January 13, 2011

Rivals.com's Early, Early Preseason Top 25

The 2010 season ended three days ago, so enough with looking back. Instead, let's look ahead to the 2011 season, with our early, early top 25.

This top 25 was put together on the assumption that underclassmen who haven't declared for the draft will stay in school. Obviously, that's a dangerous assumption, and we will revisit this top 25 in about two weeks, when everything is settled in regard to the underclassmen.

Here are the teams:

1. OKLAHOMA
Buzz: Oklahoma won the Big 12 and snapped its five-game BCS losing streak this season, which sets up a potentially huge 2011. QB Landry Jones had to be ecstatic that WR Ryan Broyles decided to stay for his senior season; LB Travis Lewis is staying in school, as well. In all, nine starters will be back on both sides of the ball for Bob Stoops.
2. ALABAMA
Buzz: The Tide won 10 games and destroyed Michigan State in the bowl game, but ask around and 'Bama fans will say it was a disappointing season. There will be a new quarterback (A.J. McCarron), a new starting tailback (Mark Ingram is going pro) and a new go-to receiver (Julio Jones is going pro). But the offensive line returns four starters, the secondary will be much improved and the front seven on defense should be extremely good.
3. STANFORD
Buzz: Yes, coach Jim Harbaugh is gone and he will be missed. But QB Andrew Luck surprisingly turned down NFL millions - many NFL millions - and will be back. The running game should be strong, and while the defensive line will undergo a makeover, this is a confident team these days.
4. LSU
Buzz: Les Miles will remain as coach, and who can blame him for wanting to stay? The Tigers are loaded with talent. QB Jordan Jefferson is the key to any league - or national - title hopes; he simply has to become more consistent. The defense returns seven starters, and as long as the new tackles come through, that defense again will be a good one.
5. OHIO STATE
Buzz: The Buckeyes closed the season strong, with a solid win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. QB Terrelle Pryor's return is huge, and even though he and four other important players will miss the first five games, only one of those games looks that difficult.
6. AUBURN
Buzz: QB Cameron Newton and DT Nick Fairley are expected to go pro but they haven't announced yet, so the Tigers rank this highly because of those two alone. As it is, Auburn loses six starters on both sides of the ball, including four from a dominating offensive line.
7. OREGON
Buzz: QB Darron Thomas and TBs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner will return for a Ducks attack that should again be extremely potent. Both lines will undergo a makeover, but the secondary should be excellent and the offensive backfield productive.
8. FLORIDA STATE
Buzz: Florida State loses two four-year starters on the offensive line (All-America G Rodney Hudson and C Ryan McMahon) and QB Christian Ponder, but the Seminoles return just about all their other top players from a 10-win team. The arrival of a talent-laden recruiting class should make Florida State the class of the ACC next season.
9. TEXAS A&M
Buzz: For the first time in a while, the Aggies will be facing truly high expectations - but they have the talent to live up to expectations. All the key skill-position players will be back, the offensive line returns four starters and a young defense made big strides this season under first-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
10. BOISE STATE
Buzz: We don't know who's going to be catching the ball for Boise State now that Austin Pettis and Titus Young have departed, but Boise State's offense should be in good shape as long as Kellen Moore is throwing the ball and able to hand off to Doug Martin. If the Broncos survive their opener against Georgia and win a MWC showdown at TCU, an undefeated season is possible.
11. OKLAHOMA STATE
Buzz: The Cowboys were a huge surprise this season, but they won't sneak up on anybody next season. WR Justin Blackmon was the nation's best at his position this season and his decision to stay in school is surprising - and also a huge boon for the Cowboys. He and QB Brandon Weeden should be the most productive pass-catch combo in the nation next season. The defense still needs to improve, though.
12. MICHIGAN STATE
Buzz: Mark Dantonio's team surprised almost everybody by tying for the Big Ten title this season, and there's no reason not to expect another strong season in 2011. Almost all of the key skill-position players will be back, and if Dantonio and his staff can remake the linebacker corps, the Spartans will be in excellent shape.
