2011 Preseason Top 25
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Auburn will start the year on top as they are the defending champs. Just behind Auburn is their in-state rival, Alabama. LSU is also in the top five. In total, eight of the teams in my preseason top 25 reside in the Southeastern Conference. With the streak of national championships the SEC has going, it is hard not to pick them highly going into 2011...It is time for someone else to step up and take the crystal football! Who will it be?
1. Auburn Tigers - SEC West - Head Coach: Gene Chizik (22-5 at Auburn) - I start off every season by having the defending champion number one in my top 25. Until they lose, they are the champ. And it isn't like Auburn has a bunch of slouches on their 2011 version just because Cam Newton and Nick Fairley now play on Sunday. This school recruits in the top 10 annually, and new guys can't wait to show what they've got. Do not be the least bit surprised if Auburn challenges for the SEC West crown once again this season. Taking over for Newton is Barrett Trotter, a junior, about whom we know very little. He has nine career passing attempts. But the Auburn defense will be strong - as it always is - and I expect this team to win nearly all of its home games (Florida and Alabama will be tough) and go .500 on the road (all five road games are tall tasks). We will see this year of what caliber Coach Gene Chizik is really made. He was brilliant last year in just letting Cam Newton do his thing. But Newton was a once-in-a-generation player, and, this year, he will have to find a new way to put points on the board. Running back Michael Dyer will be key to Auburn's success in 2011. Until they lose a game, the defending champs are my #1. First game: Utah State.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide - SEC West - Head Coach: Nick Saban (43-11 at Alabama) - Up next is the champion from the 2009 season, Auburn's in-state rival, Alabama. The Crimson Tide - owner of 13 national championships - will take the field for the 4th season under Nick Saban. As long as Saban paces the sideline in Tuscaloosa, I will have the Tide in my list of top teams. This guy is not the most likable character on earth, but he is detail-oriented and doesn't put up with any crap of any kind. His teams are disciplined...and talented. Besides having a quarterback with very little experience (sophomore AJ McCarron and freshman Phillip Sims battled it out through the spring with McCarron getting the opening day nod), this team has everything it needs to win it all. They have depth. They have a solid running game with Trent Richardson. They have a brick-wall defense. And, again, they have Mr. Saban. The SEC West is the toughest division in the sport going into the season, but I see Alabama as having as good a shot as LSU, Arkansas, or Auburn to make it to Atlanta. First game: Kent State.
3. Oklahoma Sooners - Big 12 - Head Coach: Bob Stoops (129-31 at Oklahoma) - For the national record 10th time, OU starts the season number one in the AP poll. The Sooners are in pursuit of national title number seven, and return Heisman hopeful quarterback Landry Jones will try to make it happen. The Sooners have a program that annually places them in the talk of national championships and BCS appearances. Could 2011 be the season when OU brings home another crystal football? The offensive line is veteran, with two seniors on the left side, a junior center, and a junior at right guard. The only newcomer is redshirt freshman Daryl Williams (6'-6", 313 pounds) at right tackle. Brennan Clay and Jonathon Miller will battle to be the ball carrier. On defense, eight starters return to a unit that is always pretty good. Oklahoma has several tough games on their schedule, but Florida State (away) and Texas (neutral) will be the biggest obstacles on the road between Norman and New Orleans. First game: Tulsa.
4. Oregon Ducks - Pac 12 North - Head Coach: Chip Kelly (22-4 at Oregon) - One of the most entertaining programs in the sport, the Ducks of Oregon aren't just a bunch of smoke and mirrors. They can play ball. People like to think they are a circus on grass with their flashy uniforms and west coast style of play. But Oregon is a force to be reckoned with...solid players and a great game plan on gameday from Coach Chip Kelly. This team should battle with Stanford to win the Pac 12 North, and host the Pac 12 title game in Autzen Stadium. On offense, the main ingredient is back, as Darron Thomas will lead the attack. He accounted for 30 touchdowns a year ago. The question mark for Oregon is on defense, where only five starters return. They will be tested early as the opening game for the Ducks is in Cowboy Stadium against SEC power LSU. That is one of the marquee games nationally for the season! First game: LSU in Dallas, Texas.
