Offensive: Is it possible to have a returning Heisman Trophy winner at running back, yet not miss a beat if the backup player is inserted? At Alabama, that’s the case. The Crimson Tide will undoubtedly revolve around junior Mark Ingram (1,658 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns), one of the nation’s premier ball-carriers. But when sophomore Trent Richardson (751 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) is inserted into the lineup, there’s no drop-off. The offense is orchestrated by senior quarterback Greg McElroy, who hasn’t lost as a starter since the eighth grade. He rarely makes a big mistake. And he has the luxury of his top three receivers, led by junior Julio Jones, returning to the lineup. The line has three returning starters, including sophomore guard Barrett Jones, who has the look of an All-SEC performer.
Defensive: Nine starters are gone – either through graduation or moving to the NFL – but don’t be too concerned. Alabama has been stockpiling defensive talent and now it’s simply a matter of making a successful transition. Junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who has returned from a season-ending knee injury last September, has shifted to the middle. He will take over the play-calling and leadership role of Rolando McClain, one of the all-time Alabama greats. Junior strong safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions, anchors the secondary. It’s a new set of starters along the line, but junior defensive end Marcell Dareus made his presence known with a team-leading 6.5 sacks in a reserve role. On the interior, senior Luther Davis and junior Josh Chapman have enough experience to compensate for the formidable personnel losses.
Specialists: Cade Foster, one of the nation’s top recruits at place-kicker, is expected to take over for the departed Leigh Tiffin, who made 30 of 35 field-goal attempts last season. The bigger task is finding a return man to replace Arenas, one of the best in SEC history. Richardson and Jones, two of the offensive stalwarts, will be the best options.
Coaching: Nick Saban sits at the top of his profession. He has restored order in Alabama’s program, setting an unmistakable tone of dominance in the nation’s most competitive conference. The recruiting has been upgraded to a high level and Saban has a handle on managing the program’s massive expectations. For years, Alabama’s head coaches always were compared to Bear Bryant. Now everyone in the nation looks to what Saban has built in Tuscaloosa. It’s the gold standard.
Heisman Hopefuls: Could Ingram, the first Heisman winner in Alabama history, join former Ohio State great Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman winner? The odds probably say no, but Ingram again will put up big numbers for a high-profile team that could finish unbeaten.
Game of the year: Oct. 2 vs. Florida. The SEC’s mega-game in the regular season also could be a preview of the league’s championship game (Why not? Alabama-Florida have met in the past two SEC title games). The Crimson Tide crushed Florida 32-13 and earned their spot in the BCS Championship Game. The last meeting in Tuscaloosa, when Mike Shula was coach, saw Alabama prevail, 31-3.
Overview: Even though defensive personnel losses have raised a red flag, Alabama looks rough and ready to defend its SEC title and play for another national championship. The pressure will be taken away by an offense that has a ball-control, mistake-free personality. The schedule has a few potential potholes – including a non-conference home date against Penn State and an early season trip to Arkansas, part of a loaded SEC West slate – but Alabama is up to the task. Saban’s program is built to last.
2. Ohio State
Offensive: At the skill positions, the Buckeyes are well-stocked with weapons. They also possess the ultimate weapon – junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Long before he arrived on campus, Pryor’s play-making reputation was well-known throughout the Big Ten. He has shown flashes of that. Now he is seeking consistency. His size and speed are off the charts for a quarterback. His 779 rushing yards led the Buckeyes last season (not necessarily a good thing in Ohio State’s mindset). His accuracy must improve. That could be a simple fix because he’s surrounded by great talent. Senior Brandon Saine has the look of a classic Ohio State tailback. Pryor has big-play targets in junior DeVier Posey and senior Dane Sanzenbacher, plus the athletic ability of sophomore tight end Jake Stoneburner opens some intriguing possibilities. Four starters return on the offensive line, including senior guard Justin Boren, a mauler, but the player to watch is junior Mike Adams, the new left tackle, who has been limited by injuries.
Defensive: It should be business as usual for a unit that returns seven starters, including one of the nation’s most dominant performers, senior defensive end Cameron Hayward, who had 6.5 sacks last season. Senior defensive tackle Dexter Latimore returns for his third season as a starter. The team’s two leading tacklers, senior linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, are also back. The only minor concern is replacing the two safeties, but the Buckeyes are high on the potential of sophomore Orhian Johnson.
Specialists: Devin Barclay, the senior place-kicker, is a great story. He’s a 27-year-old former professional soccer player, but he has found a home with Ohio State. He was 7-for-10 on field-goal attempts, including an overtime game-winner to defeat Iowa and send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl. Inexperienced sophomore Ben Buchanan is the new punter. There will also be new faces in the return game, and Ohio State features a plethora of candidates.
Coaching: Jim Tressel (94-21), entering his 10th season with Ohio State, will earn his 100th victory with the school this fall. Do the math. That’s the hallmark of consistency and stability. Tressel is sometimes criticized for his conservative nature and inability to win BCS bowl games (three-game losing streak prior to defeating Oregon in last season’s Rose Bowl), but you can’t dispute his elevation of Ohio State into a consistent national power.
Heisman Hopefuls: Pryor is front and center in the Heisman race. He has name recognition. He’s coming off a stellar performance in a high-profile bowl game. He plays quarterback for a team expected to contend for the national championship. Yes, he has all the key ingredients. Now he must deliver.
Game of the year: Oct. 16 at Wisconsin. Already, it looks like one of the bigger Big Ten games in recent memory. Camp Randall Stadium is usually a difficult venue for the Buckeyes and this season will be no different. Wisconsin, in fact, is the only team to defeat Ohio State three times in the last decade (2001, 2003, 2004).
Overview: The numbers are stunning. Consider this: Prior to Tressel’s arrival, Ohio State was 3-12-1 against Michigan. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes are 8-1 against the Wolverines. Ohio State is seeking its sixth consecutive Big Ten championship. If Pryor plays to expectations and the right things break, the Buckeyes should be playing for a national title for the third time in the past five seasons. Things are good in Columbus.
Offensive: TCU’s football brand is synonymous with defense, but let’s not overlook the Horned Frogs’ offense. After all, in case you’ve forgotten, they averaged 38 points per game last season. Senior quarterback Andy Dalton, a fourth-year starter, deserves better than his well-worn reputation as a game-manager. Last season, he displayed big-play ability and had just eight interceptions. He will be working with some of the Mountain West Conference’s best receivers, including big-play junior Antoine Hicks, who scored 10 touchdowns, and senior Jeremy Kerley. Sophomore running back Matthew Tucker looks to build upon an excellent freshman season. Four starters return to the offensive line, including all-conference senior center Jake Kirkpatrick.
Defensive: Six starters return from a unit that led the nation in total defense (allowing just 239.7 yards per game). Unfortunately, none of them are named Jerry Hughes. The Horned Frogs will certainly miss Hughes, the pass-rushing terror who is off to the NFL, but there are nice returning bookends in senior Wayne Daniels and junior Baylon Broughton. TCU also will rely on two linebackers, junior Tank Carder and sophomore Tanner Brock, to cover the field and provide leadership. TCU employs a five-man secondary and three starters return, including senior All-American candidate Tejay Johnson at free safety. Junior cornerback Greg McCoy, the team’s fastest player, is a potential star.
Specialists: Kerley is among the nation’s top return men, averaging 14.4 yards on punts and 26.6 yards on kickoffs. The kicking game is in great shape with junior place-kicker Ross Evans and junior punter Anson Kelton, who dropped 19 punts inside the 20-yard line and really set up TCU’s defense.