13. WISCONSIN
Buzz: QB Scott Tolzien will be missed, as will T Gabe Carimi and G John Moffitt. But the Badgers always are going to have a physical (and beefy) offensive line, and RBs Montee Ball and James White will benefit. There could be some defensive holes, though.
14. SOUTH CAROLINA
Buzz: The Gamecocks won the SEC East this season, their first title of any kind since 1969. True, the division was as weak as it ever has been, but the Gamecocks are in good position to again win the East next season, thanks to RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery.
15. TCU
Buzz: Gary Patterson has developed TCU into the kind of program that now should open every season in the national rankings, but the Horned Frogs have more holes to fill than usual as they replace a star-studded senior class that included QB Andy Dalton and C Jake Kirkpatrick, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation's best center. TCU isn't facing former MWC members BYU and Utah, but newcomer Boise State likely will be the preseason league favorite.
16. VIRGINIA TECH
Buzz: Virginia Tech needs QB Logan Thomas and TB David Wilson to step up as the Hokies attempt to replace Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans in the backfield. But the Hokies do have an experienced offensive line and receiving corps, and the defense should be better next season.
17. NEBRASKA
Buzz: The defense gets a boost with T Jared Crick deciding to stay in school, similar to the decision Ndamukong Suh made before the 2009 season. If QB Taylor Martinez's sophomore season is anything like the first half of his redshirt freshman season, the Huskers' first season in the Big Ten will be a good one.
18. ARKANSAS
Buzz: Ryan Mallett is gone, as are both starting offensive tackles. But eight starters are back on defense, the receiving corps is a good one, RB Knile Davis is a star on the rise and new QB Tyler Wilson played well in relief of an injured Mallett against Auburn.
19. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Buzz: The Bulldogs won nine games under second-year coach Dan Mullen, including a destruction of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Mullen has instilled a new mindset, and the Bulldogs now expect good things to happen. The Bulldogs are losing their two best offensive linemen, their best defensive lineman and their top two linebackers, but seven starters on defense and eight on offense will return.
20. NOTRE DAME
Buzz: The Irish figure to build on the momentum they established by winning their final four games this season. Notre Dame returns LB Manti Te'o and most of the other key players from their vastly improved defense, and their offense returns star WR Michael Floyd and four starting linemen.
21. PENN STATE
Buzz: Finding a quarterback will be priority one during spring drills. But even with the departure of Evan Royster, there are some good tailbacks, the defensive line should be stout and the secondary has the potential be one of the best in the nation.
22. ARIZONA STATE
Buzz: The Sun Devils went 6-6 and lost to Wisconsin, Oregon State, USC and Stanford by a combined nine points. Arizona State loses just one starter on offense and none on defense. Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler will vie for the quarterback job in spring drills.
23. MISSOURI
Buzz: The Insight Bowl loss to Iowa stings, as do the early departures of QB Blaine Gabbert and DE Aldon Smith. Still, the Tigers will have a senior-laden offensive line and a veteran front seven. Following in the footsteps of Gabbert and Chase Daniel, sophomore James Franklin should make sure the quarterback job is in good hands.
24. WEST VIRGINIA
Buzz: The Mountaineers won nine games despite a nagging injury that bothered Noel Devine for his entire senior season. Even without Devine, new offensive coordinator (and future coach) Dana Holgorsen inherits quality skill-position players on offense led by QB Geno Smith. The defense, dominant at times this season, will need to rebuild a bit.
25. TEXAS
Buzz: The Longhorns suffered through a nightmarish 2010 season, and a staff shakeup was the end result. Bryan Harsin arrives from Boise State to coordinate the offense, and Manny Diaz moves from Mississippi State to run the defense. QB Garrett Gilbert was a turnover machine this season, but if he curbs those tendencies, the Longhorns should return to a bowl game. Texas can't be down for long, right?

(NOTE: Team capsules written by David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.)



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