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by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Week 1 College Football Rankings: Big 12

1. OklahomaThe Sooners enter 2011 as one of the frontrunners to claim the national title. The offense – led by quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles – is among the best in college football. The defense returns six starters, but will be without senior linebacker Travis Lewis for at least the first month of the season. Finding a go-to running back and plugging the interior of the defensive line will be two areas to watch for Oklahoma this year. The Sooners open with Tulsa, one of the favorites to win the Conference USA title. However, the Golden Hurricane will be without star receiver Damaris Johnson, who has been indefinitely suspended by coach Bill Blankenship. This is Oklahoma’s only game before a key matchup at Florida State on Sept. 17. Expect to see the Sooners hit on all cylinders before getting their starters out of the lineup to avoid injury.

2. Texas A&MThe focus for the 2011 season in College Station has recently shifted. The Aggies are expected to announce their intentions to join the SEC in the next couple of weeks, which has overshadowed a potential top 10 team and a Big 12 title contender. Texas A&M returns 18 starters – the most in the Big 12 – and closed out 2010 by winning six out of its last seven matchups. The Aggies host SMU on a Sunday night game this week. The Mustangs are Athlon’s pick to win Conference USA, but have not fared well against Big 12 teams in recent matchups, which includes a 66-8 dismantling in College Station in 2005. Will the discussions about a move to the SEC be a distraction? We’ll find out on Sunday night.

3. Oklahoma StateWith a new coordinator calling the plays, Saturday’s matchup against UL Lafayette is a good tune-up for the Cowboys’ offense. Todd Monken was picked as Oklahoma State’s coordinator, after Dana Holgorsen left for West Virginia. The Cowboys plan on keeping the same offense in place, but there could be a slight drop-off with a new playcaller. Expect Saturday’s game against the Ragin’ Cajuns to feature a lot of hookups between quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon, which will pad the stats for two players in the thick of the Heisman race. The Cowboys have a short turnaround, as they will play on Thursday, Sept. 8 against Arizona.

4. Texas After last season’s disappointing 5-7 record, there will be a lot of interested observers in the Lone Star State. The Longhorns revamped their coaching staff, but question marks remain on both sides of the ball. Is Garrett Gilbert or David Ash ready to emerge as the No. 1 quarterback? Gilbert struggled last year and was pushed by Ash for the starting job throughout fall camp. The biggest concern on defense rests with the secondary, as three key corners from 2010 are gone. This matchup will also be the first on the much-criticized Longhorn Network. Although high hopes remain for the network, finding carriers hasn’t been easy and few people nationally will likely see this game. The Owls have some offensive firepower, but should provide little resistance.

5. MissouriThe Tigers will need to be on upset alert on Saturday against Miami, Ohio. The RedHawks are the defending MAC champs and return 16 starters from last season’s team. This matchup will feature the first start for Missouri quarterback James Franklin. The sophomore played sparingly last year and if he emerges as a steady performer, the Tigers could be a darkhorse in the Big 12 title race. Missouri blew out the RedHawks last season, winning 51-13 in late September. Expect a closer matchup this time around.

6. Texas TechThe Red Raiders have high hopes entering the second season under coach Tommy Tuberville. New quarterback Seth Doege had a strong fall camp and there’s a lot of capable options surrounding the junior passer in 2011. The defense returns five starters and features a new 4-2-5 scheme. A revamped front seven will be one of the biggest question marks this season for new coordinator Chad Glasgow. The Red Raiders host Texas State and former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione this Saturday. The Bobcats are in the process of transitioning from I-AA to I-A for 2012.

7. Baylor There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the 2011 version of Baylor football. The Bears are coming off their first bowl appearance since 1994 and return a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Robert Griffin. Last season’s embarrassing 45-10 loss to TCU has stuck with Baylor since last season and revenge will be on its mind on Friday night. The Horned Frogs are replacing several key starters from last season’s team and could be ripe for an upset, especially with a Baylor team hungry to avenge last year’s blowout defeat.

8. Iowa StateThe Cyclones barely missed out on a bowl appearance last year, finishing 5-7 overall and 3-5 in Big 12 play. For Iowa State to get to six wins in 2011, quarterback play will be crucial. Jerome Tiller left spring practice as the No. 1 passer, but was ruled academically ineligible late in fall camp. Junior college transfer Steele Jantz will get the nod under center. Also providing hope is sophomore running back Shontrelle Johnson, who could be one of the Big 12’s breakout players. The defense returns seven starters and boasts one of the Big 12’s top linebackers in junior Jake Knott. Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa in Week 1, ranked No. 10 in Athlon’s 2011 FCS poll.

9. Kansas StateNo matter where they are slotted in the preseason ranks, the Wildcats seem to overachieve under Bill Snyder. Is a similar scenario about to play out in 2011? Kansas State is Athlon’s pick to finish ninth in the Big 12, but there are reasons to believe this team can contend for a bowl appearance. The Wildcats will need to see quick development from quarterback Collin Klein and running back Bryce Brown. The defense needs a lot of work, especially after allowing over 400 yards a game last season. The Wildcats open with FCS foe Eastern Kentucky (6-5 last year). Expect the Wildcats to get off to a quick start in Week 1, before an open date next Saturday (Sept. 10).

10. Kansas The Jayhawks hope their 2011 opener goes much better than last season’s first game. Kansas dropped a 6-3 effort to North Dakota State last year, arguably the lowpoint of Turner Gill’s first season. The Jayhawks should show improvement this year, albeit baby steps. Quarterback play remains a question mark, although Jordan Webb seemed to take control of the position in fall camp. The defense is in the process of transitioning to a 3-4 scheme, which should benefit junior end/linebacker Toben Opurum. Although the Jayhawks would like to make a bowl, winning the opener and starting the year 1-0 would provide some momentum going into Week 2 against Northern Illinois.

More Big 12 Content

Big 12 Coaches Candid Quotes on Conference Rivals

Big 12 Breakout Players for 2011

2011 Bowl Projections

Impact of Texas A&M's Potential Move to the SEC

Teaser:
<p> How do the Big 12 teams stack up before Week 1?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 29, 2011 - 07:43
Path: /college-football/week-1-college-football-rankings-acc
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by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Week 1 College Football Rankings: ACC

1. Florida State The Seminoles enter 2011 with national title aspirations. A plethora of starters return from last season, and there’s a lot of promise surrounding new quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior has six starts under his belt, but this will be his first full year as the No. 1 quarterback. The Seminoles boast one of the nation’s best defenses, with nine starters returning, including All-American end Brandon Jenkins. Florida State should cruise the first two weeks of the year, as UL Monroe and Charleston Southern visit Tallahassee. With a huge showdown against Oklahoma in Week 3, the Seminoles can use the first two games to fine tune both sides of the ball.

2. Virginia TechAfter losing to James Madison in Week 2 last year, Virginia Tech likely won’t allow Appalachian State to sneak up on it this Saturday. However, the Mountaineers are ranked No. 5 in Athlon’s FCS poll for 2011, and quarterback DeAndre Presley is a dangerous playmaker. This Saturday’s game with the Mountaineers will feature the first start for quarterback Logan Thomas. The sophomore has played in limited snaps, but the ceiling is very high and should be a star in the ACC over the next two years. Joining Thomas as a budding star is running back David Wilson. The junior has shined in limited action and will handle the full workload for Virginia Tech in 2011.

3. Miami There was a positive buzz emanating from Miami exiting spring practice. New coach Al Golden appears to be the perfect fit, and is the right coach to get the Hurricanes back into the BCS. However, the positive vibes were wiped out due to a NCAA investigation. A handful of players could be missing for the opener against Maryland, including quarterback Jacory Harris. Linebacker Sean Spence and safety Ray-Ray Armstrong were also mentioned in the investigation and it’s unclear if either will play in the Labor Day opener. Although Miami has a talented roster, the potential of missing several key players and the distraction of the NCAA investigation will impact this team.

4. NC StateSaturday’s game against Liberty likely won’t draw much national interest, but a lot of eyes will be on junior quarterback Mike Glennon. Coach Tom O’Brien handed the keys to the offense to the junior, after Russell Wilson missed spring ball due to baseball obligations with the Colorado Rockies’ minor league system. Although Liberty finished 8-3 last year, it should provide little resistance to the Wolfpack. Getting Glennon comfortable in a game setting is important, especially with an ACC game against Wake Forest on the slate for Week 2.

5. Maryland The Terrapins are the ACC’s 2011 mystery team. New coach Randy Edsall has hinted he will open things up on offense, but coordinator Gary Crowton didn’t have the most prolific attacks at LSU. Quarterback Danny O’Brien had an outstanding freshman year, but loses receiver Torrey Smith and must adjust to a new scheme. The Terrapins return seven starters on defense, including All-American candidate at linebacker in Kenny Tate. The opener has added importance this year, as the Terrapins kickoff ACC play against Miami. The Hurricanes could be short-handed for this game, as some key players may be facing a suspension due to a NCAA investigation. Edsall wasn’t a flashy hire at Maryland, but was a very good coach at Connecticut. A win over Miami in the opener would be a good way for Edsall to begin his tenure in College Park.

6. North CarolinaOutside of Miami, the biggest offseason turmoil was based in Chapel Hill. North Carolina fired coach Butch Davis just before the opening of fall camp, elevating defensive coordinator Everett Withers into the full-time job. Although the Tar Heels will have a new coach, there’s a lot of potential with this team. The offense returns one of the top lines in the ACC and has playmakers with receiver Dwight Jones and running back Ryan Houston. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is the key to the season. The Tar Heels open with James Madison, a team that shocked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last year. With the offseason distractions, it will be interesting to see how North Carolina performs in the opener - especially against a FCS team capable of pulling the upset.

7. ClemsonThe Tigers begin 2011 with a lot of promise and enough talent to win the ACC. Wait, haven’t we heard this before? Clemson has underachieved in the past and needs to have a big year to get coach Dabo Swinney off the hot seat. The Tigers could have one of the ACC’s most explosive offenses by the end of the year. Sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd has a lot of potential and is surrounded by a handful of talented playmakers, including running back Andre Ellington and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. The Tigers will open with Athlon’s projected Sun Belt champion – Troy. The Trojans usually play well against BCS conference competition and this is no guaranteed victory for Clemson.

8. Boston CollegeThe Eagles begin 2011 with low expectations. The offense returns six starters and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kevin Rogers. Hopes are high that sophomore quarterback Chase Rettig is ready to breakout, but the Eagles need to find consistent playmakers in the receiving corps. Running back Montel Harris has a chance to break the ACC’s career rushing record, but will be out for Saturday’s game against Northwestern due to knee surgery. However, the ground attack should be in good shape with sophomore Andre Williams. Although Saturday’s game against Northwestern is off the national radar, it’s an intriguing matchup for two teams that seem to outperform preseason expectations.

9. Georgia TechAfter a disappointing 6-7 record last year, not much is expected for Georgia Tech in 2011. The Yellow Jackets lack names on preseason all-conference teams, but don’t count out coach Paul Johnson from pulling a few surprises this year. Quarterback Tevin Washington was pushed for the starting job in fall practice, but is expected to take the first snap in the opener against Western Carolina. The backfield features a host of names, but no clear No. 1 starter. The defense should be improved in the second season of Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme. Western Carolina finished 2-9 last year and should be an easy win for the Yellow Jackets.

10. Virginia Mike London has the Cavaliers going in the right direction and making a bowl game isn’t out of the question for 2011. Getting consistent quarterback play will be critical to Virginia’s chances of reaching six wins. Four players went into fall practice with the opportunity to start, but it appears true freshman David Watford or sophomore Michael Rocco will take the first snap. Week 1 opponent William & Mary is a dangerous FCS foe, ranking as the No. 2 team in Athlon’s 2011 preseason poll. If the Cavaliers want to go bowling, they cannot afford a loss on Saturday.

11. DukeDavid Cutcliffe is slowly making strides in Durham. The Blue Devils only won three games last year, but lost their last three games by a combined 20 points. Quarterback Sean Renfree showed promise in his first year as a starter last season and should be improved in 2011. Renfree has a solid group of receivers to throw to, including a likely All-ACC performer in Conner Vernon. The offensive line suffered a blow in fall practice, as center Brian Moore suffered a broken arm and is out definitely. The Blue Devils host Richmond this Saturday.

12. Wake Forest After posting 11 wins in 2006, the Demon Deacons have watched their win total decrease in each of the last four years. Can Wake Forest turn it around? Jim Grobe is a solid coach, but is dealing with a lot of youth in the lineup. Tanner Price was thrown into the fire last season as a true freshman, but showed promise and should be better this year. Sophomore running back Josh Harris is also a reason for optimism, after rushing for 720 yards and seven scores last season. The Demon Deacons open up with a road trip to Syracuse and then face NC State in Week 2. Wake Forest will be underdogs in both games, but don’t count out Grobe’s team from showing marked improvement from last year.

Other ACC Content

How Texas A&M's Potential Move to the SEC Impacts College Football
2011 Bowl Projections

Ranking the Top 50 Players in College Football for 2011

Teaser:
<p> How do the ACC teams stack up heading into Week 1?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 29, 2011 - 07:40
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy
Path: /columns/college-fantasy-rankings/college-fantasy-rankings-top-200-2011
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The 2011 college football season is less than 20 days away and many fantasy drafts will start over the next month. To help prepare for your upcoming fantasy draft, Athlon Sports has completed its second mock draft and will continue to update positional rankings until kickoff.

2011 College Fantasy Rankings

Quarterbacks
Running Backs

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

Kickers

Defense

Top 200 for 2011

Last updated: August 25

Rank Player Position Team
1 Case Keenum QB Houston
2 LaMichael James RB Oregon
3 Justin Blackmon WR Oklahoma State
4 Ryan Broyles WR Oklahoma
5 Lance Dunbar RB North Texas
6 Trent Richardson RB Alabama
7 Landry Jones QB Oklahoma
8 Dominique Davis QB East Carolina
9 Bobby Rainey RB Western Kentucky
10 Marcus Lattimore RB South Carolina
11 Ronnie Hillman RB San Diego State
12 David Wilson RB Virginia Tech
13 Bryant Moniz QB Hawaii
14 Robert Griffin QB Baylor
15 Doug Martin RB Boise State
16 Jordan White WR Western Michigan
17 Marcus Coker RB Iowa
18 Lance Lewis WR East Carolina
19 Michael Floyd WR Notre Dame
20 Montee Ball RB Wisconsin
21 Denard Robinson QB Michigan
22 Brandon Weeden QB Oklahoma State
23 Kyle Padron QB SMU
24 Patrick Edwards WR Houston
25 Eric Page WR Toledo
26 Alshon Jeffery WR South Carolina
27 Jeff Fuller WR Texas A&M
28 James White RB Wisconsin
29 Ray Graham RB Pittsburgh
30 Rex Burkhead RB Nebraska
31 Austin Davis QB Southern Miss
32 Alex Carder QB Western Michigan
33 Juron Criner WR Arizona
34 Kamar Jorden WR Bowling Green
35 Cody Wilson WR Central Michigan
36 Lennon Creer RB Louisiana Tech
37 Adonis Thomas RB Toledo
38 Geno Smith QB West Virginia
39 G.J. Kinne QB Tulsa
40 Damaris Johnson WR Tulsa
41 Tavon Austin WR West Virginia
42 Orleans Darkwa RB Tulane
43 Zach Line RB SMU
44 Bernard Pierce RB Temple
45 Chris Polk RB Washington
46 Robert Woods WR USC
47 Darron Thomas QB Oregon
48 Kellen Moore QB Boise State
49 Andrew Luck QB Stanford
50 Rodney Stewart RB Colorado
51 Andre Ellington RB Clemson
52 Cyrus Gray RB Texas A&M
53 Royce Pollard WR Hawaii
54 Cole Beasley WR SMU
55 Ladarius Green TE UL Lafayette
56 Michael Egnew TE Missouri
57 Ryan Aplin QB Arkansas State
58 Stepfan Taylor RB Stanford
59 Jeremy Ebert WR Northwestern
60 Darius Johnson WR SMU
61 Brandon Bolden RB Ole Miss
62 Edwin Baker RB Michigan State
63 Lamar Miller RB Miami
64 Mike Ball RB Nevada
65 Jeff Godfrey QB UCF
66 Corey Robinson QB Troy
67 T.Y. Hilton WR Florida International
68 Jason Ford RB Illinois
69 Bryan Ellis QB UAB
70 Robert Turbin RB Utah State
71 Robbie Rouse RB Fresno State
72 DJ Woods WR Cincinnati
73 Cierre Wood RB Notre Dame
74 Antwon Bailey RB Syracuse
75 Michael Dyer RB Auburn
76 Silas Redd RB Penn State
77 Joseph Randle RB Oklahoma State
78 Vick Ballard RB Mississippi State
79 Marquess Wilson WR Washington State
80 Kendall Wright WR Baylor
81 Kenny Stills WR Oklahoma
82 Greg Childs WR Arkansas
83 Jermaine Kearse WR Washington
84 Pat Shed RB UAB
85 Chandler Harnish QB Northern Illinois
86 Dan Persa QB Northwestern
87 Matt Barkley QB USC
88 Darius Bright WR Hawaii
89 Theo Riddick WR Notre Dame
90 Sam McGuffie RB Rice
91 Tauren Poole RB Tennessee
92 Spencer Ware RB LSU
93 Zach Collaros QB Cincinnati
94 Taylor Martinez QB Nebraska
95 Cameron Marshall RB Arizona State
96 T.J. Moe WR Missouri
97 Tyron Carrier WR Houston
98 Nick Harwell WR Miami (Ohio)
99 Tyler Eifert TE Notre Dame
100 Tyler Wilson QB Arkansas
101 Dayne Crist QB Notre Dame
102 Jasmin Hopkins RB Northern Illinois
103 Eric Stephens RB Texas Tech
104 Isaiah Crowell RB Georgia
105 Luke Willson TE Rice
106 Davin Meggett RB Maryland
107 Alex Torres WR Texas Tech
108 Kolton Browning QB UL Monroe
109 Darriet Perry RB Florida International
110 Johnathan Franklin RB UCLA
111 Mohamed Sanu WR Rutgers
112 Cody Hoffman WR BYU
113 Chris Owusu WR Stanford
114 Daniel Herron RB Ohio State
115 Isi Sofele RB California
116 Seth Doege QB Texas Tech
117 Jake Heaps QB BYU
118 Orson Charles TE Georgia
119 Alabama DEF Alabama
120 Boise State DEF Boise State
121 Tyler Shoemaker WR Boise State
122 Geraldo Boldewijn WR Boise State
123 Nathan Scheelhaase QB Illinois
124 Montel Harris RB Boston College
125 Andre Williams RB Boston College
126 Isaiah Pead RB Cincinnati
127 Ed Wesley RB TCU
128 JJ Di Luigi RB BYU
129 Lucas Reed TE New Mexico
130 Conner Vernon WR Duke
131 Malcolm Brown RB Texas
132 Savon Huggins RB Rutgers
133 Roy Finch RB Oklahoma
134 Brandon Williams RB Oklahoma
135 Nick Foles QB Arizona
136 Markus Wheaton WR Oregon State
137 Roy Roundtree WR Michigan
138 Drake Dunsmore TE Northwestern
139 Shontrelle Johnson RB Iowa State
140 Christine Michael RB Texas A&M
141 Raymond Sanders RB Kentucky
142 Coby Fleener TE Stanford
143 Ryan Swope WR Texas A&M
144 Florida State DEF Florida State
145 Virginia Tech DEF Virginia Tech
146 Derek Moye WR Penn State
147 Keola Antolin RB Arizona
148 B.J. Cunningham WR Michigan State
149 Rishard Matthews WR Nevada
150 Miah Ostrowski WR Hawaii
151 Stedman Bailey WR West Virginia
152 Dwayne Frampton WR Arkansas State
153 Billy Ray Stutzmann WR Hawaii
154 Jordan Reed TE Florida
155 James Hanna TE Oklahoma
156 Tim Jefferson QB Air Force
157 Nebraska DEF Nebraska
158 Kyler Reed TE Nebraska
159 Bryce Brown RB Kansas State
160 Ronnie Wingo RB Arkansas
161 Perry Jones RB Virginia
162 Dillon Baxter RB USC
163 Joe Adams WR Arkansas
164 Damarlo Belcher WR Indiana
165 TCU DEF TCU
166 Ohio State DEF Ohio State
167 Michael Shaw RB Michigan
168 Ryan Tannehill QB Texas A&M
169 Logan Thomas QB Virginia Tech
170 D.J. Shoemate RB Connecticut
171 James Franklin QB Missouri
172 James Sims RB Kansas
173 Kendrick Hardy RB Southern Miss
174 Da\'Jon McKnight WR Minnesota
175 George Bryan TE NC State
176 Taylor McHargue QB Rice
177 Oregon DEF Oregon
178 Florida DEF Florida
179 Dwight Jones WR North Carolina
180 Asher Clark RB Air Force
181 Alvester Alexander RB Wyoming
182 Andrew Buie RB West Virginia
183 Aaron Murray QB Georgia
184 Jeremy Wright RB Louisville
185 Victor Anderson RB Louisville
186 Alfred Morris RB FAU
187 Tevin Drake RB Western Michigan
188 Bryce Beall RB Houston
189 Marvin McNutt WR Iowa
190 A.J. Jenkins WR Illinois
191 Kelvin Bolden WR Southern Miss
192 Kenjon Barner RB Oregon
193 Jared Hassin RB Army
194 David Paulson TE Oregon
195 Kriss Proctor QB Navy
196 Ryan Houston RB North Carolina
197 Brock Osweiler QB Arizona State
198 Chris Relf QB Mississippi State
199 Russell Wilson QB Wisconsin
200 South Carolina DEF South Carolina

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its release of the 2011 college fantasy football draft kit with the top 200 overall big board.</p>
Post date: Saturday, August 27, 2011 - 03:53
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-50-players-2011
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By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 3,338 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT, 453 rush yards, 3 TD

Luck was the most efficient quarterback in the Pac-10 a season ago with a 170.16 QB rating – good for third nationally. He led the team to its first BCS Bowl victory when he ripped apart the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies 40-12 in the Orange Bowl. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Basically, the only thing Luck could have done better in 2010 was tackle LaMichael James, who rushed for 257 yards in the Cardinal’s only loss of the season. Luck was slated to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft had he decided to come out last spring. But the best amateur football player in the nation is returning to Palo Alto to complete some unfinished business.

2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 1,731 yds., 21 TDs, 17 rec., 208 yds., 3 TDs

James solidified his place as one of the top players in college football last year, finishing third in Heisman voting and setting an Oregon single-season record with 1,731 rushing yards. He collected numerous accolades last season, which included the Doak Walker Award (college football’s top running back) and first-team All-American and All-Pac-10 honors. James is not the biggest running back in college football, but he was a workhorse for Oregon, posting eight games of at least 25 carries. He rushed for a season-high 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Stanford. James was held under 100 yards only twice – at California and in the national title game against Auburn.

3. Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (JR)
2010 stats: 111 rec., 1,782 yds., 20 TDs
Dana Holgorsen’s high-powered passing attack transformed Blackmon from a relative unknown to one of the top players in college football last year. Blackmon caught at least one touchdown and went over 100 receiving yards in every game last year. He led the nation with 20 touchdown catches, which also ranked seventh in NCAA history. Also, Blackmon led all receivers with 148.5 receiving yards a game and posted six games of at least 10 receptions. Blackmon was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, finished fifth in Heisman voting and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football last season.

4. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 3,845 yds., 35 TDs, 6 INTs

Moore has compiled an impressive resume in his three years at Boise State. He has thrown for 10,867 yards and 99 scores, while tossing only 19 interceptions. Moore owns a 68.2 career completion percentage and enters 2011 as college football’s career leader in passing efficiency (166.7). He finished fourth in Heisman voting and earned first-team All-WAC honors last year. Moore has one more shot to lead Boise State to a national title appearance, but lost his top two receivers from last year in Titus Young and Austin Pettis. The season opener against Georgia will be a key contest for Moore’s Heisman hopes, as well as Boise State’s chances to play for a championship.

5. Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska (SR)
2010 stats: 70 tackles, 17 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 10 QBH, 1 FF
Even without Ndamukong Suh by his side, Crick remained one of college football’s top defensive tackles last year. He has started 28 consecutive games, while collecting 32 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks in his career. Crick has earned first-team all-conference honors in each of the last two years and was a semifinalist for the 2010 Lombardi Award. He was a key reason why Nebraska ranked 11th in total defense and allowed only 17.4 points per game last season.

6. Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma (SR)
2010 stats: 131 rec., 1,622 yds., 14 TDs
Broyles returns for his senior year in Norman after a record-setting 2010 campaign. He set nine Oklahoma school records, which included most receptions in a season and career, career touchdown receptions, receptions in a game and career receiving yards. Broyles led all receivers in college football with 131 catches and tied for fourth nationally with 14 touchdown receptions. He was also a Biletnikoff finalist and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season.

7. Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor (JR)
2010 Stats: 3,501 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT, 635 rush yards, 8 TDs

There may not be a more valuable player to his team than Robert Griffin III. RG3 finished the season sixth nationally in total offense (318.15 ypg) and led the Bears to a bowl game for the first time since 1994. It was the first non-losing season in conference play for Baylor since 1995, and Griffin helped the Bears beat in-state rival Texas for the first time in 14 years.

8. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (JR)
2010 stats: 4,718 yds., 38 TDs, 12 INTs
There were some doubts about whether or not Jones could lead the Sooners to a Big 12 title entering last season. However, Jones answered the critics with a solid 2010 season and has Oklahoma on the verge of making a run at the national title. After throwing 14 picks on 449 attempts in 2009, Jones cut his interceptions to 12 on 617 attempts last season. Jones struggled on the road as a freshman, but tossed four touchdowns and threw for 468 yards at Oklahoma State and sliced Nebraska’s secondary for 342 yards in the Big 12 title game.

9. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State (SR)
2010 Stats: 4,277 yards, 34 TD, 13 INTs

Weeden blossomed into a star in his first year as the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State. He quickly developed a deadly rapport with star wideout Justin Blackmon, leading the Pokes to the its first 11-win season in school history. The 11-2 record was the best in Stillwater since the Barry Sanders days of 1988.

10. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina (JR)
2010 stats: 88 rec., 1,517 yds., 9 TDs

Jeffery has emerged as one of the nation’s best receivers over the last two seasons. He posted a solid freshman year, catching 46 passes for 763 yards and six scores. He followed that up with a monster sophomore effort, leading the SEC in receptions (88) and receiving yards (1,517). Jeffery’s 88 catches tied for 13th nationally. He posted eight 100-yard games last year, including 127 against Alabama and 130 against Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. At 6-foot-4, Jeffery has the size and athletic ability to be a handful for any defensive back.

11. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (SO)
2010 stats: 1,197 yards, 17 TD, 29 rec., 412 yards, 2 TD

Few running backs have ever impacted the game as a true freshman like Lattimore did in 2010. He literally carried South Carolina to victory over Georgia (37 attempts), Alabama (23), Tennessee (29) and Florida (40), while leading the Gamecocks to a SEC East title for the first time in school history. He was the unanimous choice for National Freshman of the Year.

12. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (JR)
2010 stats: 2,570 yds., 18 TDs, 11 INTs, 1,702 rush yds., 14 TDs
It’s a safe bet Robinson will be one of the most-watched players in the Big Ten this year. Michigan is shifting from a spread attack to a pro-style offense under new coordinator Al Borges. Although Robinson is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football, Borges and new coach Brady Hoke wants to keep him on the field all year. Robinson missed snaps due to injuries in 10 of Michigan’s 13 contests, which is something the Wolverines cannot afford in 2011. Robinson was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in Heisman voting last season. He also became the first player in NCAA history to post at least 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards in a single year.

13. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama (JR)
2010 stats: 700 yds., 6 TDs, 23 rec., 266 yds., 4 TDs

Richardson has spent the last two years as a backup to Mark Ingram, but he’s tallied 257 carries during that span. With Ingram suiting up for the New Orleans Saints, Richardson will takeover as Alabama’s No. 1 back. Over the last two years, Richardson has posted 1,451 yards and 14 scores. He also has 39 receptions for 392 yards and four scores. One of Richardson’s best performances came in the national title game against Texas, rushing for 109 yards and two scores.

14. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (JR)
After a freshman All-American season in 2009, Jones garnered first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American honors in 2010. In his second season at right guard, he helped lead the No. 22 ranked offense in the nation at 444.15 yards per game. He has started 25 games at right guard, but could be moved around the line this year. Jones also helped quarterback Greg McElroy post the fourth-most efficient season in the nation (168.98).

15. Matt Reynolds, OT, BYU (SR)
Reynolds enters his senior year as one of the NFL Draft's top tackle prospects. He has started every game in his BYU career and was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last year. Reynolds is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American for 2011 and will anchor one of the nation's top 10 offensive lines. 

16. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame (SR)
2010 stats: 79 rec., 1,025 yds., 12 TDs

If Floyd can stay healthy and avoid off-the-field issues, he should finish 2011 as one of the top receivers in the nation. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and will have a chance to improve upon last season's totals. Floyd is a top NFL Draft prospect and figures to be targeted heavily by quarterback Dayne Crist. 

17. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame (JR)
2010 stats: 133 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF

The Irish defense played well in the final four games of last season, allowing only 39 points during that stretch. Te'o has started 23 games in his career, while registering 196 total stops, two sacks and one forced fumble. Te'o is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American for 2011 and should be one of the driving forces behind a much-improved Notre Dame defense.

18. Nate Potter, OT, Boise State (SR)
Potter enters 2011 as one of the top linemen in the nation. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. Potter started 13 games at left tackle and earned first-team All-WAC honors last season. He also garnered first-team honors in 2009, after starting the final eight games of the year. Potter is the unquestioned leader for Boise State’s offensive line, which is one of the top units in college football. At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Potter has the size and talent to be one of the first linemen selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.

19. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford (JR)
Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the most physical teams in the nation. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and David DeCastro, Martin earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the Pac-10 in total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

20. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (JR)
2010 stats: 183 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF

After leading the nation with over 14 stops per game, Kuechly finished as the runner-up for the Butkus Award (college football’s best linebacker). He set the Boston College single-season tackles record with 183 last fall and enters the season eighth all-time in school history (341 total tackles in only two seasons). The ACC Rookie of the Year in 2009 is a two-time All-ACC pick and was a AP All-American in 2010. The Eagles finished No. 1 in the ACC in total defense and rushing defense last year.

21. Levy Adcock, OT, Oklahoma State (SR)
The best returning offensive lineman in the Big 12 helped lead the nation’s No. 3 total offense at over 520 yards per game. The Pokes also finished third in the nation in scoring offense at nearly 45 points per game. And Adcock protected the team’s most valuable asset, quarterback Brandon Weeden, by anchoring the line which led the Big 12 in sacks allowed at a measly 0.77 per game.

22. Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma (SR)
2010 stats: 109 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 INT, 1.5 sacks

Lewis has led the Sooners in tackles three consecutive years, entering 2011 with 362 total stops on his resume. He has topped 100 tackles in each of his three seasons in Crimson and Cream. Lewis has played in every game in his career and helped the Sooners to a 32-9 mark over that span – including two 12-2 campaigns.

23. Dan Persa, QB, Northwestern (SR)
2010 stats: 2,581 yds., 15 TDs, 4 INTs, 519 yds., 9 TDs

Just how valuable is Persa to Northwestern? With him in the lineup, the Wildcats went 7-3. Without Persa, Northwestern was 0-3. An Achilles injury against Iowa forced Persa to miss the final three games of last year, but he is expected to be 100 percent in time for the season opener. Persa earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and set a conference record for completion percentage (73.5). He also finished ninth nationally in passing efficiency (159.04) and ranked second in the Big Ten in total offense with 310 yards per game.

24. Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin (SR)
2010 stats: 3,563 yards, 28 TDs, 14 INTs, 435 rush yards, 9 TDs

All Wilson did last season for NC State was lead the ACC in total offense at 307.54 yards per game. The All-ACC performer scored at least three touchdowns in seven different games and topped 300-yards passing in seven games as well. Shifting to Madison, the offense will obviously be a more run-oriented attack, however, Paul Chryst has proven he will let his quarterbacks throw it around.

25. Jeff Fuller, WR, Texas A&M (SR)
2010 Stats: 72 rec., 1,066 yards, 12 TDs
Fuller, shockingly, produced the first-ever 1,000-yard receiving season in Texas A&M history in 2010. He basically set every major single-season receiving record a year ago and has a rare blend of size and speed. Fuller topped the 150-yard mark in three games last season and scored multiple touchdowns in four games.

26. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina (SR)
2010 stats: 59 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 10 sacks, 2 FF, 12 QB hurries
Coples played a bit out of position in 2010, as he was shifted inside to man the interior of the defensive line. However, he still managed to post solid numbers (10 sacks) from a position that normally does not see that type of production in getting after the quarterback. He also finished strong down the stretch with sacks in five of his last six games. He was a first-team defensive tackle All-ACC selection last year.

27. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State (JR)
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF

Burfict has turned in two solid years at Arizona State, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. He has tallied 159 tackles in his career, while forcing four fumbles and picking up two sacks. Burfict earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season. The junior is one of college football’s ferocious hitters, but needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. Burfict has collected some bad personal fouls during his career and if he can eliminate those mistakes, he could be one of the top defenders in college football.

28. Mike Brewster, C, Ohio State (SR)
The All-American center helped lead the Buckeyes to 220.1 rushing yards per game last fall, good for 14th nationally. Brewster also helped Ohio State rank 11th overall scoring offense at 38.8 points per game, which also placed second in the Big Ten. Brewster and the offensive line pushed the Buckeyes to a 12-win season (including the first bowl win over an SEC team in school history).

29. Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech (JR)
2010 stats: 39 tackles, 9 INT, 8 PBU
Hosley led the nation in interceptions last fall with nine (returned for 110 yards) – including a breakout performance against NC State with three picks off All-ACC signal caller Russell Wilson. The nine interceptions tied a single-season school record. He also contributed in a big way as a dynamic punt return man: 19 attempts, 239 yards, 1 TD. An AP first-team All-American and easy first-team All-ACC pick, Hokie fans won’t have to worry about passes thrown to Hosley’s side of the field.

30. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska (SR)
2010 stats: 152 tackles, 15 TFL, 6 sacks, 10 PBU

Coaches never know what to expect from JUCO transfers, but David was an instant impact player for Nebraska last year. He collected 152 tackles (a Nebraska single-season record) last season, which also ranked third in the nation behind Boston College’s Luke Kuechly and Washington’s Mason Foster. David posted eight games with at least 10 tackles and earned Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year honors.

31. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 2,791 passing yards., 26 TDs, 12 INTs

Barkley came to USC as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Although he has been solid, the knock on Barkley has been his turnovers. Over the last two years, he has thrown 26 interceptions, which has to improve if he wants to take the next step in his development as an elite quarterback. An ankle injury at the end of last year hindered Barkley’s progress, as he only mustered 273 passing yards over the final three games.

32. Mike Adams, OT, Ohio State (SR)
Adams is slated to miss the first five games of the season thanks to an NCAA suspension. However, his inclusion on these rankings is a testament to his sheer talent. He was one of only three Big Ten linemen to receive first-team All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media, and the other two were All-Americans. The Buckeyes’ running attack ranked 14th in the nation last season, averaging more than 220 yards per game.

33. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 2,881 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INT, 486 rush yards, 5 TDs

Entering the fall of 2010, Oregon fans were unsure of what they had under center with Darron Thomas. Everyone knows about Thomas after a 117-yard rushing effort against Stanford, a 288-yard, 4-TD passing game against USC and the first undefeated regular season in Oregon’s modern history. His 150.97 QB rating trailed only Andrew Luck in efficiency in the Pac-10.

34. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford (JR)
This is going to sound familiar: Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the nation's most physical offensive lines. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and Jonathan Martin, DeCastro earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the league in total, rushing, scoring and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

35. Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
2010 stats: 46 tackles, 13 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries

After a breakout sophomore year, Taylor is poised to take his game to the next level. He led the Gamecocks with 13 tackles for a loss and finished behind Melvin Ingram for the team lead in sacks. Taylor was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week, after scoring on an interception return against Tennessee and recovering two fumbles. He earned second-team All-SEC honors last season.

36. Mark Barron, S, Alabama (SR)
2010 stats: 75 tackles, 3 INT, 3 TFL, 2 sacks

Barron led the Crimson Tide in tackles in 2010, as Alabama led the SEC in total, scoring and pass efficiency defense. The 13.5 points allowed per game ranked third nationally, while the 286.38 yards per game ended up fifth nationally. He earned first-team All-SEC honors by both the media and the coaches.

37. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (SO)
2010 stats: 3,049 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INT, 167 rush yards, 4 TDs

In only his first season on a college gridiron, Murray finished 14th nationally with an incredibly impressive 154.48 rating in passer efficiency. In one of the best seasons by SEC freshman quarterback, Murray finished with a flurry of production in the final four weeks of the regular season. He threw three touchdowns in each of the final four games and averaged 271 yards per game over that span.

38. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
2010 stats: 69 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 9 QB hurries

Hightower shook off the rust from a torn ACL in 2009 to earn second-team All-SEC honors last year. He ranked second on the team with 69 tackles and seemed to play his best football as the season progressed. Hightower will man the weakside spot in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme and should be one of the leaders for one of the top defenses in college football.

39. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State (JR)
2010 stats: 63 tackles, 21.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 2 FF

After registering only 12 tackles in 2009, Jenkins was one of the driving forces behind Florida State’s defensive improvement last year. The Seminoles generated 25 sacks in 2010, but tied for the national lead with 48 last season. Coordinator Mark Stoops deserves credit for the turnaround, but Jenkins’ emergence was also key. He ranked second in the ACC with 13.5 sacks – which ranked No. 5 for most in a single season at Florida State – and earned first-team All-ACC honors for his 2010 performance. 

40. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 33 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 PBU, 18.8 yards per punt return, 4 TDs

Harris was spectacular in his first year as a starter. He became one of the nation’s rising stars at corner, picking off six passes and leading all defensive backs 23 passes defended. Harris took one of his interceptions back for a score against Tennessee and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

41. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 82 receptions, 1,233 yards, 11 TDs

Criner emerged as one of the top receivers in college football last year. He posted career-bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Criner averaged 15 yards a catch and led all Pac-10 receivers in receptions and receiving yards per game.

42. Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas (SR)
2010 stats: 32 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 sacks

As a junior, the 6-foot-5 270-pound blue collar defensive end earned second-team All-SEC honors. Bequette helped lead the SEC’s No. 2 pass rush a year ago as the Hogs averaged 2.85 sacks per game – good for ninth nationally. He led Arkansas in sacks and finished fifth in the SEC. He has played in all 38 of his career games in Fayetteville.

43. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina (JR)
2010 stats: 79 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 PBU

After a standout freshman campaign, Gilmore had an up-and-down sophomore year. Despite going through some growing pains, Gilmore earned first-team All-SEC honors. He also led the team in tackles (79) and interceptions (three). One of Gilmore's three interceptions was returned for an 80-yard score against Furman. 

44. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama (JR)
2010 stats: 53 tackles, 3 INT, 4 TFL

Kirkpatrick excelled in his first full season as the starter. He finished fifth on the team in tackles and second in interceptions, as his outstanding length and raw physical talent continued to develop. Along with some talented Alabama teammates, Kirkpatrick helped lead the SEC’s top pass efficiency, total and scoring defense in 2010.

45. Tank Carder, LB, TCU (SR)
2010 stats: 60 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 5 PBU

The 2011 Rose Bowl gave the national audience a chance to see what everyone in the Mountain West already knew – Carder is one of the top defensive players in college football. Against Wisconsin, Carder collected six tackles and one sack, while breaking up a key two-point conversion late in the game. He was named the 2011 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP for his performance against the Badgers. Carder earned first-team All-Mountain West honors and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year last season. He is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American for 2011.

46. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 84 total tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 FF

The heady leader of the defense actually led the Cardinal in sacks per game, finishing third in the league with 0.59 per contest. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Skov still finished second on the team in total sacks and tackles for a loss. His sophomore season was capped by a stellar performance in the Cardinal’s first ever BCS bowl win. Skov posted 12 total tackles (eight solos), four tackles for a loss and three sacks.

47. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 28 tackles, 4 sacks, 9.5 TFL, 1 FF

The overall numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming for Winn, but his impact goes beyond the stats. Winn is one of college football’s top defensive tackles and is an Athlon Sports’ preseason first-team All-American. He earned back-to-back second-team All-WAC honors in 2009 and 2010, but should be one of the top defenders in the Mountain West this season. Winn is generating a lot of interest from NFL scouts and could be a first-round pick in the 2012 draft.

48. Kenny Tate, LB, Maryland (SR)
2010 stats: 100 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 INT (TD), 3.5 sacks, 4 FF
Entering his senior season, Tate is facing a change in roles as he transitions from free safety to the “Star” position – a hybrid linebacker/safety spot. He led the Terps in solo tackles a year ago (58) and was second in total stops (100) – becoming the first defensive back to reach 100 tackles since Tony Jackson in 2000. He led the ACC in forced fumbles per game, while leading a secondary that ranked No. 9 nationally in efficiency defense.

49. T.J. McDonald, S, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 89 total tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 1 sack, Blk kick

McDonald led the Trojans in the tackles a year ago and was second on the team with three interceptions as only a sophomore – and without playing the final game of the season. In a 34-33 win over Arizona State, McDonald posted arguably his best career game when he made 13 total tackles, including 10 solos, to go with a key blocked kick.

50. Case Keenum, QB, Houston (SR)
2010 stats: 636 yds., 5 TDs, 5 INTs

A torn ACL in the third game ended Keenum’s 2010 season prematurely. However, he was granted an additional year of eligibility and has a shot to make NCAA history. Keenum needs 3,487 yards to break Timmy Chang’s FBS record for most passing yards in a career. Considering Keenum has thrown for over 5,000 yards in his two full years as the starter, he should easily surpass Chang’s total. Houston may bring the senior along slowly due to his knee injury last year. However, Keenum should have the Cougars back into Conference USA title contention.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to kickoff with a look at the top 50 players in college football for 2011.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 26, 2011 - 08:21
Path: /college-football/college-football-2011-bowl-projections
Body:

 

Date Bowl Projection
BCS Games    
Jan. 9

National Title

BCS No. 1 vs. BCS No. 2

Alabama vs. Oklahoma                 
Jan. 4

Orange

BCS vs. BCS

Florida State vs. West Virginia
Jan. 3

Sugar

BCS vs. BCS

Notre Dame vs. LSU
Jan. 2

Fiesta

BCS vs. BCS

Boise State vs. Texas A&M
Jan. 2

Rose

BCS vs. BCS

Nebraska vs. Oregon
The Rest of the Bowls    
Dec. 17

New Mexico

Pac-12 vs. MWC

Oregon State vs. Colorado State
Dec. 17

Idaho Potato

WAC vs. MAC

Fresno State vs. Ohio
Dec. 17

New Orleans

C-USA vs. Sun Belt

Tulsa vs. FIU
Dec. 20

St. Petersburg

Big East vs. C-USA

Cincinnati vs. East Carolina
Dec. 21

Poinsettia

MWC vs. WAC

Air Force vs. Nevada
Dec. 22

Las Vegas

Pac-12 vs. MWC

Arizona vs. TCU
Dec. 24

Hawaii

WAC vs. C-USA

Hawaii vs. UCF
Dec. 26

Independence

ACC vs. MWC

Clemson vs. San Diego State
Dec. 27

Little Caesars

Big Ten vs. MAC

Illinois vs. Toledo
Dec. 27

Belk

ACC vs. Big East

NC State vs. Pittsburgh
Dec. 28

Military

Navy vs. ACC

Navy vs. Boston College
Dec. 28

Holiday

Pac-12 vs. Big 12

Arizona State vs. Texas Tech
Dec. 29

Champs Sports

ACC vs. Big East

Miami vs. Syracuse
Dec. 29

Alamo

Pac-12 vs. Big 12

Stanford vs. Texas
Dec. 30

Armed Forces

BYU vs. C-USA

BYU vs. Southern Miss
Dec. 30

Pinstripe

Big East vs. Big 12

Connecticut vs. Northwestern*
Dec. 30

Music City

ACC vs. SEC

Maryland vs. Auburn
Dec. 30

Insight

Big 12 vs. Big Ten

Michigan State vs. Baylor
Dec. 31

Meineke Car Care

Big 12 vs. Big Ten

Missouri vs. Penn State
Dec. 31

Sun

Pac-12 vs. ACC

Washington vs. North Carolina
Dec. 31

Liberty

C-USA vs. SEC

Mississippi State vs. SMU
Dec. 31

Kraft Fight Hunger

Pac-12 vs. Army

Army vs. Utah
Dec. 31

Chick-fil-A

ACC vs. SEC

Virginia Tech vs. Florida
Jan. 2

TicketCity

Big Ten vs. C-USA

Michigan vs. Houston
Jan. 2

Outback

Big Ten vs. SEC

Ohio State vs. South Carolina
Jan. 2

Capital One

Big Ten vs. SEC

 Georgia vs. Wisconsin                       
Jan. 2

Gator

Big Ten vs. SEC

Iowa vs. Tennessee
Jan. 6

Cotton

SEC vs. Big 12

Arkansas vs. Oklahoma State
Jan. 7

Compass

SEC vs. Big East

Kentucky vs. South Florida
Jan. 8

GoDaddy

Sun Belt vs. MAC

Troy vs. Northern Illinois

* According to our projections, the Big 12 will fail to fill their allotted slots.

Athlon's 2011 Predictions

ACC
Big East
Big 12
Big Ten

Conference USA

MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12

SEC

Sun Belt

WAC

Teaser:
<p> Kickoff for the 2011 season is just around the corner. Athlon Sports continues the countdown to kickoff with a look at bowl projections for this year.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 07:52
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, Big East
Path: /columns/saturday-takeaway/countdown-college-football-kickoff-2011
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Considering there is just 1 day until kickoff, the 2011 season is just around the corner. With the anticipation building for the upcoming season, Athlon will cover one interesting storyline to watch in college football over the next 50 days.

1. (August 31) National Title Prediction
With only one day until kickoff, it’s time for a national title prediction. Will the SEC keep its streak of national champions alive? Or is Oklahoma, Florida State or Oregon ready to claim No. 1? Go ahead and pencil in the winner of the SEC for a spot in the national title game. Unless the SEC champ has two or three losses, a spot in that game is virtually guaranteed. Oklahoma seems to be the most likely candidate for the second spot, but don’t count out Florida State. If the Seminoles can defeat the Sooners in Week 3, the schedule sets up favorably for an undefeated season. Although Oklahoma will have its hands full against Florida State, expect Bob Stoops team to find a way to win and finish as the No. 2 team in the BCS standings this year. Athlon’s official pick for the title game is Alabama vs. Oklahoma, with the Crimson Tide winning the championship for the second time under Nick Saban.

2. (August 30) Louisville Climbing Back Under Charlie Strong
The Steve Kragthorpe era was a huge failure for Louisville, but choosing Charlie Strong as his replacement has Louisville back on track. The Cardinals were predicted by many to finish last in the Big East last year, but surprised with a 7-6 record and a bowl win over Southern Miss. Strong has done a good job on the recruiting trail over the last two years and should have the Cardinals contending for a Big East title in the next couple of seasons. However, Louisville could take a small step back in 2011. The depth chart is filled with youth and cornerback could be a big issue for the defense. New quarterback Will Stein should be solid, but the line is rebuilt from last year and the offense needs a healthy season of production from backs Jeremy Wright and Victor Anderson. There’s a lot of promise surrounding Louisville’s future and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this team is picked near the top of the Big East in 2012. However, with a lot of roster turnover, the Cardinals may slip back to the bottom, before rising next year.

3. (August 29) More Improvement at Baylor?
Art Briles hasn’t gotten enough credit nationally for the job he has done at Baylor. The Bears have made steady progress in Briles’ three years and earned their first bowl bid since 1994 last season. Helping Briles to raise Baylor’s profile has been quarterback Robert Griffin. The junior is among the nation’s top quarterbacks, after throwing for 3,501 yards and 22 scores last year, while adding 635 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Griffin is the centerpiece of Baylor’s attack, but the talent around him has also improved over the last couple of years. The Bears feature a solid offensive line, and linebacker/safety Ahmad Dixon could be one of the Big 12’s top breakout players. Expecting Baylor to contend for a conference title in 2011 is probably unrealistic, but moving another notch or two in the standings is a strong possibility. 

4. (August 28) Texas A&M and the SEC
All signs point to Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 for the SEC in the next two or three weeks. With this move coming close to the start of the season, there’s a lot of concern about this becoming a distraction for the Aggies. Texas A&M is expected to be one of the top teams in the Big 12 this year and could contend for an at-large spot in the BCS. Reaching expectations has been difficult for Texas A&M, so any distractions will be a concern for head coach Mike Sherman. Although the potential move to the SEC makes sense, the Aggies are stepping into the most difficult conference in college football and won’t have an easier path to a national title. There are still plenty of details to be worked out, including how the SEC would handle 13 teams. What teams will join the Big 12? Will the SEC add a 14th? Although those questions will be answered over the next couple of months, the Aggies will have to dodge the distractions of the move to the SEC. Considering the returning talent in College Station, there’s no reason Texas A&M should struggle to win 10 games this year. However, there’s just no way to know if a potential move to the SEC will be a distraction - and what impact it could have on the Big 12 championship.

5. (August 27) Jerry Kill the Right Hire at Minnesota
After the failed Tim Brewster tenure, Minnesota made the right hire to bring in Jerry Kill as its next head coach. Kill has been successful at each of his coaching stops, including his last stint as the head man at Northern Illinois. The Golden Gophers won’t contend for a Big Ten title in 2011, but there’s hope for a bowl game and at least six wins. Minnesota should be able to go 3-1 in the non-conference slate and picking up wins against Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern in Big Ten play isn’t out of the question. New quarterback MarQueis Gray is raw, but has a lot of talent. The Golden Gophers should be solid on offense, but the defense needs a lot of work. Only five starters are back and this unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten against the run last season. Minnesota probably won’t contend for a Big Ten title every year under Kill, but look for the Gophers to become an annual bowl team.  

6. (August 26) No Jake Locker, No Problem?
Even with the loss of quarterback Jake Locker, it’s possible Washington could have a better record in 2011. The Huskies return 10 starters, and coach Steve Sarkisian has increased the talent in the program over the last two years. Running back Chris Polk is one of the Pac-12’s top offensive players, while the defense should show significant improvement in 2011. The defensive line came on strong over the final games of last season and could be one of the most improved units in the nation. Sophomore Keith Price has a lead over Nick Montana for the starting quarterback job and both are capable options for the Huskies. The schedule sets up well for Washington, missing Arizona State on the crossover schedule and hosting Oregon on Nov. 5. Don’t expect the Huskies to win the Pac-12 North, but winning eight or nine games is a reasonable expectation. 

7. (August 25) Alabama’s Quarterback Situation
It’s rare to see a team with an unsettled quarterback situation picked by many to be the No. 1 team in college football. However, Alabama fits that mold in 2011. The Crimson Tide has yet to decide between AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims as the starter for the opener against Kent State. McCarron completed 30 of 48 passes for 389 yards and three scores last season, while Sims redshirted. Although Alabama needs to get solid play from its quarterbacks, this team is built to succeed without an elite passing game. Running back Trent Richardson should be one of the nation’s leading rushers, while the offensive line is among the best in college football. The Crimson Tide also own a shutdown defense, which will only make life easier for whichever quarterback ends up as the starter. Both passers could play, but expect McCarron to start the season opener against Kent State on Sept. 3. As long as McCarron is solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, the Crimson Tide will be in the thick of the national title hunt.