Coaching: Gary Patterson is 85-28 in nine seasons at TCU. During that span, the Horned Frogs have defeated Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Stanford, Boise State and Clemson. Had Texas not rallied with a final-play field goal in the Big 12 Championship Game, the Horned Frogs very well could have been playing for a national title last season. Patterson has resisted the urge to chase a bigger job because he believes the biggest goals can be achieved at TCU. You know what? He’s right.
Heisman Hopefuls: It’s probably a long shot, but you must consider Dalton, the Mountain West offensive player of the year. If the Horned Frogs can run the table, and Dalton plays to his capabilities, he will be in the discussion.
Game of the year: Sept. 4 vs. Oregon State. The season-opener, held at cavernous Cowboys Stadium, will be a major event for TCU. It’s also an opportunity for the Horned Frogs to make a major splash against a respected opponent from the Pac-10. An eye-opening performance will establish TCU as a primary team to watch.
Overview: TCU has posted at least 11 victories in four of the past five seasons. There are 16 starters returning from a 12-1 team. The Horned Frogs can hardly be considered a secret any longer. It’s a front-loaded scenario – how will TCU deal with early season games against BCS conference opponents Oregon State and Baylor? – but it sets up nicely. Wouldn’t it be ironic to see TCU, once bypassed for admission into the Big 12, with the ability to contend for a national title out of the Mountain West? Once, that possibility seemed outrageous. Not any longer.
Offensive: Last season began with an ugly false start – quarterback Sam Bradford getting injured in the opening game – and it all unraveled quickly. But the Sooners never quit (losing four games by a total of 12 points) and finished with a kick. The performance by sophomore quarterback Landry Jones, who passed for a career-high 418 yards in the Sun Bowl victory against Stanford, made the offseason a lot more palatable. Bradford’s injury was unfortunate – although it didn’t affect his future as the NFL draft’s overall No. 1 pick – but it allowed for coming attactions by Jones. Now he seems entrenched, instead of being surrounded by question marks as Bradford’s replacement. Jones has reliable playmakers in senior running back DeMarco Murray (741 yards rushing, 41 receptions) and junior wide receiver Ryan Broyles (school-record 89 receptions, 15 touchdowns). The offensive line, plagued by injuries last season, remains the team’s X-factor.
Defensive: It will be difficult replacing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third pick in the NFL draft, but the Sooners are far from depleted along the defensive line. Senior defensive end Jeremy Beal (19.5 sacks in the past two seasons, including 11 last year) is ready to assert himself as a superstar. McCoy’s replacement, sophomore Jarmarkus McFarland, was an enormously touted high-school player. Junior linebacker Travis Lewis is trying to lead Oklahoma in tackles for a third consecutive season. The secondary is in transition with two new starters at cornerback.
Specialists: Broyles, one of the nation’s top punt-return men, ranked third nationally with a 15.87-yard average. He scored on an 87-yard return against Oklahoma State. The punting is in good shape with sophomore Tress Way, who was third nationally (45.7-yard average). Three place-kickers combined to make 18 of 28 field-goal attempts last season. Sophomore Patrick O’Hara figures to be the primary kicker.
Coaching: Bob Stoops is coming off perhaps the most disappointing season in his Oklahoma tenure, although he was heartened by a strong finish (beating Oklahoma State 27-0, then Stanford in the Sun Bowl). He would love an opportunity to get back into the big game and erase the growing reputation of failure in the BCS bowls (five-game losing streak). Stoops continues to attract the top players to Oklahoma, an absolute necessity in the arms race against Texas.
Heisman Hopefuls: No realistic hopes this season, although Jones is a name to watch for the future.
Game of the year: Oct. 2 vs. Texas (at Dallas). Didn’t Stoops used to own the Longhorns. The Sooners once had a five-game winning streak against Texas. No more. Now the Sooners have dropped four of the last five meetings against Texas, but this season’s game could represent a rite of passage in the Big 12 South.
Overview: Oklahoma managed only eight victories last season, but that was a deceptive figure, considering much of the season was played without Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, the big-play tight end. Sooner fans like to point out that Stoops’ first season (1999) finished 7-5 and the next one produced a national title. Another such turnaround isn’t out of the question, but Oklahoma must get better play from its offensive line. The schedule has some red-letter dates – most notably, Florida State, Cincinnati and the annual game against Texas. With a sweep, Oklahoma will effectively regain its swagger and re-enter the national picture as the Big 12 Conference favorite.
Offensive: It was the type of news that ordinarily would crush a top 10-level program. After pleading guilty to burglary charges in March, Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for this season, plunging the Ducks’ Pac-10 hopes into deep doubt. At least in the minds of some. Not the minds that are running Oregon’s program. The what-me-worry mindset can work fine when you have Oregon’s array of returning talent. Fifth-year senior Nate Costa, who won the starting job over Masoli in 2008 (only to get injured), is the first choice at quarterback, although sophomore Darron Thomas will get a long look. Either way, the offense figures to revolve around sophomore running back LaMichael James, who galloped for 1,546 rushing yards and six games in which he surpassed the 150-yard rushing mark. There are several experienced receiving options, including senior Jeff Maehl (53 catches). The offensive line, one of the nation’s most formidable units, returns all five starters.
Defensive: Oregon has eight returning starters on what looks to be the Pac-10’s fastest defense. There are linebackers galore, led by seniors Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. The linebacking unit was deep enough to allow junior Eddie Pleasant to shift to strong safety, enhancing an already strong secondary. Senior defensive end Kenny Rowe, who led the Pac-10 with 11.5 sacks last season, is the headliner on an ultra-experienced defensive line.
Specialists: Kenjon Barner (24.9-yard average on kickoff returns, including a 100-yard score) returns as a major weapon. Sophomore punter Jackson Rice averaged 40.5 yards. The Ducks are looking for a No. 1 place-kicker and sophomore Rob Beard, who handled kickoffs last season, is the logical solution.
Coaching: Chip Kelly was confronted with a major test in his first game, but he remained firm and suspended running back LeGarrette Blount for most of last season after the player brawled following the opening loss against Boise State. This offseason was no less turbulent – highlighted by Masoli’s suspension – but Kelly has shown the ability to assert his leadership and make the tough calls.
Heisman Hopefuls: James could make a run if Oregon captures the Pac-10.
Game of the year: Dec. 4 at Oregon State. It’s the 114th edition of the “Civil War.’’ Last season, it decided the Pac-10’s entrant into the Rose Bowl. Oregon-Oregon State is one of those chic rivalries, just being discovered by the nation at large. If the last two meetings are any indication (combined 2,035 yards and 173 points), it’s definitely must-see TV.
Overview: Before Masoli’s suspension, Oregon was the Pac-10’s prohibitive preseason favorite. After Masoli’s suspension, Oregon is simply the favorite. It speaks to the depth of the Ducks’ roster (and, truthfully, what’s going on over at USC after the NCAA came calling). The Pac-10 used to be USC’s playground. No longer. Now everyone out West is looking up at the Oregon Ducks, who continue to assert themselves as the league’s new dominant program.
Offensive: Junior quarterback Jacory Harris, who missed spring drills after underdoing thumb surgery, could potentially emerge as one of the nation’s top players at his position. He’s a cool customer and a playmaker who knows his biggest priority, cutting down on mistakes (17 interceptions last season). The availability of senior tailback Graig Cooper, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the Champs Sports Bowl, will be an evolving question. But there is depth in the backfield. There’s also mix-and-match possibilities at receiver, where senior Leonard Hankerson has star power. The Hurricanes need senior Orlando Franklin to make a smooth transition from guard to left tackle. Overall, the offensive line is massive with senior guard Joel Figueroa assuming the cornerstone role.
