By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowmanon Twitter)
Are you as ready for college football to start as we are at Athlon? Our daily countdown will take us right up to kickoff on September 1. Some days our number might represent an All-American player, a great stat or just something fun about the game we all love.
Days Until College Football: 1
With apologies to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, Baylor’s Kendall Wright and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, No. 1 on our countdown is our request to all the fans: enjoy the football. In an offseason full of scandal and realignment rumors, it’s time for toe to meet leather and for the conversation to turn to gridiron happenings. It’s easy to be distracted with bad news during the summer months, but now it’s time to enjoy the game we all love.
Can the SEC win its sixth straight national title? How will Nebraska fare in the Big Ten? Can Andrew Luck lead Stanford to a Pac-12 crown with Jim Harbaugh gone to the NFL? Will Boise State win its third straight opener over a major BCS power? These are some of the storylines that we can’t wait to see play out during the upcoming months.
College football is back!
Days Until College Football: 2
LSU ranked No. 2 in scoring defense in the SEC last season, but the Tigers suffered some major losses in the offseason. The best player on each level of the defense – tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and cornerback Patrick Peterson – moved on to the NFL, and coordinator John Chavis will have a challenge in getting his group to repeat as best in the league against the run. Additionally, the schedule will present some very difficult obstacles – the fast-paced Oregon spread, West Virginia’s new passing attack under Dana Holgorsen, the power run game of Alabama and the high-octane aerial assault of Arkansas.
The defense will need to carry LSU early with offensive starters Jordan Jefferson (QB) and Russell Shepard (WR) being suspended for the huge opener – if not longer - against Oregon. With those two missing and Stevan Ridley’s departure to the NFL, Les Miles’ bunch will only return five of their 29 rushing touchdowns from a year ago. The offensive line and running backs are solid, but the passing game may be inconsistent in September. With points at a premium, the defense will need to hold the vaunted Ducks in check.
LSU has plenty of talent on defense, but most of the experience is in the back seven. The defensive line must perform above expectation if the Tigers are going to beat Oregon and compete for the SEC West crown.
Days Until College Football: 3
Oklahoma State ranked No. 3 in the nation in both scoring and total offense a year ago. Most of that high-octane attack is back, but intrepid offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen has moved on to West Virginia as the Mountaineers new head coach. The pieces – senior quarterback Brandon Weeden, record-setting receiver Justin Blackmon, and an offensive line with all five starters returning – seem to be there for the Cowboys to repeat their gaudy output of over 520 yards and 44 points per game. But the question remains – will the OSU offense be the same without Holgorsen calling the plays?
New offensive coordinator Todd Monken returns to Stillwater, where he previously spent three years as an assistant under Les Miles. After four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Monken will try to keep the momentum going that led the Cowboys to a school-record 11 wins last year. The schedule is formidable, with road trips to Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri, and the Bedlam Game with Oklahoma could decide the Big 12 champion.
The OSU defense has talent but will need more consistent play from the front seven to compete for the league title. If Mike Gundy and Monken can keep the offense at the same productive level, the Cowboys can win double-digit games once again.
Days Until College Football: 4
Only four teams – Boise State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia – in FBS football have won at least nine games in each of the last six seasons. That low number of schools shows how difficult it is to maintain a consistent winner in the current college football landscape, even though the expectations from fans and administrations tend to be higher than ever. With escalating coaching salaries and constant television coverage, many fans want an immediate double-digit wins per year program with no drop off from season to season. That’s a pretty unrealistic way to judge your coach and team.
The fact that no SEC school was among the four is hardly surprising. It’s a conference where most of it members are spending huge dollars on coaches and facilities. The reality becomes that not everyone can win every Saturday, even if you’re paying top money for a coaching staff, stadium, practice complex and weight room. The SEC has won the last five national titles, but the last repeat winner of the league championship game was Tennessee in 1998.
It’s probably a futile thought, but fans need to remember that their team is not going to win ten games every season. Every school would love to have a Chris Petersen or Frank Beamer coaching its program, but there are only so many top bosses who want to stay in one place. The next time you’re calling for a firing after an eight- or nine-win season, let it go.
Days Until College Football: 5
Arizona finished last season with the No. 5 scoring offense in the Pac-10, including the top passing attack in the league. But can the Wildcats do it again with a brutal early Pac-12 schedule this year? The skill positions look solid with the leading passer (Nick Foles), leading receiver (Juron Criner) and leading rusher (Keola Antolin) are returning as seniors. Foles has plenty of experienced targets, and the receiving unit will also be bolstered by talented Texas transfer Dan Buckner. However, the biggest question on the team has to be an offensive line with no returning starters. New line coach Robert Anae will need to get his group up to speed early to give Foles time to pass and to improve an inconsistent running game.
There is additional urgency for the offense to gel quickly because of the aforementioned schedule. After the Northern Arizona opener, the Wildcats travel to Big-12 power Oklahoma State, host Oregon and Stanford in consecutive weeks, and then travel to USC and Oregon State. That’s a rough way to try and develop a brand new offensive line, and it’s a huge test to a defense that will pass rushers Brooks Reed, D'Aundre Reed and Ricky Elmore.
Last season, Arizona started 7-1 before losing its last five games. For a team that may lack confidence after that finish, the early slate could define the 2011 season. But if the O-line develops and the defense plays as well as last year, Mike Stoops’ bunch can make the postseason for a fourth straight season.
Days Until College Football: 6
Can the SEC make it six national titles in a row in 2011? The current run of five straight championships is outstanding, but the fact that those titles were won by four different schools is truly remarkable. Alabama looks like the obvious candidate if America’s toughest conference is going to keep the steak alive. The Tide may have the nation’s best defense, with the top group of linebackers and defensive backs in the country. The offensive line may be the best in the nation as well, and running back Trent Richardson should have a special season. Nick Saban’s team will have inexperience quarterback, but the roster is loaded everywhere else.
LSU seemed like the next best candidate throughout the summer, but recent off-the-field issues in Baton Rouge may be too much to overcome for the Tigers. Arkansas will have a high-octane offense even with new quarterback Tyler Wilson, but the season-ending injury to top runner Knile Davis leaves a major void. The Hogs’ defense should be as good as Bobby Petrino has had since taking over in Fayetteville. Georgia has a promising quarterback in Aaron Murray, a highly rated recruiting class and a favorable schedule (no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas), but Mark Richt’s club has 14-12 over the last two seasons. South Carolina has future NFL players in running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, but the Gamecocks must be more consistent on defense – especially in the secondary.
If not an SEC club, then who? Oklahoma seems to be the most likely choice The Sooners offense should be a juggernaut this season, but the defense has some questions. Florida State, who hosts Oklahoma on September 17, could run the table with a victory over the Sooners. Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting has been stellar in Tallahassee, and the ‘Noles are ready to return to national prominence. Oregon is still a possibility if there are no suspensions from off-the-field trouble, while Boise State, Nebraska and West Virginia are good dark horse choices.
Days Until College Football: 7
We can only imagine the celebration in Houston coach Kevin Sumlin’s office when he received the news that No. 7, senior quarterback Case Keenum, had been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Even though ace offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen had left for Oklahoma State, there were still very high expectations for the Cougars a year ago. However, that optimism changed quickly when UH lost Keenum (torn ACL in his right knee) and his backup Cotton Turner to injury in the third game of the season. The Cougars lost to UCLA that day, and they would go on to lose seven total games and miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Keenum has the chance to break a couple of NCAA career passing records this season. He has 107 touchdown passes and 13,586 passing yards, and those two records stand at 134 TD passes (Graham Harrell, Texas Tech) and 17,072 yards (Timmy Chang, Hawaii). I’m not sure that Keenum can repeat his 2008 and ‘09 seasons where he threw for over 5,000 yards and 44 scores in both campaigns, but both of those all-time records are within reach. He’ll have seniors at the skill positions, but the offensive line is a concern with only two returning starters.
Whether he breaks NCAA records or not, it’s good for college football that Case Keenum received another year of eligibility. If he’s back to being a total offense machine and the defense improves, Houston should be right back in the Conference USA race and a lock for the postseason.
