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Fearless Rick's 2011 NCAA Preseason Top 25

Rick Gagliano | August 22, 2011

NCAA PRESEASON TOP 25 - Predicted order of finish

1. Stanford - quarterback Andrew Luck didn't have to come back to Stanford after leading them to a 12-1 season, a second place finish in the PAC-10 and an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech with 40.3 points per game (8th nationally). Luck could have gone straight to the NFL following a school record 524 points and a projected top five pick in the draft, but elected to return to the Cardinal for a shot at a national championship.

Regarded as the best pure quarterback in the country, Luck returns with tailback Stefan Taylor (1137 yards rushing in 2010) at his side and an offensive line NFL scouts drool over. When Luck wants to throw, he'll be aiming at tight end Coby Fleener often, and the rest of the receiving corps will benefit from Luck's accuracy (70% completions) and ability to keep plays alive with his legs.

The Stanford defense was remarkably good in 2010, finishing tied for 10th nationally, with Clemson, in points allowed, at 17.8 per outing and six starters return along with a host of other role players. The biggest concern is on the line, where two of three starters have moved on in the Stanford 3-4 scheme. The linebackers and secondary are top-notch, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left, along with head coach Jim Harbaugh, to the NFL's san Francisco 49ers, leaving gaping holes in the coaching staff which David Shaw, who takes over as head coach, hopes to fill.

With Luck guiding the offense, Shaw doesn't need to worry much, and the defense was high quality and projects to be as good, if not better, in 2011.

The Stanford schedule isn't very tough until late in the season, when the Cardinal play at USC on October 29, host Oregon on November 12 and finish up with a non-confrence home tilt with Notre Dame on November 26. The rest of the newly-aligned PAC-12 isn't much to speak of outside of Arizona State.

Stanford's chances of capturing a national championship won't hinge on good fortune, but rather the arm and legs of Andrew Luck, home wins over Oregon and Notre Dame and determination should they reach the pinnacle of college football success. The rookie head coach inherits a super-solid program with one of the best QBs in the country, maybe the Heisman winner. That, and an imposing presence on defense, should be enough to bring the crown to the West Coast.

2. Alabama - Since the days of Bear Bryant and Joe Namath, Crimson Tide football has mostly maintained a tradition of excellence. Under current head coach Nick Saban, Alabama has gone 43-11 in four seasons and captured a national championship in 2009. Watching arch-rival Auburn claim the SEC and BCS title last year should have rekindled the flame that burns in the deep South.

Alabama will have to find new offensive weapons to replace QB Greg McElroy, running back and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram and wideout sensation Julio Jones to find success in 2011. One spot seems secure, with junior Trent Richardson expected to have a banner season as the featured back. The quarterback position will be filled by either soph AJ McCarron or reshirt frosh Phillip Sims. Either appear to be adequate for Saban's run-first, pro-sytyle offense.

At wide receiver there's plenty of depth, especially with returnees Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, so there's plenty of reason for optimism when the Crimson Tide gets ready to roll on offense.

Defensively, the Tide has eight returning starters from a stout group that was fifth in points allowed nationally at 14.1 per game in 2010. Finishing with a 10-3 record, the only loss that wasn't close was their 35-21 defeat at South Carolina. The defense held well in a 24-21 loss at LSU and a home defeat at the hands of Auburn, 28-27. This unit could be the most dominant force in college with standout linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, along with all four starters in the secondary.

If Alabama is going to reach the national championship game, they'll have to go unbeaten or finish with one loss, and that loss can't be in the SEC championship game. They face a challenging schedule, with road games at Penn State (September 10), Florida (10/1), Ole Miss (10/15), Mississippi State (11/12) and Auburn (11/26) to close out the regular season. Home games with Arkansas and LSU are also not going to be easy, but the Tide has the personnel to carry them all the way.

3. Oklahoma - Year in and year out, Bob Stoops' Oklahoma teams are either projected to win it all or at least reach the national championship game. The trouble is, despite a depth of talent, they always seem to lose a critical game or two, get a key player hurt (such as Sam Bradford) or otherwise find a way to come up a peg or two short.

