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Ranking the Pac-12's Top 40 Players for 2011

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By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the college football season with a look at the top 40 players for 2011 in the Pac-12.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 40 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 3,338 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT, 453 rush yards, 3 TD
Luck was the most efficient quarterback in the Pac-10 a season ago with a 170.16 QB rating – good for third nationally. He led the team to its first BCS Bowl victory when he ripped apart the ACC champion Virginia Tech Hokies 40-12 in the Orange Bowl. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Basically, the only thing Luck could have done better in 2010 was tackle LaMichael James, who rushed for 257 yards in the Cardinal’s only loss of the season.

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Why he’s ranked 1st: Luck was slated to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft had he decided to come out last spring. But the best amateur football player in the nation is returning to Palo Alto to complete some unfinished business. No, I am not talking about his prestigious Stanford architecture degree either. Luck and the Cardinal, sans Jim Harbaugh, are the primary contender to Oregon’s conference supremacy. The Ducks travel to Stanford in Week 11.

2. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 1,731 yds., 21 TDs, 17 rec., 208 yds., 3 TDs

James solidified his place as one of the top players in college football last year, finishing third in Heisman voting and setting an Oregon single-season record with 1,731 rushing yards. He collected numerous accolades last season, which included the Doak Walker Award (college football’s top running back) and first-team All-American and All-Pac-10 honors. James is not the biggest running back in college football, but he was a workhorse for Oregon, posting eight games of at least 25 carries. He rushed for a season-high 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-31 win over Stanford. James was held under 100 yards only twice – at California and in the national title game against Auburn.

Why he’s ranked 2nd: A case can be made James is the top player in the Pac-12, but there’s no knock in being ranked behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Oregon may look to lighten James’ workload in 2011, especially with Kenjon Barner’s emergence and talented freshmen Lache Seastrunk and Tra Carson waiting in the wings. James led the nation in rushing yards last year and has a favorable schedule to do so once again this year. However, winning a national title would certainly mean more to James and the Ducks this season.

3. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford (JR)
Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the most physical teams in the nation. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and David DeCastro, Martin earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the Pac-10 in total, scoring, rushing and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

Why he’s ranked 3rd: The Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 selection heads what is ranked as the No. 1 offensive line in the conference for 2011. If Andrew Luck is the best player in the nation, then one could argue that he who protects the most important player in the game is the second most important player in the game, right? Protecting Luck’s blindside is exactly what Martin will be doing again in 2011.

4. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State (JR)
2010 stats: 90 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 PBU, 2 FF
Burfict has turned in two solid years at Arizona State, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. He has tallied 159 tackles in his career, while forcing four fumbles and picking up two sacks. Burfict earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors last season. The junior is one of college football’s ferocious hitters, but needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. Burfict has collected some bad personal fouls during his career and if he can eliminate those mistakes, he could be one of the top defenders in college football.

Why he’s ranked 4th: High expectations surround Arizona State for 2011. With USC ineligible for the conference crown, the Sun Devils should have a shot to compete for the Pac-12 title. Burfict is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and will be expected to be a leader for the Arizona State defense. Burfict needs to eliminate the mental mistakes, but with another productive year, could leave early for the NFL Draft.

5. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 2,791 passing yards., 26 TDs, 12 INTs
Barkley came to USC as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. Although he has been solid, the knock on Barkley has been his turnovers. Over the last two years, he has thrown 26 interceptions, which has to improve if he wants to take the next step in his development as an elite quarterback. An ankle injury at the end of last year hindered Barkley’s progress, as he only mustered 273 passing yards over the final three games.

Why he’s ranked 5th: If USC’s defense struggles once again in 2011, Barkley could be forced to win a lot of shootouts. The junior should show more progress this year, but will be throwing to a young group of receivers. If Barkley cuts down on the mistakes, he should edge Oregon’s Darron Thomas for the second spot on the All-Pac-12 team at the end of 2011.

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6. Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 2,881 yards, 30 TDs, 9 INT, 486 rush yards, 5 TDs

Entering the fall of 2010, Oregon fans were unsure of what they had under center with Darron Thomas. Everyone knows about Thomas after a 117-yard rushing effort against Stanford, a 288-yard, 4-TD passing game against USC and the first undefeated regular season in Oregon’s modern history. His 150.97 QB rating trailed only Andrew Luck in efficiency in the Pac-10.