Days Until College Football: 8
It’s been an amazing three seasons for Kellen Moore at Boise State, and he needs only eight victories this year to break the NCAA record for career wins by a starting quarterback. The undersized lefty is 38-2 as the Broncos’ starter and should easily break the mark (45) that Texas’ Colt McCoy set in 2009. While the record has been broken three times (Peyton Manning ’97, David Greene ’04 and McCoy ’09) over the last 15 years, Moore may put it out of reach for future signal callers. The Broncos are 61-5 over the last five years under Chris Petersen, so Moore could put the final tally at 48-50 with another double-digit win season. Good luck to anyone trying to break that potential record.
Some critics will say Moore had an easier road than the other quarterbacks while playing in the WAC, but his accomplishments should not be discounted. He’s one of the most efficient quarterbacks in NCAA history, has 99 career touchdown passes against 19 interceptions and rarely gets to finish games because of Boise’s penchant for blowing out opponents. Moore will have a new offensive coordinator this season in Brent Pease, plus two new starters at receiver in Geraldo Boldewijn and Tyler Shoemaker, but I expect the senior southpaw to be as effective as ever. Moore graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and he can now focus on the wins record and a graduate degree.
If the Broncos can beat Georgia in the opener (like they did Virginia Tech and Oregon the past two seasons), an undefeated season is very possible. The new Mountain West slate will be tougher than the WAC, but do not be surprised if Moore leads Boise State right back into the mix for a BCS Championship Game berth.
Days Until College Football: 9
In a town known for drama, it’s definitely been a dramatic couple of seasons for the USC football program. The Trojans lost nine games in seven seasons from 2002-08, but now have lost nine times over the last two campaigns. The Reggie Bush scandal and Pete Carroll departure have put the storied program at an interesting crossroads, with controversial coach Lane Kiffin looking to keep the Trojans at an elite level. USC is ineligible for both the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game and a bowl game, and will be restricted to 15 scholarships (instead of 25) each of the next three years, starting next season.
Kiffin has a ton of talent on the current roster, and the Trojans will be a major factor in deciding the league champion. The offense features top playmakers Matt Barkley at quarterback and Robert Woods at receiver, but the line will need to gel quickly with only two returning starters. Scoring points should not be the issue this season, but USC must find a way to fix a defensive unit that ranked 84th in the country a year ago. Former great NFL coordinator Monte Kiffin saw his defense torched routinely last season, but he does have quality players to work with on each level. Safety T.J. McDonald, an All-America candidate, and cornerback Nickell Robey have to lead the way to improving a defense that allowed an astonishing 259.5 pass yards per game in 2010.
USC needs a solid season to keep some optimism around the program before the scholarship reductions begin to take place. Kiffin and recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron will be able to bring in elite players even with the upcoming limitations, but it will take solid coaching as well to keep the Trojans from slipping a level on the college football food chain.
Days Until College Football: 10
We head to Waco for No. 10, the jersey number of Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Many of you may not have seen Griffin play, but he is one of the best dual-threat signal callers in the nation. Last season Griffin led the Bears to their first bowl game since 1994, with his school-record 3,501 passing yards (22 TDs) and 635 yards on the ground (8 TDs). Baylor will face a tough schedule in trying to get back to the postseason, but Griffin is one of eight starters back on an offensive unit that averaged over 31 points per game last year. Coach Art Briles will have to replace leading rusher Jay Finley and offensive tackle (and NFL first-round pick) Danny Watkins, but Griffin should be able to lead the group to plenty of points once again.
The key to Baylor making another bowl game will be the improvement of a defensive unit that ranked 104th in the country in 2010. Briles hired veteran coordinator Phil Bennett during the offseason, and that move saw a shift in many positions to create a faster defense. Bennett has a tough task with so many high-octane offenses in the Big 12, but he’s seen it all in over 30 years on the sidelines. The former SMU coach and defensive coordinator at seven schools should provide some hope for a group that allowed over 30 points per game last season.
Baylor’s last win in the postseason was the 1992 Sun Bowl, and the Bears will have a decent chance to change that this year. With Griffin leading the way, BU is now a foe that league opponents must take seriously.
Days Until College Football: 11
The Illinois offense was No. 11 in the nation in rushing a year ago, thanks to running back Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Leshoure took his 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns to the NFL a year early, and senior Jason Ford has a chance to the next big-time Illini tailback. The punishing runner tabbed 480 yards and seven scores last season, as well as 588 yards as a sophomore. Ford will be pushed by a pair of solid freshmen in Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, and all three – plus the dual-threat Scheelhaase, who had 868 rushing yards and five TDs as a redshirt freshman - should prosper running behind a veteran offensive line.
Ron Zook entered the 2010 season on the hot seat in Champaign, but that all changed after his coordinator hires of Paul Petrino on offense and Vic Koenning on defense. The former offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Louisville under his brother Bobby, Petrino took the Illini attack to a new level last year with highest scoring team in Illinois history. If he can develop Scheelhaase as a passer this season, there may be another school record for points in 2011. Koenning has six starters back on defense, but early NFL departures Martez Wilson and Corey Liuget will be missed.
Illinois caught a break in the Big Ten schedule on its Legends Division opponents, with no Nebraska, Michigan State or Iowa on the slate. After their first bowl win in 11 years last December, the Illini look to have a solid shot at a postseason victory in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
Days Until College Football: 12
We’ll stay in the Mountain West for No. 12, which is the number of points that the TCU defense allowed per game last season. That total ranked best in the nation and led the Horned Frogs to a 13-0 record and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Coach Gary Patterson and coordinator Dick Bumpas have built an amazing defensive track record in Fort Worth, as TCU has led the country in total defense for the past three seasons. The task to lead the nation again this season will be difficult with only four starters returning, but All-America linebacker Tank Carder is back as the leader. He will be joined by fellow standouts Stansly Maponga at defensive end and Tanner Brock as the other linebacker in TCU’s effective 4-2-5 scheme. If Patterson and Bumpas can find consistency in the secondary, the Horned Frogs defense will be right back at the top of the rankings.
The bigger concern for TCU this season will replacing offensive standouts Andy Dalton at quarterback, Jeremy Kerley at receiver and Marcus Cannon and Jake Kirkpatrick on the line. That unit ranked fourth in the country and best in the Mountain West a year ago, and only two starters return. New signal caller Casey Pachall does have All-MWC running back Ed Wesley back, but there is a ton of inexperience up front. While Pachall and the line develop early, the defense will have to play its usual stellar football against Baylor and Air Force to open the season.
The league schedule becomes tougher this year with the addition of Boise State to the Mountain West. Patterson and his staff have recruited well, so there is enough talent on the roster to compete for another MWC crown. If Carder and crew can hold the fort in September, look for TCU to be right back in the mix for another double-digit win season.
Days Until College Football: 13
Many of you may not know about Ronnie Hillman, No. 13 for the San Diego State Aztecs, but he is one of the best running backs in the country. Hillman was named Mountain West Freshman of the Year last season after compiling 1,532 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. I think it’s unfair to compare the sophomore back to former Aztec great Marshall Faulk this early, but Hillman has a chance to put up the same type of collegiate numbers as the recently-inducted NFL Hall of Famer. The speedy Hillman topped the 150-yard mark six times as a freshman, including 228 yards on the ground against Missouri and in the Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy.
Opposing defenses will not be able to key too much on Hillman because of senior quarterback Ryan Lindley and an offensive line with four starters returning. Lindley threw for 3,830 yards and 28 scores a year ago, although he will need to find new targets after the loss of 1,000-yard wideouts Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. The SDSU offense does have a new coordinator in Andy Ludwig, but the attack should still be able to pile up the points. New head coach Rocky Long will inherit a defense with five starters back, but it‘s a veteran unit that should be able to build on last year’s solid showing.
San Diego State fans can’t wait for their trip to Michigan on September 24, when the Aztecs will face former coach Brady Hoke. The league slate will be tougher with the addition of Boise State, but Hillman’s presence has SDSU primed for a bowl berth in consecutive seasons for the first time in the school’s Division I history.