Defensive: This looks like a vintage Miami defense. There’s an NFL-ready edge pass-rusher in senior Allen Bailey, who leads an exceptionally deep defensive line. There are agile and aggressive linebackers in senior Colin McCarthy and junior Sean Spence. There’s blinding speed in the secondary, paced by junior cornerback Brandon Harris. Also watch for big-hitting sophomore free safety Ray Ray Armstrong, a future star who plays with the ferocity of a linebacker.
Specialists: Senior Matt Bosher might be the nation’s most valuable specialist. He was first-team All-ACC as a place-kicker and second-team all-conference as a punter. Thearon Collier showed flashes of excellence as a punt returner (13.2-yard average, two touchdowns).
Coaching: Randy Shannon enters his fourth season as the Hurricanes’ head coach. Miami still hasn’t approached national-championship caliber in his tenure, but the talent level has improved. The Hurricanes are positioned to make a jump. There’s also (finally) some stability as both Miami coordinators (Mark Whipple on offense, John Lovett on defense) are returning for the first time in five years.
Heisman Hopefuls: Harris received some early Heisman mention, particularly following his electrifying effort in a riveting season-opening road victory against Florida State. Expect the same treatment if Miami jumps to a successful start.
Game of the year: Oct. 2 at Clemson. It’s a chance for Miami to avenge last season’s 40-37 overtime loss against the Tigers, when the Hurricanes allowed a 10-play, 47-yard drive that led to a field goal with five seconds remaining in regulation. It’s also the third consecutive road game in the early season (also at Ohio State and Pittsburgh) and the ACC opener that precedes a home game against Florida State.
Overview: ACC members probably braced themselves when Miami, winner of five national championships, joined the league in 2004. How long before the Hurricanes would dominate the conference? Actually, Miami hasn’t won any titles in six seasons. It has never captured the Coastal Division or played in the league’s championship game. That has strong potential to change. Miami isn’t all the way back – not yet at least – but look for the Hurricanes to play in its first BCS bowl game since becoming an ACC member.
7. Boise State
Offensive: Boise State revolves around junior quarterback Kellen Moore, a left-hander who was second nationally in passing efficiency. In two seasons, he already has 64 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions (along with a 26-1 record). Moore is the first to say he doesn’t do it alone. There’s an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, including senior wide receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis (who combined for 29 touchdown receptions), plus an ultra versatile backfield. Senior Jeremy Avery rushed for 1,151 yards and six touchdowns, but also watch for Doug Martin, who had 15 rushing touchdowns, even though he began last season on defense. The offensive line has eight players with starting experience, although one area bears watching. Junior Nate Potter has moved from tackle to guard, leaving the left tackle spot for sophomore Faraji Wright, the least experienced player in the unit.
Defensive: Ten starters return, but the loss was a severe one (cornerback Kyle Wilson, a first-round pick in the NFL draft). The Broncos remain formidable in the secondary, though, with senior safety Jeron Johnson, the team’s two-time leading tackler, and senior cornerback Brandyn Thompson, the Fiesta Bowl MVP, firmly in place. The defensive line, one of the nation’s best, probably has four players with All-WAC potential. The headliner, senior defensive end Ryan Winterswyk, has 19 career sacks. There’s great depth at linebacker, and the Broncos expect senior Derrell Acrey to emerge as a star in the middle.
Specialists: Senior Kyle Brotzman returns as the place-kicker and punter, although he could stand improvement in both areas. Young is a solid return man. He scored twice on kickoff returns last season and probably will return punts as well.
Coaching: Chris Petersen is 49-4 in four seasons – with three unbeaten regular-season finishes. Um, not bad, coach. Petersen is constantly mentioned for openings at larger schools, but he is proving that the largest of goals can be achieved at Boise State. And with the Broncos shifting from the WAC to the Mountain West in 2011, that could become an even larger truth.
Heisman Hopefuls: It’s an extremely uphill battle for any non-BCS conference player to win the Heisman Trophy. If all the cards fall perfectly, Moore could beat the system.
Game of the year: Sept. 6 vs. Virginia Tech at Landover, Md. Boise State will never have a better opportunity to leap into the national consciousness. Coming off an unbeaten season, then toppling consistently powerful Virginia Tech (a long way from home, too) could be enough traction to get Boise State into the BCS Championship Game.
Overview: Remember that magical evening in early 2007, when warm-and-cuddly Boise State toppled Oklahoma in a monumental Fiesta Bowl. Trick play here. Trick play there. The Broncos were America’s darlings. Now they are a legitimate powerhouse, deserving of a shot at No. 1. The opener against Virginia Tech has all-or-nothing potential, so the dream could quickly unravel. But if the Broncos down the Hokies, then topple Oregon State on Sept. 25 … watch out!
Offensive: There’s uncertainty at quarterback because senior Zac Lee, who started 12 games last season, missed spring ball after undergoing surgery on his throwing arm. That gave a good look to the backups, especially sopohomore Cody Green, whose 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame makes him an intriguing weapon in the running game. The Cornhuskers have an array of fleet receivers, led by senior Niles Paul, who averaged 19.9 yards on his 40 receptions, and complemented by Mike McNeill, who has shifted from tight end to wideout. The running game features a nice one-two punch with senior Roy Helu (1,147 rushing yards) and sophomore Rex Burkhead. Four starters return to the offensive line.
Defensive: It’s life without defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who’s off to the NFL, but the Cornhuskers still have junior defensive tackle Jared Crick, a potential All-American who might make a Suh-like impact on the Nebraska defense. Sophomores Sean Fisher and Will Compton return to Nebraska’s two-linebacker alignment, which was used with great success in the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas. Senior Eric Hagg will play a hybrid linebacker/nickelback position. The secondary should sparkle with the return of senior Prince Amukaamara and junior Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, but there is uncertainty at both safety positions.
Specialists: Senior Alex Henery is one of the nation’s best specialists. He has made 50 of 57 career field-goal attempts, making him the most accurate place-kicker in Nebraska history. He averaged 41.4 yards per punt – and even more impressively, 30 of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. The return game is in excellent shape with Paul.
Coaching: Bo Pelini (20-8 entering his third season) has Nebraska on the right track. The Cornhuskers are playing the type of football that long defined the program’s strength – an emphasis on the run and stout defense – and should be an excellent fit in the Big Ten Conference. For now, though, Pelini would like to make an impact in the Big 12.
Heisman Hopefuls: Crick clearly is one of the nation’s best players at any position. He won’t win, of course, but maybe he’s capable of a Suh-like trip to New York.
Game of the year: Oct. 16. vs. Texas. Oh my. This one is big on so many levels. It’s a rematch of last season’s Big 12 Championship Game, when one second was put back on the clock, allowing Texas a final-play field goal to defeat Nebraska 13-12. It’s the potential for Nebraska’s parting shot against Big 12 kingpin Texas before the Cornhuskers bolt for the Big Ten. Nebraska hasn’t beaten Texas in the regular season since 1974. Yes, for the Cornhuskers, this one is huge.
Overview: It’s difficult to fathom just how long Nebraska has been largely irrelevant on the national stage. Forget about national championships. There hasn’t been a CONFERENCE championship since 1999. The Cornhuskers obviously are the class of the Big 12 North, but the biggest question is whether they can topple Oklahoma or Texas for the league title. For that to happen, Nebraska’s offense must answer the challenge.
Offensive: What was that guy’s name again? Oh yeah, Tebow. Tim Tebow. Florida football won’t be the same without him – on that point, everyone can agree – but the Gators will not fall off the college-football map. Junior quarterback John Brantley, who once orally committed to Texas only to follow his heart back to Florida, has waited a long time for his opportunity. By all accounts, Brantley has the big arm and quick-thinking persona to fill the large shoes very capably. As usual, Florida has weapons galore at the skill positions, although it’s still unknown whether a true go-to receiver exists on the roster. The best candidate is junior Deonte Thompson, who needs more consistency. Also watch for highly touted freshman Andre Debose, who missed all of last season due to injury. Junior Jeff Demps, who has run a 10.11 in the 100-meter dash, will be the primary ball-carrier, although junior Chris Rainey, now playing slot receiver, probably will emerge as a change-of-pace option.
