After revealing the first half of my Preseason Top 25 on Wednesday, it's time to share the second half today. Here are my Top 15 teams heading into the 2011 season, in an especially long (some would say too long) preview piece.
One important thing to remember: These rankings aren't necessarily a reflection of how I think teams will end the year. It doesn't mean that the teams I have ranked No.'s 1 and 2 will play for the title. All it means is that these are the teams that I think are the best today, in the first week of August.
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15. Oklahoma State:
How you feel about Oklahoma State depends on how you feel on one fundamental question in football: Do great players make a successful team? Great coaching? Or somewhere in the middle?
If you think great players make a successful team than you look at Oklahoma State and say, “Wow, they return 10 starters on offense. They’ve got the most physically imposing wide receiver in college football. And yeh their quarterback might be older than Pangaea, but he’s got a hose for an arm. This team could very well win the Big XII title.”
If you think great coaches make a successful team, than you look at Oklahoma State and say, “Dana Holgorsen is a genius. His quarterbacks at Texas Tech put up ridiculous stats. Case Keenum threw for 1,400 more yards than any other quarterback in college football under Holgorsen’s watch (the single craziest stat I think I’ve ever seen). And he took a quarterback who was older than Pangaea and turned him into a Heisman candidate. Sure he may seem a little weird, and I find it somewhat strange that his Wikipedia lists him as having three kids but no wife. But my goodness this man can coach.”
As for me, well I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t think you can give Holgorsen all the credit for Oklahoma State’s success last year, since the Pokes won nine games in each of the two years before he got there (and may have won more in 2009 if Dez Bryant wasn’t stupidly suspended). At the same time, let’s get real here for a second. Brandon Weeden is older than Pangaea!!! He hadn’t played any meaningful football in close to a decade before last season. And he threw for almost 4,300 yards last year!! (I can’t stop using exclamation points!!) Holgorsen had to have something to do with that.
In the end, I guess if there’s a gun to my head, I’m leaning more toward the coach making the success, more so than the players. I just can’t see the Pokes getting back to 11 wins this year.
14. Ohio State:
I understand why most probably have Ohio State ranked lower than I do. It was a tough offseason, made no easier by the fact that even before all this Pryor-Tressel melodrama, the Buckeyes were still losing a lot heading into 2011 (Including most of their defense). It’s also easy to forget that even with Pryor gone, there are still four guys facing a five game suspension related to the free tattoos. Mike Adams isn’t going to be easy to replace at tackle, nor will DeVier Posey in an incredibly thin receiving corps.
With that said, I kinda feel like with so much negative publicity coming out on Ohio State this summer, sentiment has swung too far the other way. Kind of like when a movie comes out to horrible reviews, then you actually go see it, and realize, “Wait a second, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.” That’s the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes: “Not nearly as bad as I thought they’d be.”
Again, it was a tough offseason. But remember, all this crap started in February, and Jim Tressel was out the door before the start of June. The players have had months to prepare for life after Tressel, and I’ve got to assume that everybody is ready to get on the field, and actually start just playing football. Never doubt the resiliency of teenage kids.
Plus, the biggest thing that I think everyone is forgetting is this: For all the drama surrounding Tressel’s departure, the rest of his staff remains intact (Including, awkwardly, his brother). Ohio State will run the same schemes, same systems and have the routines from last year, and virtually every player on the team will be answering to the same position coach. When you think about it, there really isn’t that much that has changed in Columbus. Ohio State went through a head coaching change. Not a coaching and system overhaul.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not ready to give up on the Buckeyes just yet. It won’t be easy in the early going, especially without four starters sitting out the first five games. But they do get them back for the most important games of the schedule. Ohio State will have a full roster for the Nebraska game, and Wisconsin is in Columbus. Just as easily as the Buckeyes could lose those two games, they could win them just the same.
In the end, I’ll give you a prediction most won’t: I think for the seventh straight year, Ohio State finishes with at least 10 wins. You heard it here first, and be sure to think of me when it happens (Also be sure to forget if they finish 5-7. Thanks!).
13. Boise State:
Before anyone calls me a Boise hater for ranking them this low, just remember that I’m the same guy who wrote this column after the Virginia Tech game last year. Understand I love Boise. Nothing would make me happier than seeing them play for a title (Ok, that’s a lie. A date or two with Mila Kunis would make me happier than seeing Boise play for a title. But you get the point).