5. LSU Tigers - SEC West - Head Coach: Les Miles (62-17 at LSU) - There are very few teams in America that bring home the kind of talent that LSU does on a year- to- year basis. According to Rivals.com, the Tigers have had an average ranked recruiting class in the top five in the country over the last four years. Put that talent, along with the freaky luck that LSU and the Mad-hatter get, and you have a team that is awfully tough to beat! The schedule is quite interesting for the Tigers in 2011, as OOC games with Oregon (neutral) and West Virginia (away) go down in the first four weeks before SEC play even begins. Leading them through this tough slate will be Jordan Jefferson, an outside Heisman candidate (who was in a bar fight a day before I typed this). I think he is ok, though, as 15-20 of his teammates were apparently at the bar when the incident took place. LSU is as talented as any team out there. If they can develop good team chemistry and have the bounces continue to go their way, this team will challenge for the SEC West, and a national title. First game: Oregon in Dallas, Texas.
6. Stanford Cardinal - Pac 12 North - Head Coach: Davis Shaw (0-0 at Stanford) - I am a little bit hesitant to put Sanford this high because I think former Coach Jim Harbaugh was a big reason the Cardinal had major success a year ago, winning a BCS bowl game in convincing fashion. But they do return a quarterback who I think is the best in college football for 2011 - Andrew Luck. The 2010 Heisman runner-up and Orange Bowl MVP accounted for 32 touchdowns a year ago and nearly 3,800 yards of total offense. But like I said before, I think Harbaugh's toughness and knowledge of the sport of football had a lot to do with both Stanford - and Luck's - success. Seeing how Luck produces in 2011 under a new coach will be one of the more interesting storylines to me this year. On defense, Stanford is average, so they will need to score in bunches to repeat what they did in '10. But I am willing to give them this lofty ranking because I think Luck is a special player and will continue to give defenses fits. First game: San Jose State.
7. Boise State Broncos - Mountain West Conference - Head Coach: Chris Petersen (61-5 at Boise State) - They're back for more! The team America loves to love and loves to hate, the Broncos are back to bust the BCS once again. And they aren't going to waste any time in taking a shot at the big boys. Boise starts off by heading into the heart of SEC country to take on Georgia in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Leading them through this virtual road game will be Kellen Moore - a senior and maybe the best qb in college football along with Andrew Luck. Moore and Coach Petersen are a deadly combination. Boise's season hangs on two games: Georgia and TCU (home). If they win these two, I see no other team on the schedule that can get close to them. 14 starters return for the Broncos, and with Petersen's game plans and discipline, UGA better have their jockeys strapped on tight! First game: Georgia in Atlanta, Georgia.
8. Wisconsin Badgers - Big 10 Leaders - Head Coach: Bret Bielema (49-16 at Wisconsin) - One of the top programs in the nation not to have a modern-day national championship, Wisconsin is out to take the Big 10 in 2011. And with good balance returning on both sides of the ball, as well as, a proven head coach in Bielema, you can bet they will be in the mix all season long. Russell Wilson, a superb athlete who ran the NC State offense the last few seasons, will take over the qb spot in Madison. Wilson is a smart guy who graduated early, and will be a tremendous asset to the Badger squad. Schedule-wise, UW plays just four away games all year. A home game with Nebraska is the highlight of the schedule. When the smoke clears, I see Wisconsin as the Big 10 champion for 2011, somewhat based on having Nebraska at home. First game: UNLV.
9. Florida State Seminoles - ACC Atlantic - Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (10-4 at FSU) - I think the Seminoles are ready for big things, but I'm not sure if they are ready for the preseason #6 ranking they received in the AP poll. Jimbo Fisher is a sharp coach, and EJ Manual gives him a lot to work with at quarterback, but I feel like this ranking has a bit to do with Florida State holding a seat at college football's round table rather than being based on actual facts. They are a huge name, that is for sure, but I am not sure they are "back" like they used to be under Bobby Bowden in their best years - when they finished in the top four 12 seasons in a row. The defense will have to be a key, and they could, in fact, be real good as eight starters are back. FSU also recruited in nation's best style this past year, and many freshman could make an impact right away. Oklahoma visits Doak-Campbell Stadium in week three. Win that one, and the 'Noles will get some number one votes in the major polls. First game: Louisiana Monroe.