Defensive: The Gators have one of the nation’s top secondaries, paced by junior cornerback Janoris Jenkins and senior safety Ahmad Black. There’s also an array of possibilities along the defensive line. Senior defensive end Justin Trattou is the most reliable pass-rusher, while senior defensive tackle Terron Sanders is expected to plug up the middle. The linebackers will undoubtedly miss the leadership of Brandon Spikes, but senior Brandon Hicks should assume a more prominent role.
Specialists: Mixed results here. Junior place-kicker Caleb Sturgis needs more consistency. Senior punter Chas Henry is reliable with a 42.1-yard career average. The return game took a hit with the loss of Brandon James, but there are an abundance of big-play candidates to replace him. Meyer, a big proponent of special-teams play, has overseen 28 blocked kicks in his five-season tenure.
Coaching: Meyer was gunning for his third national championship, but those hopes unraveled in the SEC Championship Game loss against Alabama. Then much of Meyer’s life began to unravel. Meyer cited health concerns when he resigned just before the Sugar Bowl, then he “un-resigned’’ one day later, saying he simply needed some time off. Meyer has built a magnificent program at Florida, but his progress bears watching, especially if the going gets tough.
Heisman Hopefuls: Brantley already is on the B-list, just because he plays pitch-and-catch with the Gators. It’s a long leap to project Brantley as a primary candidate, but if he puts up big numbers, exposure won’t be a problem.
Game of the year: Oct. 2 at Alabama. There’s plenty of incentive here. Meyer endured the most lopsided loss of his Florida tenure in 2005 – and it was also his first defeat as Gators’ coach – in a 31-3 drubbing during the team’s last trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Then there’s the revenge factor from last season, when Alabama slammed Florida 32-13 in the SEC Championship Game.
Overview: Because of last season’s unbelievably massive expectations, Florida’s 13-1 finish was considered a disappointment. Now the scenario has flipped. Tebow is off to the NFL. Some are questioning Meyer’s long-term commitment to coaching. The Gators are not favored to capture the SEC title. Meyer loves being an underdog again. Gator players will enjoy that role, too. Expect Florida to be formidable competition for Alabama.
Offensive: The Badgers, all about ball control and time of possession, led the Big Ten in total offense (416.9-yard average) and scoring (31.8). The offensive line might be one of the most formidable in recent Wisconsin history – and that’s saying something for a program that routinely cranks out NFL-ready blockers. It’s more good news for junior running back John Clay, an earth-mover who led the league with 1,517 rushing yards. Senior quarterback Scott Tolzien wound up with decent numbers overall, but didn’t produce much in the late season, putting more pressure on the running game. Tolzien has a decent flock of returning receivers, including junior Nick Toon, son of Al Toon, a former NFL star and one of the all-time great Wisconsin players.
Defensive: Wisconsin was the Big Ten’s best team against the run (and fifth nationally) last season, but there are three new starters on the defensive line. The Badgers are hoping to build around junior defensive end J.J. Watt, who must play to his all-conference potential. Quality players return at linebacker, including sophomore Chris Borland, last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Big-hitting senior safety Jay Valai is the secondary’s star.
Specialists: The Badgers are set with the return of junior Philip Welch (17 of 24 on field-goal attempts) at place-kicker and junior Brad Nortman (41.9-yard average) at punter. David Gilreath was consistent on kickoff returns (23.7-yard average) and returned a punt for a touchdown. Kickoff coverage set off some alarm bells, finishing 119th nationally last season.
Coaching: Bret Bielema turned things around in his fourth year, just when the program seemed to be sliding into mediocrity. He’s a believer in the mindset of running game and defense, which plays well in Wisconsin.
Heisman Hopefuls: Clay enters the season as one of the nation’s prime candidates. He has the potential for a 2,000-yard rushing season.
Game of the year: Oct. 16 vs. Ohio State. The Badgers could very well be 6-0 heading into their showdown game against the Buckeyes. If Wisconsin’s program is truly prepared to take the next step, it must occur here. Wisconsin has dropped three straight games to Ohio State.
Overview: Wisconsin has nice momentum following last season’s 10-3 finish, which was capped by a victory against Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. There has been plenty of talk about the Badgers being poised to capture the program’s first Big Ten Conference title since 1999. But now it’s about action. Wisconsin hasn’t been able to win its big conference games – and it has also stumbled occasionally against lesser foes. Those trends must change if the Badgers are to reach their potential.
Offensive: The Colt McCoy era ended with an NCAA record 45 victories. What’s next? We got a preview in the BCS Championship Game when McCoy was injured and Garrett Gilbert was forced into a pressurized situation. Gilbert, a sophomore, got better as the game progressed and coaches feel he will develop into an excellent leader. He will have lots of help. The Longhorns have four returning receivers with at least 30 catches, including junior Malcolm Williams and senior James Kirkendoll. Sophomore running back Tre’ Newton, last season’s leading rusher, returns to a backfield with lots of possibilities. It might work best by committee. Two starters return to the offensive line, but the three departures combined for 111 career starts, so it’s definitely a new look.
Defensive: The Longhorns have lost plenty of muscle up front the last two seasons, but senior defensive end Sam Acho, who had 10 sacks last year, is more than capable of becoming an All-American. Likewise, junior linebacker Keenan Robinson will be among the Big 12’s best defensive players. The secondary features excellent lockdown cornerbacks in seniors Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown.
Specialists: Junior Justin Tucker, who handled kickoffs and punting last season, is the new place-kicker and he has a difficult act to follow (the Longhorns were 24 of 27 on field-goal attempts last season). Senior John Gold becomes the new punter. The Longhorns had six special-teams touchdowns last season, including three on kickoff returns.
Coaching: Mack Brown is 128-27 in his 13th season and just missed winning his second national championship. The Longhorns are one of the most solid programs in America right now – and who can see that changing in the foreseeable future?
Heisman Hopefuls: The Longhorns are in transition with players at the skill positions. Someone might emerge, but a Texas/Heisman campaign doesn’t seem likely right now.
Game of the year: Oct. 2 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas). As usual, it’s the biggest game in the Big 12 South, a potential springboard toward a BCS bowl game and maybe even a shot at the national title. Texas has won four of the last five games in the series.
Overview: It seems natural to expect the Longhorns to take a small step backward this season, perhaps retooling for a future run at the national title. Ah, but that’s not how they view things in Texas. If Gilbert is up to the task – and other young players mature quickly – the Longhorns could be in the thick of things. More likely, the Longhorns will be a tough out in the Big 12 and a good bet to again reach a BCS bowl game.
12. Virginia Tech
Offensive: The image of Virginia Tech, even in the Michael Vick era, was a program that emphasized defense, special teams and timely offensive play. You might not recognize these Hokies. There is the 1-2 backfield punch of sophomore Ryan Williams (ACC freshman record 1,655 rushing yards) and junior Darren Evans (who sat out last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament after rushing for 1,265 yards in 2008). There is ever-improving senior quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who ranked 13th nationally in passing efficiency. There’s also depth at receiver, led by junior Jarrett Boykin, who had four 100-yard games last season, and three returning starters on the offensive line.
Defensive: Virginia Tech’s defense, largely lacking in experience, has plenty to prove. There isn’t a dominant pass-rusher – Jason Worilds skipped his senior season and entered the NFL Draft – and senior defensive tackle John Graves is the only returning starter up front. A quadriceps injury to junior linebacker Barquell Rivers, who might not be available in the early season, further clouds the linebacker corps. Fifth-year senior cornerback Rashad Carmichael and senior safety Davon Morgan, who started last season’s final four games, are cornerstones of the secondary.