8. (August 24) Virginia on the Rise in the ACC Coastal?
With the ongoing controversies at North Carolina and Miami, Virginia Tech is a heavy favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division. However, its in-state rival is a team to watch this year. Virginia finished 4-8 in Mike London’s first season, with one of those victories a 24-19 upset over Miami in late October. The Cavaliers played better as the season progressed and lost two games in November by a combined 11 points. Expecting Virginia to contend for the conference crown is unrealistic, but a bowl game is within reach if London can find a few answers on offense. The Cavaliers have four candidates competing for the starting quarterback job, including true freshman David Watford. Although the quarterback spot is a concern, having four starters back on the line and a solid running back (Perry Jones) has eased some of the uncertainty on offense. Expect the defense to show significant improvement this year, as seven starters are back and corner Chase Minnifield is one of the best in the nation. Virginia has four winnable games in non-conference play, which should help the quest to get back into the postseason. The Cavaliers are picked fifth in the Coastal Division, but with Georgia Tech struggling and the cloud over North Carolina, don’t be surprised if they easily outperform preseason expectations.  

9. (August 23) Kevin Wilson a Great Fit at Indiana
Winning at Indiana isn’t easy. The Hoosiers have posted only one winning season since 1994 and their last bowl victory came in 1991. Five coaches have roamed the sidelines in Bloomington since the 1991 Copper Bowl, but Indiana appears to have hit a home run with its latest hire – Kevin Wilson. The former Oklahoma offensive coordinator has a lot of work to do, but all signs point to future success in Bloomington. With only nine starters returning and a question mark at quarterback, Indiana will be facing an uphill battle to get bowl eligible this year. Wilson has done a good job on the recruiting trail, luring Athlon Consensus 100 quarterback prospect Gunner Kiel to Bloomington for the 2012 season. The Hoosiers have a favorable four-game stretch to open the year, but will need to pull off an upset or two in order to reach a bowl. Considering the returning talent, it’s unlikely Indiana gets to six wins. However, there’s a clear direction from Wilson and it’s one that should result with improvement over the next few years.  

10. (August 22) Low Expectations at Auburn
Although the Tigers are the defending national champs, getting to a bowl game would be considered a success for 2011. Why the low expectations? With five starters back, the depth chart is littered with youth and several key players must be replaced. The offense suffered heavy losses, particularly with quarterback Cam Newton and four offensive linemen. The defense struggled last season, but only three starters are back, so coordinator Ted Roof has a tough task ahead of him. Auburn didn’t catch any breaks in the schedule, with a non-conference date at Clemson and road games at South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Expect the Tigers to get better as the season progresses, but there are too many holes to make a return trip to the national title. Although Auburn will take its lumps in 2011, with a young roster, don’t be surprised to see this team back in the SEC title mix in 2012.

11. (August 21) Andrew Luck Back at Stanford
Despite coach Jim Harbaugh leaving for the NFL, Stanford remains a threat to win the Pac-12 title in 2011. Quarterback Andrew Luck is back for his junior year, after throwing for 3,338 yards and 32 scores last season. Luck’s return is enough to keep the Cardinal in the hunt for a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl berth this year. The junior is arguably the top NFL prospect in college football and should be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Luck can’t win it all on his own, which makes the concerns about the offensive line and receiving corps something to watch early in 2011. The line must replace three key starters, while the top two wide receivers are gone from last year. Senior Chris Owusu could be a No. 1 target for the offense, but has to stay healthy. If consistent weapons don’t emerge at receiver, don’t be surprised if Stanford uses a lot of multiple tight end formations. No one knows if new coach David Shaw will be as successful as Harbaugh, but with Luck returning in 2011, Stanford should be in the hunt for the Pac-12 title.

12. (August 20) Notre Dame BCS Bowl Bound?
The Irish closed out 2010 by winning their final four games, which included a 20-16 win over USC and a 33-17 blowout win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Hopes are high for the Irish to return to a BCS game, especially with 16 starters back in the mix. The biggest question mark revolves around the quarterback position. Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees are competing for the job and both are capable of leading the Irish to 10 wins. The defense has been a concern for years in South Bend, but eight starters are back and the defensive line has several talented underclassmen ready to make their mark. The schedule isn’t overly favorable, but it isn’t overwhelming either. The most difficult games for Notre Dame on the road will likely be at Michigan and Stanford, while South Florida, Michigan State and USC visit South Bend. With the solid core of returning starters, young talent on defense and a favorable schedule, expect Notre Dame to get to 10 wins and its first BCS bowl appearance since 2007.

13. (August 19) How Will USC Handle Another Year of Probation?
Digging out of the harsh NCAA sanctions won’t be an easy job for USC coach Lane Kiffin. The Trojans simply lack depth and the roster will be young in several spots this season. Even though the Trojans are ineligible to win the conference crown or play in the first Pac-12 title game, don’t expect this team to quit on Kiffin. The offense could be explosive, provided the young, but talented receivers emerge and the offensive line keeps quarterback Matt Barkley upright. The defense was awful last season, but should be better with eight starters returning. The Trojans open with three home games, before hitting the road to play at Arizona State in a critical Pac-12 South showdown. With no bowl game to play for, getting off to a good start will be critical for USC. If the Trojans suffer some early defeats, team morale could be low going into November. However, expect the Trojans to finish with the best record in the Pac-12 South and finish ranked among the top 25 teams at the end of the year.

14. (August 18) Todd Graham Takes Over at Pittsburgh
Although Dave Wannstedt recruited well, Pittsburgh never won a Big East title during his tenure. Wannstedt was fired in early December last year, and Mike Haywood was hired from Miami (Ohio) to be Pittsburgh’s next coach. However, Haywood was fired after a domestic violence charge, which led to Graham’s hire from Tulsa. Graham was a solid coach at Tulsa and Rice and is making a big change to Pittsburgh’s style of play. The Panthers will be an uptempo team on offense, while moving to a 3-4 attack on defense. Pittsburgh can win the Big East, if the offense can get solid production from quarterback Tino Sunseri. The one-two punch of running backs Ray Graham and Zach Brown might be the best combination on the ground in the Big East. The Panthers should start out 2-0, before a tough three-game stretch with games at Iowa and then back in the Steel City for Notre Dame and South Florida. Even with the coaching turnover and the transition to a new scheme on both sides of the ball, considering the uncertainty in the Big East, the Panthers have a shot to win the conference in Graham’s first season.

15. (August 17) A Bounce Back Year at Georgia
Finishing 6-7 is unacceptable at Georgia and that’s why Mark Richt enters 2011 on the hot seat. The Bulldogs are coming off a miserable 2010 season, but there’s hope last year is simply a small speed bump. Aaron Murray is coming off a solid freshman debut and is expected to be the SEC’s top quarterback. The rushing attack should get a boost with the addition of true freshman Isaiah Crowell – one of the top recruits in the nation. The transition to the 3-4 defense had its share of rocky moments, but expect improvement in the second year of the scheme. Also working in Georgia’s favor will be the schedule. The Bulldogs catch a huge break by missing Alabama, LSU and Arkansas from the SEC West, while hosting South Carolina in Week 2. With a favorable slate the starpower of Murray and Crowell, Georgia could return to the SEC title game in Atlanta.

16. (August 16) Al Golden Takes Over at Miami
When the ACC expanded to 12 teams, most expected to see several Florida State-Miami matchups in the conference title game. However, the Hurricanes have yet to make an appearance in the ACC Championship. After failing to reach expectations under Randy Shannon, Al Golden was brought in to make Miami relevant on the national scene once again. The Hurricanes have some nice pieces in place for 2011, but still face an uphill battle to win the conference crown. Quarterback play is a huge question mark. Will it be senior Jacory Harris or sophomore Stephen Morris? The offensive line suffered a huge blow in the fall, when it was learned tackle Seantrel Henderson will likely miss all of 2011 with a back injury. The Hurricanes should be solid on defense, especially with seven starters back. Golden is the right man for the job at Miami and while there’s some promising talent to work with, expect the Hurricanes to fall short of earning their first trip to the conference title game.

17. (August 15) A Healthy Dan Persa at Quarterback
What a difference a player can make. With Dan Persa in the lineup, Northwestern went 7-3. Without him, the Wildcats went 0-3 and struggled to generate any offense. An Achilles tear is a difficult injury to return from, but all indications out of Evanston indicate Persa will be at full strength for the season opener against Boston College. The Wildcats will probably take it easy on Persa early on, but they will need him for a difficult Big Ten stretch, starting on Oct. 1 at Illinois. The Wildcats have a difficult road to claim the Legends Division title, but if Persa is 100 percent and back at the level he showed last year, don’t count out Northwestern. Sure, the Wildcats have some question marks on defense, but this could be one of the best offenses in the Big Ten and Pat Fitzgerald is an underrated coach.

18. (August 14) Quarterback Battle at Penn State
If the Nittany Lions can sort out the quarterback battle, they could be a factor in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin shared the job in 2010, with neither turning in a particularly impressive season. McGloin threw more touchdown tosses (14), but had a worse completion percentage than Bolden. The quarterback situation isn’t the only issue in Happy Valley. The offensive line struggled last year and loses its best player – guard Stefen Wisniewski. With Ohio State’s issues and Wisconsin trying to get Russell Wilson acclimated into the offense, Penn State can contend for a spot in the first Big Ten title game. However, the quarterback situation needs to get sorted out early in the year. The Nittany Lions host Indiana State in the opener, which is a tune-up before Alabama visits in Week 2. Although McGloin finished as the starter last year, look for Bolden to start and finish the year as the No. 1 quarterback.

19. (August 13) Air Force a Sleeper to Watch in the Mountain West
TCU
and Boise State should be the class of the Mountain West, but don’t dismiss Air Force from contending for the conference title. The Falcons return 12 starters, including senior quarterback Tim Jefferson. Finding a new fullback to pair with running back Asher Clark will be critical to the offense’s success, but Air Force always seems to find capable replacements in the backfield. The Falcons finished 37th nationally in total defense last year and the secondary should be among the best in the Mountain West with three starters returning. The schedule isn’t overwhelming, as Air Force will host TCU in Week 2 and San Diego State on Oct. 13. Road dates at Notre Dame and Boise State figure to be the biggest landmines. Head coach Troy Calhoun is 34-17 in four years at Air Force and could be targeted by several BCS schools at the end of the 2011 season. Even if the Falcons don’t win the Mountain West, cracking the top 25 and finishing the year with 10 wins a reasonable expectation.

20. (August 12) Building Momentum at Texas A&M
Mike Sherman didn’t get off to a great start at Texas A&M, but seems to have the Aggies pointed in the right direction going into the 2011 season. The Aggies were a disappointing 3-3 in late October, but won six-straight regular season games to earn a berth in the Cotton Bowl. The Aggies return 18 starters – the most in the Big 12 – and get running back Christine Michael back from injury. The team seemed to find its identity over the second half of last year, which included a quarterback change to Ryan Tannehill and the emergence of Cyrus Gray at running back. The offensive line also took a step forward in the final games of last season. With the returning starters and the finish to last season, the expectations are high at Texas A&M. The Aggies have failed to reach those expectations in the past, but most believe this is a different team. Texas A&M hosts Oklahoma State on Sept. 24, which could decide which team pushes Oklahoma for the Big 12 title.

21. (August 11) The Next Boise State?
SMU
has made steady progress in three seasons under June Jones. With 18 starters back in 2011, the Mustangs are poised to win the Conference USA crown. The offense is loaded at the skill positions and all five starters are back on the offensive line. Although the offense will get most of the credit, the defense showed big improvement last year. The Mustangs finished second in the conference in scoring defense and ranked 40th nationally in total defense. The season opener against Texas A&M should be a good test for this team, but the real battle comes in conference play. The Mustangs have to travel to their toughest competition in the West Division – Houston and Tulsa – and must play UCF and at Southern Miss in the crossover games from the East. Although the schedule isn’t overwhelmingly in favor, SMU has turned a corner under June Jones. With TCU joining the Big East in 2012 and Boise State experiencing a lot of turnover next season, could the Mustangs be the next non-AQ team to crash the BCS?

22. (August 10) Big Loss for Oklahoma’s Defense
Oklahoma’s Travis Lewis will likely be sidelined for eight weeks due to a broken bone in his foot. The senior is one of the best linebackers in college football – an Athlon Sports second-team preseason All-American – and his absence will be felt by the defense. The Sooners are still in good shape in the linebacking corps, thanks to the emergence of Tom Wort and Corey Nelson. Sophomore Tony Jefferson is playing a hybrid linebacker/safety role, which helps Oklahoma cover the offenses in the Big 12. Although the Sooners have talent in the linebacking corps, they will be young and will miss Lewis’ leadership. Barring a miracle recovery, Lewis won’t be on the field when Oklahoma plays at Florida State on Sept. 17 and against Missouri one week later. The matchup against the Seminoles is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for an undefeated season. With Oklahoma missing its top defensive player in a hostile environment, could play a key role in the game? It’s doubtful Lewis’ absence will cause a drastic decline in the play of the defense, but there’s no doubt it would be better to have him on the field.

23. (August 9) Another National Title for the SEC?
Will the SEC’s run of national titles come to an end in 2011? Probably not. The conference has claimed five national titles in a row and figures to be in the mix to send a team to the national championship once again. Alabama is projected to finish the year as the No. 1 team by Athlon Sports, with Oklahoma a close second. The Crimson Tide will have a first-year starter at quarterback, but the rest of the team is in great shape. Alabama returns arguably the nation’s top offensive line, linebacking and secondary units. Running back Trent Richardson is ready to step in as the team’s go-to back and should easily surpass 1,000 yards. The Crimson Tide has a favorable schedule too, missing Georgia and South Carolina from the East and catching LSU in Tuscaloosa. Barring two losses to the SEC champ or an upset in the title game by a team from the East, the winner of the West Division should have an inside track on a spot in the national title game. Although Alabama enters the year with a few question marks, this team should be in great shape by the end of the season.

24. (August 8) A New Era at Colorado
Jon Embree has his work cut out for him in 2011. The former Colorado player will make his debut as a head coach this season, but it could be a very challenging year. The Buffaloes return 14 starters, including likely All-Pac-12 running back Rodney Stewart. However, the offense needs quarterback Tyler Hansen to stay healthy and show improvement to push for a winning record. In addition to the concerns on offense, the back seven of the defense needs to be revamped. Even with NFL Draft first-round selection Jimmy Smith at cornerback, the Buffaloes ranked near the bottom of the nation at defending the pass. With two new starters at cornerback, the pass defense could be even worse in 2011. The personnel questions are enough to keep Colorado out of a bowl game, but the schedule is one of the toughest in college football. The Buffaloes play 13 games due to the opener at Hawaii, but also have road trips to Ohio State, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State and Utah. Additionally, catching Oregon and USC at home isn’t much of a break. Embree has a large mountain to climb just to get Colorado back into Pac-12 title contention. But with the significant question marks and holes on the roster, it could be another two years before the Buffaloes get back into a bowl game.

25. (August 7) Coaches on the Hot Seat
Hot seat talk is usually a popular topic throughout the regular season. Which coach will be the first to be fired in 2011? My guess would be New Mexico’s Mike Locksley. He is somehow back on the sidelines for his third season, after posting a disastrous 2-21 record. Considering his two horrendous years in Albuquerque, Locksley needs to show major progress to return in 2012. Just behind Locksley is Washington State’s Paul Wulff. He inherited an awful roster and has made small steps with this team in three years, but a winning record may be necessary to return for a fourth season. UAB’s Neil Callaway and Tulane’s Bob Toledo also need to produce if they want to return for 2012. Georgia’s Mark Richt is a popular name to mention for hot seat talk. However, Richt should feel pretty good about his team, as the Bulldogs are a popular pick to win the SEC East this year. Even though Richt is mentioned in the hot seat discussion, I would be very surprised if he is not at Georgia in 2012. With Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer in the crop of available coaches, the carousel could be very active when the regular season ends in early December.

26.  (August 6) Utah’s first season in the Pac-12
The Utes will be under the microscope in their debut with the Pac-12. How will Utah handle a tougher week-to-week schedule? The Mountain West is arguably the top non-AQ conference, but playing a more challenging conference slate will be a good test for Utah’s depth. Quarterback Jordan Wynn was out for the spring due to shoulder surgery and still needs to prove he can be one of the elite passers in the Pac-12. The Utes could start a true freshman at running back, but the offensive line could be among the best in the conference. The defense is usually a strength for Utah, but four new starters will suit up in the secondary. There’s a lot of questions in Salt Lake City, but don’t write off the Utes in the Pac-12 title race. The South Division is wide open, especially with USC ineligible for the championship game. Utah is one of the Pac-12’s most mysterious, but intriguing teams to watch in 2011.

27. (August 5) Turnaround at Texas?
Mack Brown knows 5-7 won’t work at Texas. After last season’s debacle, Brown made several staff changes, which includes two new coordinators – Bryan Harsin (offense) and Manny Diaz (defense). However, coaching changes alone won’t be enough to turn Texas around. The Longhorns have to be better at every position on offense. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert had a dismal first season as the starter, tossing 17 interceptions and completing less than 60 percent of his passes. Gilbert doesn’t deserve all of the blame, as the Longhorns need a better push from the offensive line and the rushing attack. True freshman Malcolm Brown was one of the top running back recruits in the 2011 signing class and will be expected to make an immediate impact. With Texas still finding the right pieces on offense, the defense will need to carry the team early in the year. With six starters back, the Longhorns should rank near the top of the Big 12 in scoring and total defense. The second game of 2011 against BYU should be an early indication of how far Texas has come since last season. Expect the Longhorns to show improvement, but winning the Big 12 is at least another year away.

28. (August 4) The Best Quarterback in Oklahoma?
Tulsa
coach Bill Blankenship caused quite a stir in the Sooner State with some of his comments at Conference USA Media Day. The first-year coach commented his quarterback (G.J. Kinne) was the best in the Oklahoma. Although Blankenship raised some eyebrows with his comments, Kinne probably doesn’t get enough credit on the national stage. The senior started his career at Texas in 2007, but transferred after his redshirt freshman year. In two years as Tulsa’s starting quarterback, Kinne has thrown for 6,382 yards and 53 touchdowns, while adding 960 yards and 12 scores on the ground. The Golden Hurricane offense will miss former coordinator Chad Morris, who left to take the same job at Clemson. With a new coaching staff and a tough schedule, Kinne may not be able to repeat as Conference USA’s Player of the Year. Blankenship and Kinne will get a shot at Oklahoma in the first game of 2011 and against Oklahoma State in Week 3. I’m not sure I’d vote Kinne as the best quarterback in Oklahoma, but he will have a chance to earn that honor with big games against the Sooners and Cowboys. Jones, Weeden and Kinne are all solid quarterbacks, which should make this an entertaining year for football in the Sooner State.

29. (August 3 ) Can South Carolina Repeat as SEC East Champs?
The Gamecocks finally broke through last season, earning their first SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta. With 14 starters back, South Carolina will be a popular pick to repeat as division champs. Sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore proved to be a real difference maker, and his emergence helped to ease the pressure on quarterback Stephen Garcia and the passing attack. Garcia has been in coach Steve Spurrier’s doghouse and another arrest will likely spell the end of his career. However, Garcia has approached the fall with a different attitude and the issues off the field may be a thing of the past. Although the trio of Garcia, Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery will score plenty of points, the Gamecocks face a difficult road to repeat. The SEC East was down last year and Florida, Georgia and Tennessee should all show improvement this season. South Carolina has a difficult road slate, drawing away dates against Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas. There’s no question Spurrier has raised the talent level and expectations in Columbia. However, the Gamecocks have struggled to reach lofty expectations in the past. With Georgia and Florida turning things around in 2011, it would not be a surprise to see South Carolina not repeat as SEC East champs.

30. (August 2) Uncertainty at Connecticut
Even though the Huskies return 16 starters and are the defending Big East champs, they have been picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. Although a good chunk of the roster is back, some of the losses were significant. Quarterback play wasn’t a strength last year, but starter Zach Frazer has finished his eligibility. Although Frazer wasn’t anything special, none of the candidates stepping into the job have much experience. Running back Jordan Todman carried the offense last season, but he decided to leave for the NFL. Senior D.J. Shoemate was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, but has yet to live up to that billing. The receiving corps is also a concern, especially with Michael Smith lost for the year due to academics. With so many questions on offense, the defense will have to carry this team. The Huskies return 10 starters on defense, which should make this unit one of the best in the Big East. As if the personnel concerns on offense weren’t troubling enough, there’s a new head coach. Randy Edsall left for Maryland and in steps Paul Pasqualoni. The veteran coach has been out of college football for a while, serving in the NFL as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. The Huskies have a favorable non-conference slate, but there’s a lot of question marks to expect another Big East title in 2011.

31. (August 1) Pressure Rising in Berkeley
Considering Jeff Tedford’s background, it’s been a surprise to see California struggle to get consistent offensive production over the last couple of years. Tedford will take on a bigger role in calling the plays this year, but he will enter the 2011 with a lot of question marks. Expected to start at quarterback is Zach Maynard, who sat out last season after transferring from Buffalo. Maynard has starting experience, but needs to be better than he showed in two years at Buffalo. California has been a factory for running backs under Tedford, but there’s cause for concern. Isi Sofele is the likely starter, but checks in at 5-foot-7. Can he hold up for a full season? There’s some potential with some of the backups, but not a lot of experience. The receiving corps returns two potential all-conference players in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen, but not much depth behind them. Three starters return up front, but the line needs to play with more consistency. With the question marks on offense, California will need its defense to rank near the top of the conference again. A subtle issue surrounding this team is the lack of a true home stadium, as they will play their home games in AT&T Park (home of the San Francisco Giants), while their stadium is renovated. All of the issues add up to a preseason projection of fifth in the Pac-12 North. Another 5-7 will put Tedford squarely on the hot seat and in danger of losing his job.

32. (July 31) Another Big Ten Title in Madison?
With Ohio State dealing with a NCAA investigation, the loss of quarterback Terrelle Pryor and head coach Jim Tressel, Wisconsin has emerged as the favorite in the Big Ten Leaders Division. The Badgers were co-champs last year with Michigan State and Ohio State, but represented the conference in the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin does have some key losses to address, including finding a replacement for defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and left tackle Gabe Carimi. Although those losses are big, none are enough to knock Wisconsin out of the Big Ten title race, especially with the addition of quarterback Russell Wilson from NC State. Wilson’s arrival should solidify the quarterback spot, while the Badgers will remain one of the nation’s best rushing teams. Road games at Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois won’t be easy. However, Wilson’s arrival and Ohio State’s turmoil have made Wisconsin the favorite in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

33. (July 30) Missouri a Big 12 Title Contender?
Despite losing quarterback Blaine Gabbert, keep an eye on Missouri as a possible sleeper team in the Big 12. The Tigers return 16 starters, which ranks as the second most in the Big 12 behind Texas A&M. The Tigers were off to a 7-0 start last year, but finished the season 3-3 over the final six games. Tackle Dominique Hamilton will rejoin the defensive line and is presence will make a difference. When Hamilton was healthy, Missouri allowed only 114 rushing yards per game. When Hamilton missed the final six contests, the Tigers allowed 197 yards per game. The defensive line should be among the best in college football, which will help make up for an inexperienced secondary. Quarterback play is a concern, but Missouri’s last three starters have turned out pretty well – Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Gabbert. New quarterback James Franklin is surrounded by plenty of weapons and if he puts together a solid year, Missouri could surprise in the remodeled Big 12.

34. (July 29) Turmoil in Chapel Hill
North Carolina’s
firing of Butch Davis a week before the team is scheduled to report to fall camp has to be one of the strangest college football coaching decisions in recent memory. Although Davis led the Tar Heels to three straight seasons of eight wins, they never emerged as a factor in the ACC Coastal race. His tenure at North Carolina will be remembered more for the off-the-field distractions over the last year, which may have cost the Tar Heels a potential ACC title season in 2010. Interim coach Everett Withers has a tough job this season. It’s unlikely he will retain the job in 2012, but he has to keep the recruiting class together, while keeping the players focused on the field. With James Madison, Rutgers and Virginia the first three games of this season, the Tar Heels should have a good chance to start 3-0. However, if the distractions hang over this team throughout the year, the Tar Heels could struggle to reach a bowl game. Even if North Carolina makes a bowl in 2011, the timing of this decision and starting over with a new coach in 2012 likely means a division title will have to wait a few more years.

35. (July 28) Success With First-Year Starting Quarterbacks
Is experience at quarterback overrated when projecting a national champion? Since the BCS was created in 1998, eight quarterbacks have played for the title in their first season. Greg McElroy was a first-year starter when Alabama won the title in 2009. Cam Newton and Darron Thomas were both first-year starters when they played for the championship last season. What teams could continue this recent trend in 2011? Alabama, Florida State and Virginia Tech are the most likely candidates. AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims are battling for time in Tuscaloosa and both have yet to make their first start. EJ Manuel has a couple of starts under his belt, but this will be his first full season under center. Tyrod Taylor will be missed at Virginia Tech, but Logan Thomas looks to be a capable replacement. Even though having an experienced team certainly helps in the national title race, recent history suggests a first-year starter at quarterback isn’t a bad thing. With Athlon projecting Alabama as the national champion, it looks like the run of first-year starters at quarterback will continue.

36. (July 27) Despite Losses, TCU Still a Factor in Mountain West
Topping last year’s 13-0 record and Rose Bowl title is almost an impossible task for TCU. The Horned Frogs return only six starters, and quarterback Andy Dalton must be replaced. Casey Pachall threw nine passes in a backup role last year, but has yet to make a start under center. TCU has plenty of talent returning on defense and is set at the skill positions on offense. However, the season will come down to Pachall and the offensive line’s development. The Horned Frogs didn’t catch a break with the schedule, facing Baylor and Air Force in the first two weeks. An 0-2 start isn’t out of the question considering the personnel losses from last year. TCU also has a trip to Boise State late in the season that will likely decide the Mountain West title. Even if the Horned Frogs win 9 or 10 games this year, look for them to be comfortably in the top 25 by season’s end. This will be TCU’s swan song in the Mountain West, as they move to the Big East next year. The depth chart is littered with a lot of sophomores and juniors stepping into starting roles this year, which is good news for TCU’s chances of contending right away in a new conference in 2012. Coach Gary Patterson is one of the best in college football and TCU won’t fall far this year, even with the loss of some key players.

