Below I begin my College Football 2011 predictions for the Top 25 with No. 25 through No. 11. Â Be sure to get my college football picks and my free sports picks via our newsletter.
Conference USA doesn’t usually boast Top 25 teams, but it is hard to overlook this Houston team. Although they went through four QBs last year, they were still was able to keep the offense rolling. Case Keenum is back under center, and barring injury will become the college football career passing leader. The offense will be as explosive as ever, with the wildcard for this team being the influx of some very strong JUCO talent to help stop the defensive bleeding. If that talent along with what is leftover on defense, turns out to be an upgrade, this ranking will ultimately turn out too low.
24. PENN STATE
Joe Pa has again worked some magic. He convinced QB Joe Bolden that Penn State was the place to be. Bolden became the first ever QB to start for Joe Pa’s Nittany Lions as a true freshman, and he had his challenges including sitting out the game vs. Florida. The Nittanys have a lot more experience than last year’s team, but do have some tough games with Nebraska, Ohio State and Alabama at home, and they also face Wisconsin on the road. The aaturation of Bolden will be the key to any rise above this level, while rest of the club is solid.
23. SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI
Whoa – here I am with a pair of C-USA teams cracking the Top 25! Coach Larry Fedora has done a remarkable job continuing the tradition of this perennial Bowl school. Fedora has coached his teams to improve down the stretch, and we arguably have the most talented overall team in the conference. When you take that into account and add to it one of the softest schedules in the country, this team is going to be in the Top 25. The best part is that Houston is not on their schedule, but is a likely matchup in the C-USA Championship game. We have an excellent coach with his best talent, so Southern Mississippi comes in at No. 23.
The sanctions on this program have limited their scholarships, and prevent them from playing in the postseason. That won’t stop a talented Trojans team under Lane Kiffin to be held down for long. The offense is going to be lethal and is full of playmakers. If QB Barkley takes it up a notch with his experience, the Trojans will be a player in the Pac-12. The defense, which took a step back a year ago, should be a much-improved unit this go round. With enough talent to win the Pac-12 South, I expect that when the dust settles this team is back in the Top 25.
21. WEST VIRGINIA
The wildcard here will lie in the hands of one of the best offensive coordinators in football in Dana Holgorsen. There will be a huge statement game for them and could perhaps decide just how good this team is when they host LSU in late September. A win could vault this team into a big season. The defense has lost a lot from a year ago, returning just four starters, which could become an Achilles heel. The offense should be able to compensate in a Big East Conference that just isn’t up to BCS levels.
Many have diminished this team because there is no Colt McCoy running the offense. They now have an unsteady Garrett Gilbert who threw 17 INTs last year, and at times looked over-matched. What many forget is that as a sophomore, Colt McCoy threw 18 INTs and came back to lead the Horns to a National Title game. I don’t expect Gilbert to make the same strides, but I do expect he will be vastly improved, and the Horns could be hookin’ a few surprises early on.
I like this Badgers team, especially with the coaching change at Ohio State. Wisconsin made it to the Rose Bowl last year and have a lot of talent returning for 2011. They lost a lot of experience and beef on their offensive line, but there is plenty of talent left to shore it up as still one of the Big-10’s best offensive lines. I would project them higher, but the schedule is not conducive to a ranking much higher, but a few big wins could elevate this team to a much loftier rating. There are plenty of places to trip-up however, keeping me from projecting them higher. They have home games vs. Nebraska and Penn State, and three tough roadies with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Illinois.
18. OHIO STATE
First sanctions against players, then the coach resigns. What went from chaos has become bedlam for the Buckeyes. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of talent on this team, but I think this team went from National Title consideration to just a very good team. When all is said and done, this may be either a reputation ranking, or an understatement. This squad could go far away from the Top 25, or find themselves in the Top 10. I chose middle ground to start the season.
17. OKLAHOMA STATE
This was by far the biggest surprise of the 2010 season. Oklahoma State did not make anyone’s preseason Top 25, but made it all the way into the Top 10 at one point last year. They won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but they remain a very strong team. Their biggest loss may not be on the field, but on the sidelines as OC Dana Hologorsen is off to West Virginia. They also have a very difficult schedule with A&M, Missouri and Texas all on the road, and powerful Oklahoma at home. That will be tough to survive that stretch of games.
The Andy Dalton era is over at TCU, and a lot of experience and talented players have moved on with him. The Horned Frogs have just eight starters returning, but don’t feel sorry for them yet. Patterson is a master recruiter who and develops players fast, and Ballard started before Dalton at QB and won a lot of games. We will find out a lot about this club in the first two weeks as they take to the road to face both Air Force and Baylor. They also have to play on the smurf-turf at Boise State which is never an easy task.
15. SOUTH CAROLINA
There is no question that the Gamecocks have some game. The offensive duo of WR Alshon Jeffrey who caught 88 balls last year for over 1500 yards and 9 TDs, and RB Marcus Lattimore and his 17 TDs and just shy of 1200 yards are arguably is the best run/pass combo in the country. Clowney Spurrier is a defensive force, and a team that got to the SEC Championship game a year ago certainly has a shot to get back again. They have some very tough road games, which could keep them ranked in the lower half of the Top 25, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team higher when all is said and done.
14. ARIZONA STATE
Coach Erickson admitted that last season was a rebuilding year for the Sun Devils. That said, he got this team breathing down the neck of Oregon, and went to Wisconsin and almost pulled off a major upset. This team has one of the top defenses in the country, and the offense should be better this season as well. There is no reason this team won’t be contending for a Pac-12 Title game appearance – barring major injuries of course.
The Bulldogs’ Bowl game loss to Central Florida left them a disappointing 6-7 on the season. The start to their season this year couldn’t get much more difficult as they take on Boise State in Atlanta. While this team may not be Top 15 material, consider this. All four of their road games are vs. teams with losing records from a year ago. They also get a free pass by not having to face any of the powers in the West at all, as they avoid Arkansas, Alabama and LSU. I look for this team to surprise based on better talent and a very soft SEC schedule. If they surprise Boise, watch out!
Ryan Mallett will be missed for sure, but don’t count out the Hogs so fast. The offense is always successful, but will miss the precision, talent and leadership of Mallett. Tyler Wilson proved plenty capable of moving the team last year when needed. I think that overall the rest of this Arkansas team rates out higher than last year’s, sans Mallett. The schedule will make it tough, facing LSU and Bama on the road, but they are an upset away from being a Top 10 team.
11. NOTRE DAME
The Irish are long removed from their hay-day, when National Championships were always in sight. If they are ever going to be a viable title contender it will be under the watch of Brian Kelly. There are some numbers befitting of the Irish deserving of this lofty status. Kelly has a penchant for getting his teams to overachieve, and the last 12 years have seen the National Championship team coming off a five-loss season. The schedule is manageable for the Irish to find themselves in the Top 10.