This year will likely be more of the same, even though they return eight players from a potent offense and seven on defense. In 2010, they won the Big 12 South, beat Nebraska, 23-20, in the conference title game and slaughtered UConn in the Fiesta Bowl, but unlikely and untimely losses to Texas A&M and Missouri - both road games - derailed their season.

With the two division setup now history in the Big 12 after Nebraska and Colorado defected, the Sooners will have to win the conference outright and there are a number of roadblocks along the way, particularly a non-confrence meeting at Florida State on September 17 and road games at Kansas State, Baylor and the season finale at Oklahoma State. They'll also have to prove their mettle in the annual Red River shootout with Texas on October 8, always at a neutral site, though Dallas hardly seems neutral.

QB Landry Jones has a pair of reliable receivers in Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills, but the backfield is not up to the usual Oklahoma standards unless either Brandon Williams or Brennan Clay emerges as a star runner.

The Sooners also have to fill holes at two linebacking spots and find a free safety, and defense hasn't been a strong suit for the Sooners overall. They were vulnerable to running teams in 2010 and Texas, Texas A&M and kansas State will put them to the test there.

Despite the negatives, Oklahoma has a superior offense and a tough, but manageable schedule, but they are just a notch below the top two teams in the country. A break here or there could, however, land them in the BCS national championship.

4. Boise State - What more can Boise State do to get them into a national championship game? Maybe moving from the WAC to the Mountain West conference will do the trick. After losing to perennial MWC powerhouse TCU, 17-16 in the Poinsettia Bowl in 2008 to go 12-1 and beating them 17-10 in a BCS bowl to cap off a 14-0 season in 2009, the Broncos took a stap backwards in 2010, losing to Nevada in the regular season, thus losing the conference title and having to settle for a 26-3 win over Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl for a 12-1 record.

The Broncos will line up against a host of new foes in 2011, including TCU (who will exit the Mountain West after this season and go to the Big East in 2012) and the rest of the MWC teams, including always dangerous squads from Fresno State and San Diego State, both of which will be road games for Boise. They also get a rematch with Nevada on October 1 and open the season at Georgia on September 3.

While receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young have moved on, Kellen Moore - who finished 4th in the Heisman voting last season - returns for his senior year, and the Broncos should have enough quality talent at wideout to make Moore an all-American and potential Heisman winner. Tailback Doug Martin and fullback Dan Paul will get the majority of the carries out of the backfield.

Coach Chris Petersen (61-5 in five seasons with the Broncos) is happy to have seven returnees on both offense and defense, and the defense takes a back seat to nobody - not even their own offense - after finishing fourth nationally in total yardage allowed at 259.3. The defenders are a talented deep group who may be even better this year.

If Boise State can beat Georgia, TCU, Fresno State and San Diego St. they should end up undefeated and the only question would be whether the BCS brain (dead) trust would see fit to make them a national championship participant. They didn't in 2008 or 2009 when Boise was unbeaten, so there's no precedent for it this year either. The Broncos will only go as high as their record allows because the BCS has blocked all except the Super Six conferences from playing in the national championship game.

5. South Carolina - To say the SEC is loaded this season would be an understatement to the extreme, because South Carolina, after winning the SEC East and losing to eventual national champion Auburn in the conference championship, is fully geared up to take it to the next level, but may still not be the best team in the conference.

In his sixth season as South Carolina's head coach, Steve Spurrier led the Gamecocks to a 9-5 record, but came up short down the stretch, losing their final two games. Following a 56-17 thumping by Auburn, a 26-17 defeat at the hands of Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl ended their season on December 31.

The schedule is pretty easy on South Carolina this year and it's conceivable - with seven starters returning to both offense and defense - that the Gamecocks could go undefeated. They don't have to play LSU or Alabama unless they reach the SEC championship, and the other tough SEC games are at Georgia (9/10), home against Auburn (Oct. 1) and at Arkansas on November 5. Down the stretch they play three straight home games - against Florida, Citadel and Clemson - to close out the regular season. The old ball coach Spurrier must be smiling regularly with that in front of him in 2011.

On offense, three of five linemen return, but what has Gamecock fans excited is that all the star players from last season are back, including stupendous sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, wideouts DL Moore and Ashton Jeffrey and QB Stephen Garcia, who may have to win back his starting job from sophomore Connor Shaw. While Garcia had his best season at quarterback, throwing for over 3000 yards and 20 TDs, he did toss 14 passes to the other guys. Shaw may not have Garcia's arm or savvy, but he is more mobile. At least Spurrier has options should one or the other fail to perform or be injured.