Days Until College Football: 14
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson had an amazing 2010 season, finishing second in nation in total offense. Rich Rodriguez and his spread offense have left Ann Arbor, and many wonder if the fleet signal caller can repeat his 14 rushing touchdowns from a year ago. New coach Brady Hoke brought in Al Borges to coordinate the Wolverines’ offense, which will become much more of a pro-style attack. Robinson had a decent passing season (2,570 yards in 18 TDs), but it was his running ability that led Michigan to the top of the Big Ten rankings in total offense at 488.7 yards per game. Borges will probably look for ways to take advantage of having such a good runner at quarterback, and Robinson’s adjustment to the new offense will be one of the most watched developments of this college football season.
The Wolverines’ offense has eight returning starters, so they should have success moving the ball even with the system change. The offensive line is solid, and wideouts Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway are big-time targets for Robinson. The key factor for Borges will be finding a running game outside of his quarterback. The defense was a major weakness last season, but that unit has experience and should be much better under new coordinator Greg Mattison.
A schedule with no Penn State or Wisconsin will help Michigan in the league race. If Robinson can adjust to the new system and the defense is not such a liability, the Wolverines can challenge Nebraska and Michigan State in the Legends Division.
Days Until College Football: 15
We head to Tuscaloosa for No. 15, which is the number of interceptions last season for the returning Alabama secondary of Mark Barron, Robert Lester, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner. That total was better than or tied with 87 teams a year ago, and it doesn’t even count the picks by other Tide defenders. Nick Saban is known for having quality defensive backs, and this season’s secondary looks like the best in the nation. Bama’s “Back Eight”, which includes big-time linebackers like Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley, is one of the major reasons that Athlon picked the Tide to finish No. 1 in the country.
Along with the strong defense, Alabama may also have the nation’s best offensive line. All-America candidates Barrett Jones and William Vlachos will pave the way for junior running back Trent Richardson, who rushed for 700 yards and six scores behind Mark Ingram last year. It looks like the starting quarterback battle between AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims may be in play throughout the season, but both signal callers will have a ton of talent around them. Richardson could be one of the best runners in the country, and senior wideouts Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks will be solid options on the outside.
It may seem strange to pick a national title winner with an inexperienced quarterback, but the Tide won it all in 2009 with that exact situation. Nick Saban’s recruiting has produced a loaded roster on both sides of the ball, so either signal caller can just concentrate on managing the game. With LSU and Arkansas both coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama has to be the SEC favorite and the top candidate to win the league’s sixth straight national championship.
Days Until College Football: 16
The number 16 seems to be the focus of the college football world right now, and we’re not talking about Michigan’s Denard Robinson or the returning starters at Notre Dame. Instead, the Texas A&M-to-the-SEC rumors have turned conference expansion and realignment from idle offeseason chatter into a gigantic national topic. We’re all waiting to see what happens with the Aggies, the SEC and the Big 12, but that move may be just the first in a domino effect that fundamentally changes the landscape of college football. Are we heading towards 16-team ‘Superconferences’ and are they good for the game?
I think that any BCS conference going past the 12-team threshold will eventually hurt college football. While some in the media (especially in areas without big-time programs) will cheer the singular notion that ‘Superconferences’ may bring a playoff, the overall effect on the game will be negative. The popularity of college football lies in its regional rivalries and ultra-passionate fans. The arms race towards 16-team leagues with national - instead of regional - footprints will disappoint the core fans that have built the game up to its current high level. Oklahoma State in the Pac-16? TCU in the Big East? No more Texas-Texas A&M rivalry? The ending of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game? The answers to these questions are not good for fans who love the tradition and pageantry of college football.
‘Superconferences’ with 16 teams may be inevitable, and they probably sound great to ESPN and bean counters in conference offices. However, a college football landscape where you don’t play half your league makes no sense. I hope my favorite game keeps its unique regional rivalries and doesn’t lose its special identity in the pursuit of a few million dollars more.
Days Until College Football: 17
We head to NC State for No. 17, the jersey number of Philip Rivers during his stellar career in Raleigh. The San Diego Chargers quarterback is the school’s all-time leading passer, and he was one of the best signal callers in ACC history. The current team lost the QB that would have finished second in Wolfpack passing history - Russell Wilson - to Wisconsin in a unique transfer situation. Coach Tom O’Brien was ready to move forward with Mike Glennon at quarterback, and the junior will need a very productive season if NC State is going to challenge Florida State in the Atlantic Division.
The Wolfpack relied heavily on Wilson’s arm over the last three years, and O’Brien desperately needs to find a running game to help Glennon. Sophomore Mustafa Greene looked like a solid option at the running back, but a foot injury will have him on the sidelines until October. Since the BCS era started in 1998, NC State has only had one 1,000-yard rusher (T.A. McLendon’s ACC Rookie of the Year season in 2002). If O’Brien can find that balance on offense, the Wolfpack can be a very good team. Eight starters return from a defense that had 41 sacks and ranked 31st in the country a year ago. Coordinator Mike Archer has quality on all three levels - with tackle J.R. Sweezy, linebacker Audie Cole and safety Earl Wolff leading the way.
O’Brien pleased a restless fan base last season with the Wolfpack’s first winning campaign since 2005, but more will expected this year. The former BC coach had a 67-31 record during his last eight seasons with the Eagles but has only gone 25-25 in his four years in Raleigh. A favorable first half of the schedule will allow time for Glennon to develop and a lead runner to emerge, and O’Brien’s bunch should have a very successful season if those two things happen.
Days Until College Football: 18
Texas Tech has been bowl-eligible for 18 straight seasons, a streak only bested by Florida, Florida State and Ohio State. Can the Red Raiders make it 19? The answer to that question probably lies with new defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow. The Red Raiders struggled mightily trying to stop opponents last season, finishing 114th in the country in total defense. Glasgow will bring the TCU 4-2-5 scheme to Lubbock, but he will not inherit much experience in the ‘front six’. The secondary has some returning starters, but they will need to play much better after Tech ranked 118th in the nation in pass defense a year ago.
There were many questions about the direction of the offense when Tommy Tuberville took over in Lubbock, but his hire of coordinator Neal Brown kept the pass-happy attack that Red Raiders fans love. Texas Tech will not have much experience at quarterback, as junior Seth Doege takes over for Taylor Potts. The good news is that Doege has a solid rusher in Eric Stephens back, plus an offensive line that returns all five starters. The receivers have some experience, but none of it has been as the lead target. The Red Raiders and Doege will need someone to step up early to replace the production of Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis.
The three non-conference games are very winnable, but the Big 12 slate includes trips to Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. With tough home games against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, the Red Raiders cannot afford any slip-ups like last year’s 52-38 loss at Iowa State. If the defense improves and Doege becomes the school’s next prolific signal caller, Texas Tech should be eligible for a 19th-straight postseason.
Days Until College Football: 19
The Pittsburgh Panthers defense allowed 19 points per game last season, a mark that ranked 15th nationally and second in the Big East. Eight starters return on that defense, including six seniors on the line and at linebacker. Stalwarts like defensive end Brandon Lindsey and safety Jared Holley should lead another solid unit this season, and they should get some more help with new coach Todd Graham improving the offense. The former Tulsa boss comes to the Steel City after a tumultuous offseason that saw the departure of six-year coach Dave Wannstedt, followed by the hiring and firing of former Miami (OH) coach Mike Haywood due to legal issues. Graham’s teams finished in the top five nationally in total offense in three of his four seasons at Tulsa.
The Panthers return top running back Ray Graham and a senior-laden offensive line, so Graham’s first order of business will be working on the passing game of junior quarterback Tino Sunseri. If Pitt can improve from last season’s 73rd-rated passing offense, the Panthers should challenge West Virginia for the Big East title. The non-conference schedule is tough with games against Notre Dame, Utah and at Iowa, but those contests should get the Panthers ready for a wide-open league slate. The Pitt defense has a chance to be special, so a more formidable offense under Graham will hold the key to the season.
