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Who will be the surprise teams in college football this fall?
For the 45th year in a row, Athlon Sports will release its in-depth preseason preview annual complete with coaching changes, behind the scenes features, scouting reports from within the locker room, pages of recruiting rankings, and most importantly, in-depth predictions and previews.
Each year, we order some pizza and lock ourselves in a room until all 120 teams have been hammered into place. And every year, there are some seriously heated discussions that result in not-so-cordial commentary.
The 2011 preseason top-25 countdown will begin with No. 25 on Monday May 2. But every day until then, we will offer the college football fan a peek behind the curtain at some of the most heated debates that we the editors at Athlon had to work through.
Check out all the debates linked below.
The Debate: Who will be the biggest surprise team not in the Athlon Top 25?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
I like Illinois, though it's always a little dangerous to put too much belief in a Ron Zook team. Nathan Scheelhaase was pretty good as a redshirt freshman and should be better as a sophomore, his second season with Paul Petrino. Mikel Leshoure is gone, but Jason Ford should be able to step in an rush for 1,000 yards behind a very good offensive line. The schedule is very favorable, as well. The Illini don't play Nebraska or Michigan State, the two best teams (on paper) in the Legends Division. It wouldn't shock me if Illinois finishes second in the Leaders. Honorable Mention: Arizona State
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I don't think Iowa will be ranked in many preseason top 25 polls, but this is a team that could surprise in 2011. The Hawkeyes always seem to perform better when there are no expectations and that's exactly where they are - under the radar. Everything seemed to break right for Iowa in 2009, but couldn't deliver in the clutch to win the close games last year. There are several key losses to replace, including quarterback Ricky Stanzi, three key linemen and both starting safeties. However, new quarterback James Vandenberg has experience and the Hawkeyes will have one of the Big Ten's best rushing attacks. The losses on defense are a concern, but Norm Parker should be able to keep this unit playing at a high level. One of the biggest reasons to like Iowa is the schedule. Non-conference games against Iowa State and Pittsburgh won't be easy, but the Hawkeyes host Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State - all potential swing games in the Big Ten race. I don't think Iowa is a threat to win the Big Ten in 2011, but I like the Hawkeyes to finish the season with a 9-3 or 8-4 record and just inside of the top 25. Honorable Mention: Air Force, SMU
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I’ll go with Arizona State as a team that could surprise this season. The Sun Devils went 6-6 (with two FCS wins) last year, but four of their losses were by four points or less. Dennis Erickson’s squad returns a ton of experience, and the roster has some solid young talent. Quarterback Brock Osweiler showed he could lead he team late last season, and running back Cameron Marshall had ten total touchdowns as a sophomore. The defense should be stout once again, led by all-league candidates Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Magee and Junior Onyeali. Playing at Oregon is obviously a tough game, but ASU does not have to play Stanford and Washington from the other division. If Osweiler fulfills his potential, the Sun Devils could win the Pac-12 South. Honorable Mention: BYU
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) I like Texas Tech. The Raiders return one of the best offensive lines in the conference, if not the nation, along with a plethora of talent in the backfield. Sorting out who takes the snaps and who gets the carries needs to happen this summer, but there should be plenty of holes to run through and plenty of time to throw. With an easy non-conference slate, swing games with Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri will determine if 2011 is a success for TTU. If the new defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow - and his 4-2-5 alignment - can improve that side of the ball at all, Tommy Tuberville is looking at a potential eight, nine or even 10 win season in Lubbock. Honorable Mention: Penn State
The UCF Knights are about to make a splash on the national stage. Resume builder George O’Leary, of Georgia Tech (1994-2001) and Notre Dame (a few days?) fame, has found his new Joe Hamilton (Heisman runner-up in 1999) at quarterback. Jeff Godfrey is a dual-threat winner from Miami who led the Knights to an 11–3 record and Liberty Bowl win over Georgia as a true freshman. In his second season, Godfrey looks to lead a loaded UCF roster to not only to a C-USA crown, but also past Boston College (Sept. 10) in Orlando and BYU (Sept. 23) in Provo. The Knights are a reasonable longshot to go undefeated in 2011.
Honorable Mention: Penn State
Debate: Is this the year that Miami breaks through in the ACC Coastal?
Debate: Does Notre Dame deserve to be a preseason top five team?
Debate: Can LSU win a national title with Jordan Jefferson under center?
Debate: Who is the top challenger Oklahoma in the Big 12?
Debate: What will Nebraska's conference record be in the Big Ten?
Debate: Will the Oregon Ducks repeat as Pac-12 Champions?
Debate: Who will win the SEC East in 2011?
Debate: Who is the top challenger to West Virginia in the Big East?
Debate: What is Ohio State's record after five games in 2011?
Debate: Who is the first-team All-Big 12 quarterback this year?
Debate: Who will finish second in the ACC Atlantic?
Debate: How far will Auburn fall in 2011?
Pre-order your team’s Athlon Sports cover here (athlonsports.com/store) and find out where Athlon has your team picked when the 2011 Top 25 countdown begins on Monday, May 2.