The Gamecocks still need improvement on defense, though their schedule will help in that department. In 2010, they were nowhere near the top 20 nationally, allowing 22.9 points per game, though they were ninth in the country against the run. Success will come if the secondary can fill holes at one corner and free safety, because Stephon Gilmore is already a potential shutdown All-American at one corner.

South Carolina may be the shocker of the year if they reach the SEC championship for the second straight year.

Looking for the best NFL Handicapper? Good luck. Most of them suck.

--- Story continues below ---

6. Florida State - Jimbo Fisher's first season as the new head coach of the Seminoles, following 33 years under Bobby Bowden, was an unqualified success, as Florida State went to the ACC Championship, losing to a superior Virginia Tech team, but rebounded to top South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to finish 10-4.

With seven offensive and nine defenders returning to starting roles, one would think the Seminoles are all about these seasoned collegians, but it's quarterback EJ Manuel that has Seminole fans excited the most. Replacing Christian Ponder in a talent-laden offense which averaged 31.4 points pr outing in 2010, Manuel has the arm and the wheels to make Florida State an offensive monster in 2011.

Both Bert Reed and Rodney Smith return as wideouts, and Manuel has worked with them in the past as a fill-in for Ponder. The backfield is a four-headed behemoth, headed up by Chris Thompson and pile-driving fullback Lonnie Pryor.

After finishing 20th in the country in scoring defense, at 19.6 ppg, the Seminoles look to improve into one of the fiercest defenses in America this season and they should wreak havoc across the ACC. There are no apparent weaknesses and a great deal of depth associated with this group.

A favorable schedule awaits the Seminoles, with their first huge tasks are a home game with Oklahoma on September 17 followed by a trip to Clemson, followed by road games at Wake Forest (Oct. 8) and cream-puff Duke (Oct. 15). They avoid both North Carolina and Virginia Tech in their ACC schedule and have Miami at home on November 12 and visit the Florida Gator swamp to close out the season November 26.

A win over Oklahoma would put the Seminoles in the driver's seat for the national championship if they win all their ACC games, including the conference title game on December 3. Even a couple of losses won't keep Florida State out of the top 10, unless they're to Duke or another less-worthy opponent.

7. LSU - The Tigers went 11-2 in 2010 and with eight starters on offense and seven on defense returning, all systems should be go for a run at the SEC tittle and national championship, though scandal is brewing in Baton Rouge, as QB Jordan Jefferson and several teammates were supposedly involved in a bar fight that sent four people to the hospital (none of them LSU players).

No players have been charged as of this writing, but law enforcement, the SEC and NCAA may have something to say when it's all said and done.

On the field, LSU looks as good as any in the top ten, maybe even better than most, but the schedule is killer, beginning with a season opener with another troubled team, Oregon, on September 3, road games at Mississippi State, West Virginia and Alabama, plus home dates with Auburn and Arkansas among potential pitfalls.

Jefferson, a gifted athlete but not a great passer, is the key to whether the offense shines or sputters in 2011. If he can hook up with a talent-laden group of receivers, that should take some of the load off the running game, which is well-served with Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue, both returning from part-time duties last season.

Defensively, the Tigers lost all-American CB Patrick Peterson, but the secondary was very strong in 2010 and should pick up right where it left off. There aren't many holes to fill with a crew of returning starters and part-timers in the front seven, and if the offense can find a way to balance the rushing and passing attack, the defense should be able to limit most offenses to sub-par efforts.

8 Notre Dame - Coach Brian Kelly has had great success in his 20 years, piling up 179 wins, 62 losses and two ties, but in his second year at Notre Dame - after arriving from Cincinnati - comes the real test: to bring the Fighting Irish back into the elite of college football. After a successful 8-5 campaign, including a season-ending Sun Bowl win over Miami, the Irish are poised for success with 17 of a possible 22 starters returning (9 on offense, 8 on defense).

The Irish have a load of quarterbacks to deal with, the top two projected to be Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, though under Kelly's spread offensive scheme, mobility, rather than throwing ability may be the key to who lands the starting job. Notre Dame could have a rotation at QB, which Kelly might not mind employing, considering the depth at that position and the lack of quality at running back.