Specialists: The Hokies, traditionally known for standout special-teams performances, are facing a challenge. They must replace a first-team All-ACC place-kicker (Matt Waldron) and punter (Brent Bowden). The likely kicker is senior Chris Hazley, while senior Brian Saunders looks to take over at punter. If Virginia Tech’s history is any indication, they will do just fine.
Coaching: Stability, thy name is Frank Beamer. Every wannabe high-profile program that loses patience with its coach should closely examine Virginia Tech. The Hokies stuck with Beamer through early hard times and he has developed into one of the nation’s best leaders. And the stability of his staff, particularly longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, has contributed mightily to that status.
Heisman Hopefuls: Williams should be a prime candidate, but his campaign could be derailed by sharing carries with Evans – and possibly the presence of Taylor, as well.
Game of the year: Nov. 20 at Miami. Undoubtedly, the Hurricanes will be looking to avenge last season’s defeat against Virginia Tech. But beware of the Hokies’ finishing kick. Virginia Tech has won 10 of its last 11 away games in November.
Overview: Virginia Tech should have an explosive offense, but it might take the defense a bit longer to reach championship form. The November schedule is murder with consecutive games against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami – cream of the crop in the ACC’s Coastal Division. The Hokies may not be ACC championship material, but they can never be counted out.
Offensive: Senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi has so-so statistics – he had 15 interceptions last season against 17 touchdown passes and a pedestrian 56.2 completion percentage – but he is 18-4 as a starter. The Hawkeyes will need to utilize his resourcefulness. Other than senior wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who needs 30 catches and 400 yards to become Iowa’s all-time leader in both categories, there isn’t an A-list skill player. Sophomore Adam Robinson (834 yards, five touchdowns) should again serve as the top ball-carrier. The offensive line, long an Iowa strength, is in transition with just two starters returning, but the Hawkeyes always seem to develop an effective unit.
Defensive: Iowa has one of the nation’s top defensive lines. The standout is senior defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss last season. But there’s also muscle inside with senior tackles Karl Klug and Christian Ballard, plus an underrated performer in junior end Broderick Binns. There’s a three-year starter in senior linebacker Jeremiha Hunter. It gets better in the secondary – senior free safety Brett Greenwood is a fourth-year starter, while junior strong safety Tyler Sash enters his third season as a starter.
Specialists: The Hawkeyes have the luxury of two standout place-kickers – senior Daniel Murray, who converted 19 of 26 field-goal attempts last season, and sophomore Trent Mossbrucker, who made 13 of 15 in 2008 before sitting out with a redshirt season. The punting is solid with senior Ryan Donahue (40.9-yard average, 12 punts of 50-plus-yards). The coverage and return units are top-notch.
Coaching: Kirk Ferentz has made an art form out of transforming Iowa’s program to middle-of-the-pack on paper to conference championship contender (almost annually). Every other year, it seems, Ferentz is rumored as an NFL coaching candidate, but he has clearly built something to last at Iowa.
Heisman Hopefuls: The Hawkeyes don’t have any realistic candidates this season.
Game of the year: Nov. 20 vs. Ohio State. This one could be for the Big Ten Conference title. The Hawkeyes still have a bitter taste from last season’s 27-24 loss against Ohio State at Columbus.
Overview: Defense and special teams alone are strong enough to make Iowa an upper-tier team in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes will give the frontrunners a strong battle, but it looks like Iowa doesn’t have quite enough muscle for a repeat trip to a BCS bowl game.
Offensive: Dion Lewis (1,799 yards, 17 touchdowns) was one of the best freshman running backs in recent history. Now he will be one of the nation’s best. Lewis is clearly the man to watch in Pittsburgh’s offense. It won’t be a one-man show. Sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri has just 17 career pass attempts, but he will benefit from a pair of tall, physical receivers. Junior Jonathan Baldwin is a marvelous talent – 6-foot-5 with a 42-inch vertical jump, along with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash. The other starter, sophomore Mike Shanahan, also is 6-5. There are three new starters on the offensive line, but no question marks at tackle, where senior Jason Pinkston and junior Lucas Nix comprise the Big East’s best bookend tandem.
Defensive: Pittsburgh has developed enviable depth on the defensive line, giving it the ability to mix and match players, while staying strong throughout the season. The Panthers will again be formidable up front, led by senior Greg Romeus, an NFL-ready prospect who had eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for a loss last season, and senior Jabaal Sheard. Two starting linebackers return, but new middle linebacker Dan Mason, a sophomore, has the best potential of all. The Panthers return both safeties, sophomore Jarred Holley and senior Dom DeCicco.
Specialists: Senior Dan Hutchins did nice work last season (making 23 of 29 field-goal attempts as a place-kicker and averaging 41.1 yards as a punter). Sophomore Cameron Saddler averaged 25.3 yards on kickoff returns.
Coaching: For Dave Wannstedt, the building process has been methodical and often frustrating. But he appears to have Pittsburgh back on the right track. After a few seasons of standout recruiting, the talent level of the program is the highest in at least a decade.
Heisman Hopefuls: Lewis might be Pittsburgh’s most dynamic back since Tony Dorsett. He’s certainly on this season’s short list and could be positioning himself nicely for 2011.
Game of the year: Oct. 9 at Notre Dame. It’s always a big moment to win at Notre Dame. But this season’s game carries a strange twinge of vengeance. After all, when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was at Cincinnati last season, the Bearcats staged an impossible rally to defeat Pittsburgh 45-44 and deny the Panthers a BCS bowl bid.
Overview: Pittsburgh is due to break the door down in the Big East Conference – after twice losing late-season games against Cincinnati that cost the Panthers their shot. The Panthers can ride Lewis and a rugged defense to their first BCS bid since the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
15. North Carolina
Offensive: Senior quarterback T.J. Yates had 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions last season and he’s being pushed by redshirt freshman Bryn Renner. The quarterback, whoever he is, will be working with an experience corps of receivers, paced by senior Greg Little (62 catches, 724 yards). The Tar Heels need a more consistent running back and senior Shaun Draughn must lead the way. Four starters return to the offensive line.
Defensive: North Carolina has one of the nation’s most formidable and athletic defensive units. Junior defensive end Robert Quinn is a terror – with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss last season – while senior defensive tackle Marvin Austin is one of the ACC’s top space-eaters. The linebacking trio – senior Quan Sturdivant, sophomore Kevin Reddick and senior Bruce Carter – boasts sideline-to-sideline intensity. The secondary returns four starters, led by senior free safety Deunta Williams (12 career interceptions) and senior cornerback Kendric Burney, who are each entering their fourth season as starters.
Specialists: The Tar Heels are very capable. Junior place-kicker Casey Barth connected on 21 of 25 field-goal attempts last season. Senior punter Grant Shallock averaged 40.3 yards. Searcy was fifth nationally in punt-return yardage (14.6).
Coaching: Butch Davis enters his fourth season largely treading water (20-18) in his first three seasons at North Carolina. But the Tar Heels have clearly become a bigger factor nationally, especially in the recruiting game, so they could be poised to pursue an ACC championship.
Heisman Hopefuls: There are no realistic candidates this season for the Tar Heels.
Game of the year: Sept. 4 vs. LSU (Atlanta). It has been difficult for an ACC team to gain a non-conference foothold. Here’s a big opportunity. If the Tar Heels can upend one of the SEC’s best teams, it could set the stage for North Carolina to leap into a new level of football productivity.
