Robert Griffin looks to lead Baylor to another bowl in 2011.
With the completion of Athlon's 2011 preseason Top 25, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings, continuing with No. 41 through No. 60. Previous rankings - Top 25, No. 26 through No. 40 and No. 61-80.
The offseason at Pittsburgh had more twists than a Stephen King novel. First, Dave Wannstedt was let go after failing to earn a BCS berth in six years and finishing with an underachieving 7–5 regular-season record in 2010. Then, Mike Haywood was hired from Miami (Ohio), only to be fired 16 days later after being charged with domestic violence.
Todd Graham was brought in to restore order and energize a skeptical fan base. The former Tulsa boss won 10 or more games in three of his four seasons there and offered a dynamic brand of football. At Pittsburgh, Graham takes over a program that’s been to three consecutive bowl games and features quality talent. The question is: Will those players, most of them Wannstedt recruits, buy in quickly? If so, the Panthers could compete for the Big East title in Graham’s inaugural campaign.
The Tigers have an undersized roster and a collection of unproven underclassmen vying to fill roles that used to be occupied by veterans. No, the Tigers don’t look like defending national champions, but appearances can be deceiving. Back-to-back top-five recruiting classes have stocked the bottom half of Auburn’s roster with elite players eager to prove their worth.
This year’s brutal schedule will make it all but impossible to duplicate last year’s success. But if the Tigers are able to weather this year’s challenges while adapting new players to SEC competition, they will be poised to return to the national title discussion in 2012, when they’ll have a friendlier schedule and a more experienced roster.
After turning a 4–8 record into an 8–5 campaign in 2010 and earning its first bowl invite in six years, a program that spent five seasons as a Big East laughingstock was suddenly back on the fringes of the top 25. But 13 seniors played key roles for last year’s Orange, eight of them on defense.
The equation could be pretty simple for Doug Marrone’s team: Can a much-improved offense balance a young, inexperienced defense? The units might swap roles this season, with the offense riding in to save the day while the defense struggles to find itself. If the defense comes together, this team could again surprise people in 2011. If the offense struggles, the Orange could take a step backward this fall.
“The challenges are going to be replacing the seniors that left,” Marrone says. “A lot of those seniors played well for us, but more importantly, who’s replacing that leadership role?”
Enthusiastic and positive, Steve Sarkisian isn’t satisfied with small steps. He’s clearly impatient for this program to return to its past glory and contend for championships again. In his mind, a 7–6 season and 19–7 victory over Nebraska in the postseason, ending seven-year non-winning and bowl-less seasons, were just the beginning.
Washington will have a tough time contending in the new Pac-12 North — Oregon and Stanford are both in the division, after all — but the Huskies should win more than they lose and be back in a bowl game.
45. Boston College
Boston College should be solid on defense once again, the running game will be sound with Montel Harris and Andre Williams leading the way, and the kicking game should be outstanding.
If Chase Rettig and the young corps of receivers can find a way to move the ball consistently through the air, the Eagles will be a factor in the ACC Atlantic Division. Florida State is clearly the team to beat, but the rest of the division is wide open.
Last season, Northwestern unravelled after Dan Persa’s injury and also blew big leads in losses to Michigan State and Penn State. This year, the non-conference schedule could be tricky with trips to Boston College and Army, but the Cats catch some breaks in their Big Ten slate by missing both Ohio State and Wisconsin. If Northwestern can start strong and make it through a tough stretch from early October to early November, it could enter the stretch run with a chance to make some noise in the Legends Division.
Fulfilling prophecy, the Bears ended up at Reliant Stadium for the Texas Bowl last season. And while their sights are set higher, it won’t be easy with a schedule that starts with defending Rose Bowl champion TCU on Sept. 2. To take the next step, the offense has to find a go-to back, and the defense has to make huge strides in Phil Bennett’s first year as coordinator.
This season will be unlike any in the Utes’ history. Longtime rival BYU is booked for the third game of the season, and Colorado, an opponent the Utes have not faced in nearly 50 years, occupies BYU’s traditional slot on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
In the Pac-12, “The bar has been raised,” Kyle Whittingham says. Intermittent games against Pac-12 schools have illustrated that the Utes can compete at this level, but the week-after-week conference schedule will challenge them. If the young running backs develop and the secondary comes together, Utah could contend for the Pac-12 South title.
With plenty of veterans back from a squad that tied for the C-USA West title last season, the Mustangs are poised to win plenty of games in 2011. Depth is still a concern, but the starting 22 can play with anyone in the league, and the Mustangs’ first league championship since they tied for the 1984 Southwest Conference title in the pre-Death Penalty days is a real possibility. The key will be in the turnover department, where SMU was No. 111 nationally at minus-12. An improvement even to the middle of the pack will make a huge difference for a team whose offense is capable of outscoring nearly every team on the schedule.
50. Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech stumbled to a 6–7 record last year — only the second losing season in Johnson’s 14-year career as a head coach — after winning a conference title just two years ago.