But with that said, I do think that for the first time in a while, this team does have some real questions to answer. We all know they’ve got to replace two wide receivers. Who’s the answer there? We always heard about Boise’s lack of depth in years past. Well now they’ve got to replace Winston Venable, Brandyn Thompson, and a bunch of other important defensive guys. Not to mention that quite frankly, even last year I wasn’t totally impressed with their offensive line play. Well, with a handful of new starters there, questions remain.
And that’s before we even get into the schedule. I don’t think I’m breaking news by telling you that it’s tougher than in years past. At the same time, there are other factors beyond just “the Mountain West is better than the WAC.” Like having to learn the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of an entirely new group of teams. Or having to play Colorado State at altitude, or San Diego State in November when it might be 80 degrees California, after the Broncos have been practicing in 20 degree weather in Boise.
Obviously, I don’t think Boise is going to step too far back, otherwise I wouldn’t have them ranked so high. But in the end, I just can’t put them any higher than this, especially since I think they’ll lose in Week 1 to…
For anyone who listens to my podcast, or is a regular reader of my columns, you know that I’ve been high on the ‘Dawgs all spring and summer.
Granted, I’ll be the first to admit, that I need you to take a small leap of faith with me. Ok, a huge one. Ok, a ginormous one. We all know the Bulldogs problems. They’re thin on the offensive line. Their running back depth has been sapped by the Athens police…err I mean transfers and departures. Todd Grantham still doesn’t totally have the personnel he needs to run his defense.
At the same time, I’ve been watching SEC football long enough to know that to win in this conference, above everything else (talent, coaching, whatever), you need breaks, especially with your schedule. Remember that as good as Auburn was last year, they still got South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia at home. The year before Alabama got Tennessee, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas at Bryant-Denney Stadium. As the old saying, “sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.” And in the case of each of those two schools the last two years, they were both.
Well this year, it’s Georgia’s turn to catch some breaks. Looking at the schedule, I’ve got to ask, after Week 2, where are the losses? Sure they open with Boise and South Carolina, but even in a worst case scenario, even if they lose both, they’re still…gasp in a good position to win the East.
The ‘Dawgs get the Gamecocks, Mississippi State and Auburn at home, with their only truly tough road game at Tennessee. Then there’s the Cocktail Party yes. But Georgia also caught the mother of all breaks from the SEC schedule makers. Did you know they don’t play LSU, Alabama or Arkansas…. Like, at all? Are you kidding me? How is this team not the overwhelming favorite in the SEC East? And heaven help us if they win those first two games. Could they get on a roll like Auburn, and (double) gasp, make a run at a National Championship? I’m getting ahead of myself, yes. But it isn’t a totally crazy scenario.
Again, I’m not saying that they’re the most talented team in the country, the conference or even the division. Quite frankly, I think player for player South Carolina is better (we’ll discuss them more in a minute). But you can’t deny that for once, the breaks finally seem to have gone the ‘Dawgs way.
11. West Virginia:
If you’re not a fan of the Big East (and think it should be abolished to the Island of Misfit Football Conferences), this is probably the time you should skip ahead to the next part of this column. Because I’ve got bad news for everyone not living on the country roads of West Virginia: The Mountaineers are about to be really good this year. Like 10-2, 11-1 kinda good.
Why am I so confident? Well, forgetting about the offense and the glorious Dana Holgorsen for a second (which is damn near impossible), West Virginia’s defense has been really good for a really long time. Quietly they actually finished No. 2 in total defense last year. And to the credit of Jeff Casteel, they’re one of these programs like Ohio State, LSU, Alabama, Virginia Tech or whomever, that just seems to have the next set of guys ready to go, when the last ones leave. On defense at least, West Virginia doesn’t rebuild, as much as they do reload.
Then there’s the offense, which shouldn’t just be better with Holgorsen in charge, but exponentially, overwhelmingly, some-word-I-can’t-come-up with better than they were. Not only do they have speed and skill on the edges with Tavon Austin and Brad Starks, but if Holgorsen turned Graham Harrell and Brandon Weeden into Heisman contenders, what’s he going to do with a guy as physically gifted as Geno Smith? Honestly, going from Weeden to Smith for Holgorsen, would be like giving Picasso going from finger paints to the best supplies in the world. The upside for this team is endless.