Overview: North Carolina definitely is not playing a cupcake schedule (LSU, plus non-conference games against Rutgers and East Carolina), so the challenge is formidable. But the Tar Heels have consistently upgraded their talent level. Davis’ efforts have been somewhat thwarted by injuries so far. If things break right, North Carolina should be a contender in the ACC Coastal Division.
Offensive: Arkansas has one of the nation’s most dynamic offensive units. Even if the Razorbacks must outscore opponents on a weekly basis, they have the firepower to do that consistently. Junior quarterback Ryan Mallett, potentially the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, had eye-popping numbers, including 30 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions, in his first season of play since his transfer from Michigan. His entire fleet of receivers – junior wideouts Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright, plus senior tight end D.J. Williams – has returned. There isn’t a true go-to running back, but there is depth and versatility at the position. Three starters, led by 6-foot-4, 315-pound senior left tackle DeMarcus Love, return to the offensive line.
Defensive: The pass defense was a disaster (251.5 yards, last in the SEC), so changes have been made. Cornerback Rudell Crim, a senior, has shifted to safety. Sophomore Darius Winston, one of the best recruits in recent Arkansas history, gets the start at cornerback. Combined with junior strong safety Tramain Thomas, defensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl, the Razorbacks are optimistic that the results will be a bit more positive. At linebacker, junior Jerry Franklin could become the first Arkansas player since 1960 to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons. The best part of Arkansas’ defense is up front, where junior defensive end Jake Bequette and sophomore defensive end Tenarius Wright provide a more-than-adequate pass rush.
Specialists: Senior place-kicker Alex Tejada, who had critical missed field-goal attempts against Florida and LSU last season, is anything but secure. If his consistency doesn’t improve, the Razorbacks may look elsewhere. The same can be said for senior punter Dylan Breeding, who averaged just 38.7 yards. Junior Dennis Johnson, the backup running back, is one of the nation’s top kickoff return men. Last season, he averaged 25.8 yards and scored a touchdown.
Coaching: Bobby Petrino’s job-hopping reputation – remember the failed coup at Auburn? Remember him leaving an NFL team in the lurch? – has done nothing to improve his popularity. But say this for Petrino: The man can coach. He has remade Arkansas’ roster and the Razorbacks are once again a factor in the SEC.
Heisman Hopefuls: Mallett probably is the most talented passer ever coached by Petrino – with all due respect to former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm – and a prime candidate for a trip to New York in December.
Game of the year: Sept. 25 vs. Alabama. It’s a tall order, but a magnificent opportunity in the SEC West. Arkansas is 0-3 against the Crimson Tide since Nick Saban took over as Alabama coach.
Overview: The Razorbacks are ready to make a quantum leap in the SEC. You knew it was coming with Petrino’s organizational and recruiting ability. Arkansas is in the nation’s most competitive league, but it is an upset away from making its presence know. Don’t sleep on the Razorbacks.
17. Florida State
Offensive: The Seminoles are loaded. Senior quarterback Christian Ponder, a three-year starter who is a major factor in the running back, had a 68-percent completion mark until suffering a separated shoulder nine games into the season. But now he’s back and he will be protected by five returning starters on the offensive line, including senior guard Rodney Hudson, a prime NFL prospect. Junior running back Jermaine Thomas (832 yards, nine touchdowns) looks to be the backfield favorite, and he could become the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1999. The receivers, including juniors Bert Reed (60 receptions) and Jarmon Fortson (45) are solid.
Defensive: Long-time coordinator Mickey Andrews resigned, and Mark Stoops has taken his place. Once, strong defensive play was a given with the Seminoles, but no longer (108th in total defense last season). Job security is at an all-time low, but Stoops plans to build around sophomore defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, junior linebacker Nigel Bradham and sophomore cornerback Greg Reid.
Specialists: Sophomore place-kicker Dustin Hopkins looks like a keeper. He made 11 of 13 field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder in the Gator Bowl victory against West Virginia. Junior Shawn Powell is an excellent directional punter. Meanwhile, the Seminoles have a standout return man in Reid, who led the nation in punt returns (18.4-yard average).
Coaching: Jimbo Fisher is replacing a legend, following the 30-year reign of Bobby Bowden, who accounted for unprecedented success in Tallahassee. Fisher was the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting for three seasons. It’s his show now, but there are many questions. What kind of head coach will he become? The many theories will finally give way to reality.
Heisman Hopefuls: Florida State is aggressively promoting Ponder for the award. Sure enough, Ponder could go down as one of the best quarterbacks in the school’s history, joining the likes of Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, the Seminoles’ only two Heisman winners.
Game of the year: Oct. 9 at Miami. This has been a whacky series of late. The visiting team has won four straight games. The last nine meetings have been decided by eight points or less. It’s essential for the Seminoles to start well in ACC play and this is clearly the red-letter date of the early conference season.
Overview: With improved defensive play, the Seminoles should win the ACC Atlantic Division and have a shot at a BCS bowl bid. For nearly a decade, the Seminoles have labored under a good-but-not-great backdrop, unfamiliar territory for a fan base accustomed to challenging for national championships. Fisher already has made some recruiting headway in a state where that is vicious competition. Florida State has the potential to return as a powerhouse, but it might require baby steps. Being in the hunt for an ACC title will be the first step.
Offensive: OK, first things first. It’s impossible to view the USC Trojans in the same light as recent seasons. The NCAA has imposed its sanctions, which include a two-season bowl ban, so the program has taken a severe hit as it begins a new era under Lane Kiffin. The pressure is on sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley to deliver after the celebrated buildup to his true freshman season. Senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson could be poised for a breakout season. Senior Allen Bradford, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry, returns as the primary back, but there’s already a buzz about freshman Dillon Baxter, perhaps the next great USC tailback. The offensive line, headed by senior center Kris O’Dowd and senior guard Butch Lewis, should have its usual muscle. It’s still smarting, though, from the loss of super recruit Seantrel Henderson, the prize of USC’s signing class, who was released from his commitment following NCAA sanctions. Henderson has signed with Miami.
Defensive: With new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the head coach’s father, in place, there is optimism surrounding USC’s defensive outlook. The Trojans’ strength is at linebacker, where seniors Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan are the leaders. The pass rush has possibilities, particularly with junior defensive end Armond Armstead and junior defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The secondary, though, must be completely rebuilt and there may be an abundance of young players in critical positions with the exception of senior cornerback Shareece Wright.
Specialists: Assistant coach John Baxter has been a special-teams wizard, helping Fresno State to a national-high 49 blocked kicks from 2002-09. The return game is solid and senior punter Jake Harfman returns. Expect senior Joe Houston and Harfman to share the place-kicking duties.
Coaching: Well, this should be interesting. Pete Carroll, after seven Pac-10 titles, seven BCS bowl victories and seven top-four finishes in nine season, bolted for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, a few months before the NCAA dropped its hammer. Kiffin, 34, the former USC assistant, promptly bolted Tennessee after one season and returned to Los Angeles. Kiffin already has proven his ability to recruit and stir the pot. Can he be an effective head coach? That’s still the question, and things won’t get any easier with NCAA sanctions in place.
Heisman Hopefuls: Barkley is a name to bear watching in the Heisman race – this season and next – regardless of USC’s presence in the NCAA jailhouse.
Game of the year: Oct. 30 vs. Oregon. It was last season’s 47-20 road loss against the Ducks when the wheels really came off for the Trojans. The aura of invincibility was shattered. How much would it be worth to get revenge in Los Angeles? Priceless.
Overview: It might be difficult for USC to sustain a run like it had under Carroll. And the next two seasons, banned from bowl appearances, will be difficult. But USC is still USC. The brand is still strong and the recruiting territory is still fertile. The days of Pac-10 dominance are over for now – and maybe for good – but it would foolish to write off the Trojans as a sudden non-factor in the conference. Despite all the uncertainty, there’s too much talent on board.
