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A Much-Too-Early 2011 Top 25

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It’s pretty much agreed upon here at OFD that preseason polls should be abolished, and no rankings should be released until a few weeks into the season.

But that’s not going to stop me from offering this early preseason top 25 for next year.

Am I a hypocrite?

Don’t judge me…just read these rankings.

1. ALABAMA

Losing McElroy, Jones, Ingram, and Dareus should be a huge blow, but the Tide are still sitting pretty with a loaded roster and tons of speed and athleticism.

10 starters return on defense, the ground game should still be very strong, and their head coach is Nick Saban. That sounds like a recipe for success in the SEC.

If they can replace the quarterback and have a competent passing game, Alabama should be the favorite to win the crystal ball.

2. LOUISIANA STATE

I seriously considered having LSU as the number one team here, and for good reason. They return nearly their entire offense and their defense should still be among the nation’s best despite losing Patrick Peterson and three other starters.

If the Tigers play like they did in their bowl game and get the necessary production out of their passing game, they should beat awfully tough to beat. Only an insanely difficult schedule prevents me from putting them at number one.

A neutral battle with Oregon, a trip to West Virginia, plus games against Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, and Arkansas mean the Tigers could play seven ranked teams in 2011.

3. OKLAHOMA

The likely number one team when the real poll comes out and the favorite among the many preseason rankings out right now, Oklahoma has a boat load of returning starters and a great shot at a national championship.

I dropped them down to three for a couple reasons. First, I’d be a little worried about how the offense will gel without DeMarco Murray (they’ll still be awesome, but still). Second, the Sooner defense hasn’t exactly been dominant over the past couple of seasons. Third, the schedule is pretty brutal and very tough in the beginning (Tulsa, @ FSU, Missouri) and I can see Oklahoma dropping one in there.

In fact, I’ll go ahead and predict that if Oklahoma is number one in early September that they will buckle under the pressure and lose within their first three games.

4. FLORIDA STATE

This might be a little high for your liking but Florida State is seriously trending upward, got themselves a competent head coach, return 16 starters, and have reeled in back-to-back great recruiting classes.

Maybe they won’t finish here to end the season, but there’s a good chance that Jimbo Fisher does some big things in his second year in Tallahassee.

If they beat Oklahoma in September (I think they might) and get quarterback EJ Manuel playing at a high level, the Seminoles might sweep through the ACC and head to Florida undefeated in late November.

5. OREGON

Here’s a team that will probably be another fashionable pick to win a national title (or at least be ranked number one next year), but they are suffering some big losses that can’t be ignored.

LeMicahel James and Darron Thomas return to lead what should be another explosive Duck offense, but they do lose their top two receivers and three offensive linemen. On defense, Oregon has to replace six starters.

Oregon should still have a great year, but I see them losing to LSU to start the year and possibly dropping another game or two the rest of the way. Chip Kelly is recruiting well and has two superstar offensive players, but I don’t think they can re-load and stay undefeated in 2011.

6. OHIO STATE

After my top five, I think there is a pretty significant drop off in terms of teams who are perceived to be national title contenders. I wasn’t really content to keep Ohio State here at six, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt because of their continued dominance in the Big Ten and their recent victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

Still, there’s a good chance that the Buckeyes lose to either Miami or Michigan State as the five suspended players sit out and they also have their work cut out replace a lot of defensive players.

If Ohio State can get through those first five games unscathed they will be in the national title hunt. When Pryor and Co. come back only a trip to Nebraska and a home date with Wisconsin might stand in their way for a BCS title game or bowl matchup.

7. TEXAS A&M

Again, not terribly comfortable having the Aggies this high but they return nearly their entire team, their schedule is manageable, and they should have good balance on both sides of the ball.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see A&M fall back from this high of a ranking, but if they can get quarterback Ryan Tannehill to play like he did last season, this could be a very dangerous Aggie football team.

It also helps that they get Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas at home with only one trip to Oklahoma as a tough road game.

8. BOISE STATE

The Broncos have a really good shot at going to the title game, but I have them a little lower than most just because they are one of those teams that will lose one game and the dream will be over.

However, they do enter the new Mountain West in 2011 and face a little bit tougher schedule overall (buoyed by the season opener against Georgia), so maybe this is the year Boise puts it all together and gets some respect for their schedule.

They do have to replace two really good receivers and eight starters overall, but Boise should be in the top ten for a majority of the season.

9. SOUTH CAROLINA

The Gamecocks are one of those teams that are all over the place on recent top 25 polls as they have a lot of people confused as to how good they will be. The answer for me is that they could be really good and now that they’ve signed Jadaveon Clowney, I think you’ll see they’ll be very close to the top 10 when more preseason rankings are published.

Stephen Garcia is back at quarterback and the ground game should continue to be great with Marcus Lattimore, although they will have to replace a handful of starters on defense.

The schedule is more than manageable with East Carolina, Navy, Citadel and Clemson out of conference, while the Gamecocks miss out on LSU and Alabama in the SEC.

10. FLORIDA

Am I crazy for putting the Gators this high, or just crazy smart? They have lost a lot of defensive talent but I think that can be rectified by Will Muschamp and the amount of young talent he has to work with.

The Charlie Weis experiment on offense should be fun to watch, but you can guarantee he’ll have better production out of whoever plays QB. The schedule is super easy to begin the season, but Florida runs into a deadly October (Alabama, @ LSU, @ Auburn, Georgia) that could make or break their season.

If the Gators split those October games I bet they end up with a nine or ten win season and a lot of momentum after Muschamp’s first season in Gainesville.