37.  (July 26) LSU Needs Big Year From Jordan Jefferson
Say what you want about Les Miles and his clock management skills, but he has won at least 11 games in four out of his six seasons in Baton Rouge. Although the Tigers usually have one of the top defenses in the SEC, finishing near the bottom of the conference in offense is usually not a sound recipe for a team trying to win a national title. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson holds the keys to LSU’s season. Jefferson played better over the final three games of 2010, which included a solid performance against Texas A&M in a 41-24 Cotton Bowl victory. New coordinator Steve Kragthorpe has given Jefferson positive reviews, but he could be on a short leash this year. Zach Mettenberger was brought in from the JUCO ranks to add competition, but didn’t put much pressure for the starting job in spring practice. If Jefferson minimizes his mistakes and improves his completion percentage closer to 60 percent, the Tigers should have a much better statistical year on offense. If Jefferson struggles once again, LSU won’t be a factor in the national title race.

38. (July 25) Looking for Improvement at Cincinnati
Losing Brian Kelly to Notre Dame was a huge loss for Cincinnati, but not the only reason for its 4-8 record last year. The Bearcats ranked 119th nationally in turnover margin and ranked last in the Big East in scoring defense. There’s a lot of pressure on Butch Jones to get Cincinnati back in the top tier of the conference, but improvement can be expected this year. The offense will be one of the most explosive in the Big East. Quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead are back, and DJ Woods is ready to become the team’s new No. 1 target. With 10 starters returning on defense, there’s no way this unit ranks at the bottom of the conference once again. The Bearcats can’t be counted out of the Big East race, but it’s more likely they bounce back with a winning year and a trip to a bowl game.

39. (July 24) Coordinator Change at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in scoring, passing and total offense last year, but can it repeat that success with a new coordinator? Dana Holgorsen left to be the head coach at West Virginia, prompting head coach Mike Gundy to hire Todd Monken as the new offensive coordinator. Monken was coaching in the NFL, but has a previous stop in Stillwater from 2002-2004. Although the Cowboys will have a new offensive coordinator, the setup could be one of the most interesting in college football. Gundy wants to keep the same scheme in place, which means Monken will learn the offense, not install his own as customary with new hires. Having an experienced quarterback like Brandon Weeden certainly helps, but it may be difficult to repeat last year’s success on offense. Although Monken has plenty of experience, picking up Holgorsen’s scheme and putting Oklahoma State back in the top five of scoring offense won’t be easy. However, don’t expect too much of a drop in production, especially with one of the top pass-catch combinations in the nation with Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon returning. 

40. (July 23) Darkhorse Candidate for National Title?
If you are looking for a team off the radar that could find its way into the national title game, keep a close eye on Virginia Tech this year. Despite losing quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Hokies are in good shape to make a run at an undefeated season. The schedule sets up favorably for new quarterback Logan Thomas, with a soft non-conference slate in September and the first ACC road game at Wake Forest on Oct. 15. Thomas has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton due to his physical tools, but is still developing as a passer. While Thomas eases his way into the lineup, the Hokies can lean on running back David Wilson and a solid defense. Virginia Tech has won at least 10 games in seven consecutive seasons and even with an inexperienced quarterback taking over, the Hokies should be a safe bet to reach that total in 2011. If the Hokies manage to finish the regular season unbeaten, a potential matchup against Florida State in the ACC title game could have national championship implications.

41. (July 22) Wanted: An Offensive Line in Arizona
Arizona averaged 28.2 points per game on offense last season, but that number could increase closer to 35 in 2011. Nick Foles returns at quarterback, after throwing for 3,191 yards and 20 scores last year. Although Foles has worked his way onto NFL Draft radars for 2012, he won’t be the only Arizona weapon. The Wildcats own one of the nation’s best receiving corps, with the return of All-America candidate Juron Criner, David Douglas and David Roberts. Texas transfer Dan Buckner is eligible this year, which will give Foles another talented weapon to target. However, will all of those weapons matter if Arizona can’t develop an offensive line? All five starters will be new, with only one player (center Kyle Quinn) having any previous starting experience. With question marks about the offensive line, the Wildcats could throw more than they did last year, asking Foles to complete short passes and allowing the receivers to work in open space. If the line comes together, the Wildcats could be a darkhorse to win the Pac-12 South. However, if this unit struggles, making a bowl game will be difficult, especially with a challenging schedule. 

42. (July 21) A New Group of Big 12 Running Backs Must Emerge
With media days picking up over the next two weeks, it’s always worth a few minutes of time to check out the media predictions and all-conference teams. The Big 12 released its preseason all-conference team on Tuesday, which featured a few interesting selections. The Big 12 is weak at running back this year, but voting Bryce Brown as a first-team selection was a surprise – especially when Texas freshman running back Malcolm Brown was voted as the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. Outside of Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray, there’s not another easy pick on the first-team ballot. Brown didn’t have much of a chance to impress at Tennessee, but has every opportunity to earn playing time this year with the departure of Daniel Thomas. Roy Finch was also voted to the first team as a third running back, but he will have to contend for carries with a couple of other running backs. It’s all preseason discussion, but the running backs in the Big 12 certainly have something to prove in 2011. While the running backs are down, don’t be fooled about the offenses in the conference. With three of the nation’s top quarterbacks returning, the Big 12 will feature plenty of high-scoring offenses once again.

43. (July 20) Broncos Back in BCS Mix
Boise State
is considered by many to be a preseason top five team. Considering the significant personnel losses after this year, 2011 could be the Broncos best shot at reaching the national title for a couple of seasons. Quarterback Kellen Moore has posted an unbelievable 38-2 record in three years as the starting quarterback and will contend for All-America honors. The Broncos are loaded in the trenches, boasting one of the nation’s best offensive and defensive lines. All of the pieces are in place to once again finish with double-digit wins and a BCS bowl bid. What will it take for the Broncos to reach the national title? Just like last year, winning the season opener will be critical. Boise State beat Virginia Tech last season and gets a shot at Georgia to kickoff 2011. The Bulldogs are favored to win the SEC East by Athlon and like the Hokies, will be a difficult opening draw. However, if there’s one team the nation has learned not to doubt it’s Boise State.  

44. (July 19) No Mallett, No Problem
Losing a quarterback like Ryan Mallett is usually bad news for any team going into the next season. However, Arkansas should feel good about its chances to have one of the SEC’s best offenses in 2011. New quarterback Tyler Wilson has yet to make his first start, but threw for 453 yards and four scores in limited action last year. Most of his yardage came against Auburn, after Mallett was knocked out of the game. Wilson has the confidence of the coaching staff, one of the nation’s deepest receiving corps and running back Knile Davis returning. The biggest issue for the offense is the line, where three starters must be replaced. Wilson’s limited track record last year did not come against one of the SEC’s top defenses, but with the weapons in place and Bobby Petrino’s penchant for producing high-scoring offenses, Arkansas won’t miss a beat with a new quarterback under center.

45. (July 18) Coaching Carousel in the Big East
There will be three new coaches in the Big East this season – Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, Todd Graham at Pittsburgh and Paul Pasqualoni at Connecticut – but that may not be the biggest story surrounding that group. Greg Schiano is the longest-tenured coach in the conference, spending 10 years on the sidelines at Rutgers. Why is that significant? Schiano’s 10 years are more seasons than the rest of the coaches have combined for in the conference with their current teams. Butch Jones (Cincinnati), Skip Holtz (South Florida) and Louisville (Charlie Strong) have all been with their teams for one season, while Doug Marrone has spent two years at Syracuse. If the Big East wants to shake the “worst BCS conference” title, keeping good coaches is a must. If a coach isn’t performing, then it’s a no-brainer to get rid of him. However, Strong, Holtz, Graham and Holgorsen could be mentioned for bigger jobs in the future and it’s important for the profile of the conference for the successful coaches to stick around.

46. (July 17) BYU Goes Independent 
BYU’s decision to go independent
will be one of the most intriguing storylines from the conference realignment craze of 2010. The Cougars were able to piece together a solid schedule for their first year of independence, going to Ole Miss, Texas and Oregon State, while hosting UCF and playing a neutral site game against TCU. The Cougars have already lined up some challenging games for the future, but was this the right move? BYU’s television contract with ESPN is much better than its previous arrangement with the MTN. However, access to a BCS bowl isn’t easier. In fact, it could be more difficult. Even though the Cougars will have some marquee opponents every year, the schedule won’t be overly difficult. BYU’s former conference – the Mountain West – has a chance to get an automatic bid into the BCS. The bowl games likely won’t be better, but the school should be able to bring in more money and has a better television deal. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

47. (July 16) T-Magic Needed in Lincoln
The health of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez will play a significant role in determining the Big Ten champion. Martinez was banged up throughout most of the second half of last season and the entire Nebraska offense suffered in terms of production. The Cornhuskers scored less than 10 points in two out of the final four games last year and struggled to generate anything against Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. If Martinez is healthy, the sophomore will be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks and should lead Nebraska to the conference title. However, if Martinez gets hurt, depth at the position will be an issue. Cody Green decided to transfer, leaving redshirt freshman Brion Carnes and Ron Kellogg to contend for the backup job. True freshman Bubba Starling could figure into the mix, but may decide to sign with the Kansas City Royals after going in the first round of the 2011 MLB draft.

48. (July 15) A Record-Breaking Season in Houston?
Houston’s Case Keenum is back under center after suffering a torn ACL against UCLA in the third game of last season. Not only does Keenum’s return boost Houston’s Conference USA title hopes, but he has a chance to join some elite company in the record book. Through 43 games at Houston, Keenum has thrown for 13,586 yards and 107 touchdowns. His best season came in 2009, throwing for 5,671 yards and 44 scores. Timmy Chang ranks No. 1 in FBS passing yardage leaders, throwing for 17,072 yards in his career at Hawaii. Keenum needs just 3,487 yards to break Chang’s record and become the all-time leader in passing yards. The senior is currently No. 5 on the list, behind Chang, Graham Harrell, Ty Detmer and Colt Brennan. Considering his previous totals, the suspect defenses in Conference USA and Houston’s willingness to throw the ball, Keenum should finish as the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yardage.  

49. (July 14) The Pac-12's Unique Linebacking Corps
If Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict can cut out some of the senseless personal foul penalties, the junior could be the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, Burfict is one of the nation’s most intimidating linebackers and is a ferocious hitter. Burfict led the team with 90 tackles last season and should claim that honor once again in 2011. Although Burfict is the headliner, the most interesting storyline on the Arizona State defense is all three expected starting linebackers played high school ball in Corona Calif. at Centennial High School. Seniors Brandon Magee and Shelly Lyons played with Burfict in high school and should team to form the Pac-12’s top linebacking corps. Magee finished second on the team with 73 tackles last year and could find his way onto the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011. Lyons was limited to seven games due to injury last season. It’s not uncommon to see three players from a high school play on the same team in college. However, having three from the same high school all start in the linebacking corps is definitely unique. 

50. (July 13) - Quarterback play in the ACC
A talented, but largely unproven group of quarterbacks is stepping into the spotlight for the ACC this season. Christian Ponder, Tyrod Taylor and T.J. Yates have finished their eligibility, while Russell Wilson has moved on to Wisconsin for his senior year. Maryland's Danny O'Brien is Athlon's first-team All-ACC quarterback for 2011, but he's not a lock to win that honor. With a new coach and coordinator in place, the Terrapins could be more conservative on offense this year. NC State coach Tom O'Brien believes in Mike Glennon enough to let Wilson transfer for his final year of eligibility. Florida State's EJ Manuel has six starts already under his belt, including last year's ACC title game. At least six teams will turn to a first-year starter under center, and that number could grow if Stephen Morris beats Jacory Harris out at Miami. Interestingly enough, six ACC teams could start a quarterback with a hometown in Virginia. Even though quarterback is the most important position on the field, don't be surprised if two first-year starters end up meeting in the ACC title game - Virginia Tech (Logan Thomas) vs. Florida State (EJ Manuel).

Teaser:
<p> Athlon takes a look at one interesting storyline everyday until the start of the season.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - 17:14
Path: /columns/saturday-takeaway/sec-predictions
Body:

The SEC West has won the last two BCS championships, and the league’s balance of power remains tilted in a westerly direction heading into the 2011 college football season.

Nick Saban has built a machine at Alabama during his brief tenure in Tuscaloosa, and despite the loss of solid starting quarterback Greg McElroy and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram, the Tide has once again turned its attention toward a national title.

So what about the defending national champs? With decimating losses on both sides of the ball, Auburn seems poised to take a step back, as Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State surge forward in this impossibly stacked division. Much like Bama in first place, Ole Miss seems locked in at sixth as the Rebels try to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season.

In the East, Steve Spurrier seems to have recaptured some of his old Florida mojo; his Gamecocks are coming off their first division title, and fans are clamoring for more. But a return to Atlanta is far from certain, especially with the ongoing drama with quarterback Stephen Garcia.

It would have seemed unthinkable five years ago, but Mark Richt is probably one mediocre season away from unemployment. Fortunately for him, he has the horses to win the division, led by quarterback Aaron Murray, who has transitioned from question mark to lead Dawg.

There’s a new sheriff in Gainesville, as Will Muschamp inherits a talented roster from Urban Meyer. New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is one of the more intriguing hires of the offseason, and Gator quarterback John Brantley should be the primary beneficiary of Weis’ pro-style philosophy.

Tennessee will be fighting an uphill battle in Derek Dooley’s second season, while James Franklin’s inaugural campaign at Vanderbilt promises to be long and difficult. Better days seem to lie ahead, though, for both of the Volunteer State’s SEC programs. Kentucky is stout on defense, but the Cats’ offense is in need of some playmakers.

Athlon's 2011 SEC Previews

East West
Florida Alabama
Georgia Arkansas
Kentucky Auburn
South Carolina LSU
Tennessee Mississippi State
Vanderbilt Ole Miss

CONFERENCE NOTES

A NEW CHAMP?

The SEC is on an unprecedented run of national dominance: Auburn’s BCS championship was the league’s fifth in a row, by four different schools.

So will the league make it six in a row? And what are the chances it will be by a fifth different school?

Alabama (the 2009 champ) and LSU (2007) start the year with probably the best chances. But if you were looking for a “new” champ, here are a few candidates:

• Georgia, which last won a national title in 1980, has perhaps the league’s top returning quarterback in Aaron Murray, a highly rated recruiting class and a favorable schedule.

• South Carolina, if it can settle its quarterback issues, has a Heisman candidate in Marcus Lattimore, a bevy of other future NFL players and a coach (Steve Spurrier) who’s won nationally before.

• Arkansas will have a high-octane offense as long as Bobby Petrino is coach, and the defense began to improve last year.

• Mississippi State — which like South Carolina and Arkansas has never won an AP title — already surpassed expectations last year by going 9–4. What if Dan Mullen keeps the upward trend going?

Sure, all four may sound far-fetched. But this time last year, so did Auburn.

Uncertainty Under center?

Has the SEC ever entered a season with less returning star power at quarterback? When a redshirt sophomore (Georgia’s Murray) is arguably the top returning QB, that says something. But there’s still a lot of talent in the league — some stars are sure to emerge.

LSU could be a prime example. While Jordan Jefferson has been erratic, transfer Zach Mettenberger has a chance to be this year’s Cam Newton. OK, maybe a stretch, but Mettenberger (who was kicked off Georgia’s team for off-field issues) has great size and an arm cannon. Alabama’s AJ McCarron, a first-year starter, was one of the nation’s top recruits a few years ago. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray finished last year strong. Florida’s John Brantley could flourish in Charlie Weis’ system. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson should put up big numbers in Petrino’s offense.

The moral of the story: By year’s end, expect there to be plenty of new stars at the game’s most important position.

Scheduling small — for a reason

Nationally, the SEC takes some pot-shots for its non-conference scheduling. Too weak. Too many hyphenated opponents. Too afraid to travel out of the region.

But how fair is that?

Yes, the trend has been for SEC teams to schedule “down.” Florida famously only plays its arch-rival Florida State while playing the likes of Charleston Southern (in the opener) and The Citadel (late in the season). Most SEC teams now only play one other BCS conference team in non-conference play.

But those ‘one’ games should be pretty challenging this year.

•  LSU opens with defending BCS runner-up Oregon in Arlington, Texas

•  Ole Miss opens with BYU in Oxford.

•  Alabama is playing at Penn State.

•  Georgia opens with Boise State in Atlanta.

•  Vanderbilt plays Connecticut, the defending Big East champion, in Nashville.

•  There are regional or in-state matchups: Auburn-Clemson, Arkansas-Texas A&M, Kentucky-Louisville, South Carolina-Clemson.

Beyond that, what motivation is there for SEC teams to stack their non-conference schedules? When Georgia canceled a series with Oregon last year — by mutual agreement — UGA athletics director Greg McGarity pointed out that non-conference schedule strength essentially doesn’t matter.

“There is no RPI in football,” McGarity said. “At the end of the day if Georgia is 8–0 and beats Georgia Tech, chances are they’re going to play for the national championship.”

There’s also a local economic factor: Because SEC football is such an event, the schools and their towns generate a lot more revenue for home games. In these economic times, who can blame them for wanting to maximize the amount of home games per year?

That factor, and the fact that eight league games a year is challenging enough, mean that the current SEC scheduling model should stay this way for awhile.

Teaser:
<p> Athlon's countdown to the 2011 season continues with a look at the projected order of finish for the SEC.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - 16:51
Path: /college-football/jim-delany-big-ten
Body:

by Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyCBS on Twitter)

Legends. Leaders.

There might not have been two more polarizing words when the Big Ten announced it was naming its football divisions “Legends” and “Leaders” in December.

The new division names were welcomed as much as a plague.

“With all the great history and tradition available to it, the haughty Big Ten went low brow, corporate, generic,” wrote CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd. “Leaders and Legends? That’s the name of the trophy store down the street. What, were ‘Gods’ and ‘Superheroes’ already taken?”

James Edward Delany, the man ultimately responsible for the division names, was taken aback by the criticism and negative feedback.

“We wanted to build on the historic, legendary features, and then, what is intercollegiate athletics about if it’s not about building future leaders?” Delany says.

Ironically, the two words that have provided the most grief for Delany are actually the two words that best define the Big Ten’s commissioner — a legend and a leader.

This July marks his 22nd year leading the Big Ten. Only the fifth commissioner since the league’s founding in 1896, Delany has many achievements during his tenure — most notably league expansion and the formation of the Big Ten Network.

Twenty years after Penn State joined the Big Ten, Delany has added Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will begin Big Ten play this season.

In August 2007, Delany also was the guiding force in the creation and launch of the Big Ten Network — the first national conference-owned television network devoted to the athletic and academic programs of a single league. In its first 30 days, it reached 30 million homes, the first network to post those numbers. It’s now available in 19 of the nation’s top 20 television markets and reaches an estimated 75 million homes overall.

Those are just a couple of reasons that in 2007, BusinessWeek ranked Delany as the 31st-most powerful person in sports. The only college official who ranked higher on the list was then-NCAA President Myles Brand.

The 63-year old Delany, who was a guard on two of Dean Smith’s Final Four teams at North Carolina in the late 1960s, remains one of college athletics’ heaviest hitters. Just ask Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson.

Last December in New York, Benson was part of a panel at the IMG Intercollegiate Forum in New York City. Benson was joined on stage by Delany and four of the other five BCS conference commissioners in a discussion of the BCS and its impact on college athletics. General Custer stood a better chance than Benson.

During the forum, Delany went on about how he already had testified three times before Congress. Delany also discussed at great length the media and public pressures that he and the other BCS commissioners had faced defending the BCS system. He even referenced something called “BCS-defense fatigue.” He said he felt the need to be “politically correct” when discussing the smaller conferences, such as the Mountain West Conference or Benson’s WAC.

Equal access for the non-BCS conferences is not a subject Delany enjoys discussing. At least on two occasions during the forum, Delany interrupted Benson to hammer his opinion home.

“The BCS has provided greater access,” Benson said. “Look at 120 schools, 11 conferences and to establish opportunities for those student-athletes. To play on the big stage, we’ve been to the big stage. …

“The problem,” Delany interrupted, “is your big stage takes away opportunities for my teams, to play on the stage they created in 1902.”

Responded Benson: “I think the group of five (non-automatic qualifying BCS conferences) has established value in the last five years.”

“The notion,” Delany said, “that over time by putting political pressure on, it’s just going to get greater access, more financial reward and more access to the Rose Bowl … I think you’re really testing. I think people who have contributed a lot have, what I call, ‘BCS defense fatigue.’

“If you think you can continue to push for more money, more access to the Rose Bowl, or Sugar Bowl — I have tremendous respect for Boise and TCU. … I think they are tremendous teams that can beat any team in the country on a given day. I think the only question is, ‘Does one team’s 12–0 and another team’s 12–0 equate?’ And that’s where the discussion plays out, not whether or not they’re elite teams or deserving access to the bowl system.

“I’m not sure how much more give there is in the system.”

In 1998, the BCS began when the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl agreed to join the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big East as well as the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls to ensure a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game each season.

In the 13 years since, the BCS has expanded access to the bigger-paying BCS bowls for teams in the non-automatic qualifying conferences (WAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt) and has increased the revenue to those leagues. In 2009, the five non-automatic qualifying BCS leagues divided $24 million, with the Mountain West receiving $9.8 million and the WAC $7.8 million.

However, the Big Ten and SEC each received $22.2 million and the Big 12, Pac-10, ACC and Big East each received $17.7 million.

Benson supports the BCS but wants even more access and more revenue. This is not a popular subject with Delany.

“We gave up the Rose Bowl, the SEC gave up access to the Sugar Bowl, others were included, but they never had access to any of this before,” Delany said. “You have to understand who brought what to the table. Who’s continuing to give and who’s continuing to get.”

Then Delany made his stance on the subject crystal clear.

“The only thing I would say: If you think you (the non-automatic qualifying leagues) can continue to pressure the system and we’ll just naturally provide more and more and more, I don’t think that’s an assumption that our presidents, athletic directors, football coaches and commissioners necessarily agree with.

“Karl (Benson) says we like this contract and we want more. Well, we’ve got fatigue for defending a system that’s under a lot of pressure. The pressure is for more. It’s never enough.”

In 2009, non-automatic qualifying teams Boise State and TCU received BCS bowl berths. Last season, TCU earned an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl after the “Granddaddy of Them All” lost Pac-10 champion Oregon to the BCS title game. Delany didn’t hide his displeasure that Stanford, the Pac-10 runner-up, was not allowed to replace Oregon — instead of TCU — and play Wisconsin. Maybe we know why: Wisconsin went on to lose to TCU.

While the current BCS system runs through 2013, Delany suggested — no, make that all but promised — that if the automatic-qualifying leagues are pressured to give the smaller leagues even more money and more access to the bowls, the BCS leagues would likely go back to the bowl system before the BCS. In this scenario, the bowl games would align with the most attractive conferences and have the freedom to choose whatever team they wanted — i.e., a WAC or Mountain West team likely never would be selected by one of the big four bowls (Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, Orange) again.

Think the BCS schools won’t do it? Think again. And, if anyone has the power to make it happen, it’s Delany.

Other Big Ten Content:

Predicting College Football's Breakout Players: Big Ten
Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Top 25 Players of BCS Era

Best Quarterback in the Big Ten?

Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?

Illinois: A Sleeper Team?

Teaser:
<p> Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is one of college football's most powerful men.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 - 07:40
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Fantasy
Path: /columns/college-fantasy-rankings/cfb-fantasy-quarterback-rankings
Body:

Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2011. Until kickoff, look for updated rankings, player profiles and strategy pieces every week. As we dive into our preseason research, expect plenty of tweaks to the rankings before the season starts.

Scoring system rankings based upon -

1 passing touchdown = 4 points
Rushing/receiving = 6 points
25 passing yards = 1 point
10 rushing/receiving yards = 1 point
1 interception = - 1 point

Updated: August 26

Rank Team Player
1 Case Keenum Houston
2 Landry Jones Oklahoma
3 Dominique Davis East Carolina
4 Bryant Moniz Hawaii
5 Robert Griffin Baylor
6 Denard Robinson Michigan
7 Brandon Weeden Oklahoma State
8 Kyle Padron SMU
9 Austin Davis Southern Miss
10 Alex Carder Western Michigan
11 Geno Smith West Virginia
12 G.J. Kinne Tulsa
13 Darron Thomas Oregon
14 Kellen Moore Boise State
15 Andrew Luck Stanford
16 Ryan Aplin Arkansas State
17 Jeff Godfrey UCF
18 Corey Robinson Troy
19 Bryan Ellis UAB
20 Chandler Harnish Northern Illinois
21 Dan Persa Northwestern
22 Matt Barkley USC
23 Zach Collaros Cincinnati
24 Taylor Martinez Nebraska
25 Tyler Wilson Arkansas
26 Dayne Crist Notre Dame
27 Kolton Browning UL Monroe
28 Seth Doege Texas Tech
29 Jake Heaps BYU
30 Nathan Scheelhaase Illinois
31 Nick Foles Arizona
32 Tim Jefferson Air Force
33 Ryan Tannehill Texas A&M
34 Logan Thomas Virginia Tech
35 James Franklin Missouri
36 Aaron Murray Georgia
37 Taylor McHargue Rice
38 Kriss Proctor Navy
39 Brock Osweiler Arizona State
40 Chris Relf Mississippi State
41 Tajh Boyd Clemson
42 Russell Wilson Wisconsin
43 EJ Manuel Florida State
44 Ryan Radcliff Central Michigan
45 John Brantley Florida
46 Stephen Garcia South Carolina
47 Kirk Cousins Michigan State
48 Barrett Trotter Auburn
49 Tino Sunseri Pittsburgh
50 Zac Dysert Miami (Ohio)
51 Tyler Bray Tennessee
52 Jeff Tuel Washington State
53 Austin Dantin Toledo
54 Ryan Lindley San Diego State
55 Tevin Washington Georgia Tech
56 MarQueis Gray Minnesota
57 Sean Renfree Duke
58 Tyler Lantrip Nevada
59 Ryan Katz Oregon State
60 Danny O\'Brien Maryland
61 Alex Gillett Eastern Michigan
62 Matt Schilz Bowling Green
63 Nick Isham Louisiana Tech
64 Keith Wenning Ball State
65 Mike Glennon NC State
66 Derek Carr Fresno State
67 Jordan Wynn Utah
68 Casey Pachall TCU
69 Keith Price Washington
70 B.J. Daniels South Florida
71 Collin Klein Kansas State
72 Garrett Gilbert Texas
73 Ryan Nassib Syracuse
74 Morgan Newton Kentucky
75 Bryn Renner North Carolina
76 Trent Steelman Army
77 Pete Thomas Colorado State
78 Tyler Tettleton Ohio
79 Chris Masson UL Lafayette
80 Chazz Anderson Buffalo

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its release of the 2011 college fantasy football draft kit with the first look at quarterback rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 - 23:06
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Fantasy
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/preseason-cfb-fantasy-rb-rankings
Body:

Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2011. Until kickoff, look for updated rankings, player profiles and strategy pieces every week. As we dive into our preseason research, expect plenty of tweaks to the rankings before the season starts.