19. West Virginia
Offensive: Nine starters return to the offense, but all eyes are on the quarterback position, where sophomore Geno Smith is the favorite. But it’s not a certainty. Smith broke a bone in his foot and missed spring practice. That opened the door for sophomore Coley White, brother of former West Virginia quarterback Pat White, to get some experience. Elsewhere, familiar faces dot the West Virginia lineup. Senior running back Noel Devine, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound blur, will try to build upon his 1,465 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns from last season. Senior wide receiver Jock Sanders, with 72 receptions last season, is the top pass-catcher. Four starters return to the offensive line.
Defensive: West Virginia employs a 3-3-5 alignment and its front three, led by junior edge pass-rusher Julian Miller, should be outstanding. Senior linebackers Pat Lazear and J.T. Thomas will again challenge for the team leadership in tackles. The Mountaineers have intriguing players in the secondary, primarily excellent cover corner Brandon Hogan, a senior, and 6-foot-5, 221-pound junior free safety Robert Sands, who had five interceptions.
Specialists: Sophomore place-kicker Tyler Bitancurt hit 13 of his 15 field-goal attempts – including one that beat Pittsburgh – so West Virginia is secure there. It must replace the 44.4-yard punting average of Scott Kozlowski, and Alabama transfer Corey Smith is the logical candidate. There’s an abundance of speedy possibilities in the return game.
Coaching: Bill Stewart has kept the ship sailing following the trauma of Rich Rodriguez’s departure to Michigan after the 2007 season. Stewart is a back-slapping players coach who knows how to deflect pressure off his team and keep everyone focused on the goal.
Heisman Hopefuls: Devine is on the national short list. He could be the nation’s most spectacular running back, capable of driving defenders crazy with his array of start-and-stop moves.
Game of the year: Nov. 26 at Pittsburgh. The “Backyard Brawl’’ has developed into a rivalry that surpasses regional appeal. This meeting could decide the Big East Conference championship.
Overview: Nineteen starters return for West Virginia, giving the Mountaineers legitimate hope for reaching a BCS bowl. With the Big East race seemingly wide open, West Virginia can’t afford to squander its opportunity.
Offensive: The Tigers have acquired a major weapon in 6-foot-6, 247-pound junior quarterback Cameron Newton, the former Florida Gator who was part of last season’s junior-college national championship team. Newton looks like a difference-maker, possessing exceptional arm strength and running ability. He’s just the ingredient needed for an Auburn offense that can use an extra boost. Senior Mario Fannin and sophomore Onterio McCalebb are a good backfield tandem. There is a big-play receiver in junior Darvin Adams. Meanwhile, the offensive line is rugged and experienced. The best of the four returning starters are senior left tackle Lee Ziemba and senior center Ryan Pugh.
Defensive: Last season, there was uncertainty at linebacker. Now there is security. Senior Craig Stevens, one of the SEC’s best, leads a group that includes converted safety Daren Bates, and senior Josh Bynes, the team’s top tackler. There are top-flight cornerbacks in senior Demond Washington and junior Neiko Thorpe. The defensive line has an abundance of possibilities, but two seniors, defensive end Antoine Carter and defensive tackle Mike Blanc, are the anchors.
Specialists: Senior place-kicker Wes Byrum, one of the nation’s best, converted on 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts last season. Senior Ryan Shoemaker is expected to be the new punter. In the return game, senior Demond Washington averaged an eye-popping 31.1 yards on kickoffs.
Coaching: One year ago, there was much skepticism surrounding Gene Chizik, who was hired despite a lackluster two-season stint at Iowa State. But Chizik quickly put his imprint on the program, providing momentum through recruiting, developing a no-nonsense team approach and capping the season off with an electrifying Outback Bowl victory against Northwestern.
Heisman Hopefuls: Auburn isn’t expected to feature any Heisman candidates this season, although Newton could be a name for 2011.
Game of the year: Nov. 26 at Alabama. Need you ask? The Iron Bowl is always the season’s biggest date for Auburn. There’s incentive from last season, when Auburn bolted to a two-touchdown lead, only to fall to Alabama, the eventual national champion, 26-21.
Overview: Newton is the X-factor, but Auburn should show another season of improvement. The Tigers still aren’t ready to make a run at Alabama in the SEC West, but they are headed in the right direction.
Offensive: Sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, thrown into the fray last season, performed remarkably well for a freshman, even earning MVP honors at the Poinsettia Bowl with a 336-yard passing effort. Wynn has to be encouraged by the backfield depth. Senior Eddie Wide returns after a 1,069-yard, 12-touchdown season. Meanwhile, Matt Asiata, Utah’s leading rusher in the 2008 season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all but four games last season. The top pass-catching target will be senior Jerome Brooks, who had 56 receptions and seven touchdowns in a complimentary role. Four starters return to the offensive line, including All-American candidate Caleb Schlauderaff at left tackle.
Defensive: Four Utah defensive players were taken in the NFL Draft, so there’s bound to be some retooling. The remaining strength lies up the middle with sophomore defensive tackle Dave Kruger and junior nose tackle Sealver Siliga. There is concern at linebacker, where all three starters have departed and projected starter Nai Fotu suffered a season-ending injury in spring drills. Junior cornerback Brandon Burton is the secondary’s only returning starter, although senior Lamar Chapman, last season’s nickel back, will take over at the other corner.
Specialists: The Utes are in great shape. Senior place-kicker Joe Phillips, taking over for All-American Louie Sakoda last season, was superb. Phillips connected on 20 of his 22 field-goal attempts. Sophomore punter Sean Sellwood averaged 42.9 yards.
Coaching: Here’s a note for you. Kyle Whittingham is the first Utah coach in 100 years to have a winning record in each of his first five seasons. Not bad, after following Urban Meyer, who bolted for Florida after the 2004 season. Whittingham took what Meyer started, then raised the bar. And the winning will continue this season.
Heisman Hopefuls: Utah players will be sitting out this season’s Heisman festivities.
Game of the year: Nov. 13 at Notre Dame. One week earlier, Utah hosts TCU in a mega-game, probably for the Mountain West Conference championship. But we can’t overlook this trip to South Bend, just for the marquee value. Utah never has played Notre Dame and here is one of the biggest opportunities in school history to get some massive national exposure.
Overview: Utah’s program remains on solid ground, although it will play second fiddle to TCU in the Mountain West. The schedule is interesting – games with Pittsburgh, Iowa State and Notre Dame – so there’s an opportunity to raise the program’s profile. Don’t expect a BCS bowl this season, but Utah again will be performing at an elite level.
22. Penn State
Offensive: There are weapons at nearly every position, but much uncertainty at quarterback. With the departure of All-Big Ten selection Darryl Clark, the job seemingly falls to the backup, sophomore Kevin Newsome, the only quarterback on the roster who has completed a pass in a game. Newsome isn’t necessarily a sure thing, though, so the depth chart bears watching. Elsewhere, Penn State is in great shape. Senior Evan Royster has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and he’s on pace to become the school’s all-time leading rusher. The receivers are excellent, a collection of tall, physical and quick players. The leaders are junior Derek Moye (6-foot-5, 198) and senior Graham Zug (6-2, 183). Three starters return on the offensive line, including senior guard/center Stefen Wisniewski, one of the nation’s best players.
Defensive: There will be three new starting linebackers at Linebacker U. Senior Bani Gbadyu has the most experience, logging three starts in 2008 and five more last season, but the other candidates are largely untested. Up front, Penn State will miss Jared Odrick, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, but there are potential stars in junior defensive end Jack Crawford and senior defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu. The secondary, by far, is Penn State’s defensive strength. Three starters return, including junior cornerback D’Anton Lynn, who has all-conference potential.