10. Texas A&M:
Quite honestly, I just don’t have a ton of tangible thoughts on A&M. What I do know however, is that I should apologize to Mike Sherman. For a long time I killed him whenever the Aggies failed, when in actuality, history will probably show that Jerrod Johnson was to blame. So, Coach, I’m sorry about that.
As for this year’s Aggies bunch, it’s interesting because the team they seem to constantly be compared to is Oklahoma State. Which makes sense. Both were surprising last year, albeit in different ways (Oklahoma State came out of nowhere, whereas A&M had high expectations, struggled and finished strong). Both had fun offenses to watch. And both bring a whole helluva lot back this year.
Still, I like A&M just a bit more for a few reasons. They bring a lot more back on defense than Oklahoma State does (even if they did lose Von Miller). They have an established running back in Cyrus Gray, while the Pokes graduated Kendall Hunter. And most importantly, the schedule breaks much better for A&M than Oklahoma State. The Aggies get Texas, Missouri, Baylor and the Pokes at home. OSU has to go to A&M, Texas and Missouri. Ouch.
If Oklahoma is the clear cut No. 1 in this conference, Texas A&M is the clear No. 2.
9. Virginia Tech:
In a lot of ways, I feel like Virginia Tech could very well be the team which starts the year in the Top 10, then takes a precipitous, “Texas-like,” fall out of the Top 25 by the end of the year. All the pieces are in place. They lose a four-year starter at quarterback, their two best running backs, and their starting left tackle will likely miss the first few games of the season because of injury. Plus, they’ve got a whole bunch of guys who’ve done nothing but won since they got to Blacksburg. Could some of them start to take that for granted? Especially without the leadership that Tyrod Taylor provided?
Possibly, but after a quick look at their schedule there just doesn’t seem to be anyway in hell that this team takes a step back. Not this year. Not with the handful of lousy teams they play.
To which I add…have you seen the schedule? The thing is softer than Charlie Weis’ midsection.
For the first time in a while, Tech has no marquee game to open the year (Boise last year, Alabama the year before, LSU two years before that), and from there, virtually all their tough games (Miami, Clemson, UNC) are at home. On the road, their toughest game is probably….umm, Georgia Tech? East Carolina? Wake Forest? Ugh.
Remember when I said they might take a “precipitous fall,” like two paragraphs ago? Yeh, umm forget that. They might win 11 games.
8. South Carolina:
Ahh, South Carolina. What can we possibly say about the Gamecocks which hasn’t been discussed at length all offseason? (Or at the very least recorded for public record by Stephen Garcia’s parole officer. Kidding!)
Anyway, I’ve got a big-old, mixed bag of feelings on South Carolina.
Obviously, there’s no denying the talent on the roster. The Gamecocks have the best wide receiver in college football (Alshon Jeffery), one of the two or three most talented running backs, and easily the nastiest defensive line in the SEC East. To quote Forrest Gump, “I’m not a smart man,”… but I know that you win and lose in this league along the defensive line. South Carolina is plenty stacked there.
With that said, there are some things not to like. My biggest concern is the way Steve Spurrier handled the Garcia and GA Mangus situations, with the implication basically being this is an “all-in,” year for the Cocks. That’s obviously understandable, but still has me a bit concerned. Situations like this barely ever work out, and things are only going to be magnified that much more because of everything that’s happened in the offseason. Not to mention that there are other problems. Marcus Lattimore hasn’t exactly proven to be able to stay healthy. There are young spots on the offensive line. And oh yeh, Stephen Garcia is still the quarterback in Columbia.
Also, it’s easy to forget that despite winning the SEC east last year, a lot of things still had to go right for the Gamecocks. They got both Georgia and Tennessee at home. They caught Alabama at the end of a three week gauntlet (they’d played Arkansas and Florida in the previous two weeks). Florida was historically inept. And you know what? South Carolina STILL lost three conference games!!
Granted, there’s more talent in Columbia this year than last, but the schedule is a lot tougher than last year’s too. They’ve got a huge road game at Georgia early in the year, and then three straight on the road at Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas later on in October (By the way, at some point, do yourself a favor and look at South Carolina’s schedule. They open with two on the road, four straight at home, three more on the road, and then three more at home. Simply put, it’s the weirdest schedule I’ve ever seen. Somebody in the SEC offices must’ve been drunk when they put it together). I guess what I’m trying to say, is that it’s hard to imagine all the stuff that broke right last year, happening again.