Scoring system rankings based upon -

1 passing touchdown = 4 points
Rushing/receiving = 6 points
25 passing yards = 1 point
10 rushing/receiving yards = 1 point
1 reception = 0.5 points
1 fumble = -1 point
1 interception = - 1 point

Updated: August 25

Rank Player Team
1 LaMichael James Oregon
2 Lance Dunbar North Texas
3 Trent Richardson Alabama
4 Bobby Rainey Western Kentucky
5 Marcus Lattimore South Carolina
6 Ronnie Hillman San Diego State
7 David Wilson Virginia Tech
8 Doug Martin Boise State
9 Marcus Coker Iowa
10 Montee Ball Wisconsin
11 James White Wisconsin
12 Ray Graham Pittsburgh
13 Rex Burkhead Nebraska
14 Lennon Creer Louisiana Tech
15 Adonis Thomas Toledo
16 Orleans Darkwa Tulane
17 Zach Line SMU
18 Bernard Pierce Temple
19 Chris Polk Washington
20 Rodney Stewart Colorado
21 Andre Ellington Clemson
22 Cyrus Gray Texas A&M
23 Stepfan Taylor Stanford
24 Brandon Bolden Ole Miss
25 Edwin Baker Michigan State
26 Lamar Miller Miami
27 Mike Ball Nevada
28 Jason Ford Illinois
29 Robert Turbin Utah State
30 Robbie Rouse Fresno State
31 Cierre Wood Notre Dame
32 Antwon Bailey Syracuse
33 Michael Dyer Auburn
34 Silas Redd Penn State
35 Joseph Randle Oklahoma State
36 Vick Ballard Mississippi State
37 Pat Shed UAB
38 Sam McGuffie Rice
39 Tauren Poole Tennessee
40 Spencer Ware LSU
41 Cameron Marshall Arizona State
42 Jasmin Hopkins Northern Illinois
43 Eric Stephens Texas Tech
44 Isaiah Crowell Georgia
45 Davin Meggett Maryland
46 Darriet Perry FIU
47 Johnathan Franklin UCLA
48 Daniel Herron Ohio State
49 Isi Sofele California
50 Montel Harris Boston College
51 Andre Williams Boston College
52 Isaiah Pead Cincinnati
53 Ed Wesley TCU
54 JJ Di Luigi BYU
55 Malcolm Brown Texas
56 Savon Huggins Rutgers
57 Roy Finch Oklahoma
58 Brandon Williams Oklahoma
59 Shontrelle Johnson Iowa State
60 Christine Michael Texas A&M
61 Raymond Sanders Kentucky
62 Keola Antolin Arizona
63 Bryce Brown Kansas State
64 Ronnie Wingo Arkansas
65 Perry Jones Virginia
66 Dillon Baxter USC
67 Michael Shaw Michigan
68 D.J. Shoemate Connecticut
69 James Sims Kansas
70 Kendrick Hardy Southern Miss
71 Asher Clark Air Force
72 Alvester Alexander Wyoming
73 Andrew Buie West Virginia
74 Jeremy Wright Louisville
75 Victor Anderson Louisville
76 Alfred Morris FAU
77 Tevin Drake Western Michigan
78 Bryce Beall Houston
79 Kenjon Barner Oregon
80 Jared Hassin Army
81 Terrance Ganaway Baylor
82 Ryan Houston North Carolina
83 Chris Rainey Florida
84 Josh Harris Wake Forest
85 Alexander Teich Navy
86 Jermaine Thomas Florida State
87 Latavius Murray UCF
88 Jeremy Smith Oklahoma State
89 Joe Banyard UTEP
90 Duane Bennett Minnesota

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its release of the 2011 college fantasy football draft kit with the first look at running back rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 - 12:07
Path: /college-football/predicting-college-footballs-breakout-players-notre-dame
Body:

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Notre Dame fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.

Aaron Lynch, DE – There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Notre Dame defense this season. The Irish allowed only 39 points in the final four games of 2010 and return eight starters from that unit, including All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Adding to the potential of the defense is one of the top defensive line recruiting classes in the nation. Lynch is the headliner of that group, ranking as the No. 22 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100. He enrolled early and wrecked havoc on the offense, collecting six tackles and a quarterback rush in the spring game. The Irish won’t need Lynch to start with Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore returning at end, but expect the true freshman to log significant minutes and should be one of the defense’s top pass rushers.

Zack Martin, OT – With four starters back, the offensive line should be a strength for Notre Dame in 2011. This group is anchored by three seniors, but Martin is one of the top sophomore offensive line prospects in college football. Martin started all 13 games as a freshman last season, with 11 of those coming at left tackle. The sophomore will be tasked with protecting the blindside of Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees this season and with the returning pieces around him, this could be one of the better Irish offensive lines in recent years. If Martin picks up where he left off last season, don’t be surprised if he earns All-American honors by the end of 2011.

Theo Riddick, WR – Riddick was off to a solid start last year, catching 33 passes during an early season four-game stretch. However, an ankle injury against Western Michigan limited his effectiveness the rest of the way. Riddick finished the year with 40 receptions for 414 yards and three scores, along with 29 yards on the ground. The Irish would like get Riddick as many touches as possible, so expect to see him used on returns, in addition to his offensive duties. With the junior returning to full health, he should threaten 70 catches and become a key cog in the Irish passing attack. With Michael Floyd and TJ Jones returning, along with Riddick’s development, Notre Dame will field one of the top receiving corps in college football. 

Prince Shembo, LB – With Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese and Darius Fleming returning, the Irish already own one of the nation’s top 10 linebacking corps. But this group could get even better with Shembo’s continued emergence. He played in all 13 games last year, registering 15 tackles, 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Shembo was used only as a reserve last year, but is ticked for a spot in the starting lineup as an outside linebacker. The sophomore should push for the team lead in sacks and at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, will be counted upon to help Notre Dame's rush defense continue to improve upon last season's numbers. 

Cierre Wood, RB – The Irish finished a disappointing 92nd nationally in rushing offense last year, but that number should improve in 2011. Wood emerged as Notre Dame’s top back over the second half of last year, tallying 329 of his 603 yards in the final four games. He also managed 20 receptions last season and averaged 20 yards per kick return. After providing a spark for the rushing attack at the end of 2010, Wood will open the year as Notre Dame’s top back and should post around 200 carries. With more opportunities to shine and an experienced offensive line, Wood should easily surpass 1,000 yards in 2011. 

Others to Watch

Tyler Eifert, TE – Caught 26 of his 27 receptions over the final seven games of last season. With Kyle Rudolph off to the NFL, expect Eifert to become a bigger part of the offense.

TJ Jones, WR – Another valuable weapon in the Notre Dame passing attack and should be better with another offseason to pickup the playbook.

Louis Nix, NG – Should be a perfect replacement for Ian Williams in the middle of the line. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix has the size and strength to hold up against the run and is having a solid fall camp.

Other Notre Dame Content:

How Texas A&M's Potential Move to the SEC Will Impact College Football
Five Reasons to Believe in Notre Dame for 2011

College Football's Top 25 Games for 2011

Teaser:
<p> Notre Dame fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, but which players will be household names by the end of 2011?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 - 07:46
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Fantasy
Path: /columns/college-fantasy-rankings/preseason-cfb-fantasy-te-rankings
Body:

Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2011. Over the next three months, look for updated rankings, player profiles and strategy pieces every week. As we dive into our preseason research, expect plenty of tweaks to the rankings before the season starts.

Scoring system rankings based upon -

1 passing touchdown = 4 points
Rushing/receiving = 6 points
25 passing yards = 1 point
10 rushing/receiving yards = 1 point
1 reception = 0.5 points
1 fumble = -1 point
1 interception = - 1 point

Updated: August 25

Rank Player Team
1 Ladarius Green UL Lafayette
2 Michael Egnew Missouri
3 Tyler Eifert Notre Dame
4 Luke Willson Rice
5 Orson Charles Georgia
6 Drake Dunsmore Northwestern
7 Lucas Reed New Mexico
8 Coby Fleener Stanford
9 Jordan Reed Florida
10 James Hanna Oklahoma
11 Kyler Reed Nebraska
12 George Bryan NC State
13 David Paulson Oregon
14 Gavin Escobar San Diego State
15 Jake Stoneburner Ohio State
16 Jacob Pederson Wisconsin
17 Dwayne Allen Clemson
18 Eric Lair Minnesota
19 Kyle Efaw Boise State
20 Brandon Barden Vanderbilt
21 Ted Bolser Indiana
22 Ryan Otten San Jose State
23 Cooper Helfet Duke
24 Kevin Koger Michigan
25 Philip Lutzenkirchen Auburn
26 Chris Gragg Arkansas
27 D.C. Jefferson Rutgers
28 Deangelo Peterson LSU
29 Jack Doyle Western Kentucky
30 Joe Halahuni Oregon State

Teaser:
<p> Athlon continues its release of the 2011 college fantasy football draft kit with the first look at tight end rankings.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 - 03:44
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football
Path: /college-football/clemson-could-surprise-acc
Body:

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Before the season kicks off, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

Is Clemson the surprise team in the ACC? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Tigers.

Reasons the Tigers will surprise:

1. In each of the last six seasons, Clemson has ranked in the top 25 of Athlon’s top 50 recruiting classes. The Tigers ranked ninth last season, which included one of the top linebacking classes (Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony) in the nation. Clemson has consistently recruited among the top teams in the conference, with nine players earning a spot on Athlon’s 2011 preseason All-ACC team. Although the results on the field haven’t been what Clemson fans have wanted to see, the talent is in place to contend for the ACC title every year.

2. The hire of Chad Morris as coordinator should produce instant results for Clemson's offense. Morris called the plays at Tulsa last season, leading the Golden Hurricane offense to an average of 505.6 yards and 41.4 points per game. The Tigers want to raise the tempo on offense and will throw a lot of different looks at defenses. Clemson ranked 10th in the ACC in scoring and total offense last season and similar numbers won’t be enough to contend in the Atlantic Division race in 2011. Expecting the Tigers to equal Tulsa’s totals from last year is ambitious, but improvement should be noticed, especially with a promising group of weapons stepping into more playing time.

3. The trio of quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins could be one of the best in the ACC by the end of the year. Boyd has thrown only 63 career passes, but was regarded as the No. 77 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Ellington was off to a terrific start last year, but due to a toe injury, had only one carry in the final five games of last season. Hopkins is coming off a strong freshman effort in 2010, catching 52 passes for 637 yards and four scores. Although this trio is young, the talent is capable of leading Clemson to an Atlantic Division title.

4. Clemson suffered some significant losses on defense, especially with the departure of end Da’Quan Bowers, tackle Jarvis Jenkins and safety DeAndre McDaniel. However, with Kevin Steele at the controls, this unit may not suffer much of a drop-off. The Tigers ranked first in the ACC in scoring defense last year, allowing 18.8 points per game. Clemson return six starters on defense, including likely All-ACC players in end Andre Branch and safety Rashard Hall. Replacing Bowers and Jenkins on the line is arguably the unit's biggest issue. However, Branch and fellow senior Brandon Thompson are a solid duo, while Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford are ready to emerge as key cogs up front. Expect the defense to get a boost from freshmen linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, who are expected to see significant snaps in 2011. Steele is one of the best defensive coordinators in the ACC and even with the losses, this should still remain one of the best in the conference.

Reasons to doubt the Tigers will surprise:

1. The Tigers are certainly bringing in elite talent, but that has meant little on the field in recent years. Clemson’s last double-digit win total came in 1990 under Ken Hatfield (10) and have managed only one appearance in the ACC title game. The Tigers have consistently underachieved and many people doubt Dabo Swinney is the right man for the job. Programs can bring in all of the elite talent they want, but if the right coaches aren’t in place, the results will fail to matchup. Considering the Tigers have possessed one of the ACC’s most talented rosters over the last six seasons, they should have fared better in the final standings. Is there really any reason to believe 2011 might be different?

2. In addition to Clemson’s history of underachieving, it closed out 2010 on a dismal note. The Tigers lost three out of their final four games, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl against South Florida. Losses against Florida State and South Carolina are nothing to be embarrassed about, but the Tigers have to step it up against those teams if they want to be a top 25 team this year. The disappointing end to last season raised a lot of question marks about coach Dabo Swinney’s future at Clemson. If the Tigers lose to Auburn and Florida State and finish September with a 2-2 record, those concerns will be ignited once again.

3. Although Chad Morris was one of the top offensive coordinator hires in college football, it might take some for all of the pieces to come together. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is capable, but lacks overall experience and completed only 52.4 percent of his throws last year. Running back Andre Ellington could be one of the best in the ACC, but he couldn’t stay healthy last season and his toe injury raised concerns about his durability. The offensive line returns four starters, but has to replace left tackle Chris Hairston – the top player from last season’s unit. The Tigers could have one of the most improved offenses in college football this year. However, with Boyd likely suffering a few growing pains in his first year as the starter, along with the entire offense picking up a new scheme, it may take a few games before things start to click.

4. The nation should get a good snapshot at just how good Clemson is in September. The Tigers play their first four games at home, which includes matchups against Florida State and Auburn. Considering the Seminoles host Oklahoma a week before playing Clemson, the Tigers could be in position to pull off the upset. Although a 4-0 start isn’t out of the question, Clemson didn’t catch any breaks the rest of the way. The Tigers have road dates against Virginia Tech, Maryland, Georgia Tech and NC State in conference play, along with the season finale against rival South Carolina. Five of the final eight games are away from Death Valley, including three key swing games in conference play. The schedule isn’t overly difficult, but the road dates will be tricky for a team that’s likely to be jockeying for position in the ACC Atlantic against Maryland and NC State.

Other ACC Content:

What the Miami Scandal Means for 2011
What Does Texas A&M's Potential Move to the SEC Mean for College Football?

Athlon Awards: Ranking the Best Units in the ACC

Predicting the Breakout Players in the ACC for 2011

Ranking the ACC's Top 25 Players for 2011

Athlon's 2011 ACC Predictions

Teaser:
<p> Talent is never an issue at Clemson. However, reaching expectations hasn't been easy. Will 2011 be different?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 22, 2011 - 07:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Zach Collaros, Big East
Path: /college-football/cincinnatis-zach-collaros-back-attack
Body:

One of the best quarterbacks in the Big East Conference is as comfortable doing a traditional Greek dance during the summer in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, as he is throwing touchdown passes at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium in the fall.

Senior Zach Collaros, who led the Big East in passing yardage and touchdown passes in 2010, has never lost sight of his roots in Steubenville, where he led his high school team to back-to-back state championships as a junior and senior and went undefeated as a starting quarterback.

An old steel town with a population of about 19,000, Steubenville is located along the Ohio River about 39 miles west of Pittsburgh. The town that produced Dean Martin and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder rallies around the Big Red football team, which has won three state championships and ranks among the top-25 programs in the country with 724 victories. It boasts a proud Greek heritage that Collaros eagerly embraces, right down to dancing at the annual Greek festival.

“I can do it all,” he says. “That’s my favorite part of the festival.”

Collaros, who grew up following the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ohio State Buckeyes, dreamed of playing in Columbus. But at 6'0", 223 pounds, he doesn’t match the classic quarterback profile, so no matter how well he played or how many games he won at Steubenville, OSU coach Jim Tressel simply wasn’t interested.

“You would always hear rumors that Ohio State was here,” Collaros says. “After awhile, it’s like, you know, they’re probably not here. I would keep playing better and better and better and I wouldn’t hear anything.”

After he came to terms with the reality that Ohio State was not his destiny, Collaros accepted a scholarship from Cincinnati and swore to his father that he would never walk into Ohio Stadium unless he was playing against the Buckeyes.

He was redshirted during his freshman year at Cincinnati in 2007, then threw only four passes in 2008 when he was one of five Cincinnati quarterbacks to see action. As a sophomore in 2009,
he began training camp at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Tony Pike and Chazz Anderson, but ended up starting four games in place of the injured Pike, passing for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. By the end of the season he had emerged as the frontrunner to be the starting quarterback in 2010.

In his first season as Cincinnati’s head coach last year, Butch Jones handed Collaros the keys to Cincinnati’s spread offense, and Collaros responded by passing for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns. But the Bearcats, coming off back-to-back Big East championships, fell off the map. Not only did Collaros suffer his first loss as a starting quarterback in either high school or college after 34 straight wins, but his team also lost repeatedly and at times couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Following a 2009 season in which Cincinnati finished third in the final BCS standings, narrowly missing a chance to play for the national championship, the Bearcats slipped to 4–8 overall, 2–5 in the Big East.

The season started with a loss at Fresno State. The Bearcats beat Indiana State at home, but then lost at North Carolina State and at Paul Brown Stadium to No. 8 Oklahoma, 31–29, in a game they might have won if not for four turnovers. Those turnovers proved to be a harbinger of a problem that would plague Cincinnati all season. The Bearcats finished with a league-high 29 turnovers, and Collaros had a major hand in that negative statistic, with 14 interceptions.

Cincinnati saw a 14-game Nippert Stadium winning streak come to an end against South Florida. It also lost at home to Syracuse and to Pittsburgh in its final regular-season game, finishing with five losses in its last six games.

But it was a loss at Connecticut on Nov. 27 that was the most crushing for Collaros, who fought back tears at the post-game press conference because he knew then that the seniors — many of whom he had begun his college career with — would not return to a bowl game. He assumed much of the responsibility for that shortcoming.

“We hadn’t lost that many games in all the years we’ve been here,” Collaros says. “It was disappointing and frustrating.”

After the season, Collaros went through a period of soul-searching where he tried to figure out what went wrong. Having won 33 games in their final three seasons under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats had reached the point where they expected to win. Perhaps they took winning for granted. Perhaps their fall was the result of playing for a new head coach and adjusting to a new way of doing things.

Whatever the reason, the losing season ate at Collaros.

“There was definitely a period of time where that was all you really thought about,” Collaros says. “Why were we this bad? Why didn’t I play better? We just had to forget about it and start playing for this year.”

Collaros had an outstanding offseason according to Jones, working tirelessly with his receivers in Cincinnati’s new indoor practice bubble and displaying a level of leadership that Jones has been waiting to see. In the long run, dealing with the pain of defeat might prove to be beneficial to Collaros as he enters his final season of college football.

“It’s been a great humbling experience for him,” Jones says. “It’s been a great learning curve for him. Being a quarterback, you’ve got to take care of the football. He had some bad habits where he was going to scramble and throw the ball.”

Indeed, a major part of Collaros’ interception problem last year was his refusal to accept defeat. That’s also part of what endears him to his teammates. When the Bearcats were trailing late in a game, he often tried to force a big play, usually with wide receiver Armon Binns at the other end.

Binns, who led the Big East in receiving, had a knack for leaping up to catch the ball in traffic, and Collaros had come to rely on him to make a play when there was nothing there. Binns would deliver occasionally. Every time he did, it made Collaros more willing to take an unwise risk.

One of Collaros’ strengths is his ability to make plays when the protection breaks down, so he doesn’t want to lose that ability to improvise on the run. But he has to learn the fine art of knowing when to throw the ball with a decent chance of success and when to pull it down, punt, and play for better field position.

“I’ve really been trying to work on moving in the pocket, resetting my feet and getting the ball out,” Collaros says. “Sometimes stuff breaks down and you can’t be in the pocket. Sometimes I held the ball too long and took a lot of sacks. Sometimes stuff breaks down and you have to be an athlete and make a play.”

Collaros is the unquestioned leader of Cincinnati’s offense now, but at one point early in his college career, he was so frustrated by his lack of playing time that he considered transferring from Cincinnati. He decided to stay, because to him, transferring would be akin to quitting. And he knew that wouldn’t go over well back home in Steubenville.

“I’d feel like I let everybody in Steubenville down,” he says, “and that was something I just didn’t want to do.”

Now Collaros wants to make sure he doesn’t let the fans in Cincinnati down. He enters this season determined to make sure the Bearcats return to the top of the Big East, where he believes they belong.

“I want to win games,” Collaros says. “That’s really all I care about. As long as we win games for this program and this city, I think the rest will take care of itself.”

Other Big East Content:

Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Team

Ranking the Big East's Top 25 Players for 2011

How Texas A&M's Move to SEC Could Impact College Football

Predicting the Breakout Players in the Big East for 2011

Is Louisville the Big East's Surprise Team?

Teaser:
<p> After winning back-to-back Big East titles, Cincinnati posted a disappointing 4-8 record. It's up to quarterback Zach Collaros to lead the Bearcats back into contention.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 22, 2011 - 07:20
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/fantasy-football-analyzing-first-round-running-backs
Body:

Athlon Sports takes a look at the pros and cons of the 10 running backs that will come off of your fantasy football draft boards first during your 2011 drafts.

More on our top five backs.

Arian Foster - Houston Athlon Top 280 Rank: 1
Pros: Foster was the No. 1 fantasy running back last season by a wide margin. Texans own one of the league’s top lines. Great supporting cast. Only running back in NFL last year to average more than 100 yards per game.
Cons: Very limited track record. Ben Tate is healthy and could steal a few carries away. Injuries have been a concern throughout Foster’s career.

Adrian Peterson - Minnesota Athlon Top 280 Rank: 2
Pros: Arguably the most talented running back in the NFL. Four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Seems to have solved fumble issues. Four seasons of at least 1,600 total yards and 10 scores.
Cons: Vikings have Donovan McNabb in his twilight years, could start a rookie quarterback, and offensive line is a question mark. Despite questionable surrounding cast, Peterson remains a solid fantasy pick, but needs help to improve upon last year’s numbers.

Ray Rice - Baltimore Athlon Top 280 Rank: 3
Pros: Back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons. Could see more work around the goal line this year. A top option in PPR leagues.
Cons: Offensive line a question mark. Ravens added more weapons at receiver, which could reduce receptions. May be difficult to top last year’s 307 carries in 2011.

Chris Johnson - Tennessee Athlon Top 280 Rank: 4
Pros: One of the safest picks at running back after three straight 1,000-yard seasons. With uncertainty at quarterback, Johnson should be the focal point of the offense and will see plenty of passes in his direction once again.
Cons: Titans, like the Vikings with McNabb, have Matt Hasselbeck in his later years and could start a rookie quarterback later. Has been holding out due to contract. Yards per carry dropped from 5.6 in 2009 to 4.3 last year. Already has a lot of work on a slight frame.

Jamaal Charles - Kansas City Athlon Top 280 Rank: 5
Pros: Very little wear on the tires. Increased yards per carry by at least a half a yard each of last three seasons. With Thomas Jones in decline, likely in line for more work around the goal line.
Cons: Schedule among the toughest in the NFL. Chiefs could continue to limit his workload to prevent him from breaking down.

LeSean McCoy - Philadelphia Athlon Top 280 Rank: 8
Pros: Led all running backs with 78 receptions. Eagles don’t run the ball a ton, but he doesn’t have any competition for carries at running back. Makes what carries he gets count — had a 5.2-yard average in 2010.
Cons: May not improve much on rushing yardage totals due to Eagles offense. All of the weapons are back in Philadelphia, which means McCoy’s touchdown totals are also unlikely to increase.

Rashard Mendenhall - Pittsburgh Athlon Top 280 Rank: 9
Pros: Entering the prime of his career. Has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and tied for second in the NFL with 13 rushing scores last year. Has very little competition for touches; should top 300 carries once again.
Cons: Although the offensive line is getting better, it remains a concern. Mendenhall won’t be much of a factor in PPR leagues and could lose a few more goal line touches to Isaac Redman.

Maurice Jones-Drew - Jacksonville Athlon Top 280 Rank: 11
Pros: The Jaguars still have a questionable passing attack, which should make Jones-Drew the focal point of the offense. He has back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons and remains a significant contributor in receptions out of the backfield.
Cons: Coming off of knee surgery. Touchdown totals were significantly down from 2009 season. Should be focal point of offense, but lack of consistent passing attack is a concern.

Darren McFadden - Oakland Athlon Top 280 Rank: 12
Pros: Finally lived up to the hype by earning first 1,000-yard season. Raiders should boast an improved passing attack, which will ease pressure on McFadden. A factor in PPR leagues.
Cons: Has never played a full 16-game slate due to injuries. Backfield mates Michael Bush and Taiwan Jones will factor into Oakland’s gameplan each week. Offensive line could be a question mark.