10. TCU Horned Frogs - Mountain West Conference - Head Coach: Gary Patterson (98-28 at TCU) - As long as Gary Patterson is the coach of this program, then I will have TCU in my top 10 preseason regardless of what he has coming back. The guy can flat out coach. And in 2011, he will really have to flat out coach as just eight total starters return! But with a manageable schedule, I see TCU winning every game on their slate outside of a trip to Boise in November. But even that game is winnable, as these young guys will have seven games of experience by then. The offensive line averages around 6'5" and 305 pounds. That should open some holes for running back Ed Wesley. The defense is anchored by one of my favorite players in college football, linebacker Tank Carder. This guy seemed to make nearly every tackle in the Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin, including the game-winning bat-down of a Badger pass that would would have tied the game. TCU has a weak schedule again in 2011 - let's face it, it's true. They will win almost every game this year despite a low number of returning starters. First game: at Baylor.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers - Big 10 Legends - Head Coach: Bo Pelini (30-12 at Nebraska) - Unless you live in a cave deep beneath the surface of the ocean, then you know about the 'Huskers jump from the Big 12 into the Big 10. Yes, the Big 10 has now reached twelve teams and will feature Big Red in its "Legends" division. The Nebraska fans on this site seem to be very happy with this move. But they will have to wait until halfway through the season before hosting their first Big Ten game! Yes, Ohio State does not come to town until week six, and this ticket has become one of the hardest in the nation to find. E-bay has some listed in the 400 dollar plus range already. It will be very interesting to see how Nebraska fares in their new home. I see them having success, but maybe not winning the league in their very first year. I like Wisconsin a lot, and think that is the team NU will have to knock off to win the league in their first try. QB Taylor Martinez had a brilliant freshman campaign and will lead the offensive attack. The defense - Coach Pelini's specialty - returns seven guys and should be solid. First game: Chattanooga.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks - SEC East - Head Coach: Steve Spurrier (44-33 at South Carolina) - The Gamecocks are the defending champions of the SEC East and return their quarterback, running back, and best receiving threat from last year's squad. Yes, Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore, and Alshon Jeffery give the Gamecocks quite the offensive trifecta. And, on defense, they have solid depth. On paper, it seems that USC is ready for a return trip to Atlanta. And they certainly well may be. If anything is a potential speed bump on the Gamecock's road to the SEC title game, it is the character of Stephen Garcia under center. While a fierce competitor and very talented, he is also a huge liability. He is turnover prone and is trouble both on and off the field (five times he has been suspended from the team). South Carolina has 90% of the pieces of the puzzle in place to do big things. But to me, the quarterback position is a huge question mark because Garcia has yet to grow up. If he does, this team could do huge things. First game: East Carolina.
13. Florida Gators - SEC East - Head Coach: Will Muschamp (0-0 at Florida) - I have been to a long list of college football stadiums and towns, and Gainesville and the Swamp are very near the top of my list. Old brick buildings and live oak trees draped with Spanish moss surround some awesome fans tailgating. The Swamp is loud and intimate and lives up to the talk. Yeah, I enjoyed my visit to UF a few seasons ago. I can easily see how Will Muschamp left Texas as DC to become the head coach for the Gators...Florida doesn't have a "star", so to say, on offense like they usually do. Chris Leak. Tim Tebow. Percy Harvin. All these big names which have rolled through Gainesville are now gone, and Florida will try to go from a spread type of offense to a running game, play-action type of offense. John Brantley will return at quarterback, and Trey Burton and Jeff Demps will do the ball carrying. The defense returns just four guys, but this is Coach Muschamp's area of expertise, so expect the Gators to be ok here when it is all said and done. The schedule is tough just as it is every year, with the SEC slate plus a home finale against Florida State. First game: Florida Atlantic.