Days Until College Football: 20
We head to Virginia Tech for No. 20, the jersey number for All-America cornerback Jayron Hosley. The nation’s leader in interceptions last year is the next in the long line of impressive defensive backs to play in Blacksburg. Under veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies have continually developed NFL cornerbacks like Rashad Carmichael, Brandon Flowers, Jimmy Williams, DeAngelo Hall and Eric Green, as well as safeties like Cory Bird, Vincent Fuller, Aaron Rouse, Macho Harris and Kam Chancellor. Hosley has the chance to rank among the best in Tech’s proud lineage, and he is arguably the best defensive back in the country this season.
Virginia Tech lost several good players from last season’s ACC Championship team, but the Hokies will be right back in the ACC and national title hunt this year. A friendly September schedule will allow for the development of sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas and a young defensive line. The back seven on defense should be solid with Hosley, senior safety Eddie Whitley and linebacker Bruce Taylor leading the way, and talented sophomores Derrick Hopkins and James Gayle could be potential stars on the line. On offense, Thomas will have seniors at wide receiver and a veteran offensive line in front of him. If speedy David Wilson can carry the full load at running back, the Hokies should produce another solid offense.
Frank Beamer has built a perennial contender at Virginia Tech, and this season should be no exception. The Hokies looked primed for another double-digit win year, another Coastal Division crown and a likely rematch with Florida State in the ACC title tilt.
Days Until College Football: 21
This season is huge for Arizona State football program and for Dennis Erickson. The veteran coach has experienced 21 losses over his last three years in Tempe, and that is the worst three-year stretch of his 20+ year career. Erickson looked like a great fit in 2007 when he led the Sun Devils to a 10-win season, but that feeling has faded since ‘07 was also the last year ASU played in a bowl game. The postseason absence should end this year with six starters returning on each side of the ball, and the Sun Devils should contend for the Pac-12 South crown.
The offense returns a solid running back in Cameron Marshall and a veteran line, and the key for success will be the development of quarterback Brock Osweiler. The 6’8” junior played well in limited duty a year ago, especially his 380-yard, four-touchdown performance in the UCLA win. If Osweiler can improve his accuracy, the ASU offense could put up a ton of points.
The defense is led by one of the best linebackers in the country in All-America candidate Vontaze Burfict. He will need help from the front four in generating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, as the Sun Devils finished ninth in the Pac-10 in sacks last year. The solution should be sophomore end Junior Onyeali, who had 6.5 sacks on his way to being named the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. More pressure on the opposing signal callers will help ASU in besting its dreadful pass defense ranking from last year, 101st in the nation.
With USC ineligible for the new Pac-12 Championship Game, Arizona State has a clear path to playing in the title tilt and getting the program back to where it needs to be. Erickson’s bunch lost many close games in 2010, and that can be turned around with a little more discipline. The Sun Devils committed the most penalties in the conference a year ago, and the staff must correct that fact quickly. If they do, look for ASU to be playing in a championship bout in December.
Days Until College Football: 22
For No. 22, we head north to Boston College. Besides being the jersey number of Eagles legend Doug Flutie, 22 is the number of games in a row that All-America linebacker Luke Kuechly has recorded double-digit tackles. Kuechly has only played two seasons, and he’s already well over 300 tackles for his career. If BC’s tackling machine plays all four years in Chestnut Hill, the current junior will most likely set the NCAA’s all-time career record for tackles. Kuechly led the Eagles to the best rush defense in the nation last year from his middle linebacking spot, and six starters return to a unit that should be solid once again.
Defense is not the issue for coach Frank Spaziani, who must fix the ACC’s worst offense if the Eagles are going to return to the postseason. He brought in new offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers from the NFL, and the former Vikings QB coach will preside over a group that finished 109th in total and scoring offense last year. The Eagles have a solid rusher in Montel Harris, but he’ll run behind a line that lost first-round pick Anthony Castonzo. The key for Rogers will be the development of quarterback Chase Rettig. The sophomore has talent, but he will need to become more accurate than a year ago when he was forced to start before he was ready.
If you have not seen Kuechly play, make sure to check out BC some time this season. The best linebacker in the country will lead another quality Boston College defense, but Rettig and company must improve greatly if the Eagles want to get to the seven or eight-win mark.
Days Until College Football: 23
The Georgia Bulldogs ranked 23rd in the country in total defense a year ago. That mark may not seem great, but it showed that coordinator Todd Grantham’s new ‘3-4’ defense has potential in Athens. The Dawgs struggled to stop the run last year, a 6-7 season that included demoralizing losses to Colorado and UCF. Mark Richt needs a big 2011 campaign to relax an anxious UGA fan base, and his defense will have to lead the way. The players should be more comfortable in Grantham’s scheme this season, and the addition of massive nose tackle John Jenkins should strengthen the defensive line greatly. Christian Robinson leads a young but very athletic linebacking group, and the secondary has a ton of experience and a big-time playmaker in safety Bacarri Rambo.
Georgia probably has the best returning quarterback in the SEC in Aaron Murray, but there are questions elsewhere. Talented true freshman Isaiah Crowell will start at tailback, but Richt must find some depth at this position. The offensive line has two all-league candidates in center Ben Jones and tackle Cordy Glenn, but this unit must gel across the board to improve a lackluster run game. Three junior targets – tight end Orson Charles and receivers Tavarres King and Malcolm Brown – have a ton of talent, but none of the trio has ever caught more than 27 passes in a season. While the offense is finding its way, the UGA defense will be challenged heavily in the first two games by Boise State and South Carolina.
There is a ton of optimism around the Georgia program this year. Richt and staff have recruited very well, there are potential stars on both sides of the ball, and UGA has the best kicking duo in the nation in placekicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler. Another huge factor is that the schedule is very friendly, as it includes a manageable SEC East and no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West. Much of the 2011 Georgia season will be determined in those first two high-profile contests, and the defense must lead the way to propel Richt and the Dawgs to a successful year.
Days Until College Football: 24
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith tossed 24 touchdown passes a year ago, threw for 2,763 yards and finished best in the Big East in pass efficiency. While Smith had a solid sophomore season, the question around Morgantown is this: just how high can those numbers climb in the high-octane offense of new coach Dana Holgorsen? The track record for Holgorsen’s attack is beyond stellar, with his units finishing third, first and second in the nation in total offense over the last three years. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden threw for 34 scores last season under Holgorsen, while Houston signal caller Case Keenum tossed an amazing 44 touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. Holgorsen was also on the staff at Texas Tech from 2000-07, and we all know how potent Mike Leach’s offense was in Lubbock.
There is a lot to like about the WVU offense, with Smith and his favorite target, Tavon Austin, returning. Replacing Noel Devine at running back will not be easy, but having four starters back on a veteran offensive line will ease that adjustment. The Mountaineers’ defense lost some key players from a unit that finished third in the country (in scoring and total defense), but coordinator Jeff Casteel’s group has performed well over the last few years. Defensive end Bruce Irvin finished second in the nation with 14 sacks a year ago, and corner Keith Tandy could the Big East’s best defensive back.
West Virginia should be favored in every conference game this season. If the Mountaineers can pull the upset when SEC-power LSU visits Morgantown in late September, WVU will become a dark horse national title contender. Look for Geno Smith and company to put plenty of points on the scoreboard this season, and for Dana Holgorsen to become a fan favorite very quickly.
Days Until College Football: 25
Gary Pinkel needs 25 wins to become the all-time winningest coach at Missouri. It’s been a great decade in Columbia, with the Tigers program becoming a consistent winner in the Big 12. After the growing pains of three losing seasons in his first four, Pinkel has led the Tigers to six straight winning campaigns and a .500 or better finish in league play each of those six years. Many programs like Missouri have a two or three-year run with a star quarterback like Chase Daniel, only to fall back to the pack in subsequent seasons. However, Pinkel has been able to improve recruiting and build a solid foundation that has Mizzou competing for eight or nine wins every year.
The Missouri spread offense has become much of the team’s identity with the success of signal callers like Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. The Tigers will have an inexperienced quarterback this year with sophomore James Franklin, but he will be able to rely on veterans at the skill positions and on the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Mizzou returns seven starters from a unit that ranked sixth in the country and best in the Big 12 in scoring defense. Despite losing pass rusher Aldon Smith to the NFL, the defense should be solid once again with stud ends Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison leading the way.