Frank Gore - San Francisco Athlon Top 280 Rank: 13
Pros: Before last season’s injury, was on pace to earn his fifth-straight 1,000-yard season. New head coach Jim Harbaugh was a run-first coach at Stanford and wants the same mentality in San Francisco.
Cons: Injury prone — he has played 16 games only once in six seasons. Yards per carry dropped from 4.9 to 4.2 last year. 49ers passing game will be an issue once again.
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports takes a look at the pros and cons of the 10 running backs that will come off of your fantasy football draft boards first during your 2011 drafts.</p>
Post date: Sunday, August 21, 2011 - 09:01
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Mountain West
Path: /college-football/ranking-mountain-wests-top-25-players-2011
Body:

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the Mountain West.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 25 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 3,845 yds., 35 TDs, 6 INTs

Moore has compiled an impressive resume in his three years at Boise State. He has thrown for 10,867 yards and 99 scores, while tossing only 19 interceptions. Moore owns a 68.2 career completion percentage and enters 2011 as college football’s career leader in passing efficiency (166.7). He finished fourth in Heisman voting and earned first-team All-WAC honors last year. Moore has one more shot to lead Boise State to a national title appearance, but lost his top two receivers from last year in Titus Young and Austin Pettis. The season opener against Georgia will be a key contest for Moore’s Heisman hopes, as well as Boise State’s chances to play for a championship. 

2. Tank Carder, LB, TCU (SR)
2010 stats: 60 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 5 PBU

The 2011 Rose Bowl gave the national audience a chance to see what everyone in the Mountain West already knew – Carder is one of the top defensive players in college football. Against Wisconsin, Carder collected six tackles and one sack, while breaking up a key two-point conversion late in the game. He was named the 2011 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP for his performance against the Badgers. Carder earned first-team All-Mountain West honors and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year last season. He is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American for 2011.

3. Nate Potter, OT, Boise State (SR)
Potter enters 2011 as one of the top linemen in the nation. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. Potter started 13 games at left tackle and earned first-team All-WAC honors last season. He also garnered first-team honors in 2009, after starting the final eight games of the year. Potter is the unquestioned leader for Boise State’s offensive line, which is one of the top units in college football. At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Potter has the size and talent to be one of the first linemen selected in the 2012 NFL Draft.

4. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 28 tackles, 4 sacks, 9.5 TFL, 1 FF

The overall numbers aren’t particularly overwhelming for Winn, but his impact goes beyond the stats. Winn is one of college football’s top defensive tackles and is an Athlon Sports’ preseason first-team All-American. He earned back-to-back second-team All-WAC honors in 2009 and 2010, but should be one of the top defenders in the Mountain West this season. Winn is generating a lot of interest from NFL scouts and could be a first-round pick in the 2012 draft.

5. Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 30 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF

McClellin is the second member of Boise State’s defensive line to crack the top five. He led the team with 9.5 sacks last year and earned first-team All-WAC honors. With McClellin and Billy Winn leading the way, Boise State ranks as Athlon Sports No. 1 defensive line for the 2011 season. McClellin is also an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American.

6. Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State (SO)
2010 stats: 1,532 yds., 17 TDs, 9 rec., 68 yds., 1 TD

After sitting out 2009 due to academic issues, Hillman became one of the top running backs in college football last year. He led the Mountain West in rushing yards and touchdowns, while averaging a robust 5.9 yards per carry. Hillman collected six games of at least 100 yards, including 228 against Missouri and 191 against Air Force. He also posted a monster effort in the Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy, gashing the Midshipmen for 228 yards and three scores. With four starters returning on the offensive line, expect Hillman to remain one of the nation’s leading rushers.

7. Ryan Lindley, QB, San Diego State (SR)
2010 stats: 3,830 yds., 28 TDs, 14 INTs

Lindley has made steady progress throughout his career at San Diego State and was selected to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-Mountain West second team. Lindley enters 2011 with 31 consecutive starts and ranks second in school history with 9,537 career passing yards. He posted six games of at least 300 yards through the air and passed for 276 yards and two scores in the Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy. Although Lindley has improved over the last three years, he will be throwing to an inexperienced group of receivers. The Aztecs lost Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson to graduation, while Dominique Sandifer is out for the year due to injury. With a young and unproven group of receivers, topping last season’s statistics should be difficult.

8. Doug Martin, RB, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 1,260 yds., 12 TDs, 28 rec., 338 yds., 2 TDs

San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman is the top running back in the Mountain West, but Martin isn’t too far behind. Martin led the Boise State rushing attack with 1,260 yards last year, which was his first 1,000-yard season in his career. Martin has accumulated an impressive 27 rushing scores over the last two years and is averaging six yards a carry in his career. With three starters back on the offensive line, expect the senior to post another 1,000 yards and at least 10 scores.

9. Miles Burris, LB, San Diego State (SR)
2010 stats: 80 tackles, 20 TFL, 9.5 sacks

Rocky Long made significant strides with the San Diego State defense over the last couple of seasons. Although Brady Hoke left for Michigan, Long has moved into the head coach role, but will continue to call the plays on defense. Burris shined under Long’s coaching the last two years, leading the Mountain West in sacks and tackles for a loss last season. Burris was a first-team All-Mountain West selection in 2010 and should be a lock for similar honors in 2011.

10. George Iloka, S, Boise State (SR)
2010 stats: 63 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INTs, 5 PBU, 1 FF

The Broncos will be replacing three starters in the secondary, but Iloka’s return provides a solid building block for this unit. Iloka finished third on the team with 63 tackles last year and tied for second with two interceptions. The senior has made 27 consecutive starts and is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American.

11. Leon McFadden, CB, San Diego State (JR)
McFadden earned first-team All-Mountain West honors last season, after breaking up 12 passes, recording two interceptions and making 55 tackles. The junior has proven himself as the top cornerback in the conference, so expect opposing offenses to stay away from his side of the field.

12. Tim Jefferson, QB, Air Force (SR)
Jefferson could get overshadowed in the Mountain West quarterback discussion this year, especially with Kellen Moore and Ryan Lindley returning for their senior years. However, Jefferson has been a key reason for Air Force’s recent success, posting 25 total touchdowns and 2,253 yards of offense last year. With Jefferson back under center, Air Force could be a sleeper team to push Boise State for the Mountain West title.

13. Tanner Brock, LB, TCU (JR)
Tank Carder gets all of the national credit, but Brock is a solid player that shouldn’t be overlooked. In his first year as a starter in 2010, Brock collected 106 tackles, two sacks and picked up two fumble recoveries. He was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last year. With Carder and Brock returning, TCU should have one of the top linebacking corps in the nation.

14. Mychal Sisson, LB, Colorado State (SR)
Sisson doesn’t have ideal size, but has been one of Colorado State’s top performers over the last three years. Sisson has 291 tackles in his career and forced seven fumbles last season. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Mountain West selection.

15. Ed Wesley RB, TCU (JR)
Wesley earned his first 1,000-yard season last year, rushing for 1,078 yards and 11 scores. The TCU backfield is deep, with Matthew Tucker and Waymon James also expected to see significant carries. However, Wesley should lead the Horned Frogs in rushing for 2011.

16. Carmen Messina, LB, New Mexico (SR)
Thanks to a struggling offense, the New Mexico defense has spent a lot of time on the field over the last two years. Messina collected a ridiculous 162 tackles in 2009, but his totals slipped to 115 last year. Unless the Lobos make drastic improvement on offense, Messina can expect to spend a lot of time and the field and should collect over 100 tackles once again.

17. Thomas Byrd, C, Boise State (SR)
Undersized center (5-foot-11), but is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2011.

18. Josh Biezuns, DE, Wyoming (SR)
Moved from linebacker to defensive end last year and led the Wyoming defense with 6.5 sacks. Selected as an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Mountain West selection for 2011.

19. Stansly Maponga, DE, TCU (SO)
After a promising freshman year, Maponga is one of the Mountain West’s rising stars. He collected 32 tackles and 2.5 sacks and earned second-team All-Mountain West honors last year.

20. Paul Madsen, Colorado State (SR)
Madsen started 12 games last year and earned second-team All-Mountain West honors. The senior will be the leader of an offensive line that returns four starters.

21. Tashaun Gipson, Wyoming (SR)
22. Anthony Wright, Air Force (SR)
23. Tyrone Crawford, Boise State (SR)
24. Lucas Reed, New Mexico (SO)
25. A.J. Wallerstein, Air Force (SR)

Just Missing Out on the Top 25

Chase Baker, DT, Boise State
Jon Davis, S, Air Force
Kyle Dooley, OG, TCU
Brian Hendricks, LB, Wyoming
Phillip Payne, WR, UNLV
Pete Thomas, QB, Colorado State

Other Mountain West Content:

Athlon's 2011 Mountain West Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Mountain West Team

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the Mountain West.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 19, 2011 - 08:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Big Ten
Path: /college-football/predicting-college-footballs-breakout-players-big-ten
Body:

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.

Ricardo Allen, CB, PurdueMost Big Ten fans are probably familiar with Allen’s accomplishments last year, but he’s not quite a household name. Allen had a terrific freshman season, collecting 73 tackles, one sack, three interceptions and broke up four passes. He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and returned two of his picks for touchdowns. The Boilermakers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last year, but with Allen’s emergence and three other starters returning, this could be one of the most improved defensive backfields in the conference.

Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin Borland was one of the Big Ten’s rising stars going into last year, but a shoulder injury prevented him from playing in 11 games. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009, after registering 54 tackles, five sacks and three fumble recoveries. Borland will move to middle linebacker from the outside this season, but Wisconsin could move him around to get more pressure on the quarterback on third downs or passing situations. As long as Borland and Mike Taylor can stay healthy, Wisconsin should have one of the top linebacking corps in the Big Ten.

Rex Burkhead, RB, NebraskaBehind Burkhead, Roy Helu and quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska rushing attack ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 last season. Helu has finished his eligibility in Lincoln, which opens the door for Burkhead to assume the No. 1 role in the backfield. He has rushed for 1,297 yards and 10 scores over the last two years, along with 28 receptions for 238 yards and one touchdown. The junior also serves as Nebraska’s Wildcat quarterback. The Cornhuskers will likely use Aaron Green and Braylon Heard to spell Burkhead for a couple of carries per game, but the junior should finish the year as one of the Big Ten’s leading rushers.

Marcus Coker, RB, IowaInjuries and a suspension to starter Adam Robinson opened the door for Coker to become Iowa’s No. 1 back at the end of 2010. Coker led Iowa to an Insight Bowl victory, gashing Missouri for 219 rushing yards and two scores. His final totals for the year were 622 yards and three scores. Robinson was dismissed from the team, which leaves Coker to be Iowa’s workhorse on the ground this year. The Hawkeyes return one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines returning, so the sophomore should have no trouble getting to 1,000 yards.

William Gholston, DE, Michigan StateGholston ranked as the No. 24 recruit in the 2010 Athlon Consensus 100 and didn’t disappoint in limited action last year, seeing action in 10 games and collecting 13 stops. The sophomore is ready to move into a starting role, and Michigan State needs the sophomore to become an impact player. Gholston will start at end and will be charged to lead a pass rush that has to be better in 2011. At 6-foot-7, Gholston has the size and length to be a nuisance to all Big Ten quarterbacks when they drop back to pass.

MarQueis Gray, QB, MinnesotaGray was a huge catch on the recruiting trail for former coach Tim Brewster, ranking as one of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects. Gray’s success at Minnesota has been limited so far. Adam Weber started the last two years at quarterback, which prompted Gray to see playing time as a receiver. He caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five scores last year and added 110 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Gray has thrown only 23 passes in his career, completing eight of those for 86 yards, a touchdown and one interception. Gray will need some time to adjust in his first year as the starting quarterback. However, his athleticism and playmaking ability should be a good fit for coordinator Matt Limegrover’s offense and should be a solid quarterback for Minnesota by the end of 2011.

Michael Mauti, LB, Penn StateAll signs point to Mauti emerging as Penn State’s next star linebacker. Mauti suffered a torn ACL in fall practice before the 2009 season, but showed no ill-effects last year, collecting 67 tackles and two sacks. The junior is expected to move from outside linebacker to anchor middle this season. Mauti added weight and strength during the offseason to help with the move and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection.

Silas Redd, RB, Penn State Evan Royster was a solid player in his Penn State career, but there’s not many concerns about the running game with Redd stepping into his place this year. Redd served as the No. 2 back last season, rushing for 437 yards and two scores. His best performance came against Northwestern, rushing for 131 yards and one touchdown. Penn State’s offensive line struggled last season and loses its top player - guard Stefen Wisniewski. Although line play is a concern, Redd should be able to top 1,000 yards and push for All-Big Ten honors by the end of the year.

Craig Roh, DE, MichiganImproving the defense has to be priority No. 1 for new coach Brady Hoke and coordinator Greg Mattison. The Wolverines were historically bad on defense last year, finishing last in the Big Ten in total, passing and scoring defense. Mattison was a solid coordinator during his tenure at Florida and should have this unit playing better by the end of 2011. The defensive line has potential to be solid, especially with senior Mike Martin anchoring the middle. Roh registered 43 tackles and two forced fumbles last year. Moving to a 4-3 scheme should help Roh become a bigger factor in the defense, which will allow the junior to compete for the team lead in sacks.

Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, Illinois Scheelhaase faced his shared of ups and downs last season, but closed out 2010 on a high note. He posted 13 of his 17 passing scores over the final seven games and posted a season-high 131 rushing yards against Fresno State. A light schedule certainly helped his production, but Scheelhaase settled into the starting role, and Illinois hopes that momentum carries over into 2011. The sophomore should continue to improve as a passer, while his emergence could allow Illinois to be a contender in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

John Simon, DT, Ohio StateSimon is a name Big Ten fans are probably familiar with, but 2011 should be his breakout year on the national stage. He registered 41 tackles and three sacks last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Simon is one of Ohio State’s workout warriors in the weight room and his size and strength will be an asset to the line this year. The Buckeyes plan to move Simon around, using him at end and tackle. Ohio State returns only four starters on defense, but Simon is ready to become one of the leaders and a dominant force up front.

Akeem Spence, DT, IllinoisWith Corey Liuget off to the NFL, the Fighting Illini need a big year from Spence. As a redshirt freshman last season, he collected 45 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery and earned freshman All-American honors by the FWAA. Spence will see more attention from opposing offenses with Liuget gone, but the sophomore should contend for all-conference honors with an even better 2011 season.

Baker Steinkuhler, DT, NebraskaIn his first year as a starter last season, Steinkuhler posted 46 tackles and 3.5 sacks, while earning honorable mention All-Big 12 honors. With Jared Crick getting most of the attention from offensive linemen and facing double teams, Steinkuhler should have an opportunity to become an even bigger factor this year. And Steinkuhler’s emergence should help relieve some of the pressure on Crick. Baker’s father, Dean, played at Nebraska and won the 1983 Outland and Lombardi Awards. The Cornhuskers own the Big Ten’s best defensive line, and Steinkuhler is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team all-conference selection. Don’t be surprised if Steinkuhler is a preseason All-American going into 2012.

Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio StateWith DeVier Posey suspended for the first five games of 2011 and the loss of Dane Sanzenbacher to the NFL, the Buckeyes need to find a go-to target for quarterbacks Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller. Stoneburner caught 21 passes for 222 yards and two scores last year and figures to be an even bigger part of the gameplan this season. The Buckeyes are also hopeful Corey Brown will become a key contributor at receiver, but Stoneburner may end up leading the team in catches until Posey is back. The best friend of any quarterback is a tight end and with two inexperienced passers taking over, Stoneburner will have a significant role in the Ohio State offense.  

Mike Trumpy, RB, NorthwesternAlthough Dan Persa is expected to be 100 percent in his return from an Achilles tear, the Wildcats still need to improve the rushing attack in 2011. Trumpy showed signs of becoming Northwestern’s go-to back last season, rushing for 530 yards and four scores on 116 carries. The Wildcats don’t need 1,000 yards from the sophomore, but they need more consistency and success on the ground. If Trumpy picks up where he left off last year, rushing for 800 yards isn’t out of the question. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman receiver Christian Jones, who could be an instant impact player for Northwestern.

Ricky Wagner, OT, WisconsinProducing All-Big Ten linemen never seems to be an issue in Madison. The Badgers had one of college football’s top offensive lines last year, which led the way for the rushing attack to average 5.5 yards per carry and total 48 rushing scores. Left tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt have finished their eligibility, but the offensive line should remain one of the best in the nation. Wagner will switch from the right side to Carimi’s old spot at left tackle to protect the blind side for quarterback Russell Wilson. The junior could finish 2011 as one of the top tackles in college football.

Duwyce Wilson, WR, IndianaDamarlo Belcher is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers, but with Tandon Doss leaving early for the NFL, Indiana needs a new No. 2 target to emerge. Wilson caught 32 passes for 488 yards and three scores as a freshman last year. He also averaged 15.2 yards per reception and with Doss now suiting up for the Baltimore Ravens, should see his role expanded in 2011. The Hoosiers have to find a quarterback, but whether it’s Dusty Kiel or Edward Wright-Baker taking snaps, the quarterback has no shortage of talented weapons to throw to.

Other Big Ten Content:

Ranking the Big Ten's Top 40 Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big Ten Team

Top 25 Players of BCS Era

Best Quarterback in the Big Ten?

Will Michigan Surprise in the Big Ten title race?

Illinois: A Sleeper Team?

Teaser:
<p> Big Ten fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, but which players will be household names by the end of 2011?</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 18, 2011 - 07:34
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football
Path: /college-football/fallout-miami
Body:

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

If Nevin Shapiro’s allegations in the latest Yahoo! Sports report are true, Miami football is in big trouble. The Hurricanes could be facing major penalties from the NCAA as a result of the investigation, which details improper benefits to 73 current or former Miami athletes, as well as a few players from other schools.

Although the allegations could have a significant long-term impact on Miami, there should be a lot of concern surrounding the status of some players for this season.

Here's a breakdown of the 12 current players mentioned in the report and how this could affect the Hurricanes' chances on the field this year:

Offense

Travis Benjamin, WR
Dyron Dye, TE
Jacory Harris, QB
Aldarius Johnson, WR

The biggest name in this bunch is Harris. The senior is in a heated battle with sophomore Stephen Morris for the starting job. According to the report, Harris participated in pool tournaments for money, was provided food, drinks and entertainment at Shapiro’s home and was allowed VIP access to nightclubs. Johnson and Benjamin are also expected to be significant contributors to the offense this year. Benjamin is the team’s top returning receiver, while Johnson caught 15 passes for 157 yards last season. Johnson supposedly received multiple cash gifts from Shapiro, which if true, would jeopardize his 2011 season. 

If Harris is suspended for any games, Morris will get the call under center. The receiving corps would be hit hard if Benjamin and Johnson are out of action, but there is experience with LaRon Byrd and Tommy Streeter returning.

Defense

Ray-Ray Armstrong, S
Marcus Forston, DT
JoJo Nicolas, CB
Adewale Ojomo, DE
Marcus Robinson, DE/LB
Sean Spence, LB
Vaughn Telemaque, S
Olivier Vernon, DE

The allegations from the report could have a bigger impact on the defensive side of the ball. Armstrong and Spence are arguably the top two players on the Miami defense and are expected to contend for All-American honors. Telemaque, Vernon, Forston and Nicolas are projected starters. Ojomo was expected to be one of Miami’s top backups on the defensive line. The secondary was a concern going into 2011 and could be an even bigger issue if Armstrong, Nicolas and Telemaque are forced to miss any action. Vernon finished second on the team with six sacks last year and was expected to be Miami's top pass rusher this season.

What does it mean for Miami on the field?

Although these are just allegations, Miami will have to provide some answers and the eligibility of these 12 players could be in jeopardy. Potential suspensions could be a couple of games or could end the career for a few Miami players.

This situation should be very similar to North Carolina last year. If the Hurricanes lose the 12 players for any significant amount of time, any chance at an ACC Coastal title is likely gone. If the players escape any suspension, the biggest issue could be dealing with the distraction this report and investigation has created.

Coach Al Golden and his staff were putting together a 2012 top 10 recruiting class. However, with these allegations, it’s likely that momentum on the recruiting trail will take a hit, and the Hurricanes could struggle to keep all of their current commitments. Florida State was already red hot on the recruiting trail, and this development will only help Jimbo Fisher and his coaching staff continue to reel in the top prospects in Florida.

There was a positive buzz surrounding Miami going into this year. New coach Al Golden resurrected a dreadful Temple program and was believed to be the right man to get Miami back into ACC title contention. However, Golden could be facing an uphill battle. If the Hurricanes are leveled by the NCAA, no one could blame Golden for bolting from Miami after one season. If things get really bad in the next two weeks, would Golden consider stepping down? Although the first-year coach says he is happy in Miami, digging out from this scandal could take years. 

Other College Football Players Implicated

Florida WR Andre Debose
Florida OT Matt Patchan
Georgia TE Orson Charles
Kansas State LB Arthur Brown
Kansas State RB Bryce Brown
Purdue QB Robert Marve
UCF QB Jeff Godfrey

Charles is expected to be one of the top targets for Georgia this year, while Godfrey is the starting quarterback for Conference USA preseason favorite UCF. Arthur and Bryce Brown ended up at Kansas State, after starting their careers at Miami and Tennessee, respectively. Neither player made much of an impact at their first stop, but were expected to be make significant contributions in 2011. Marve has battled injuries at Purdue and entered fall camp likely to share the quarterback duties with Rob Henry. Florida’s Andre Debose is one of the top kick returners in college football, while Matt Patchan is expected to start at left tackle.

Although the allegations will take some time to investigate, Georgia, Florida, Kansas State, Purdue and UCF may have to suspend these players. Without Godfrey, the Knights are no longer the favorite to win the Conference USA East title. Kansas State is counting on Arthur Brown to be one of the top defenders, while Brown is expected to lead the team in rushing. Charles is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American and would be a big loss for Georgia if he misses any action.

What can Miami expect?

When comparing the USC and Miami investigations, the one in South Beach appears to be much worse. If the Trojans lost 30 scholarships and faced a bowl ban for two years, the Hurricanes should be bracing for something much worse. As the college football world has noticed, there is no consistency in the rulings from the NCAA. However, there is a mountain of evidence, and the Hurricanes could be facing bowl bans and significant reductions in scholarships.

Unless Miami can find a way to somehow suffer very minor losses from this investigation, it may be a while before we see the Hurricanes relevant on the college football scene. 

ACC title in 2011? Forget about it.

And Miami needs to be worried about keeping Al Golden around or the rebuilding process could be even more difficult.

Teaser:
<p> The Hurricanes could be hit hard by suspensions as a result of a NCAA investigation. What does that mean in the ACC race?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - 12:39
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Pac 12
Path: /college-football/ranking-pac-12s-top-40-players-2011
Body:

By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 3,338 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT, 453 rush yards, 3 TD

Luck was the most efficient quarterback in the Pac-10 a season ago with a 170.16 QB rating – good for third nationally. He led the team to its first BCS Bowl victory when he ripped apart the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies 40-12 in the Orange Bowl. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Basically, the only thing Luck could have done better in 2010 was tackle LaMichael James, who rushed for 257 yards in the Cardinal’s only loss of the season.

Why he’s ranked 1st: Luck was slated to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft had he decided to come out last spring. But the best amateur football player in the nation is returning to Palo Alto to complete some unfinished business. No, I am not talking about his prestigious Stanford architecture degree either. Luck and the Cardinal, sans Jim Harbaugh, are the primary contender to Oregon’s conference supremacy. The Ducks travel to Stanford in Week 11.

2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 1,731 yds., 21 TDs, 17 rec., 208 yds., 3 TDs

James solidified his place as one of the top players in college football last year, finishing third in Heisman voting and setting an Oregon single-season record with 1,731 rushing yards. He collected numerous accolades last season, which included the Doak Walker Award (college football’s top running back) and first-team All-American and All-Pac-10 honors. James is not the biggest running back in college football, but he was a workhorse for Oregon, posting eight games of at least 25 carries. He rushed for a season-high 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Stanford. James was held under 100 yards only twice – at California and in the national title game against Auburn.

Why he’s ranked 2nd: A case can be made James is the top player in the Pac-12, but there’s no knock in being ranked behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Oregon may look to lighten James’ workload in 2011, especially with Kenjon Barner’s emergence and talented freshmen Lache Seastrunk and Tra Carson waiting in the wings. James led the nation in rushing yards last year and has a favorable schedule to do so once again this year. However, winning a national title would certainly mean more to James and the Ducks this season.

3. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford (JR)
Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the most physical teams in the nation. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and David DeCastro, Martin earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the Pac-10 in total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

Why he’s ranked 3rd: The Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 selection heads what is ranked as the No. 1 offensive line in the conference for 2011. If Andrew Luck is the best player in the nation, then one could argue that he who protects the most important player in the game is the second most important player in the game, right? Protecting Luck’s blindside is exactly what Martin will be doing again in 2011.

4. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State (JR)
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF

Burfict has turned in two solid years at Arizona State, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. He has tallied 159 tackles in his career, while forcing four fumbles and picking up two sacks. Burfict earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season. The junior is one of college football’s ferocious hitters, but needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. Burfict has collected some bad personal fouls during his career and if he can eliminate those mistakes, he could be one of the top defenders in college football.

Why he’s ranked 4th: High expectations surround Arizona State for 2011. With USC ineligible for the conference crown, the Sun Devils should have a shot to compete for the Pac-12 title. Burfict is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and will be expected to be a leader for the Arizona State defense. Burfict needs to eliminate the mental mistakes, but with another productive year, could leave early for the NFL Draft.

5. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 2,791 passing yards., 26 TDs, 12 INTs

Barkley came to USC as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Although he has been solid, the knock on Barkley has been his turnovers. Over the last two years, he has thrown 26 interceptions, which has to improve if he wants to take the next step in his development as an elite quarterback. An ankle injury at the end of last year hindered Barkley’s progress, as he only mustered 273 passing yards over the final three games.

Why he’s ranked 5th: If USC’s defense struggles once again in 2011, Barkley could be forced to win a lot of shootouts. The junior should show more progress this year, but will be throwing to a young group of receivers. If Barkley cuts down on the mistakes, he should edge Oregon’s Darron Thomas for the second spot on the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011.

6. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 2,881 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INT, 486 rush yards, 5 TDs

Entering the fall of 2010, Oregon fans were unsure of what they had under center with Darron Thomas. Everyone knows about Thomas after a 117-yard rushing effort against Stanford, a 288-yard, 4-TD passing game against USC and the first undefeated regular season in Oregon’s modern history. His 150.97 QB rating trailed only Andrew Luck in efficiency in the Pac-10.