Which leaves us with this: Based on who they have returning, and at what positions, I’m comfortable putting South Carolina this high in my preseason poll. Today, August 5, 2011, there isn’t any way I can justify ranking South Carolina any lower than No. 8 in the country.
But if you’re asking me if I expect them to finish this high? Well, that’s another question all together.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve done a complete 180 on Wisconsin.
At first, I was anxious about the Russell Wilson move at quarterback. These late-in-the-offseason quarterback moves aren’t as easy as they look, and rarely ever work. If you don’t believe me, just as Ole Miss about Jeremiah Masoli this past season. It was disaster. In their defense, you can’t really blame the player of the team, but still, it just never worked out. By the time Masoli got comfortable in Oxford, the season was basically over.
Anyway, back to Wisconsin, because just as I was trying to shake off my Masoli-hangover, I remembered, “Wait a second, Wisconsin isn’t Ole Miss at all. Forget the fact that Wilson’s skill-set fits in much better in Madison than Masoli’s did at Ole Miss. Even if Wilson sucks, all he’s got to do is hand off the ball to James White and Montee Ball 50 times a game, and Wisconsin will still go 10-2. Good times!”
And with that, Wisconsin is the favorite in the Big Ten.
The way I see it, if college football were to hold an imaginary preseason tournament, pitting all the best teams on a neutral field, I honestly feel like the Hogs would be the proverbial, “Team no one wants to play.” They’ve got the best set of wide receivers in the country, Knile Davis (my 2011 college football man-crush) at running back, and their defense is way better than anyone realizes (Quite frankly, I’m kind of depressed that I can’t make any more, “I wonder if Bobby Petrino actually lets his defense practice?,” jokes. Bummer). Understand, I’m not saying that Arkansas is the most talented team in college football. But on a neutral field, I do believe that they could beat anyone.
(By the way, if your argument against Arkansas is that they have an inexperienced quarterback, I’ve got two words for you: “Greg McElroy.” And if those two words aren’t enough, I’ve got two more for you: “Matt Flynn.” The point being, how many times have we learned that having a great quarterback, especially in the SEC isn’t a necessity to success? At least not as much as having plenty of talent around them.
With that said, I do understand that because of the way that Arkansas runs their offense, Tyler Wilson will have more pressure on him than either of those guys did. But not really. Remember, last year Arkansas was at their best when they were handing the ball off to Knile Davis and letting him do the heavy lifting. For all the Ryan Mallett talk, when the Hogs made their run in the second half last season, Davis was their MVP.
Now back to your regularly scheduled preview column.)
Unfortunately with everything I said about Arkansas “being able to beat anyone,” I can’t put them any higher than No.6, and it’s because of their schedule. Remember when I talked about Georgia’s breaking right this year? Well Arkansas’ broke wrong; they’ve got Alabama and LSU on the road, and South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn at home. As good as they are, it’s hard not seeing the Hogs get tripped up at least twice, meaning they’ll be behind the eight-ball in the SEC race almost from the beginning.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: With all things being equal, I think the Hogs could win this division, which would obviously put them in damn good position to win the SEC. But all things aren’t equal, and Arkansas has an up-hill battle ahead of them.
For two years now, I’ve argued the merits of going against Oregon in my preseason polls. Here were my dumb arguments, along with their corresponding years: Oregon’s offense is too gimmicky to succeed (2009); their offensive line too inexperienced (2009); they’ve got a first year head coach (2009) their defense is too small; they can’t win without Jeremiah Masoli (2010). Needless to say, I’ve been wrong. Really wrong. Quite frankly, the Ducks have made me look worse than Marc Tyler out on a Friday night these last few years.
So with all that said, this year I’ve got to be backing the Ducks, right? Ehhhhhhhhh, I’m not so sure.
Look, at this point, I’ve given up second guessing Chip Kelly. I don’t care if he spends money more recklessly than Pac-Man Jones at a strip club. The guy can coach. Between the white lines, nobody is better.
With that said, this is kind of a weird Oregon team. They’re experienced at quarterback and running back, but inexperienced in the trenches. We all know championships are won along the lines of scrimmage, and it doesn’t help that those young Duck-lings will be broken into big-time college football against LSU, a team that’s just about as physical as they come. If Oregon loses there, how do they react?
