Athlon takes a look at one interesting storyline everyday until the start of the season.
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).