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Athlon continues its release of 2011 preseason rankings with No. 26 through No. 40.
Unlike a year ago, this team won’t be burdened by high expectations entering the season. Last year’s November collapse is still fresh in everybody’s mind, and there are too many holes to fill on both offense and defense for Iowa to be considered much of a threat by outsiders.
The good news is that the Hawkeyes usually do better under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz when they are flying under the radar. His teams have a history of overachieving when little is expected from them.
27. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen, entering his third season, has MSU on the right track. The mantra this offseason has been to work even harder and build on 2010, when State went 9–4 and pounded Michigan in the Gator Bowl, 52–14.
28. Arizona State
In mid-April Arizona State unveiled new uniforms, new helmets and a new branding campaign entitled, “Fear the Fork.” But will they still be the same ol’ Sun Devils?
Dennis Erickson’s team hasn’t played in a bowl game the last three seasons. Erickson, whose contract runs through 2012, is considered to be sitting on one of the hottest seats in college football.
The good news: The Sun Devils return 12 starters and are considered one of the favorites in the Pac-12’s South Division. If that experience can turn the close losses of 2010 — ASU lost to Wisconsin, Oregon, Oregon State, USC and Stanford by a combined 20 points — into victories, the Sun Devils could challenge for a conference title. But if the ASU struggles again, Erickson may fear for his job.
29. Air Force
The Falcons were close — extremely close — to a breakout season in 2010, losing to San Diego State, Utah and Oklahoma by an average of 3.3 points. With Tim Jefferson, Anthony Wright, Zach Kauth and Jonathan Warzeka, this team boasts the star power to threaten the top teams — Boise State and TCU — in the MWC. Air Force will again roll to 300 or so rushing yards per game, and there’s enough talent in the defensive backfield to stifle the pass. If an undersized defense can stop the run, this could be a special season.
30. Penn State
Everybody’s focused on the quarterbacks, but the Lions’ other sore spots — the offensive and defensive lines — could prove even more vexing. On offense, they’ve got a Stefen Wisniewski-sized hole at guard and uncertainty at center. On defense, their ends are either coming off injuries, are out for the year or have yet to play a down in college. And they’ve got exactly one week to get their house in order once the season begins; Alabama is scheduled to visit on Sept. 10. Throw in a brutal November schedule — Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin — and you can understand why Joe Paterno isn’t talking retirement. This rebuilding project is far from finished.
31. NC State
NC State appears to have the talent in place to continue as a winning program. After posting three straight losing seasons to begin his tenure in Raleigh, Tom O’Brien led his team to a 9–4 record, a Champs Sports Bowl win over West Virginia and a No. 25 spot in the final polls in 2010.
With eight returning starters on defense and a solid quarterback situation — even without Wilson — a trip to a bowl game seems nearly certain. And don’t rule out a run at the ACC Atlantic Division title.
Ron Zook went from the hot seat to the cushy seat. All it took was a winning season, the first bowl victory at Illinois in 11 years and promise of even better times to come. The promise is expected to be fulfilled in 2011. Some Illini fans are even talking about playing in the Big Ten’s first title game.
Why all the optimism at a school two years removed from a 3–9 record? Start with the offense, which set an Illinois record for points in a season (423) under Paul Petrino in his first-year as the coordinator.
With most of the staff intact and a favorable schedule (eight home games, no Iowa or Nebraska), the Fighting Illini are counting on the school’s first back-to-back bowl appearances in almost two decades.
Many vocal fans were less than enthused at the school’s move to hire Randy Edsall to replace the fired Ralph Friedgen, a two-time Coach of the Year. But the pieces are in place for a strong opening act of the Edsall era. The coach who built the Connecticut program from the ground up inherits a mature team intent on building upon a resurgent nine-win season. The Terrapins return more than 75 percent of the offensive and defensive players from the two-deep depth chart at the end of last season.
Maryland has an emerging star at quarterback in Danny O’Brien, who wowed coaches and fans alike with his poise, and an experienced, healthy offensive line. The versatile Kenny Tate is the face of a defense that scored four touchdowns last year, which ranked sixth nationally. Tony Logan is a constant threat in the return game.
The schedule is tougher, but the team is better positioned to challenge in the Atlantic Division than it was last season.
Piecing together a 2011 schedule after declaring its independence, BYU ended up with a demanding September slate of Ole Miss, Texas, Utah and UCF. How the Cougars handle those first four games will largely determine their success. The biggest question regarding last season is whether the Cougars truly improved in the second half, or if the schedule merely eased. The offense should be more settled and confident from the start with Jake Heaps established as the quarterback, but the unit must prove itself against good competition.
35. South Florida
For the first time in program history, the Bulls won at Cincinnati and Louisville. They defeated Rutgers, a long-time nemesis. They defeated in-state rival Miami in a thrilling 23–20 overtime game. The Bulls played in their sixth consecutive bowl game and are now one of four programs to win their last three postseason appearances.
Guess what’s next on the to-do list?
Since joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls have envisioned themselves as a potential conference powerhouse. And why not? With a fertile home-state recruiting ground fueling the program’s growth, South Florida seemingly has been holding a ticket to a BCS bowl appearance. The Bulls might finally be ready to cash in.
“I’d probably prefer to be where we were last year (picked for the middle of the pack), but I’m not going to downgrade my players,” Skip Holtz says. “If we start the year fast, we’ve got a chance.”
36. North Carolina
North Carolina’s players are thinking big, believing they have a realistic chance at the Coastal Division title and the ACC championship. None of that is outside the realm of possibility, but plenty of things have to go right to make it a reality: Bryn Renner has to excel from the beginning, the Tar Heels have to come up with answers in the secondary, and the team must stay healthy.
The heartbreaking truth for North Carolina fans is that their legitimate chance for a championship was last season, which got short-circuited by off-the-field trouble. This year’s team looks like a solid bet for a fourth consecutive winning season, but inexperience at key positions could keep the Tar Heels out of ACC title contention.
Tennessee will once again find itself fighting for a bowl berth in November. The Volunteers face a difficult October, facing Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. Quarterback Tyler Bray looks like a rising star, but needs to prove he can deliver against some of the top teams in the SEC. The Volunteers are moving in the right direction but might not have time to get there this season. The offensive unit is more cohesive than a defense that has yet to sort itself out.
Chad Morris brings a much-needed offensive identity, and the Tigers should be better on that side of the ball. But Tajh Boyd has to be considered a major question mark at quarterback. The defense could regress some after losing so many key players. And the Tigers could be much improved but still end up with a mediocre record if they can’t make field goals.
A program with such bountiful resources and talent shouldn’t finish with a losing record, and it will be a big disappointment if the Tigers don’t show significant improvement in 2011.
39. Texas Tech
Even with a new starter at quarterback and key losses at receiver, the Red Raiders’ offense is expected to improve in its second year under coordinator Neal Brown. So, as has often been the case over the last decade, Tech’s success in 2011 will largely hinge on the performance of its defense.
The Raiders don’t look like Big 12 contenders, but another bowl appearance is very likely.
Say what you will about Rich Rodriguez — his number of victories improved from three to five to seven in his three years in Ann Arbor. Brady Hoke cannot backslide.
He inherits a 7–6 team that played in a Jan. 1 bowl, and he returns 16 starters. That’s not a bad base. Spread or pro-style, this offense is not a concern. If Michigan is going to improve, it will have to start on defense.
Seven true freshmen played significant roles last year. Their experience will help, along with the return of injured starters in the secondary. If they can find a linebacker or two, even a mediocre defense would be reason to celebrate in Ann Arbor this fall.