14. Virginia Tech Hokies - ACC Coastal - Head Coach: Frank Beamer (198-95-2 at VT) - Back for season number 25 in Blacksburg is Frank Beamer. Together with Bud Foster at defensive coordinator, VT boasts some of the nation's best continuity in the coaching department. But while Tech has annually been one of the nation's toughest teams and top performers, the Hokies have yet to have that super breakthrough season where they make their stamp on the national scene by winning it all. Could 2011 be a run for VT towards glory? They will need to be sharp early. In many seasons, VT will lose a game early, and then play as anyone in the nation the last ten weekends. This year, they start with four should-win games, though East Carolina away could be tricky in week two. The Pirates have beaten Tech before. The ACC stretch starts October 1st and is seriously in VT's favor as all four road games could be labeled easy. Twelve starters return, seven of them on offense. Logan Thomas will be a sophomore, and fans at VT are extremely excited about what he can do. Foster will have to put in some extra hours with seven new starters coming on defense. But history shows the Hokies are pretty serious about D, and I wouldn't list that as a huge concern. First game: Appalachian State.
15. Texas Longhorns - Big 12 - Head Coach: Mack Brown (133-34 at Texas) - Everyone in the college football universe knows Texas and their $5 million dollar a year head coach, Mack Brown, went 5-7 a year ago. That is weak. But if you think Coach Brown and his talented Longhorns won't be back for vengeance in 2011, you have another thing coming! After all, this team is just 18 months removed from playing in a national title game. Loaded at all positions with guys who are blue-chippers, Texas will be on a mission this season. The Big 12 is shaky with Nebraska departing, and I see Oklahoma being the major roadblock between UT and the BCS. In six of the first eight weekends, there is virtually no way that UT can lose as they either play a very weak opponent or have an open date. So by mid-October, it is extremely possible that Texas is either 5-1 or 6-0 and ranked very well. The second half of the schedule isn't much harder as Texas A&M (away) and Mizzou (away) are the toughest games, in my view. This team will challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 crown. Junior QB Garrett Gilbert will lead the offense which returns six starters. The defense also returns six starters. First game: Rice.
16. Arkansas Razorbacks - SEC West - Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (23-15 at Arkansas) - Year in and year out, Arkansas is one of those teams that you just plain don't want to play. They are good. Like Wisconsin and VT, they haven't had a breakthrough win-it-all season, but they are tough nearly every year and I see 2011 as being no different. 13 guys are back for Coach Petrino, with seven of those coming on the all- important defensive side of the ball. The offensive line is enormous, averaging 6'-6" and 312 pounds. Freshman (yes, freshman) Brey Cook is 6'-7" and 317 pounds. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the SEC West schedule does not set up favorably for them. Alabama and LSU are both on the road. Winning one of those is a tall task. Winning both is nearly impossible. But hey, that's why they play the games! The season doesn't get going for Arkansas until week four as the first three opponents are yawners. A trip to Tuscaloosa September 24th will let us know what the Razorbacks really have this year. I see Arkansas having a 9-3 type of regular season, and another solid bowl appearance. First game: Missouri State.
17. Ohio State Buckeyes - Big 10 Leaders - Head Coach: Luke Fickell (0-0 at Ohio State) - The off-season rocked Columbus as former Coach Jim Tressel resigned over an NCAA investigation of players selling memorabelia with his knowledge. Following Tressel's resignation, quarterback Terrell Pryor - a Heisman contender - announced he would jump to the NFL foregoing his senior season...Enter Luke Fickell who was promoted from the linebacker's coach position. Fickell is a former Buckeye nose guard ('93-'96) who is charged with not only keeping OSU in the top 25, but also in repairing the Buckeyes' image. He will have an inexperienced quarterback to work with whether he chooses freshman Braxton Miller or senior Joe Bauserman. The offensive line is pretty experienced and will be anchored by a pair of 6'-7" 300-pound seniors in Mike Adams and JB Shugarts. The defense returns just four starters, but recruiting will have quality at each spot, even if not experienced. As for the schedule, road trips to Nebraska and Michigan will both be tough. Another road game to Miami is also tricky, though OSU should beat an embattled Hurricane squad. I see Ohio State slipping a bit in 2011 with a new qb and a new head coach. But I really like this Fickell guy, and think he will get this program back in the good sooner rather than later. First game: Akron.