Was 2010 an aberration, or are the Yellow Jackets slipping down the food chain in the ACC? The 2011 season will go a long way toward answering this pivotal question. The Jackets could make it back to a bowl game for a 15th straight season, but don’t expect this club to be too much of factor in the Coastal Division race.
UCF lost 19 seniors, but the Knights have reloaded thanks to back-to-back highly rated recruiting classes. The team needs its young receivers and linebackers to embrace new roles, plugging the biggest holes on the depth chart. UCF’s offense should put the Knights in position to win a lot of games. If the defense can steadily improve throughout the season, UCF should return to the C-USA title game.
Arizona plays anticipated national powers Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon and USC in an early four-week stretch. That’s bad timing for the Wildcats, who will be breaking in five new offensive line starters in September.
The passing game is as skilled as at any time in school history, but the Wildcats have significant worries in the running game and on special teams, and they are thin everywhere on defense.
Arizona enters the season on a five-game losing streak and did little in the offseason to suggest that its troubles won’t continue as it enters the Pac-12.
53. Oregon State
Much of Beaver Nation went into panic when Jacquizz Rodgers announced he was skipping his final season at OSU. The head coach, however, didn’t seem overly concerned. “It’s the nature of football,” says Mike Riley. “People were asking me the same question when we lost Ken Simonton and when we lost Steven Jackson. What are we going to do? Well, we did just fine. How did Stanford do (in 2010) without Toby Gerhart? Stanford was actually better. … Life goes on.”
Life will be a lot easier if Quizz’s brother James can return from his knee troubles. A healthy Rodgers combined with an improved Ryan Katz at quarterback and a more effective offensive line should equate to a more productive offense. The Beavers will also be facing a much more manageable schedule. Don’t expect OSU to threaten Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North, but a return to a bowl game is a realistic goal.
The heat is being turned up on Jeff Tedford, who is coming off his first losing season in his nine years at Cal. He may have to depend on his defense to carry the load while the Bears work through their issues on offense. If Isi Sofele or incoming freshman Brendan Bigelow can’t give the Bears a big-play threat out of the backfield, it may be too much to ask for an inexperienced quarterback to lead the way. In the tough North Division of the Pac-12, the Bears look headed for the bottom half of the standings.
55. Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles consistently win and go to bowl games, but they haven’t won a division crown since the league split into divisions in 2005. While they should extend their bowl streak this year, Larry Fedora wants his first C-USA championship. If Dan Disch’s scheme is a success, expect Southern Miss to challenge defending champion UCF for the East Division title.
Navy has proven it can replace individual parts and keep the victory machine humming. The Midshipmen have put together eight straight winning seasons capped by bowl berths, and there is no reason to believe that remarkable run of success will end in 2011. However, another winning season and bowl berth won’t be enough to satisfy coach Ken Niumatalolo or the Midshipmen, who want desperately to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy as champion of the service academy competition with Air Force and Army.
There’s little doubt that Cincinnati will score a lot of points, but the Bearcats scored a lot last year and still finished 4–8.
If Cincinnati is to return to the top of the Big East, it will have to see major improvement on defense, where everyone returns from last year, and stop handing the ball to the opposition, which it did 29 times in 2010, the most in the league. The Bearcats were also one of the most penalized teams in the league. In short, they often beat themselves.
The talent on offense at the skill positions is still there. But this is a program that has experienced winning only occasionally in its long history and seems to have lost the swagger it displayed under Brian Kelly for three years. It will be important for the Bearcats to regain that confidence under Jones. A slow start could doom Cincinnati to another sub-par season, but if the Bearcats can gain some momentum, they could finish in the upper half of the league standings.
In the two seasons in which Case Keenum was healthy and the full-time starter, UH went 18–9. Last year, when he missed nine games with the knee injury, the Cougars slipped to 5–7. If he remains healthy, and the defense, now in the second season of coordinator Brian Stewart’s 3-4 scheme, shows even modest improvement, the Cougars should threaten SMU and Tulsa for the C-USA West title.
After 12 long years in Storrs, Randy Edsall left UConn to take over at Maryland. In his place arrives Pasqualoni, a former head coach at Syracuse and a Connecticut native. Paul Pasqualoni will be 62 by the time UConn’s season opens. He appears to be more a stopgap than a look to the future.
Pasqualoni inherits a team that doesn’t have as many pieces as the Huskies did a year ago, when they returned 90 percent of their starters. There are questions at running back and linebacker, and while the playbook won’t be entirely different, there will be an adjustment period as the players adapt to a new coaching staff.
The Big East, as usual, is wide open, but it seems unlikely that the Huskies will be able to get back to a BCS bowl this season.
Kentucky has made five straight bowl games, the first four under Joker Phillips’ predecessor, Rich Brooks. With its offense so wiped out, a sixth will be a tall order.
The postseason recipe remains the same: The Wildcats need to sweep their non-conference games and find a way to win two SEC games. The margin for error shrinks if Kentucky falls to resurgent rival Louisville in Week 3.