Also, I find it interesting that Vegas has set the over/under on their win total at 9 ½. Looking at that, it seems like a bit of a sucker bet to me. Most everyone is going to take the over, which makes sense; even if the Ducks lose to LSU, they’d still have to lose twice more not to cover that bet. Looking at the schedule, there just don’t appear to be two more losses in there. At the same time, Vegas doesn’t just give away money either. And with most money coming in on the over, do they know something we don’t?
I’m not sure, but based on what we know about both Oregon and the watered down Pac-12, it’s hard to rank the Ducks any lower than right here.
However, I am proceeding with caution. I’ve never once had a team “conservatively,” ranked in my Top 5. Until now.
4. Florida State:
Now here’s a team I can get behind!
If you don’t like Florida State, the reasons why are understandable. They’ve got an inexperienced quarterback (which as I just mentioned, is something I think is overrated), and despite their ACC Atlantic Division title last year, they’re still a club that’s not totally used to winning. No one on this roster has ever played in a BCS bowl game.
A few things here.
One, for anyone who thinks E.J. Manuel is inexperienced, they clearly haven’t looked at his resume. No, he hasn’t started a ton of games. But amongst those he has, include: Last year’s ACC Championship Game. The 2010 Gator Bowl. Against Florida in the Swamp two years ago. And while he didn’t start last year’s Chick Fil-A Bowl, he did play most of the snaps. Basically, E.J. Manuel is about as experienced as an “inexperienced,” quarterback can be.
Then there’s the, “They’ve never been there before,” theory, which might hold water… you know, if Auburn hadn’t just proven 12 months ago that enough talent can trump experience. How many guys on the Auburn roster had won an SEC Division title, let alone an SEC title before last season? None that I know of.
Regardless, I’m fascinated with the Noles, and since I’m planning on writing about them quite a bit more in the coming days, I won’t add too much here.
What I will do, is leave you with this: In the BCS era, Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Gene Chizik have all won BCS titles in the second year at their particular school. Well, Jimbo Fisher is in his second year. That isn’t terribly significant, but interesting none the less.
And remember too that the schedule breaks nicely for the Seminoles this year. If they can by Oklahoma in Week 3 and a visit to Clemson in Week 4 (where they haven’t won in over 10 years), there doesn’t seem to be a game the rest of the year that they won’t be heavy favorites. Instead, they get to gorge on a crap-tastic platter of Boston College’s, Maryland’s and Wake Forest’s. Not to mention that their two biggest rivals, Miami and Florida are breaking in new head coaches this year.
In other words, there’s plenty to like in Tallahassee this year.
Alright, so this is a bit of a cop-out. But since this column should’ve ended up about 2,000 words ago, I’ll try to be concise. Especially since I feel like these two teams are basically equals.
Looking across the board, I like Alabama’s running game more. But I like LSU’s wide receivers better. I think Alabama has the best front-seven in the country. LSU has the best set of defensive backs.
In the end, I’m giving LSU the slight edge for a goofy, albeit, legitimate reason: LSU is settled at quarterback.
Now, does that mean I trust Jordan Jefferson? No more than I trust my dog when I leave food within his reach on the table. But at the very least, LSU is settled at quarterback. Alabama is still deciding between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims, and if one was clearly then the other, they’d have been named the starter by now.
Again, I want you all to remember one thing though: These ranks do not necessarily reflect how I think teams will finish the season. Saying that LSU is No. 2 and Alabama is No. 3 doesn’t mean that I think LSU is going to go into Bryant-Denny Stadium and get a win in early November, or that they’ll win the SEC West. It doesn’t mean that I think LSU will play for the National Championship and Alabama won’t (Don’t worry, I’ll be revealing my National Championship Picks later this month).
Remember, what these rankings are, are only a reflection of who I think the best teams are now, today, in the first week of August.
Right now, LSU is ahead by the thinnest of margins.
They return more talent on both sides of the ball than anyone in college football. They’ve got the Heisman Trophy favorite (as far as I’m concerned) at quarterback. One of the two to three best wide receivers. And unlike nearly every other team in college football, the Sooners didn’t face even a whiff of controversy over the summer (With the exception of the unfortunate death of Austin Box).
This is the deserving No. 1 team in the country.
But will they win the title?
We’ll find out soon enough.
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