18. Mississippi State Bulldogs - SEC West - Head Coach: Dan Mullen (14-11 at Mississippi State) - This is the season where we see if Dan Mullen can take the next step or if MSU is going to remain an also ran in the SEC. He went 9-4 a year ago in the nation's top division. But that division will again be the toughest division in 2011, so the question is, can Mullen challenge Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU to actually make a serious run at Atlanta? Yes, he only lost four games last year, but ALL four were to his SEC West brethren. The true measuring stick for MSU in 2011 will be how they fare against their division mates. Mullen does have a lot of experience - especially on offense - to try to move up the SEC West ladder. Chris Relf is back at quarterback and he has a veteran offensive line to protect him. The defense returns seven guys - not bad at all. This team is going to be good, but like I said above, a year ago they lost to four of their SEC West opponents (win was against Ole Miss). They must begin to knock off a couple of those teams annually or the program is spinning its wheels. First game: at Memphis.
19. West Virginia Mountaineers - Big East - Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen (0-0 at WVU) - Insert offensive mastermind Holgorsen to the head coaching spot. He takes over for Bill Stewart, who resigned under pressure June 10th. While Holgorsen is an outstanding offensive mind, it is yet to be seen if he can run a full program. WVU is in fragile shape right now with many folks still loyal to former coach Stewart. Perhaps more than X's and O's, one of Holgorsen's top duties in his first year will be to unify the program. But when it does come time for X's and O's, he will have a bunch of O's to work with since eight starters are back. Geno Smith returns to play quarterback and is pretty solid. The defense returns just four guys, and could be a problem. The schedule is manageable, with LSU coming to town in week four as the toughest game of the year. First game: Marshall.
20. Texas A&M Aggies - Big 12 - Head Coach: Mike Sherman (19-19 at Texas A&M) - I want to like Texas A&M, but their disappointments remind me of my own team, and so I am hesitant to bump them up. It seems they never win the big game, and last year was a perfect case-in-point. In three of their biggest games last year, they came up short on national TV. They lost at Oklahoma State, they lost to Arkansas in Cowboys Stadium, and they lost to LSU in Cowboys Stadium in the Cotton Bowl. There is no doubt in my mind that the Aggies live and die for football and are big-time about it. They fill that 80,000-seat stadium almost every game. But on the actual field of play, A&M has done very, very little the last however many years.
Look at Mike Sherman's record as the head coach: 19-19. For starters, this guy is on the hot seat. That is three years of mediocre football, and if he doesn't reach nine wins or better, as he did last year, I say A&M finds a new guy. But Sherman has 18 guys coming back who started for him a year ago, so maybe he is primed for a big year. I am willing to put A&M at #20 and see what happens. First game: SMU.
21. Oklahoma State Cowboys - Big 12 - Head Coach: Mike Gundy (47-29 at Oklahoma State) - As Mike Gundy famously said, "I'm a man. I'm 40!" in a presser some years back defending one of his players, he might have trouble making the same rant now. Why? Because his quarterback, Brandon Weeden, is 27 years old! Weeden is, in fact, a grown man playing a college game. And he plays it pretty dang well! Last year he threw for 34 touchdowns and nearly 4,300 yards. He threw just 13 picks in 511 attempts, and he has his favorite receiving target back in Justin Blackmon. Basically, the offense for OSU should roll, right? Well, maybe. The key ingredient in all of this was OC Dana Holgorsen, who is no longer in Stillwater. Holgorsen is now in Morgantown, West Virginia. It will be interesting to watch how the Cowboys move the football with a new guy calling the plays. With the talent of the Weeden-Blackmon combo and seven other starters back, it would be hard to think they wouldn't score. But we will see. The defense is questionable and the schedule is tricky. First game: Louisiana.