Missouri’s schedule will be difficult this season, and it includes especially tough road trips to Arizona State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Franklin’s development will be the key factor in the Tigers competing early, but this senior-laden lineup will give Pinkel’s bunch a chance to win each and every Saturday.
Days Until College Football: 26
We head to the SEC for No. 26, which is the number of games in a row that Tennessee has beaten Kentucky. It became the longest active winning streak of one opponent over another when Navy defeated Notre Dame in 2007, and now the Big Blue’s pain has extended over a quarter of a century. The last victory for the Wildcats came in 1984 – when the Raiders were on top on the NFL, Miami Vice debuted on NBC, and MTV actually played music videos. UK’s Jerry Claiborne led the ‘Cats to a 17-12 victory over Johnny Majors’ Vols that season in Knoxville.
Six Kentucky coaches – Claiborne, Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks and now Joker Phillips – have been part of the dubious streak. With the Wildcats going to a school-record five straight bowls and the Tennessee’s recent struggles, it is a little surprising that the streak has reached record proportion. As for this season, Phillips will try replace offensive stalwarts Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Chris Matthews and Mike Hartline. UK does have a veteran offensive line and most of the defense returning, and a sixth postseason appearance in a row is a realistic possibility.
Derek Dooley seems to have the Volunteers going in the right direction. After inheriting a decimated roster from the end of the Phil Fulmer era and one season of Lane Kiffin, Dooley has recruited well and should have young and talented offense. The defense is weak in the front seven, so it may be 2012 before Tennessee returns to competing for the SEC East crown. The Vols have a brutal schedule, and they may need to get by Kentucky for a 27th straight time to secure a postseason berth.
Days Until College Football: 27
Al Golden has plenty of work to do in his first year at Miami, but the top concern has to be correcting the 27 interceptions that were thrown by Hurricane quarterbacks a year ago. That total was the worst in the nation and played a huge factor in Miami losing its last three games and finishing 7-6. The frustrating campaign ended with Randy Shannon’s ouster, and now Golden will look for more consistency from an offense that struggled during Shannon’s tenure.
Jacory Harris was thought to be the answer at quarterback after a solid freshman season in 2008 and 24 touchdown passes in 2009. However his junior season was filled with interceptions and injuries, and that forced Stephen Morris into the starting role for the last four regular-season games. The duo is in a dead heat for the starting job this season, and they may share time once again. Running backs Lamar Miller and Mike James showed promise in 2010, and their development will be a key in helping the progress of either signal caller. Talented but inconsistent receivers LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin need to fulfill their potential this season, and the offensive line should be a quality unit even with the recent bad news that stud sophomore tackle Seantrel Henderson will undergo back surgery.
The schedule will be difficult in Golden’s first season. Miami travels to Florida State, Virginia Tech, Maryland and North Carolina and has a tough non-conference road game at South Florida, who beat the Canes in overtime last season. Miami has the talent to compete for a first-ever berth in the ACC Championship Game, but Golden must find stability at the quarterback position to achieve that goal.
Days Until College Football: 28
Russell Wilson threw 28 touchdowns for NC State last season, but this year he will be tossing the pigskin for the Wisconsin Badgers. It was unusual situation that took the ACC’s total offense leader to Madison, but the result is that the Badgers are getting a senior signal caller who has thrown 76 touchdowns in three seasons. Bret Bielema’s club looked like it would have signal caller concerns with the efficient Scott Tolzien graduating, but Wilson’s transfer has resulted in UW being the favorite in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten.
Wisconsin is known for its power running game, and the formidable tandem of James White and Montee Ball return after combining for 2,048 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2010. The Badgers offensive line did lose All-Americans in Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, but three starters return to a quality unit that tends to perform well each and every season. Wilson was forced to create offense without much of a running game at NC State, with no rusher topping 773 yards in any of his three seasons in Raleigh. The combination of Wilson’s arm and the UW running attack should be potent this season.
The Wisconsin defense did lose an outstanding pass rusher in J.J. Watt, but there are seven returning starters from a unit that ranked 20th in the nation in total defense. With the troubles at Ohio State, the Badgers have a great shot to land in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. Wilson may not quite throw for 28 scores like last season, but he could be the key in taking the Badgers back to the Rose Bowl.
Days Until College Football: 29
We head to Syracuse for No. 29, the number for tailback Antwon Bailey. He will join an Orange offense that returns eight starters and should be much-improved from the unit that struggled during the second half of 2010. Despite being a senior, Bailey is a breakout candidate in 2011. He waited patiently behind Colts draft pick Delone Carter, who ran for over 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Bailey isn’t as big as the physical Carter, but he is more versatile with his pass-catching ability. With a more experienced Ryan Nassib at quarterabck and a veteran line coming back, the offensive forecast is much brighter in Upstate New York this year.
Doug Marrone is entering his third season at Syracuse, and he seems to have turned around the gridiron fortunes of his alma mater. There have been so many football greats at SU – from Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, to Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, to Tim Green and Don McPherson, to Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney – and it was sad to see the proud program fall apart for much of the previous decade. Marrone took the Orange to their first bowl game in six years last season, and he will have a good shot at making the postseason this year.
The Syracuse defense carried the team last season, and many key contributors were lost to graduation. Bailey and the experienced offense will have to lead the way early while the defensive unit gets up to speed. West Virginia looks like the favorite in the Big East, but Syracuse should be right there competing for a top spot in the league standings and another bowl. That’s a welcome thought for Orange fans, who have to be very optimistic with the direction of the program under Marrone.
Days Until College Football: 30
The Ohio State defense forced a Big Ten-leading 30 turnovers last year, and that unit will have to lead the way early in the 2011 season. The Buckeyes have been through a turbulent offseason with an NCAA scandal that ended with uber-successful coach Jim Tressel resigning and talented quarterback Terrelle Pryor leaving for the NFL. Additionally, the offense will be further damaged by the fact that its best runner (Daniel Herron), best receiver (DeVier Posey) and best blocker (Mike Adams) will serve five-game suspensions to begin the season. With no experience at quarterback, points could be at a premium early. The defense will have to be the catalyst until the signal caller situation is settled and the suspended stars return.
While most of the discussion in Columbus this year revolved around Tressel and Pryor, the reality for new coach Luke Fickell is that his dominant defensive group from last season was decimated by graduation. The unit that ranked fourth in total defense in 2010 lost NFL draft picks Cameron Heyward (most tackles for loss), Ross Homan, Brian Rolle (leading tackler), Chimdi Chekwa (most interceptions)and Jermale Hines, as well as key secondary members Devon Torrence and Aaron Gant and tackle Dexter Larimore. That’s a ton of attrition, even for a program that recruits as well as OSU. This year’s defensive line does return All-America candidate John Simon and leading sacker Nathan Williams, and they will need to lead a talented but inexperienced group to a high level of play until the offense finds its way.
Even with a trip to Miami, it should be a very manageable September schedule for the Buckeyes. The slate will get much tougher in October, and Ohio State will look to its defense for the turnovers and sacks that have been so prevalent in past seasons. If Simon and company can hold the fort early, OSU will still have a good chance to win the Leaders Division and play in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game.
Days Until College Football: 31
Texas A&M averaged 31 points per game last year, and the Aggies' offense could be even better in 2011. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will try to lead the Aggies to their first Big 12 title since 1998, and he will have a ton of weapons at his disposal. Last season, it was Mike Sherman’s decision to change signal callers in October that seemed to propel A&M to a six-game winning streak. Jerrod Johnson put up big numbers, but he was also prone to turnovers and sacks. Tannehill was much more efficient, and he definitely benefited from a new emphasis on the running game. Cyrus Gray split carries with Christine Michael for A&M’s first six games, and Gray only ran for 195 yards in those six contests. But in the last seven games of the year, Gray ran for 100 yards or more in all seven. The powerful running duo will be back this year, along with veteran receivers Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope. Besides the improved quarterback play, the offensive line showed major ability during the 2010 campaign. Freshman tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews matured during the six-game winning streak, and that pair – along with Patrick Lewis, who is moving from guard to center – will pave the way for the loaded offense.