Why he’s ranked 6th: Despite some shaky decisions at the onset of the BCS National Championship game, Thomas went on to set a career high with 363 passing yards in the narrow three-point loss. Through the last eight games of the regular season, Thomas threw 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions in wins over Oregon State, Arizona, California, USC, Washington and UCLA. With a year of stellar production in a system that fits his skills perfectly, fans can expect more of the same from Thomas in 2011.

7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford (JR)
This is going to sound familiar: Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the nation's most physical offensive lines. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and Jonathan Martin, DeCastro earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the league in total, rushing, scoring and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

Why he’s ranked 7th: The 6-foot-5, 307-pound mauler is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American selection and returns to protect the most valuable commodity in college football, quarterback Andrew Luck. DeCastro and Martin will be asked to lead a group of new faces, along what should be the best offensive line in the conference.

8. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 33 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 PBU, 18.8 yards per punt return, 4 TDs

Harris was spectacular in his first year as a starter. He became one of the nation’s rising stars at corner, picking off six passes and leading all defensive backs 23 passes defended. Harris took one of his interceptions back for a score against Tennessee and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Why he’s ranked 8th: Harris could be the best cornerback in college football, but he’s not quite there yet. The Oregon defensive staff would like to see him be more consistent from week-to-week and there’s the off-the-field concern as well. Harris won’t play in the opener against LSU due to a traffic incident this summer and could miss another game or two. When Harris is on the field, there’s no question he is one of the top defenders in the Pac-12 and the nation’s top punt returner. Assuming Harris doesn’t miss more than one game, he should contend for a spot on the All-American team at the end of 2011.

9. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 82 receptions, 1,233 yards, 11 TDs

Criner emerged as one of the top receivers in college football last year. He posted career-bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Criner averaged 15 yards a catch and led all Pac-10 receivers in receptions and receiving yards per game.

Why he’s ranked 9th: Arizona is expected to throw more in 2011, which should give Criner an opportunity to improve upon last season’s statistics. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American and was named to the Biletnikoff Award watchlist. Expect Criner to be the top receiver in the Pac-12 and should garner plenty of interest from the NFL scouts for the 2012 draft.

10. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 84 total tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 FF

The heady leader of the defense actually led the Cardinal in sacks per game, finishing third in the league with 0.59 per contest. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Skov still finished second on the team in total sacks and tackles for a loss. His sophomore season was capped by a stellar performance in the Cardinal’s first ever BCS bowl win. Skov posted 12 total tackles (eight solos), four tackles for a loss and three sacks.

Why he’s ranked 10th: The team’s top returning tackler is back for his third year in Palo Alto as the leader of the defense. Skov’s play improved as the season went along and with Owen Marecic gone, more responsibility will be placed on the inside linebacker’s powerful shoulders. The easy first-team preseason all-conference pick landed a spot on Athlon’s preseason third-team All-American squad.

11. Chris Polk, RB, Washington (JR)
2010 stats: 1,415 yards, 9 TDs, 22 rec., 180 yards

Polk posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season for the Huskies in 2010. He finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing behind Heisman finalist LaMichael James and powered his way to an excellent finish, helping lead Washington to an upset bowl win over Nebraska. Polk averaged over 170 yards per game and scored five of his nine touchdowns in the four-game winning streak to end last season.

Why he's ranked 11th: The preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection also received national acclaim as an Athlon Sports third-team All-American. Polk has topped 100 yards in 10 of his last 18 games and was dominant at the end of the 2010 campaign. With Jake Locker moving from Seattle to Nashville, Polk and the running game will be the key to breaking in a new signal caller.

12. T.J. McDonald, S, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 89 total tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 1 sack, Blk kick

McDonald led the Trojans in the tackles a year ago and was second on the team with three interceptions as only a sophomore – and without playing the final game of the season. In a 34-33 win over Arizona State, McDonald posted arguably his best career game when he made 13 total tackles, including 10 solos, to go with a key blocked kick.

Why he’s ranked 12th: McDonald enters his second full season as the starter at safety and has to be a leader for the Trojans defense. This is a unit that struggled to tackle a year ago, so the talented junior will be asked to carry the load once again. He is poised for stardom as he was named an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American. McDonald is the son of former NFL standout Tim McDonald.

13. Matt Kalil, OT, USC (JR)
Kalil became the centerpiece of USC’s offensive line last year. He started all 13 games at left tackle, which was the first extensive action of his career, after serving as a backup for most of his freshman season. If the last name of Kalil sounds familiar to many Pac-12 fans, Matt’s brother, Ryan, starred at USC from 2003-06. Ryan Kalil earned All-American honors during his career at USC, and the Trojans certainly hope Matt can follow in his footsteps.

Why he’s ranked 13th: The biggest concern for USC’s offense will be its offensive line. Only two starters are back, but Kalil is one of them. The junior should get better in his second year as a starter and will likely emerge as one of the top linemen in the Pac-12. With Kalil protecting the blindside of quarterback Matt Barkley, USC’s offense should have one of the top passing attacks in the conference.

14. Robert Woods, WR, USC (SO)
2010 stats: 65 rec., 792 yards, 6 TDs, 50 rush yards, 971 KR yards, TD

As a true freshman, Woods led the Trojans in receptions per game (5.0) and yards per game (60.9). The talented youngster was the Athlon Sports National High School Player of the Year as a senior at Serra High School in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that the explosive receiver was named Pac-10 Offensive Freshman of the Year and earned Freshman All-American honors.

Why he’s ranked 14th: Woods enters his second season as one of the most dynamic and dangerous athletes in the nation. With Matt Barkley returning with another year, the explosive receiver should be in store for a huge encore performance as a sophomore.

15. Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington (SR)
2010 stats: 39 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks

Ta’amu has been a significant contributor throughout his three seasons at Washington, but emerged as a force over the second half of 2010. Ta’amu started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. He closed out the year with a dominating effort in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, registering one sack and recovering one fumble.

Why he’s ranked 15th: With Ta’amu and Hau’oli Jamora on the rise, Washington’s defensive line could be one of the best in the Pac-12. The Huskies need to get better against the run, but the talent is certainly in place to improve in 2011. If Ta’amu picks up where he left off in the Holiday Bowl, he should be one of the Pac-12’s top linemen.

16. Jermaine Kearse, WR, Washington (SR)
2010 stats: 63 rec., 1,005 yards, 12 TDs

Kearse established himself as one of the nation’s premier targets after a huge season with Jake Locker. Kearse posted massive performances in key wins over Oregon State (9 rec., 146 yards, 4 TDs), Syracuse (9 rec., 179 yards, 3 TDs) and Washington State (6 rec., 178 yards, 2 TDs). The 6-foot-2, 205 pounder caught at least six passes in six games last season and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Why he’s ranked 16th: Kearse has scored at least one touchdown in 10 of his last 18 games and has a tendency to explode in important spots. He has totaled 20 trips to paydirt over the last two seasons, so no matter who is playing quarterback (likely Keith Price), fans can bet he will be looking No. 15’s way early and often.

17. Mychal Kendricks, LB, California (SR)
2010 stats: 66 tackles, 15 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 1 INT

California was quietly one of the top defenses in the Pac-10 last season. The Golden Bears ranked first in total and pass defense, while finishing third in scoring defense. Kendricks was one of the leaders for last season’s unit, earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors. He ranked fourth on the team in tackles and finished second in the conference with 8.5 sacks. 

Why he’s ranked 17th: Kendricks is moving to inside linebacker this year, which could affect his sack totals. However, the senior is California’s top defender and a key cog in its 3-4 scheme. Kendricks won’t get national respect like Stanford’s Shayne Skov or Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict, but expect to find him on the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011.

18. John Boyett, S, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 78 total tackles, 5 INT, TD, 9 PD

Boyett cemented himself as one of the nation’s best safeties early in 2010. In the fourth game of the season, he made 11 tackles and returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown in a 10-point win over Arizona State. He finished third in the league in interceptions and finished second on the team in tackles and helped lead the Ducks to its first undefeated regular season in the modern football era.

Why he’s ranked 18th: Boyett returns to what should be the Pac-12’s best secondary. If Cliff Harris is in the lineup, it has a chance to be one of the nation’s best units. The undersized veteran enters his third season as a first-team preseason all-conference pick as well as claiming preseason second-team All-American honors.

19. Delano Howell, S, Stanford (SR)
2010 stats: 60 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBU

Howell started his Stanford career at running back, but has made a seamless and successful transition to safety. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2009, after registering 78 tackles and two interceptions. Howell stepped up his play in 2010, picking off five passes and earning second-team All-Pac-10 honors.

Why he’s ranked 19th: With three starters back, Stanford should have one of the top pass defenses in the Pac-12. Howell and Michael Thomas form one of the top safety combinations in college football and both should be in contention for All-Pac-12 honors at the end of the year. Howell is one of the leaders for Stanford’s defense and even with a new coordinator, shouldn’t suffer in terms of production or playmaking ability.

20. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 3,191 yds., 20 TDs, 10 INTs

With Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and Darron Thomas in the same conference, Foles doesn’t get much attention. Over the last two years, he has thrown for 5,677 yards and 39 scores. Foles has three 400-yard games in his career and has earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in each of the last two seasons. He also led the Pac-10 with an average of 290.1 passing yards per game last year. 

Why he’s ranked 20th: Foles is on the radar for NFL scouts and could be selected in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft with another solid year. Arizona is breaking in five new starters on the offensive line, and with the concerns about establishing a consistent rushing attack, Foles could throw 40-50 passes a game. With a shift in focus to more of a pass-first offense, look for the senior to easily shatter last season’s totals – 3,191 yards and 20 touchdowns – especially with one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning to Tucson.

21. Ryan Miller, OG, Colorado (SR)
An Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American, Miller helps lead the Buffaloes into a new era of football on the West Coast. Miller will be called upon to help lead the way on offense with star left tackle Nate Solder now in the NFL.

22. Hau’oli Jamora, DE, Washington (SO)
Jamora came on strong over the second half of last year, finishing with four tackles and a sack in the Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. He finished 2010 with 49 stops and one forced fumble. Expect Jamora to only get better as a sophomore this year and his continued improvement should help Washington’s defensive line emerge as one of the best in the Pac-12.

23. Rodney Stewart, RB, Colorado (SR)
Stewart is one of college football’s most underrated running backs. In three seasons in Boulder, he has rushed for 2,744 yards and 21 scores. If he can muster 1,197 yards this year, he will become Colorado’s all-time leading rusher. Expect the Buffaloes to lean heavily on Stewart in 2011.

24. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford (JR)
Thomas returns to the Cardinal defense after leading the team in sacks (7.5) and finishing second in tackles with 70 total stops. He posted his best game in a 38-0 shutout of Oregon State, recording 9 tackles, 3.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks.

25. Justin Washington, DT, Arizona (SO)
Washington was a nice surprise as a true freshman for the Wildcats last year, collecting 11.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Arizona has to rebuild its defensive line in 2011, as three new starters will be stepping in around Washington. With the turnover on the front four, it’s up to the sophomore to become a leader for the Arizona defense.

26. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington (JR)
The two-year starter is an honor student and has an outstanding NFL pedigree. After 48 tackles and one interception, Trufant returns to lead what should be a solid Washington secondary.

27. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (SO)
Wilson was one of the top true freshmen in the Pac-10 last season, catching 55 passes for 1,006 yards and six scores. He averaged 18.3 yards per catch and should remain the go-to target for quarterback Jeff Tuel. With Washington State struggling to escape the cellar of the conference, Wilson won’t get much credit nationally, but he’s a rising star in the Pac-12.

28. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford (JR)
Taylor took over as the bulk carrier in Week 4 against Notre Dame and didn’t look back. He rattled off seven 100-yard games in his last 10 contests of 2010. He scored 14 touchdowns in the last nine games of last season as well.

29. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA (JR)
Franklin helped lead the power rushing attack that ultimately began the demise of Texas last year. He rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown in Austin and followed that up with 216 yards against Wazzu.

30. David Paulson, TE, Oregon (SR)
The big tight end returns as the team’s leading receiver in catches, yards and touchdowns. He is the elder statesman of a totally new-look collection of pass catchers for Oregon.

31. Ryan Katz, QB, Oregon State (JR)
32. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State (JR)
33. Mitchell Schwartz, OT, California (SR)
34. Datone Jones, DE, UCLA (JR)
35. Tony Dye, S, UCLA (SR)
36. Junior Onyeali, DE, Arizona State (SO)
37. Nickell Robey, CB, USC (SO)
38. Tony Bergstrom, OT, Utah (SR)
39. Sean Westgate, LB, UCLA (SR)
40. Nick Perry, DE, USC (JR)

Other Pac-12 Content

Predicting the Pac-12's Breakout Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Pac-12 Predictions

Athlon's 2011 All-Pac-12 Team

Is Washington the Surprise Pac-12 Team?

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - 11:10
All taxonomy terms: College Football, SEC
Path: /college-football/predicting-college-footballs-breakout-players-sec
Body:

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Big East fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.

Emory Blake, WR, Auburn Even with the departure of quarterback Cam Newton, it’s a safe bet Auburn will generate some offense with coordinator Gus Malzahn at the controls. The Tigers lose their top two receivers, but Blake is more than capable of becoming the No. 1 receiver, as evidenced by his 33 receptions and eight scores in 2010. He also displayed big-play ability, averaging 16.8 yards per catch and posting one score in each of his last three games. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect Blake to easily surpass 2010’s totals.

Josh Boyd/Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi StateThe Bulldogs will miss Pernell McPhee off the edge, but the line shouldn’t suffer too much in terms of production. Boyd and Cox are an underrated pair in the middle of the line, combining for 53 stops and five sacks last year. Cox forced one fumble and also blocked two kicks last season. Interior linemen always have trouble earning national respect, but this duo should be near the top of the SEC when it comes to defensive tackle combinations.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina Clowney won’t have the opportunity to sit and learn as an incoming freshman, as South Carolina expects him to make an immediate impact. Clowney ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100 and could start in the season opener against East Carolina. With Devin Taylor on the other side, Clowney’s presence should make South Carolina’s defensive line one of the best in college football. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, he is physically ready to play in the SEC and will be a nightmare for opposing linemen to contain.

Isaiah Crowell, RB, GeorgiaCrowell is the second true freshman to make it on this list. The Bulldogs lost Washaun Ealey and Caleb King this offseason, which makes his arrival even more important. Crowell ranked as the No. 9 overall prospect and the No. 2 running back by Athlon Sports in the 2011 recruiting class. Although there’s no doubt Crowell can be an effective running back right away, Georgia needs him to be solid in pass protection, especially with some losses on the offensive line following spring practice. A true freshman running back (Marcus Lattimore) was the difference for South Carolina to win the SEC East last year, and Georgia hopes to find the same success in 2011.

Matt Elam, S, FloridaThe Gators will be breaking in three new starters in the secondary this season, but thanks to some top-notch recruiting, the pass defense could still rank among the best in the SEC. Elam played in all 13 games last year, registering 22 tackles and one sack. He was one of the nation’s top prospects in the 2010 recruiting class and should use his experience from last year to emerge as one of the nation’s top safeties.

Melvin Harris, WR, Ole MissThe Rebels posted a disappointing 4-8 record last year, but there’s optimism in Oxford for 2011. New quarterback Barry Brunetti is inexperienced, but isn’t short on talent. The Rebels have a solid offensive line and rushing attack, the receiving corps needs to give Brunetti some help. Harris finished second on the team with 30 catches last year and will be counted upon to take a bigger role in the offense in 2011.

Justin Hunter/Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee With the departure of wide receivers Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker, Hunter and Rogers should become the new go-to threats for quarterback Tyler Bray. Hunter grabbed 16 receptions for 415 yards and seven scores last year, while Rogers caught 11 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Hunter averaged an impressive 25.9 yards per reception last season and should be one of the top redzone threats in the SEC. Rogers may end up leading the Volunteers in receptions, but both should become impact players in 2011.

Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia Despite three new starters in the linebacking corps, Georgia feels pretty good about this group heading into 2011. Sophomore Alec Ogletree is sliding from safety to linebacker, and Jones is eligible after sitting out last season as a result of NCAA transfer rules. Jones will be counted upon to help replace Justin Houston, who led the team with 10 sacks last year. The Bulldogs struggled at times due to the transition to the 3-4 scheme on defense last season. However, with another offseason to work with coordinator Todd Grantham, Georgia should show improvement, especially if Jones becomes the player most expect.

Corey Lemonier, DE, AuburnLine coach Mike Pelton will have his hands full in 2011, as Auburn will be breaking in three new starters up front. However, the cupboard is far from bare. Lemonier was a top 50 recruit by most services in the 2010 recruiting class. He played in 14 games last year, registered 17 tackles and collected two sacks. Auburn could start four sophomores up front this year, so there will be some struggles along the way. Lemonier shined in limited duty last year, and with Nosa Eguae established on one side, the Tigers should maintain a solid pass rush. With so much young talent stepping in, expect Auburn’s defensive line to get only get better as the 2011 season goes along.

Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSUWith Patrick Peterson getting all of the acclaim, Mathieu’s 2010 season was overlooked nationally. He played in all 13 games last year, made 57 stops, registered 4.5 sacks, picked off two passes and forced five fumbles. Mathieu shined in the nickel back role last year and should team with junior Morris Claiborne to form one of the top cornerback duos in the nation. Peterson was a first-round selection in the NFL Draft and considering his early success, Mathieu is on a similar track to become one of the top defensive backs in college football.

Jordan Matthews, WR, VanderbiltImproving the passing attack is one of the top priorities for new coach James Franklin. The Commodores ranked 11th in the SEC in passing offense, averaging only 159.4 yards per game. Franklin was a successful quarterback tutor at Maryland and Kansas State, and his background should help senior quarterback Larry Smith. Although Matthews ended the year with only 15 catches for 181 yards and four scores, he finished the year as one of Vanderbilt’s top weapons. Matthews caught a touchdown in each of the final four games and 12 passes over his final two contests. The sophomore may not post 50 or 60 catches this year, but should emerge as Vanderbilt’s top weapon, particularly in the red zone.

LaDarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi StateAlthough Vick Ballard was one of the SEC’s breakout players last year, don’t be surprised if another Mississippi State rusher earns that honor in 2011. Perkins was more involved in the offense as the season progressed, finishing with 566 yards and three scores and catching nine passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. His best performance came in the 31-23 Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss, rushing for 98 yards and catching three passes for 140 yards and two scores. Expect Perkins to get more touches in 2011 and establish Mississippi State’s backfield as one of the deepest in the SEC.

Ronald Powell, DE/LB, FloridaThe 2010 recruiting class was hailed as one of the best in Florida history. It’s time for that group to live up to the hype. Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd were three anchors of that class and each could start in 2011. Powell will play the Buck position, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot. He registered 25 tackles and picked up one sack last year. Powell is a perfect fit for the 3-4 scheme and should be one of Florida’s top pass rushers in 2011.

Raymond Sanders, RB, KentuckyThe Wildcats must replace their top two running backs from last year, including former All-SEC rusher Derrick Locke. Sanders played sparingly last year, rushing for 254 yards and three scores on 68 attempts. He also caught 16 balls for 114 yards and a touchdown. Sanders’ best performance came against Mississippi State, as he collected 71 yards on 24 attempts. The sophomore is only 5-foot-8 and 198 pounds, so durability is a question mark. With an underrated line leading the way up front, Sanders has the opportunity to post 1,000 yards this year.

Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama The Crimson Tide finished sixth in the SEC with 27 sacks last year – a number Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart want to increase in 2011. Upshaw battled a high ankle sprain early last season, but became the defense’s top pass rusher at the end of the year. In Alabama’s final two games (Auburn and Michigan State), Upshaw registered five sacks and three forced fumbles. Assuming Upshaw can avoid injury, he should contend for the SEC lead in sacks. The senior’s emergence adds another element to one of the top defenses in college football.

Spencer Ware, RB, LSUEven with the departure of Stevan Ridley, depth is not an issue in the LSU backfield. Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard are all capable of starting for the Tigers this year. Ware played sparingly last season, rushing for 175 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts. He also added 10 receptions for 101 yards and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass against Auburn. Ware’s best performance came against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 102 yards on 10 carries. The Tigers will get other backs involved, but Ware is the team’s best all-around option and should be LSU’s next 1,000-yard rusher.

Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas Ryan Mallett is gone, but Arkansas doesn’t expect to miss a beat on offense. Wilson has played well in limited action and will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. He threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn in relief of Mallett last year and has completed 61.5 percent of his career passes. Wilson still needs some work and will take a few lumps in his first year as the starter. The loss of Knile Davis was a huge blow, but Arkansas should still rank as one of the SEC’s top offenses. Wilson may not beat Mallett’s numbers from last year, but he should be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the 2011 season.

Other SEC Content

Ranking the SEC's Top 40 Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 All-SEC Team

Athlon's 2011 SEC Predictions

Will Mark Richt Coach at Georgia in 2012?

Ranking the College Football Coaching Jobs: SEC

The Genius of Gus Malzahn

Teaser:
<p> SEC fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, but which players will be household names by the end of 2011?</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football
Path: /college-football/accs-2011-top-10-games-watch
Body:

The start of the 2011 college football season is less than 20 days away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 10 must-see games in the ACC for 2011.

1. Oklahoma vs. Florida State (Week 3)
Sept. 17, All-Time Series: Oklahoma leads 5-1

There’s a lot at stake in this Week 3 matchup. Oklahoma and Florida State are national title contenders, and a marquee non-conference win would go a long way towards an undefeated season. The Sooners easily handled the Seminoles last year, winning 47-17 in Norman. Florida State will be hungry to avenge last season’s embarrassment and a victory over Oklahoma would be a statement win in Jimbo Fisher’s second season in Tallahassee. The Sooners suffered a blow when linebacker Travis Lewis was lost for at least the first month of the season due to a foot injury suffered in fall camp. Although Lewis is out, Oklahoma’s linebacking corps remains one of the best in the Big 12, especially with the rapid development of sophomores Tom Wort and Corey Nelson. Much of Florida State’s national title hopes will hinge on quarterback EJ Manuel, who enters his first year as the starter. The junior has six starts over the last two years and there’s no question he has the talent, but has yet to prove himself over a full season.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Seminoles by 3

2. Miami vs. Virginia Tech (Week 6)
Oct. 8, All-Time Series: Miami leads 17-11

Is Miami back? The Hurricanes have a tricky slate in the first half of the season, starting with the opener against Maryland, a non-conference matchup with Ohio State and this road date at Virginia Tech. The Hokies have won four out of the last five in this series, including the last two in Blacksburg. Will Miami’s quarterback situation be solved by this game? If the Hurricanes are still trying to decide between Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris, the Hokies should have a huge advantage. Virginia Tech also has quarterback question marks, with Logan Thomas stepping in for Tyrod Taylor. Thomas has the physical tools to succeed, but needs more experience. By Week 6, the ACC should have a pretty good read on Thomas.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Hokies by 7

3. Florida State vs. Florida (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Florida leads 33-20-2

Could this game be Florida State’s final stumbling block to a berth in the national title? If the Seminoles knock off Oklahoma in mid-September, don’t be surprised if they are undefeated and ranked among the top two teams in the nation. This will also be the first matchup as head coaches in this rivalry between Florida’s Will Muschamp and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. The coaches became close friends during their time as assistants under Nick Saban. The Gators were embarrassed in Tallahassee last year and will be looking to return the favor, while possibly ruining Florida State’s season in the annual battle for bragging rights in the Sunshine State.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Seminoles by 6

4. Miami vs. Florida State (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Miami leads 31-24

This series was dominated by Miami in the early 2000s, but Florida State has won four of the last six games. The Seminoles have lost the last two games in Tallahassee, including a 38-34 shootout in 2009. Florida State thoroughly handled the Hurricanes last year, winning 45-17, easily the most lopsided final in this series since a 47-0 win by the Seminoles in 1997. The Hurricanes should improve under Al Golden as the year progresses, but in Tallahassee, the Seminoles will likely make it two in a row against Miami.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Seminoles by 10

5. Ohio State vs. Miami (Week 3)
Sept. 17, All-Time Series: Ohio State leads 3-1

When Miami fans think of Ohio State, flashbacks of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl immediately come to mind. The Hurricanes lost a 31-24 battle for the national title that year, which included a controversial pass interference penalty in the first overtime to keep Ohio State’s championship hopes alive. These two teams met last year, with Ohio State winning 36-24. This matchup in Week 3 will be a test for new Ohio State coach Luke Fickell, especially with an inexperienced quarterback under center. Even with the losses of coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the offseason, the Buckeyes still have enough talent to win a Big Ten title.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Miami by 5

6. Florida State vs. Clemson (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: Florida State leads 17-7

This matchup has trap game written all over. If Florida State manages to beat Oklahoma one week earlier, the Tigers should be able to pounce on a marquee victory. Clemson has won the last four matchups between these two teams in Death Valley in this series, but the Seminoles have won two out of the last three overall. Considering Clemson’s success at home and Florida State’s game against Oklahoma a week prior, don’t be surprised if this is one of the upsets for Week 4.  

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Clemson by 3

7. Clemson vs. South Carolina (Week 13)
Nov. 26, All-Time Series: Clemson leads 65-39-4

The battle for bragging rights in the Palmetto State should be an attractive matchup this year. The Gamecocks are expected to contend for the SEC East title, while Clemson has the talent to surprise in the ACC. The Tigers are breaking in a new offensive scheme, and the progress of quarterback Tajh Boyd will be critical to contending for the conference title. Clemson has lost the last two in this series, including a 29-7 defeat last year. However, the Tigers have won six of the last overall nine matchups.  

