Kiffin hit the road, and new AD Pat Haden (a former USC player) will right the ship. Southern Cal has a history that can rival anyone, and I know the Trojans will long be a successful team into the future. But right now - as I type this - Oregon is the class of the conference.
5. Can the ACC get it together?
Despite sending as many players to the NFL as any conference behind the SEC, the ACC has had a tremendously hard time breaking through to regain national respect. Close losses to power teams out of conference are all too painful for this league, with ACC teams losing in the final minute to LSU, Auburn, Boise State and a couple of others in 2010. Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech are three big names that are supposed to make this league as respected as any. But FSU and Miami have gone through a down time in the past several seasons, and VT seems to lose close whenever facing an OOC team ranked high nationally. In 2011, marquee home games exist against Oklahoma (at FSU), Auburn (at Clemson) and Ohio State (at Miami). The league really needs to start winning some of these games.
6. How will Nebraska have an impact on the Big 10?
The Huskers have a tradition to rival anyone, but are not the same team that Dr. Tom Osborne had rolling from the 70's through the 90's. Nebraska is good, but they aren't great, and the Big Ten will be waiting to take a shot at their new brethren. Big games will dot the Nebraska schedule week after week, but it will be very interesting to see if Ohio State is the only team that will keep them in check. Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State are just three of the teams that will be licking their chops to get a W over the big-name Huskers in the coming seasons. The move to the Big 10 works well for both Nebraska and the Big 10, but let's see who comes out on top in this new relationship.
7. Will Texas reclaim the Big 12?
It shocked me to see Texas have the kind of season they had a year ago. The 'Horns went 5-7, and it wasn't a pretty 5-7 with losses to UCLA (a mediocre UCLA), in-state foe Texas A&M, rival Oklahoma, and an ugly blowout loss to lowly Kansas State. But Head Coach Mack Brown is among the best in the business, and after loading up on talent again (as they do every year), Brown will take on the 2011 season with his hair on fire. Do not be surprised in the least if Texas rebounds from a mediocre 2010 season to make some serious, serious noise in 2011. The talent is there, the coach is there, the fans are there, and this is my outside choice to not only win the Big 12, but to also compete for a national title.
8. What new coach will have the biggest impact?
The first coach that jumps out at me is Al Golden At Miami. Temple is a team that was totally non-existent in football throughout the course of time. But Golden took the Owls (yes, the Owls) from mediocrity to an actual good team in his five years at the school. Whether he can do the same at Miami is yet to be seen. The competition will be much different, and Miami is a school that stays in the spotlight whether they are good or bad. The pressure will be there...At Florida, Will Muschamp comes in from Texas to try to keep the Gators as one of the nation's elite programs. He has his work cut out for him with a tough schedule, but will also have 90,000 Gator fans pulling for him, and a stockpile of future NFL players to work with. Other coaches new for 2011 include Brady Hoke at Michigan, Randy Edsall at Maryland, and Todd Graham at Pitt.
9. What coach is on the hottest seat?
Mark Richt at Georgia. I have debated this argument with a friend of mine over and over, and I stand by my debate. The Dawgs have never been awful under Richt. But at the same time - in ten seasons - the Dawgs have yet to truly contend for a national title, while watching hated Florida bring home two crowns and the rest of the league bring in another four (LSU with two, Alabama and Auburn one each). In Athens, that would be hard to watch. UGA has dropped in win totals of eleven in 2007, ten in 2008, eight in 2009 and down to six in 2010. Not a good pattern. As good of a person as he is, and as good as he did in his early days in Athens (SEC Champs in 2002 and 2005), Georgia expects to be a national top 10 and challenge for a BCS crown. This simply hasn't happened, and Richt is due for a huge season. His recruiting class this year was great (top 10 by nearly all services), and he returns a quality quarterback in sophomore Aaron Murray...Another coach on the warm seat is Dabo Swinney of Clemson - who also landed a superb recruiting class this year. Swinney has lost back-to-back to rival South Carolina, and will have to win on the road in 2011 or it will be three straight. Tiger fans have a very, very hard time in losing to USC. Swinney will need to either win the Atlantic Division of the ACC, or beat USC on the road, or else - in my often wrong opinion - he may be job hunting in 2012.
10. Who is the Heisman favorite?
With Andrew Luck, the Stanford quarterback, returning for his senior season, I would have to list him as an early frontrunner to be sitting live in person at the 2011 Heisman presentation next December. He is a great player. But Stanford will have to have another 10-plus win season for him to get there, and with Jim Harbaugh leaving town, I'm not sure if they can do that. We'll see. In the Southeast, the Gamecocks of South Carolina have a couple of players that may get some Heisman talk before its all over with as Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery are as talented as it gets. Again, it will take reaching the 10-win mark to make this possible, and that is a big question....Other names being tossed around early are quarterback Taylor Martinez of Nebraska, running back Trent Richardson of Alabama and all-purpose offensive guy Trey Burton of Florida. USC also has a couple of players in Dillon Baxter and Robert Woods.
11. Who will win the national championship?
Well, it would be a safe bet to go with a team from the SEC. With LSU, Alabama, Florida and Auburn all bringing home recent crowns, this conference has been on top for quite some time. In 2011, Alabama will probably be picked by the media to win the SEC. So therefore - if they do in fact win that league - they will almost certainly be in the title talk come December. Other teams getting some mention are Oklahoma and Florida State (who play each other early in the year). The Seminoles, I don't think, are ready for that kind of season. The Sooners may be. But right now, in making a guess, I would go with who I think will win the SEC, and that team is Alabama.
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