Sherman was feeling the heat when the Aggies lost three in a row last year to fall to 3-3, but the six-game winning streak has the ‘12th Man’ abuzz for this season. The veteran offense should be very balanced and potent, but the defense returns nine starters as well. While Sherman’s quarterback change got most the attention in 2010, his hire of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter before last season may have been his best decision. Texas A&M went from 105th in scoring defense in 2009 to 34th last year under DeRuyter’s leadership. Even though second-overall NFL draft pick Von Miller is gone, the A&M defense should be able to continue to apply heavy pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Oklahoma is the favorite in the Big 12, but Texas A&M may give the Sooners all they can handle. If the Aggies can win their home game against Oklahoma State in late September, it could set up a very special season in College Station. Many in the fan base were skeptical of the Sherman hire at first, but he now seems to have A&M set for a ton of future success.
Days Until College Football: 32
Ryan Mallett had 32 touchdown passes for Arkansas last year, a season that ended with 10 wins and a BCS invite to the Sugar Bowl. With the strong-armed signal caller now in New England, new quarterback Tyler Wilson will take over Bobby Petrino’s offense. The offensive line does need to be rebuilt, but Wilson could be the key to the Razorbacks’ 2011 season. He showed a ton of promise against Auburn last season, throwing for over 300 yards and four scores after taking over for an injured Mallett. If Wilson can show consistency and become the next successful Petrino protégé, it could be a special season for the Hogs.
The skill group at Arkansas is excellent, with Knile Davis returning after running for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. The Razorbacks also have the nation’s best receivers unit, with four pass catchers – Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton – who had at least 600 yards and five scores in 2010. As long as the offensive line does not struggle, Wilson will have every opportunity to have a big-time season. The Hogs attack will also benefit from an improved defense, which has all-league candidates at every level. End Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas will lead a unit that should easily be the best group Petrino has had since taking over in Fayetteville.
Arkansas plays in the toughest division in college football, the SEC West. Alabama and LSU may have picked higher in our preseason ranking, but the Hogs have the firepower to compete. If Wilson can take over where Mallett left off, the Razorbacks will have a shot at another BCS berth.
Days Until College Football: 33
Purdue had 33 sacks a year ago, and the Boilermakers will need their defense to lead the way if they want to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. It will be tough to repeat 33 (a total that led the Big Ten by 10 sacks) without first-round NFL draft choice Ryan Kerrigan, but the defense does return nine starters. Coach Danny Hope will have to rely on his veteran unit while he and his staff try to improve the conference’s worst offense from 2010. Amazingly, the school of Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mark Herrmann, Drew Brees and Kyle Orton finished 112th (out of 120) in the nation in passing offense last season. In addition, Purdue’s leading returning rusher is quarterback Rob Henry (547 yards).
Hope is entering his third season in West Lafayette, and the fans are ready for postseason football. The Boilermakers went to a bowl game every season from 1997-2004, including three New Year’s Day games. Obviously there is no Brees or Orton to sling the ball around, so the defense will have to be the catalyst in 2011. Tackle Kawann Short is a potential star, while the solid cornerback duo of Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson should allow coordinator Gary Emanuel to apply a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Purdue does have tough road games at Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, but the projected top two teams in the Legends Division – Nebraska and Michigan State – are not on the schedule. If the defense can hold opponents down while the offense gets up to speed, Hope will have a shot to get the Boilermakers back to a bowl and re-energize the fan base.
Days Until College Football: 34
For No. 34, we have to look back at a pair of stud SEC running backs from the ‘80s – Herschel Walker of Georgia and Bo Jackson of Auburn. Many will argue that Walker was the best college running back they ever saw play the game. He was an All-American in each of his three seasons in Athens and left Georgia with 16 SEC records and 11 NCAA records. As a freshman in 1980, he led the Bulldogs to a 12-0 record and the national championship. Walker would finish third in Heisman Trophy voting that season, and then finish second in 1981 before winning it in1982. He scored 52 touchdowns in three years and rushed for 5,259 yards during an amazing career. Walker played three years in the USFL with the New Jersey Generals, winning two rushing titles. He then went to a 12-year NFL career and elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Jackson won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 and averaged an astounding 6.6 yards per carry for his college career. He was a consensus All-America as a sophomore in 1983, but missed half of the1984 season with an injury. He came back in 1985 and was unanimous All-American. Jackson also hit over .400 during his junior season with the Auburn baseball team. He went on to be a two-sport star with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Royals, becoming the first player to be named an All-Star in both leagues. Jackson averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the NFL before a hip injury prematurely ended his career.
While the SEC is going through a current ‘golden age’ with its five straight national titles won by four different schools, the early 1980s were also a special time in the conference.
Days Until College Football: 35
Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas accounted for 35 touchdowns – 30 passing and five on the ground – during a magical season last year that ended with the Ducks in the BCS National Championship Game. While LaMichael James gets much of the national attention (and deservedly so), Thomas may be the key in leading Chip Kelly’s squad to a third straight league crown and a repeat in the national title game. The Oregon offense ranked first in the nation last season by averaging a gaudy 47 points per game, but there was some offseason attrition. The Ducks lost some offensive line depth and their two leading receivers, including All-Pac 10 center Jordan Holmes and All-Pac 10 pass catcher Jeff Maehl (12 touchdowns in ’10).
Chip Kelly will still have plenty of weapons at Thomas’ disposal because of Oregon’s quality recruiting, although that recruiting has been questioned this offseason. The current NCAA investigation could be a huge distraction as UO prepares for a very challenging opener in Dallas against SEC-power LSU. Thomas will have senior wideout Lavasier Tuinei and reliable tight end David Paulson back as familiar targets, and they will need to play well early until the defense gets up to speed. The Ducks lost three starters on the defensive line and two at linebacker, including top tackler Casey Matthews and leading sacker Kenny Rowe. Plus, All-America cornerback (and punt returner) Cliff Harris is suspended for the LSU game.
If Oregon can get by the Tigers in the Cowboys Stadium showcase, going undefeated is not out of the question. We know how talented James is as an elusive runner, but Darron Thomas’ play will dictate if the Ducks can produce another offensive juggernaut and another BCS appearance.
Days Until College Football: 36
Stanford was a force on offense last season, averaging 36 points per game in Pac-10 play. Andrew Luck and company were really only stopped once, in a 17-13 win at Arizona State. But can they do it again? Despite the surprising return of the nation’s top quarterback in Luck, it’s difficult to see the Cardinal scoring at least 30 points in 12 of their 13 games like last year. Much has changed in the offseason, with Jim Harbaugh becoming the 49ers head coach and taking staff members Greg Roman (offensive coordinator) and Tim Drevno (offensive line) with him. Even though new coach David Shaw had the title of offensive coordinator, Harbaugh called the plays and Roman had a ton to do with the offensive design. Plus, Harbaugh instilled a physical and mental toughness in his team that will be difficult for Shaw to replicate.
On the field, it starts up front with the loss of three offensive line starters. All-America center Chase Beeler will be sorely missed, but Stanford does return two excellent starters in guard David DeCastro and left tackle Jonathan Martin. If that pair can lead a rebuilt line, running back Stepfan Taylor has shown to be a solid weapon after his 1,137-yard, 15-TD season in 2010. Luck lost his two leading receivers in Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, and the return of senior speedster Chris Owusu from injury will be critical to stretching the field this season. Tight end Coby Fleener is the leading returning pass catcher, with 434 yards on 28 receptions a year ago.
It’s not all bad for the Stanford offense. Obviously losing Harbaugh and Roman will hurt, but it’s hard not to like your chances with Luck running the show. He is probably as NFL-ready as any quarterback the college game has seen since Peyton Manning. If Shaw can find quality replacements on the offensive line, Luck and the Cardinal can challenge Oregon for Pac-12 North supremacy.