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: South Carolina by 7

8. Maryland vs. Miami (Week 1)
Sept. 5, All-Time Series: Tied 8-8

Miami is back on Labor Day for another ACC opener, this time against Maryland - not Florida State. Although this one might not have the national appeal of Florida State-Miami, there’s plenty of intrigue for this matchup. This game will feature two new coaches – Maryland’s Randy Edsall and Miami’s Al Golden – and both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start in conference play. Keep a close watch on the Hurricanes’ quarterback play, which could be the deciding factor in this ACC opener.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Miami by 4

9. Maryland vs. West Virginia (Week 3)
Sept. 17, All-Time Series: West Virginia leads 24-21-2

Even though these two teams are separated by just over 200 miles, they have only met 47 times. The Mountaineers crushed the Terrapins last year, winning 31-17 in Morgantown. West Virginia has won the last five games this series, with the last Maryland victory coming in 2004 in the Gator Bowl. Since the Terrapins play in the Labor Day opener against Miami, they have a bye in Week 2, which will allow two weeks to prepare for the Mountaineers. Maryland could catch West Virginia looking ahead, as the Mountaineers host LSU in Week 4.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Mountaineers by 6

10. Maryland vs. Notre Dame (Week 11)
Nov. 12, All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 1-0

The only matchup between these two teams occurred in 2002, with Notre Dame scoring an easy 22-0 win over Maryland in the Kickoff Classic. This season’s matchup will take place in at FedEx Field Landover, Md. Although the Terrapins will have a short drive to this game, expect to see a pro-Notre Dame crowd. The Irish have BCS bowl hopes, but a loss to Maryland late in the year could be damaging.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Notre Dame by 8

Other Top Games to Watch

Northwestern at Boston College (Sept. 3)
Auburn at Clemson (Sept. 17)
NC State at Cincinnati (Sept. 22)
Clemson at Virginia Tech (Oct. 1)
Boston College at Clemson (Oct. 8)
Miami at North Carolina (Oct. 15)
NC State at Florida State (Oct. 29)
Florida State at Boston College (Nov. 3)
North Carolina at NC State (Nov. 5)
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (Nov. 10)
NC State at Boston College (Nov. 12)
Clemson at NC State (Nov. 19)
Boston College at Notre Dame (Nov. 19)
Virginia Tech vs. Virginia (Nov. 26)
Maryland at NC State (Nov. 26)
Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 26)

Other ACC Content

Breaking Down Miami's QB Battle
Ranking the Best Units in the ACC

Athlon's 2011 ACC Predictions

Athlon's 2011 All-ACC Team

Ranking the ACC's Top 25 Players for 2011

Predicting the ACC's Breakout Players for 2011

Teaser:
<p> The start of the 2011 season is less than 20 days away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 10 must-see games in the ACC for 2011.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 15, 2011 - 07:40
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Big East
Path: /college-football/big-easts-2011-top-10-games-watch
Body:

The start of the 2011 college football season is less than 20 days away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 10 must-see games in the Big East for 2011.

1. Pittsburgh at West Virginia (Week 13)
Nov. 25, All-Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 61-39-3

The Backyard Brawl is the Big East’s top rivalry and there should be plenty on the line when these two teams meet in late November. The new coaches in this rivalry aren’t particularly fond of one another, so there will be some added spice to this matchup. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen wasn’t happy with Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham during their time in Conference USA accusing Tulsa of faking injuries to slow down Houston’s high-powered offense. The Mountaineers have won the last two matchups in this series and three out of the last four in Morgantown. Both teams are expected to be in the Big East championship race and this game could have conference title implications.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: West Virginia by 5

2. LSU at West Virginia (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: LSU leads 1-0

If the Big East wants more respect on a national level, this is a must-win game. The Mountaineers held their own in Baton Rouge last year before losing 20-14. For LSU, it’s another year and the same story unfolding. The defense should be one of the best in the SEC, but the offense is a concern. If LSU gets better quarterback play from Jordan Jefferson, contending for the national title is within reach. The matchup to watch in this game will be the West Virginia passing attack versus the LSU secondary. The Tigers should have one of the top pass defenses in college football, while West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has produced some prolific passing attacks over the last couple of seasons.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: LSU by 3

3. West Virginia at South Florida (Week 14)
Dec. 1, All-Time Series: Tied at 3-3

The Big East likes to schedule matchups on the final weekend that could have an impact on the conference title. Mission accomplished. The Mountaineers and Bulls are expected to be in the thick of the Big East title race, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this game determines who wins the conference crown. Last season’s matchup was a 20-6 West Virginia win, while South Florida has won the last two games in Tampa. Considering the chilly temperatures in Morgantown in early December, a trip to Florida isn’t a bad way to end the regular season.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: West Virginia by 2

4. South Florida at Pittsburgh (Week 5)
Sept. 29, All-Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 5-3

These two teams are predicted to be the biggest threat to West Virginia in the Big East race. Athlon has South Florida picked second in the final conference standings, while Pittsburgh is projected to finish third. This matchup hasn’t been kind to South Florida in recent years. The Panthers have won the last three, including a 41-14 blowout in 2009. Interestingly enough, two of South Florida’s wins in this series have been in Pittsburgh. These two coaches should be familiar, as South Florida’s Skip Holtz and Pittsburgh’s Todd Graham coached against each other in Conference USA.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Pittsburgh by 3

5. South Florida at Notre Dame (Week 1)
Sept. 3, All-Time Series: First Meeting

This opening week matchup is flying under the radar in terms of buzz, but there’s a lot of intrigue with this game. South Florida coach Skip Holtz is back at his old stomping grounds. He played at Notre Dame in 1986 and coached in South Bend with his father Lou from 1990-1993. This is the first meeting between these two teams, but it’s an important one. In Brian Kelly’s second season at Notre Dame, the Irish could be a contender to make one of the at-large BCS bowl spots. The Bulls closed out 2010 by winning five out of their last seven games and could jump into the top 25 with a win in South Bend.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Notre Dame by 7

6. Notre Dame at Pittsburgh (Week 4)
Sept. 24, All-Time Series: Notre Dame leads 45-20-1

New Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham should be familiar to Notre Dame fans, especially after he led Tulsa to a surprising win against the Irish last season. The Panthers are 2-1 in their last three games against Notre Dame, but lost 23-17 in South Bend last year. Graham and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly want high-octane offenses, so this could be an entertaining offensive affair. Expect the quarterbacks to be under the microscope in this game. By Week 4, Notre Dame’s quarterback battle should be sorted out, and Pittsburgh should have a better idea if Tino Sunseri is the right man to lead the offense.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Notre Dame by 6

7. Miami at South Florida (Week 12)
Nov. 19, All-Time Series: Miami leads 2-1

South Florida is hungry to stake its claim among the hierarchy of programs in the state of Florida. And this is a huge game in the battle for recruits for both schools. The Bulls shocked the Hurricanes last year, winning 23-20 in overtime. The loss to South Florida was the final straw in the Randy Shannon era at Miami. New coach Al Golden is the right man for the job, but the Hurricanes will have their hands full in 2011, especially with some question marks at key positions. Can the Bulls make it two in a row over their in-state rival?

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: South Florida by 3

8. West Virginia at Syracuse (Week 8)
Oct. 21, All-Time Series: Syracuse leads 31-27

Syracuse has made big progress under coach Doug Marrone and could contend for the conference title this year. However, one of the roadblocks will be West Virginia, a team the Orange hasn’t had much success with in recent years. Syracuse upset the Mountaineers last year, winning 19-14 in Morgantown. However, last season’s victory was the first since 2001 over West Virginia. The Orange failed to win a conference game at home last season and that trend will have to change if they want to contend for the Big East crown in 2011.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: West Virginia by 8

9. Syracuse at Pittsburgh (Week 14)
Dec. 3, All-Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 33-30-3

These two teams are expected to be locked in a tight battle for positioning behind West Virginia in the Big East race. The Orange has struggled mightily against Pittsburgh in recent years, losing the last six matchups in this series. Syracuse’s last victory against the Panthers came in 2004, winning 38-31 in the Carrier Dome. The Big East schedule makers did a good job keeping the suspense for the conference race until the last weekend, especially with West Virginia-South Florida and this game on the Week 14 slate.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Pittsburgh by 6

10. Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (Week 10)
Nov. 5, All-Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 8-2

If you are looking for an underrated matchup on the Big East schedule this year, this game might be the one. These two teams hooked up for a memorable 45-44 game in 2009, which gave Cincinnati the Big East title. Pittsburgh earned revenge for that defeat last year, winning 28-10 in Cincinnati. Both teams want to push the tempo on offense, so there could be plenty of points scored in this one. After last year’s disappointing season, Cincinnati wants to get back into Big East contention and winning at Pittsburgh would be a step in the right direction.

Athlon’s Very Early Prediction: Pittsburgh by 7

Other Top Games to Watch

Cincinnati at Tennessee (Sept. 10)
Louisville at Kentucky (Sept. 17)
Syracuse at USC (Sept. 17)
Pittsburgh at Iowa (Sept. 17)
West Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 17)
NC State at Cincinnati (Sept. 22)
Rutgers at Syracuse (Oct. 1)
Connecticut at West Virginia (Oct. 8)
Louisville at Cincinnati (Oct. 15)
Utah at Pittsburgh (Oct. 15)
Syracuse at Louisville (Oct. 29)
Connecticut at Syracuse (Nov. 5)
South Florida at Syracuse (Nov. 11)
Louisville at Connecticut (Nov. 19)

Other Big East Content:

Ranking the Big East's Best Units
Predicting the Big East's Breakout Players

Is Louisville the Surprise Team for 2011?

Ranking the Big East's Top 25 Players for 2011

Athlon's 2011 Big East Predictions

Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Team

Teaser:
<p> The start of the 2011 college football season is less than 20 days away. With kickoff right around the corner, Athlon takes a look at the top 10 must-see games in the Big East for 2011.</p>
Post date: Monday, August 15, 2011 - 07:35
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Big 12, SEC
Path: /college-football/should-texas-am-leave-big-12-sec
Body:

Is college football about to have another round of conference alignment?

The rumor mill suggests Texas A&M could be ready to join the SEC in time for the 2012 season. 

Should Texas A&M leave the Big 12 for the SEC?

Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
The prestige of having that little SEC patch on your shoulder pads cannot be overlooked. But I think the move is more of a horizontal one than the Aggie Board of Trustees will ever admit.

Do they get out from underneath the Longhorn's cowboy boot and Sooner Schooner freight train? Yes, they will never have to answer to Burnt Orange Big Brother ever again. And the SEC is a dramatically more stable, more lucrative place to be as the volatile college football landscape appears far from settled. But Big Brother will still have his foot on the Aggies' heads, it will just go by a different name: LSU, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. In the Big 12, TAMU ranks as the No. 3 program in the league. In the SEC, they would be no better than No. 5 overall or No. 3 in the West (assuming Oklahoma or Florida State do not join the West as well). Thus, the path to winning seasons, bowl games, conference titles and BCS bowls is much more difficult.

The century-long stream of hatred flying down state road 21 from College Station to Austin will certainly slow with a move to the SEC. And the money and the stability might be invaluable to the long-term future of the program. So if it were up to me, I would make the switch. However, it's not the same type of coup the Big Ten experienced with Nebraska or Larry Scott with the Pac-12's creative and incredibly lucrative TV contract.

One thing is for sure, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe certainly isn't too torn up about Texas A&M leaving the league.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Texas A&M should not leave the Big 12 for the SEC. I understand why the Aggies want to depart and move away from the shadow of Texas, but this is a move that does not make sense. Sure, the SEC provides better stability and there’s more money on the table. Texas A&M is also a good fit for the SEC in terms of geographic and fan appeal. The Longhorn Network – which was a point of contention for Texas A&M – is no longer an issue since high school games cannot be televised. The Aggies believe a move to the SEC could help their recruiting, but the Longhorns will always have their pick of the best prospects in Texas. I’m not sure moving to the SEC will really help the recruiting for Texas A&M, especially if Alabama, Georgia, Florida or Auburn start to dip into Texas even more for their prospects.

Although the Aggies are frustrated with the Big 12, moving to the SEC isn’t going to guarantee success. If they leave for the Big 12, it will likely be placed in the West Division, which means it would face Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn every season – wouldn’t playing Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Missouri and Texas every year be an easier path? Winning a national championship in the SEC wouldn’t be impossible for Texas A&M, but finishing with an undefeated record and a conference title seems more likely in the Big 12. With the departure of Nebraska and Colorado, the Big 12 has no conference title game – one less hurdle to get the national championship.

I understand the reasons and see why Texas A&M would want to join the SEC. However, I’m not sure this helps the Aggies be more competitive on a national level or makes it easier to win a national title. 

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
The marriage between Texas A&M and the SEC seems inevitable. A word of caution to both sides: Be careful what you wish for.

Texas A&M is currently well-positioned in both football and basketball — yes, I know, football is all that really matters — in the new-look, 10-team Big 12. In football, the Aggies are behind only Texas and Oklahoma on the food chain. Oklahoma State is improving as a program and has a ton of money at its disposal, but Texas A&M has more tradition, a better recruiting area and a larger fan base. A&M can realistically compete for Big 12 titles on a regular basis.

In the SEC, the path to a league title and a BCS bowl would be much more difficult. In a hypothetical 14-team SEC, the Aggies could possibly be in the same division as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. Win that and then you have to play Florida or Georgia (or maybe Virginia Tech) in the SEC Championship Game.

I understand that the SEC offers far more stability at this time, but I firmly believe a 10-team Big 12 can work in the long run. The NCAA’s recent decision to ban the Longhorn Network from televising high school games removes the perceived recruiting advantage that everyone was (rightfully) so upset about.

So my advice to Texas A&M: Stay where you are and stop worrying about the big bad Longhorns.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think Texas A&M should stay in the Big 12 for now. We all can understand the frustration of the Aggies administration and fans in dealing with The University of Texas and the league office, but an emotional decision is not always best. A&M should be patient on the SEC move because I believe that opportunity will still be there in a year or two. Obviously playing in college football’s premier conference has a ton of appeal, but I do not see the urgency for the Aggies. If the SEC does expand, it would be very difficult to find a better fit than Texas A&M or see an SEC move west without A&M involved. The Aggies can feel out the new Big 12 landscape, keep their traditional rivalries, bring in solid revenue for the next few seasons and then make a better determination down the road.

The Big 12 could fizzle for many reasons. Unequal revenue sharing (and the Texas influence on the conference office) drove Nebraska away, but Texas A&M gets one of the higher money cuts among league members. Texas and the Longhorn Network are sources of frustration across the league, but the absence of high-school broadcasts (a major recruiting advantage) should calm the Aggies and others. The fact that the league did not invite two new members (to get back to a total of 12 and a Championship Game) after Nebraska and Colorado bolted is still surprising to me. There are many reasons to question the conference’s leadership and direction, but Texas A&M should give it a go until it becomes crystal clear that the Big 12 does not have a future.

Other College Football Content:

Ranking the Big 12's Top 35 Players for 2011

Ranking the SEC's Top 40 Players for 2011

Teaser:
<p> Athlon's editors debate whether or not Texas A&amp;M should leave the Big 12 for the SEC.</p>
Post date: Sunday, August 14, 2011 - 11:35
All taxonomy terms: Best Units, College Football, Pac 12
Path: /college-football/athlon-awards-ranking-pac-12s-best-units
Body:

Kickoff for the 2011 season is just a few weeks away. To help pass the time before the opening weekend, Athlon will be taking a look at the best units by conference. 

A "1" signifies the best unit in conference, while a "12" indicates the worst.

Athlon's 2011 Pac-12 Unit Rankings

Best Quarterbacks – Stanford
Andrew Luck is back for his junior season, and his return gives the Cardinal a chance to contend for the Pac-12 title. Luck completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder also has underrated mobility, rushing for 453 yards and three scores last year. The Cardinal must replace three offensive line starters and the top two wide receivers from last year, but having Luck under center should be more than enough for Stanford to push Oregon in the Pac-12 North. Sophomore Josh Nunes and freshman Brett Nottingham will compete for the backup job.

(Note: Although depth was considered, much of the emphasis for the rankings at this position was based upon the starter.)

2. USC
3. Oregon
4. Arizona
5. Oregon State
6. Washington State
7. Utah
8. Arizona State
9. Washington
10. UCLA
11. Colorado
12. California

Best Running Backs – Oregon 
Despite missing the opener due to a suspension, LaMichael James was the top running back in college football last season. James rushed for an Oregon single-season record 1,731 yards and added 21 rushing scores. James posted three games of over 200 rushing yards, including 239 in a win against USC. The junior should be a Heisman contender and a threat to finish as the nation's leading rusher once again. Joining James in the backfield will be Kenjon Barner, who rushed for 551 yards last year, and redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk. Even with a rebuilt offensive line, the Ducks shouldn't miss a beat with their rushing attack.

(Note: Although depth was considered, much of the emphasis for the rankings at this position was based upon the starter.)

2. Washington
3. Stanford
4. USC
5. Colorado
6. UCLA
7. Arizona State
8. Arizona
9. California
10. Oregon State
11. Utah
12. Washington State

Best Wide Receivers/Tight Ends – Arizona
If five new starters on the offensive line can give quarterback Nick Foles time to throw, the Wildcats could own the Pac-12’s best passing attack. The top four receivers are back from last year, including Juron Criner, who led the team with 82 receptions for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection. The receiving corps also gets a boost with Texas transfer Dan Buckner eligible after sitting out last year. Buckner caught 45 passes for 442 yards and four scores with the Longhorns in 2009. Seniors David Roberts and David Douglas will play a prominent role in the receiving corps, after combining for 96 catches and seven touchdowns last year.

2. Washington
3. USC
4. Washington State
5. Oregon State
6. California
7. Oregon
8. Arizona State
9. Stanford
10. UCLA
11. Colorado
12. Utah

Best Offensive Line – Stanford
Even with three starters departing, the Cardinal should boast the top line in the Pac-12. Left tackle Jonathan Martin is among the best in the nation at his position, earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. Joining him as a returning starter will be David DeCastro, also a first-team All-Pac-10 pick. Sam Schwartzstein is expected to replace Chase Beeler at center, while Kevin Danser and Tyler Mabry will round out the final two spots.

2. Oregon
3. USC
4. California
5. Utah
6. Washington
7. Arizona State
8. Colorado
9. UCLA
10. Oregon State
11. Arizona
12. Washington State

Best Defensive Line – USC
The Trojans struggled on defense last year, but improvement is expected following another offseason under Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron. Four players with significant experience are back up front, and this unit will get a boost with the return of tackle Christian Tupou from injury. Tackle Armond Armstead's health was a question mark in the spring, but all signs point to him returning to the field in time for the 2011 opener. The Trojans need a big year from Nick Perry, who figures to improve upon his numbers from last year. Junior Wes Horton and senior DaJohn Harris will also play a significant role. Depth was a concern last fall, but five true freshmen will join the rotation, along with redshirt freshman George Uko.

2. Washington
3. Oregon
4. Arizona State
5. California
6. Colorado
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. Stanford
10. Utah
11. Oregon State
12. Washington State

Best Linebackers – Arizona State
If Vontaze Burfict eliminates the mental errors and penalties that have plagued him in recent years, the junior should turn in an All-America season. Burfict registered 90 stops last year and earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors. Brandon Magee picked up honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors last year after making 73 tackles. Shelly Lyons rounds out the starting trio and should be 100 percent after missing the final five games due to injury. All three starters played at Centennial High School in California.

2. Stanford
3. California
4. Utah
5. USC
6. Oregon
7. UCLA
8. Arizona
9. Washington
10. Oregon State
11. Colorado
12. Washington State

Best Defensive Backs – Oregon
Three starters are back, including Athlon Sports preseason All-America cornerback Cliff Harris, who was one of the nation’s top defensive playmakers last year — returning one of his six interceptions for a touchdown and making an impact on special teams. Harris also broke up 17 passes last year and defended 23. Off-the-field issues will keep Harris from playing in the season opener against LSU, but he should return to the field early in the year. Talmadge Jackson departs at corner, but senior Anthony Gildon is experienced, so the dropoff should be minimal. The safety duo of John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant should be the best in the Pac-12 this year.

2. Washington
3. Stanford
4. Oregon State
5. Arizona
6. California
7. USC
8. UCLA
9. Arizona State
10. Utah
11. Colorado
12. Washington State

After ranking all of the individual units in the conference, here's a look at what the combined totals look like - 

  QB RB WR/TE OL DL LB DB Totals
Oregon 3 1 7 2 3 6 1 23
USC 2 4 3 3 1 5 7 25
Stanford 1 3 9 1 9 2 3 28
Washington 9 2 2 6 2 9 2 32
Arizona 4 8 1 11 7 8 5 44
Arizona State 8 7 8 7 4 1 9 44
California 12 9 6 4 5 3 6 45
Oregon State 5 10 5 10 11 10 4 55
UCLA 10 6 10 9 8 7 8 58
Utah 7 11 12 5 10 4 10 59
Colorado 11 5 11 8 6 11 11 63
Washington State 6 12 4 12 12 12 12 70

Other Pac-12 Content

Predicting the Pac-12's Breakout Players for 2011
Athlon's 2011 Pac-12 Predictions

Athlon's 2011 All-Pac-12 Team

Is Washington the Surprise Pac-12 Team?

Teaser:
<p> The Athlon Awards for 2011 continue with a look at the best units in the Pac-12.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 12, 2011 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Arkansas, College Football, Knile Davis, SEC
Path: /college-football/arkansas-rb-knile-davis-injured-again-out-2011-season
Body:

Davis could have kissed his hopes goodbye after he re-broke the ankle during his first spring at the University of Arkansas, a spring when the 17-year-old should have been a high school senior.

But no, he really couldn’t.

Pops inspired the young Davis to stick with his plan after that second ankle surgery in 2009, reminding him of the extra hours he spent in the weight room and the classroom, graduating early so he could get a jump start on his college career.

Pops, also known as Warren Morgan, isn’t a blood relative to Davis, though their bond is as tight as a father-son connection, maybe even tighter.

And to be correct, that should be “was” as tight, as in the past tense. See, Morgan, the man who entered Davis’ world when he was in the second grade, and married his mother, Regina Gardner, in 2006, passed away in August 2009 with an advanced case of liver cancer.

The man who treated Davis like a son, who encouraged him when life dealt him hard knocks, who put his arm around him during the good times and the bad, didn’t get to see Davis run crazy the last half of the 2010 season. Morgan was unable to watch Davis, running pain-free, rush for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns to help power the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl, the first Bowl Championship Series bid in school history.

Davis, a national top-200 prospect in 2009 despite his injury-filled prep career, was supposed to enter the 2011 season with the wind at his back and a degree of national acclaim after his big finish. He didn’t kick back on his laurels during the offseason, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in fall camp. This is another tough break for Davis, after returning to 100 percent and shining as one of the SEC’s top backs.

Davis ran the third-best 40 time (4.29 hand-timed) on a fast Razorbacks team in winter testing, and his bench press of 415 pounds beat all but three Arkansas linemen.

“Knile had a great offseason,” Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton says. “He improved in every category, from weight to speed to bench to power clean to squat to shuttle runs to everything.”

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino points out how Davis showed up at winter testing for the other positions on the team, raising his level as a leader. “You could see how much he cares about his teammates, and that’s a huge step as far as being a leader,” Petrino says.

“I just enjoy football,” says Davis, who added 10 pounds, to reach 230 pounds, in the offseason. “I wanted to see what all the different positions did. When I watched some of the 40s and stuff, I really wanted to see what the times were. I was trying to compete. I was talking a little noise.”

Davis says he’s kept his ego in check after his 1,300-yard season, as Pops would prefer.

“He’s a humble kid,” Horton says. “He’s not an ego guy. Football’s very important to Knile Davis. He loves the game and will come in early and watch video.

“He likes to watch some of the pro backs and he likes to study football. He’s got a lot of maturity about him.”

After re-fracturing his ankle, Davis opened the 2009 season as essentially the fifth tailback on Arkansas’ roster. That Razorbacks team had 1,000-yard rusher Michael Smith in the lead role, though injuries plagued him. Transfer Broderick Green, an in-state product and transfer from USC, wound up as the team’s leading rusher. Behind him were Smith, sophomore Dennis Johnson and the more heavily hyped freshman Ronnie Wingo. Davis rushed for a modest 163 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman, with much of it coming in mop-up duty in a homecoming rout of Eastern Michigan.

Davis suffered another setback in the spring of 2010, breaking his left collarbone — again — during the Razorbacks’ Red-White game.

Dealing with another serious injury and the uphill climb he faced on the tailback depth chart, Davis might have bowed to the pressure.

He didn’t. That wasn’t what Pops would have wanted.

Through four games in 2010, Davis was still behind on the depth chart and had rushed for only 121 yards and one touchdown on 20 attempts. But after the Razorbacks dropped a 65–43 decision at Auburn, a game in which a late Green fumble led to an Auburn touchdown, Davis took the reins at tailback. He never let them go.

Davis rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns the following week in a 38–24 victory over Ole Miss, then produced five 100-yard games the rest of the way to burst onto the national scene.

He outdueled South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore with 110 yards and three touchdowns in a 41–20 Arkansas victory in Columbia, S.C., put up back-to-back 180-yard efforts against UTEP and Mississippi State, then ravaged a vaunted LSU defense for 152 yards and a score as the Razorbacks won their sixth straight to reach the Sugar Bowl.

“If you would have asked me if I would get 1,000 yards before the season, I would have been like, ‘You’re crazy!’” Davis says.

“It doesn’t surprise us that he has run the ball well,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee says. “Knile has always been one of our strongest and most competitive guys, ever since he got here.”

Davis dedicated his 2010 season to Warren, and says he thinks about his stepfather on the field and in the weight room.

“I think about what kind of encouragement he’d be trying to give me,” Davis says. “The point is, he was my stepdad. He didn’t have to be there for me. He didn’t have to do that. And he did anyway.”

Considering Davis’ history of returning from injuries and his dedication to football, he should return for 2012 even more motivated for a big season. Without Davis, Arkansas will likely go with a combination of Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson at running back. Although that duo is talented, neither will likely match Davis’ production.

Losing Davis is a huge blow to Arkansas’ SEC title hopes. The Razorbacks were picked third in the SEC West by Athlon and Davis was predicted to be one of the top 10 players in the conference. Losing Davis is a huge loss, but his track record suggests he will return for 2012 an even better player.

Teaser:
<p> Arkansas running back Knile Davis suffered another setback in his career, when he was lost for the 2011 season with an ankle injury.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 12, 2011 - 11:03

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