22. Georgia Bulldogs - SEC East - Head Coach: Mark Richt (96-34 at UGA) - There is an obvious storyline to UGA's 2011 season glaring us all in the face: can Mark Richt win the East and save his job? Looking at Richt's 96 wins in ten seasons, it would seem a no-brainer that Richt has job security. But his win total has gone from ten to eight to six over the last three years, and Dawg fans have watched South Carolina, not their Bulldogs, take the leading role as Florida's top competition in the division. But there is plenty of reason for Richt's supporters to have faith. First off is quarterback Aaron Murray. As a freshman in 2010, he played very well, throwing for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns. He had just eight interceptions in 342 attempts. But just as Murray is a bright spot, the rest of the UGA offense is a question mark with just four other starters returning. The defense should be good as seven guys are back for more. The schedule is always tough for UGA, but 2011 is especially tricky. Boise State will be coming out of the opposite tunnel of the Georgia Dome in week one, and the Broncos play with a chip on their shoulder. First game: Boise State.
23. Missouri Tigers - Big 12 - Head Coach: Gary Pinkel (77-49 at Missouri) - Mizzou will enter the 2011 season with a new quarterback after a pair of Gabberts - Tyler and Blaine - left Mizzou early. One went to the NFL, the other went to Louisville. So sophomore James Franklin is the starter. Franklin is a wildcat type of quarterback with decent accuracy and good feet. He will have several good receiving targets to throw to and a veteran offensive line featuring five seniors and a junior. Coach Pinkel is one of the better coaches in the game, and I expect him to take this squad and challenge for ten wins. The schedule is kind of tricky early on with road trips to Arizona State and Oklahoma. Then they get a much needed open date before an eight game stretch of conference games to close the year. I see Mizzou winning a good many of their games despite the quarterback situation. Pinkel has always managed to put a solid product on the field, especially on offfense. If the defense can overachieve, Mizzou will again challenge in the Big 12. First game: Miami, OH.
24. Clemson Tigers - ACC Atlantic - Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (19-15 at Clemson) - I am sure someone will give me grief about my placing Clemson in the top 25. But I really don't care. We were the only team in America to take the national champs to OT a year ago, and our recruiting has been stellar on a national scale the last four years. The quarterback spot is what is keeping this team from a ranking in the AP and Coaches polls, but it isn't a guaranteed weak spot. Redshirt sohomore Tajh Boyd is simply unknown (and a 4-star recruit out of HS). If he turns out to be a plus in Chad Morris's fancy new offense, this team has many key parts in place to win the ACC Atlantic (FSU has't won in Clemson since 2001, and this year's game is in Death Valley). The Tiger defense is annually one of the top 20 units in America, and this year's version should be no different. Clemson's schedule for 2011 is challenging with Auburn (home), Florida State (home) and Virginia Tech (away) in back-to-back-to-back weeks early, and NC State and South Carolina away in key games late in the year. First game: Troy.
25. Arizona State Sun Devils - Pac 12 South - Head Coach: Dennis Erickson (25-24 at ASU) - In his seventh coaching stop, Dennis Erickson enters his fifth season on the sidelines for ASU. Quite frankly, I am not sure why. After a 10-3 season in 2007 that had many thinking the Devils would be a west coast force, Erickson has led his team to a 15-21 record the last three seasons. At most schools across the country, a coach would be long gone following that kind of performance, but for whatever reason, he is still around. Erickson has a career coaching record of 173-89-1 at those seven stops, so I am counting on him putting in an 8-4 type of this season to get things back on track. He has 15 starters returning to work with, eight of those on offense. I like to look at the size of offensive lines, and ASU has good size here. The guys up front average 6'-4" and around 301 pounds. Pac-12 games are extremly hard to predict, so I won't guarantee any losses. But a trip to Oregon is probably as close as it gets. Like I said, the Pac-12 is always fun and exciting and unpredictable - just like Erickson's record - so who knows what might go down in 2011 for the Sun Devils! First game: UC Davis.
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