Senior receiver Michael Floyd returns to head up a better-than-average group, though Floyd, and tight end Tyler Eifert are the standouts. Four of five linemen return for the Irish, and that's the key to how everything should function.

Defense could emerge as a strong point at Notre Dame as the 3-4 scheme becomes the standard. The Irish were quite stout by the end of last season, and should be an improved unit with replacements needed only at nose tackle, one linebacking spot and one corner. Respectively, those positions should fall to Sean Cwynar, sophomore Prince Shembo and Robert Blanton.

The schedule will determine Notre Dame's position for a potential BCS bowl in a big way with games against Michigan State, Pitt, USC, Stanford and Navy high on the list, though only the Pitt (Sept. 24) and Stanford (Nov. 26) games are on the road.

9. Arkansas - The Razorbacks had their best season yet under Bobby Petrino (3 years, 23-15) in 2010, going 10-3, with a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and, despite losing superstar QB Ryan Mallett to the NFL, Arkansas should be in good shape with Tyler Wilson barking signals for the offense. Even if Wilson is half as good as Mallett, that should produce a 9-win season at the least, because of the backfield presence of RB Knile Davis, who knifed through opposing defenses for 1,322 and 13 TDs in 2010.

Starting wideouts Jarius Wright and Greg Childs are two of the five returning starters on offense, but the Razorbacks have a wealth of talent in the receiving corps who will be pushing for playing time.

Arkansas' aggressive defensive posture should be improved in 2011, with seven starters back. Up front they look promising, but the defensive backfield remains a point of concern, as the Hogs allowed 13 TD passes and snatched just 11 interceptions.

If the Arkansas defense isn't up to it in the SEC, the other teams will have field days throwing the ball. The schedule is daunting, with road games against the Crimson Tide and LSu, plus a neutral site tilt with Texas A&M and a home game against a very solid South carolina team. Getting to the SEC championship and a BCS berth are high goals for this team, but with Alabama, LSU and Auburn in the West division, the SEC title game may not be in their plans, even though four SEC schools could get BCS bids this season.

10. Oregon - The Ducks came as close as a team can to winning a national championship as possible, losing to Auburn in the final game of the college season. With LaMichael James back for his third season, the spread offense under Chip Kelly looks sound and ready to entrench itself in the top five scoring teams in the country. QB Darren Thomas had a fine season as a first year starter and should benefit from the experience.

Returning seven starters from last season's blockbuster squad is a sign of good things to come, though the defense - which only has to be good, not great - needs to replace six starters, including DE Kenny Rowe and T Brandon Bair, who headed to the NFL, but the Ducks are loaded with big bodies up front. The top two linebackers also need to be replaced, but the secondary is sound, with three of four starters returning, and that's where most of Oregon's big plays emerge, as teams are forced to throw in desperation to overcome Oregon's typical big leads.

The season starts out tough with an opener at home against LSU on September 3, and that could be a shocker if the Ducks aren't prepared well for a team that is projected to be a top five finisher. The following weekend is no picnic either, as Nevada's Wolfpack comes to town. The PAC-12 schedule begins on Sept. 24 at Arizona, but the real test comes in November, with the final three games of the season at Stanford, then home for USC and Oregon State.

Getting through the entire season without a loss will be a daunting task for the Ducks. Should they do so - which is doubtful - a shot at a second straight national championship game is in their future, though a BCS bowl game is probably the high mark for this offensive powerhouse.

A couple of knocks on the Ducks include the long-expected departure of running back Lache Seastrunk, a highly-prized recruit who never touched the football in an Oregon game, likely headed for Baylor, and the continuing saga of playmaking cornerback Cliff Harris, who was stopped by police doing 118 MPH back in June, with QB Thomas along for the ride. Harris will be suspended by the team, but for how long remains a tightly-guarded secret. Thomas will not face any repercussions by the team from the incident.

Click here for teams 11-25.

Copyright 2010, 2011, Rick Gagliano, Downtown Magazine. All rights reserved. Downtown Magazine is located in the Uinted States of America and is not affiliated with the National Football League or the NCAA. For more information, contact us here. Use of this site is for entertainment purposes only.


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