Specialists: Senior place-kicker Collin Wagner was 15 of 22 on field-goal attempts, but there are serious doubts about his range (1 of 5 from 40 yards or longer). Sophomore Russell Nye is the new punter. The return game was subpar last season, so there’s nowhere to go but up.
Coaching: The enduring Joe Paterno (392-131-3) enters his 45th season as head coach, bearing down on his 400th career victory. One decade ago, there were cries that Paterno had outlasted his stay. It was time for a change. But, as usual, Paterno, 83, has outlasted his critics. The only thing missing is one more national championship.
Heisman Hopefuls: Royster is a name that will be mentioned if Penn State has a successful season.
Game of the year: Sept. 11 at Alabama. It has nothing to do with the Big Ten Conference race, but what an opportunity for the Nittany Lions. A road victory against the defending national champions would be enormous. It’s the first Penn State-Alabama meeting since 1990.
Overview: There are some nice building blocks in place, but uncertainty at quarterback keeps a question mark hovering over Penn State. The Nittany Lions probably don’t have enough muscle to win a Big Ten championship, but they should have a say in the league’s ultimate pecking order.
23. Notre Dame
Offensive: New coach Brian Kelly wants the Fighting Irish to work fast and play fast. It’s a necessity for Notre Dame’s spread offense. The progress of junior quarterback Dayne Crist, who torn the ACL in his right knee last fall, is especially important. Crist should have some decent targets in junior wideout Michael Floyd and junior tight end Kyle Rudolph. Senior Armando Allen, who had a team-leading 697 yards, has returned to the backfield, but expect a committee approach to be employed. The offensive line is in transition with senior left guard Chris Stewart providing stability.
Defensive: Last season’s numbers were grisly – Notre Dame’s defense allowed 397.8 yards per game, a school record. Bob Diaco, the new defensive coordinator, has installed a 3-4 alignment. The linebackers should be up for that task. Sophomore inside linebacker Manti Te’o is a potential star. The defensive linemen all have starting experience, and senior nose tackle Ian Williams looks like a nice anchor, but the unit has an overall lack of depth. There’s experience at cornerback with senior Darrin Walls and junior Robert Blanton, but there’s concern at the safety positions.
Specialists: The bright spot is sophomore place-kicker Nick Tausch, who converted on 14 of 17 field-goal attempts. Sophomore punter Ben Turk, who took over at last season’s midpoint, averaged a pedestrian 38.2 yards. The return and coverage units need an overhaul.
Coaching: In 2003, Kelly was head coach at Division II Grand Valley State. Now he is head coach at Notre Dame. That’s a coaching ascension you don’t see every day. But Kelly has earned this opportunity after bringing Cincinnati into football relevance. In time, Kelly will have Notre Dame’s offense clicking. Already, he has delivered a great sense of organization and urgency.
Heisman Hopefuls: Notre Dame can tighten up its budget lines for printing costs, glossy posters and other knick-knacks. There are no Heisman hopefuls to promote this time.
Game of the year: Nov. 27 at USC. The regression of Notre Dame’s program has been most evident in its rivalry series against USC. In the last eight seasons, the Fighting Irish have been severely outclassed. Success – or lack thereof – against USC will be a good barometer for measuring Notre Dame’s progress.
Overview: Don’t expect early miracles to occur for Kelly. Notre Dame is breaking in a new quarterback, while installing new systems on both sides of the ball. The schedule has its share of challenges, but expect Notre Dame to improve as the season progresses, prompting some optimism for 2011.
24. Georgia Tech
Offensive: The flexbone running game – what else? – should continue to dominate the headlines at Georgia Tech. No one has been able to figure it out, much less offer consistent containment, so look for the Yellow Jackets to again be among the nation’s top rushing teams. Senior quarterback Josh Nesbitt (1,037 yards rushing) remains the triggerman. Senior Anthony Allen, often brilliant with sparse carries, will likely become the primary runner, although junior Roddy Jones should have a prominent role. The offensive line features three new starters.
Defensive: The new defensive coordinator, former Virginia head coach Al Groh, has installed a 3-4 alignment. Groh has an abundance of linebackers, including seniors Anthony Egbuniwe and Anthony Barnes on the outside. Three starters return in the secondary, although junior Jerrard Tarrant has shifted from cornerback to safety. Depth is lacking on the defensive line.
Specialists: There’s an excellent punting game with junior Chandler Anderson (42.3 yards per punt, plus a 17th-place national finish in net punting). Senior place-kicker Scott Blair needs more consistency. Tarrant – with two touchdowns and a 13.0-yard average – is excellent on punt returns.
Coaching: Paul Johnson is 20-7 in two Georgia Tech seasons, including an ACC title. Not bad. And it will probably get even better. Johnson’s offensive system has the Yellow Jackets operating on firm ground.
Heisman Hopefuls: Georgia Tech’s backfield balance doesn’t lend itself toward establishing a big-time Heisman candidate.
Game of the year: Nov. 13 vs. Miami. This figures to be a big one in the ACC Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets were momentarily deflated by an early season 33-17 loss at Miami.
Overview: The Yellow Jackets had four players leave early for the NFL Draft, including running back Jonathan Dwyer and wide receiver Derrick Morgan. It’s difficult for any program to weather that kind of stormy impact on a roster. But there is a senior quarterback, an offense that has created nightmares for opponents and a defense that will improve greatly. It might not be another championship season at Georgia Tech, although nobody will look forward to playing the Yellow Jackets.
Offensive: The skill-position lineup has thinned a bit, but LSU returns junior Jordan Jefferson at quarterback. In his second full season as the starter, Jefferson must step up and emerge as one of the SEC’s best players at his position. He will need assistance from the running game, although there isn’t a clear go-to back. Expect senior wide receiver Terrence Tolliver (53 receptions) to be Jefferson’s top target. Also watch for sophomore Russell Shepard, a converted quarterback who could settle into a do-everything role. Two starters return to the offensive line.
Defensive: Only four starters return to this unit, entering its second season under coordinator John Chavis. The secondary figures to be a major strength. Junior cornerback Patrick Peterson, an All-America candidate, already has a lockdown reputation. Senior linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, the team’s leading tackler (110), will play a prominent role while the others weather a learning curve. Up front, senior defensive tackle Lazarius Levingston is a major building block – and LSU will need to build around him until the other linemen prove their mettle.
Specialists: Senior place-kicker Josh Jasper is one of the nation’s best (17 of 20 on field-goal attempts). Senior punter Derek Helton had a 40-yard average, although Jasper is often employed as the “pooch punter.’’ The return game will miss lightning-quick Trindon Holliday.
Coaching: Les Miles has a national championship on his resume (from the 2007 season), but the last two seasons have been generally unfulfilling.
Heisman Hopefuls: No one at LSU will have the necessary preseason buildup to sustain a serious campaign for the Heisman.
Game of the year: Nov. 6 vs. Alabama. The defending national champions are coming to Tiger Stadium and the opportunity is massive. LSU has won seven of the last 10 meetings against Alabama, although the Crimson Tide has captured two straight games.
Overview: It is essential for LSU to perform better in November, when the SEC West championship will likely be on the line. Overall, the Tigers have been 17-9 in the last two seasons. Not bad. But not enough to satisfy Tiger fans. LSU desperately needs a bounce-back season, although it’s never a bargain to operate in the SEC West. LSU might not feature much the look of a championship, the Tigers wll overcome their youth with sideline-to-sideline aggression. LSU’s defense is a year away, but it gives anyone the opportunity to make headlines and visit friends.
(*indicates bowl team)
San Diego State
New Mexico State
San Jose State