Days Until College Football: 37
When you think of greatness and No. 37, the names Doak Walker and Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh come to mind. Since this is a college football countdown, I’ll focus on Walker and his alma mater of SMU. For younger fans who don’t know much about Walker, he was one of the greatest players in college football history. The 1948 Heisman winner played running back, defensive back and kicker for the Mustangs, and his effect on football in the Dallas area was so profound that the Cotton Bowl stadium was commonly called "The House That Doak Built". Walker went on to an abbreviated NFL career with the Detroit Lions, although his five Pro Bowls, Rookie of the Year award and two championships were enough to make him a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
SMU had success in the late ‘40s with Walker leading the way, and then there was the infamous ‘Pony Express’ time in the early ‘80s. Of course, those teams were corrupt and earned the program the NCAA ‘death penalty’. Mustangs’ football became an afterthought for the next two decades. However, that is changing under the leadership of fourth-year head coach June Jones. Most college fans knew about his offense at Hawaii with quarterbacks like Colt Brennan and Timmy Chang, but you may not know that the Mustangs have gone to consecutive bowl games and are the favorite in Conference USA this season. Jones’ offense is a little more conventional at SMU, but quarterback Kyle Padron did throw for over 3,800 yards and 31 touchdowns last year. The junior signal caller and running back Zach Line (1,494 yards and 10 TDs in ’10) are among 10 returning starters on what should be a very solid offense. The defense should be improved as well, with eight starters back from a unit that ranked second in C-USA last season.
SMU football is relevant again. If Jones’ club can cut down on turnovers and build depth, the Mustangs will contend for their first league title since 1984 in the Southwest Conference.
Days Until College Football: 38
We head to South Carolina for No. 38, the jersey number of 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. The two-time All-American was a workhorse for the Gamecocks, and he averaged an amazing 149 yards rushing per game over his last two seasons in Columbia. One of my favorite facts about Rogers is that he actually had his jersey retired during halftime of his last home game (no confirmation if he was allowed to wear it in the second half?!). Rogers is South Carolina’s all-time leading rusher with 5,204 yards, and his total of 31 rushing touchdowns is tied with Harold Green for best in school history. Rogers was chosen No. 1 overall in the 1981 NFL Draft by the Saints, and he had a solid career that included the 1981 Rookie of the Year award and a Super Bowl title with the Redskins.
Another reason I wanted to highlight Rogers was that he looks to have a challenger for best running back in South Carolina history. Marcus Lattimore has only had one season in a Gamecocks uniform, but it was a record-setting freshman campaign. The heralded recruit fulfilled his massive expectations by running for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he also added 29 receptions and two more scores. While we’re not used to seeing a Steve Spurrier runner in the Heisman conversation, there is no doubt that Lattimore will be among the best backs in the country. Even though there are some quarterback questions, the South Carolina offense should flourish with Lattimore and star receiver Alshon Jeffery leading the way.
I doubt Marcus Lattimore will play four seasons in Columbia, so George Rogers’ mark of 5,204 rushing yards is probably safe. However, his shared records of 31 TDs on the ground and 33 scores overall could fall to Lattimore later this season. If that happens, the debate over the best-ever Gamecock runner will hit a fever pitch in the Palmetto State.
Days Until College Football: 39
We head to South Bend for No. 39, which is the number of points the Notre Dame defense allowed in its last four games last season. The Irish were reeling at 4-5 after losses to Navy and Tulsa, but Bob Diaco’s defense led ND to four straight wins to finish 2010. And it’s not as if the level of competition was less during those four victories, as each opponent - Utah, USC, Army and Miami – finished the year with a winning record. Eight starters return on the Irish defense, and that was one of the main factors in our preseason No. 6 ranking of Notre Dame.
The linebacking core will be especially strong, with All-America candidate Manti Te’o and outside pass rusher Darius Fleming leading the way. The defensive ends are solid with veterans Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson returning, and the secondary with have three senior starters in Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith. Another strength of the Irish defense should be its depth. True freshmen ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker Ishaq Williams were all heralded recruits who will push the veterans for playing time.
After the South Florida opener, the Irish will face three dynamic offenses in Michigan, Michigan State and Todd Graham’s new Pittsburgh attack. Notre Dame’s defense struggled in September losses to the Wolverines, Spartans and Stanford a year ago, but this veteran unit should be ready to go early in 2011. If Bob Diaco’s unit can hold opponents down while Brian Kelly’s offense finds it rhythm, Notre Dame could be well on its way to a double-digit win season.
Days Until College Football: 40
This season will be the 40th anniversary of the “Game of the Century” between Nebraska and Oklahoma. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1971, and Chris Schenkel and legendary OU coach Bud Wilkinson had the call from Norman on ABC. Nebraska was ranked No. 1 with the nation’s top defense, while Oklahoma was No. 2 and had the nation's best offense with their vaunted wishbone attack. It was a star-studded cast, with practically the entire All-Big Eight team on the field.
The Cornhuskers struck first on Johnny Rodgers electrifying 72-yard punt return, a play that has become one of the most famous in college football history. The Sooners bounced back behind superstar quarterback Jack Mildren, who rallied OU to a 17-14 halftime lead. The game went back and forth until the end, when Nebraska quarterback Jerry Tagge led a game-winning drive that put the Huskers up for good, 35-31, with less than two minutes to go. The thrilling victory would propel Nebraska to the Orange Bowl, where they defeated Alabama, 38-6, to win the national title for the second straight season under Bob Devaney.
Unfortunately, conference realignment has put a halt to this classic rivalry. The two schools played every season from 1928-1997, but the game was interrupted when they were placed in opposite divisions of the Big 12. Now with Nebraska’s departure to the Big Ten, we may have seen the last Oklahoma-Nebraska matchup in last year’s Big 12 Championship Game, a 23-20 OU win.
Days Until College Football: 41
We’re going ‘old school’ for No. 41, so it’s time for a history lesson on one of the game’s greatest players. His name was Glenn Davis, and he formed arguably the greatest backfield duo in college football history with Doc Blanchard at Army from 1944-46. The record-setting runners were known as "Mr. Inside" (Blanchard) and "Mr. Outside" (Davis), and they led Army to a 27-0-1 record and three consecutive national championships in 1944, 1945 and 1946 under legendary coach Red Blaik.
Davis was a unanimous three-time All-America halfback, but he also played basketball, baseball and ran track at West Point. He averaged a staggering 11.5 yards per carry in 1945, yet finished second in the Heisman voting to Blanchard. Davis would win the Heisman Trophy in 1946, and he finished his illustrious career with 59 touchdowns and an amazing average of 8.3 yards per carry. After West Point, Davis served in Korea before going on to play for the Los Angeles Rams.
Army does not play for national titles anymore, but the rivalry with Navy still ranks at the top for many college fans. From both student bodies marching on the field before the game to the singing of the alma maters afterwards, the tradition and pageantry of the Army-Navy game is something to behold. If you have a college gridiron bucket list, make this annual contest in December a priority.
Days Until College Football: 42
We go down to the Plains for #42, where we have the Auburn Tigers rated in our preseason rankings. That seems pretty low for a defending national champion with no coaching change, but the picture becomes clearer when you analyze the massive personnel losses. Gene Chizik’s crew arguably lost the best offensive (Cam Newton) and defensive (Nick Fairley) players in the country. Additionally, Auburn lost four offensive line starters and three on the defensive line. They also must replace their two best linebackers and two best receivers. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn will have some young and talented skill players around new signal caller Barrett Trotter, but the offensive line may be as big of a concern as losing Newton.
Another brutal factor for the Tigers is that they play in college football’s toughest division, the SEC West. Alabama, LSU and Arkansas are top 20 teams, while an improving Mississippi State bunch has turned into a tough game with Dan Mullen at the helm. Auburn also has to face the three best teams in the SEC East, traveling to Georgia and South Carolina and hosting Florida.
While Chizik and staff have recruited very well, it’s still hard to see the inexperienced Tigers doing much better than six or seven wins in 2011. Auburn should be back in the top 20 in 2012, but this season will be a rebuilding one for the defending champs.
Days Until College Football: 43
Jelani Jenkins is #43 for the Florida Gators, and he may be the key to Will Muschamp’s first defense in Gainesville. The sophomore linebacker is one of only three returning starters to a young but uber-talented unit that will need to carry UF until Charlie Weis’ offense gets up to speed. The Gators have a schedule-friendly September, but then Muschamp will need to have his charges firing on all cylinders in October when Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia await.