Why he’s ranked 6th: Despite some shaky decisions at the onset of the BCS National Championship game, Thomas went on to set a career high with 363 passing yards in the narrow three-point loss. Through the last eight games of the regular season, Thomas threw 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions in wins over Oregon State, Arizona, California, USC, Washington and UCLA. With a year of stellar production in a system that fits his skills perfectly, fans can expect more of the same from Thomas in 2011.

7. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford (JR)
This is going to sound familiar: Under Jim Harbaugh, Stanford quickly established itself as one of the nation's most physical offensive lines. Along with fellow Cardinal hog mollies Chase Beeler and Jonathan Martin, DeCastro earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year. The Stanford offense ranked no worse than 2nd in the league in total, rushing, scoring and pass efficiency offense, along with sacks allowed. The 0.46 sacks allowed per game were good for second nationally to only Air Force - who attempted 211 fewer pass attempts (379 to 168).

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Why he’s ranked 7th: The 6-foot-5, 307-pound mauler is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American selection and returns to protect the most valuable commodity in college football, quarterback Andrew Luck. DeCastro and Martin will be asked to lead a group of new faces, along what should be the best offensive line in the conference.

8. Cliff Harris, CB, Oregon (JR)
2010 stats: 33 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 PBU, 18.8 yards per punt return, 4 TDs

Harris was spectacular in his first year as a starter. He became one of the nation’s rising stars at corner, picking off six passes and leading all defensive backs 23 passes defended. Harris took one of his interceptions back for a score against Tennessee and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Why he’s ranked 8th: Harris could be the best cornerback in college football, but he’s not quite there yet. The Oregon defensive staff would like to see him be more consistent from week-to-week and there’s the off-the-field concern as well. Harris won’t play in the opener against LSU due to a traffic incident this summer and could miss another game or two. When Harris is on the field, there’s no question he is one of the top defenders in the Pac-12 and the nation’s top punt returner. Assuming Harris doesn’t miss more than one game, he should contend for a spot on the All-American team at the end of 2011.

9. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona (SR)
2010 stats: 82 receptions, 1,233 yards, 11 TDs
Criner emerged as one of the top receivers in college football last year. He posted career-bests in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, while earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors. Criner averaged 15 yards a catch and led all Pac-10 receivers in receptions and receiving yards per game.

Why he’s ranked 9th: Arizona is expected to throw more in 2011, which should give Criner an opportunity to improve upon last season’s statistics. The senior is an Athlon Sports preseason third-team All-American and was named to the Biletnikoff Award watchlist. Expect Criner to be the top receiver in the Pac-12 and should garner plenty of interest from the NFL scouts for the 2012 draft.

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10. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford (JR)
2010 stats: 84 total tackles, 10.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 FF

The heady leader of the defense actually led the Cardinal in sacks per game, finishing third in the league with 0.59 per contest. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Skov still finished second on the team in total sacks and tackles for a loss. His sophomore season was capped by a stellar performance in the Cardinal’s first ever BCS bowl win. Skov posted 12 total tackles (eight solos), four tackles for a loss and three sacks.

Why he’s ranked 10th: The team’s top returning tackler is back for his third year in Palo Alto as the leader of the defense. Skov’s play improved as the season went along and with Owen Marecic gone, more responsibility will be placed on the inside linebacker’s powerful shoulders. The easy first-team preseason all-conference pick landed a spot on Athlon’s preseason third-team All-American squad.

11. Chris Polk, RB, Washington (JR)
2010 stats: 1,415 yards, 9 TDs, 22 rec., 180 yards

Polk posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season for the Huskies in 2010. He finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing behind Heisman finalist LaMichael James and powered his way to an excellent finish, helping lead Washington to an upset bowl win over Nebraska. Polk averaged over 170 yards per game and scored five of his nine touchdowns in the four-game winning streak to end last season.

Why he's ranked 11th: The preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection also received national acclaim as an Athlon Sports third-team All-American. Polk has topped 100 yards in 10 of his last 18 games and was dominant at the end of the 2010 campaign. With Jake Locker moving from Seattle to Nashville, Polk and the running game will be the key to breaking in a new signal caller.

12. T.J. McDonald, S, USC (JR)
2010 stats: 89 total tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT, 1 sack, Blk kick
McDonald led the Trojans in the tackles a year ago and was second on the team with three interceptions as only a sophomore – and without playing the final game of the season. In a 34-33 win over Arizona State, McDonald posted arguably his best career game when he made 13 total tackles, including 10 solos, to go with a key blocked kick.