Much of the offseason Swamp attention went to the offense and senior quarterback John Brantley, but I believe the key to the Florida season lies in the (hopeful) emergence of potential stars like Jenkins, Sharrif Floyd, Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Gideon Ajagbe and Matt Elam. This group has all the ability in the world, and they will need to keep the Gators close in big games. While the offense did make it tough on the defense a year ago, it was still a unit that faltered in big-game losses to Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State.
I don’t remember us ever having a first-team All-SEC vote without a Gator in the starting 22. Jenkins and some of his talented teammates on defense will have the opportunity to change that this season and make Coach Muschamp’s first year a memorable one.
Days Until College Football: 44
Nebraska ranked 44th in the nation in total offense last year, and improving that number this season will be the key to the Cornhuskers winning the Big Ten. Quarterback Taylor Martinez had NU looking unstoppable early last season, but an ankle injury against Missouri would affect him and the Nebraska attack the rest of the year. A rare home loss to Texas was the only blemish during the first 10 games of the schedule, but the Huskers would lose three of their final four games with the offense struggling to score. Nothing shows NU’s tale of two seasons more than beating Washington 56-21 in September (383 rushing yards, six TDs on the ground), and then losing to the Huskies 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl (91 rushing yards, zero TDs running).
New coordinator Tim Beck will try to simplify the Nebraska attack in 2011, and Martinez should become comfortable with that offense during a very manageable September. The running game will be excellent with Rex Burkhead and a solid offensive line returning, and Martinez has solid pass catchers in receiver Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed (13 combined TD catches in ’10). The Cornhuskers defense has quality on all three levels - with tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David cornerback Alfonzo Dennard leading the way.
Nebraska faces a new challenge in the Big Ten, and three October games – at Wisconsin and home dates with Ohio State and Michigan State – will be the key to gaining a berth in the new conference title game. With a healthy Martinez, the Cornhuskers are the favorite to win the Big Ten and have to be considered a dark horse candidate for the BCS title.
Days Until College Football: 45
It has been 45 years since the-then “Game of the Century” between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State. Both teams entered the November contest in East Lansing undefeated, and this game would have everything – but a winner. The Spartans had the momentum after All-America defender Bubba Smith knocked Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty out of the game. MSU took a 10-point lead, but Notre Dame would close the deficit to 10-7 before half on a pass by backup Coley O’Brien. The defensive struggle continued in the second half, with the only points coming on an Irish field goal. The game’s most famous and debated decision came with less than two minutes to go, when Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian chose to run out the clock and preserve the 10-10 tie. ND would go on to win a controversial national title over MSU and Alabama.
I wanted to bring up the ND-MSU rivalry for two reasons; the 1966 contest is one of the more famous games in college football history, and this year’s battle will be one of the most important on the September schedule. Thankfully there are no ties anymore, and we were treated to a 34-31 overtime thriller at Michigan State last year as the Spartans won on a fake field goal. The Irish will be looking for revenge in South Bend, and Michigan State could be ND's toughest opponent this year. Our preseason ranking of Notre Dame at No. 6 stirred much debate, but Brian Kelly’s club returns 16 starters and could challenge the 10-win mark.
The Spartans have solid skill position players, led by senior quarterback Kirk Cousins. If they get solid development on the offensive line and at linebacker, MSU will challenge newcomer Nebraska for supremacy in the Legends Division of the Big Ten.
Days Until College Football: 46
Number 46 represents something that we’ll probably never see again in college football – 2011 will be Joe Paterno’s 46th season as the head coach at Penn State. His amazing story has been chronicled for years, and I’m glad that he’ll add a 46th chapter this season. Paterno’s accomplishments are too many to list, and his overall record of 401-135-3 is just amazing to fathom. And what a way he got that 400th win, with the Nittany Lions overcoming a three-touchdown deficit to defeat Northwestern 35-21 last November.
We have this year’s Penn State squad ranked at No. 30 in the preseason, and you know that Paterno will have a well-coached team that will be compete for another top 25 standing by the end of the year. With all of the turmoil at Ohio State, the Lions should challenge the Buckeyes and Wisconsin in the Leaders Division for a berth in the first Big Ten Championship Game.
Joe Paterno will turn 85 in late December, when he most likely will be looking to add to his record 24 bowl wins.
Days Until College Football: 47
The number 47 is special in college football. It represents the game’s longest winning streak, Oklahoma’s 47-game gamut from 1953 to 1957. The Sooners won the 1950 national title under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, and captured two more (1954, 1955) during the streak. Wilkinson is obviously one of college football’s most celebrated coaches, but it should be noted that he also was part of three consecutive national championships as a quarterback at Minnesota from 1934 to 1936.
Wilkinson’s record was 145-29-4 during his impressive tenure at Oklahoma from 1947 to 1963. He would later enter the world of politics, become a broadcaster for ABC Sports and was inducted in to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
As far as this year's Sooners, they have to be an early favorite for the BCS crown. We named Oklahoma No. 2 in our preseason rakings, and they will be an offensive force with quarterback Landry Jones and All-America wide receiver Ryan Broyles leading the way.
Days Until College Football: 48
The Boise State defense had 48 sacks last season. That total tied for most in the country with Florida State, even though the Broncos played one less game. The BSU defensive line might be even better this season, with preseason All-Americans Billy Winn and Shea McClellin leading the way. Our unit rankings have the Broncos as the top d-line in the nation, slightly edging out Florida State and South Carolina. Chris Petersen’s program is starting to produce more NFL-quality players each year, and his 61-5 record over five seasons shows the talent the Broncos possess.
The Georgia-Boise State opener in Atlanta will be gigantic for both teams. UGA needs to rebound from a losing season, and the Broncos are looking to win their third straight ‘BCS’ opener. If Boise State beats an SEC stalwart like Georgia, be prepared for a BSU in the BCS Championship Game debate throughout the season.
Days Until College Football: 49
The Texas Longhorns ranked 49th in the country in scoring defense last season. While the offense struggled as well, it was surprising to see Will Muschamp’s talented group get manhandled at times. After a 3-0 start, UT would suffer a shocking 34-12 home loss to UCLA that would foreshadow a season that spiraled downward like no one in the Lone Star State could have predicted. In a game where the Bruins could only throw for 27 yards, they would mange 264 yards on the ground and three second-half TD runs that left the crowd in Austin looking for answers.
Mack Brown’s bunch seemed to stabilize after a close loss to #8 Oklahoma and a huge road win at #5 Nebraska. However, the next three weeks would define the most forgettable Texas season in over a decade. Consecutive home losses to Iowa State and Baylor were followed by a 39-14 shellacking at Kansas State. Two more defeats to league rivals Oklahoma State and Texas A&M caused the Longhorns to miss the postseason for the first time since 1997.
Muschamp is now the boss in Gainesville, while Manny Diaz was brought in from Mississippi State to repair the defense. Diaz will have plenty of talent on his side of the ball, including tackle Kheeston Randall and top linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. The offense will also get a facelift, with new coordinator Bryan Harsin coming to Austin via Boise State.
Will the coaching changes work for Mack Brown at Texas? That will be one of the most watched themes of the college football season. If the ‘Horns are not right back up to the eight or nine-win mark this season, the fan base in Austin will get mighty restless.
Days Until College Football: 50
The countdown begins with a college football legend and a big time entertainer. We had to grab your attention, and former Florida State great Ron Simmons is just the man for the job. While many fans may know Simmons for his exploits in the wrestling world, you may not know just how dominant of a football player he was in Tallahassee. The middle guard on defense was a Simmons was consensus All-American in 1979 and 1980, and he was only the third Seminole to have his jersey, #50, retired by FSU. Simmons helped put Bobby Bowden’s program on the national map, and he was enshrined in to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
In the squared circle, Simmons (or Farooq, among other monikers) competed in the NWA, WCW, ECW and WWE. In his stop in the WWE, he formed the ‘Nation of Domination’ with Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), a former University of Miami defensive lineman. Of course, the former Nation members would end up fighting each other in the end, just like a ‘Cane and ‘Nole should.
As far as having to wait 50 days until we see action on the gridiron, I’m guessing Ron would say, “Damn!”