11. OKLAHOMA STATE

The Cowboys will be one of the hot picks to be one of the best teams in the country and that’s because they are returning quarterback Brandon Weeden and perhaps the nation’s best receiver in Justin Blackmon.

But I’m a little wary and dropped them outside the top 10 because they only have six starters returning from a defense that wasn’t that good last year anyway, and the departure of OC Dana Holgorsen could have a bigger impact than most believe.

Also, losing running back Kendall Hunter is a huge blow as he kept the offense balanced and was one of the nation’s most underrated players. Nevertheless, this could be the year that Oklahoma State finally takes home the conference title.

12. TEXAS CHRISTIAN

It will be tough duplicating last year’s undefeated season having to replace over half the starters from 2010, but Gary Patterson simply re-loads every year and always has his Frogs playing defense at a very high level.

There will probably be some problems on offense replacing quarterback Andy Dalton, and with that a loss or two in 2011, but this is still a dangerous TCU team.

Their schedule is still pretty weak and that might mean another flirtation with a BCS bowl (or title game), but I think they stay out of the BCS bowls in 2011.

13. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Even with the sanctions I’m putting the Trojans in here because they are bringing back a decent amount of starters and should improve with a more experienced (and healthy) Matt Barkley leading the offense.

They have to replace a few talented offensive linemen, and a few pieces on defense, but the talent is there to still be a very dangerous team. The skill position players are as good as anywhere and if Barkley takes his game to another level, the USC offense should be one of the nation’s best.

The schedule is very demanding (zero non-BCS teams), but I can see USC putting together a good season even if their coach is Lane Kiffin. Their defense was pretty abysmal in 2010, so look for the Trojans to improve in this area as well.

14. STANFORD

I foresee an immediate drop off for Stanford in the post-Harbaugh era and another duplication of last year’s success being completely unrealistic.

Not only does Stanford lose Harbaugh and other coaches, but they return only 11 starters total, including missing three members of a great offensive line, two very good receivers, and all-everything stud Owen Marecic.

Having Luck behind center is great news, but this will be a different team in 2011. The schedule is pretty easy and the Cardinal should move well into the top 10 (if they’re not already there in the preseason) with a good start, but I bet this is a three or four loss team that will falter down the stretch with games against USC, Oregon and Notre Dame.

15. ARKANSAS

Anytime you lose a player like Ryan Mallett in the SEC, you have to be worried. Arkansas also has to rebuild their offensive line and replace a few starters on defense.

But overall, the Razorbacks have a strong nucleus and if Tyler Wilson fulfills the promise he showed last year, this team might make some noise again in the SEC.

The schedule is laughably easy to start off but gets absolutely brutal over the final two months. A BCS bowl appearance might be out of the cards, but Arkansas should be one of the better teams in the country next year.

16. NOTRE DAME

If I had to bet I would say Notre Dame ends up outside the top 20 to start 2011, but I think if the Irish live up to their potential and figure things out at quarterback that this should be a top 20 team.

That’s all I have to say for now.

17. TEXAS

The coaching situation and a few of the defensive losses are concerning down in Austin, but this team has way too much talent to rank them outside of the top 20.

The Longhorns should figure some things out over the offseason, get more production out of the offense and put together another nine or ten win season. Just because last year was a disaster doesn’t mean this program can’t get right back on track.

The first four games are all extremely winnable and that should give Texas some confidence heading into the meat of the Big 12 schedule. They might not win the conference, but I’ve got a feeling this team jumps up and upsets a few teams that might be ranked ahead of them (look out A&M!)

18. MISSISSIPPI STATE

Dan Mullen is building something formidable at Mississippi State and this program is definitely on the rise. We probably won’t see any major breakthrough in 2011, but you can expect another eight or nine win season at minimum.

The Bulldogs return a lot of talent and play a seriously weak out of conference schedule, so this will definitely be a team that hangs around in the rankings all season. The question is whether they will make enough noise in the SEC to become more legit or if they will have about the same season they did last year.

19. NEBRASKA

I don’t trust Nebraska offensively, especially with running back Roy Helu gone and all sorts of drama between quarterback Taylor Martinez and the coaching staff. The Huskers will be a strong team defensively, but I see them taking a small step back in 2011.

Another reason for that is their first season in the Big Ten where the team is likely to find itself in some uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. The first month of the season is slightly challenging (including home dates against Fresno State and Washington), but Nebraska then has to face Wisconsin and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks, followed by other quality matchups against Michigan State and Iowa.

This isn’t the Big 12 North anymore.

20. AUBURN

I would venture to guess that Auburn will be ranked inside the top 15 when the AP poll comes out, but this team is likely to take a rather sizable step back from their championship season.

The Tigers return possibly the nation’s best one-two punch at running back with Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, but they have to replace seven starters…on both sides of the ball!

When you factor in the loss of someone like Cam Newton and that this team plays in the SEC, you almost have to chalk up two or three losses for 2011. With Clemson, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama on the schedule, Auburn might be looking at a rough return to earth in the fall.

21. MISSOURI

If there’s a team that might jump up and surprise a lot of people, it is Missouri. They lose quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the NFL but bring back nine starters on offense from what was a very good unit in 2010.

The defense needs to replace a few pieces, including standout defensive end Aldon Smith, but I like the stability and talent level right now for the Tigers.

Athletic playmaker James Franklin should keep the Missouri offense humming from the QB position and a nice nine win season should be in the cards. The Tigers face an early test at Arizona State in the second week, but this team will make a run for the Big 12 title.

22. WISCONSIN

Breaking in a new quarterback means defenses will be able to key on the running game and the Badgers will lose some of that balance that made them such a feared offensive unit 2010. Also replacing a total of 11 starters on both sides of the ball is cause for concern.

Wisconsin is still likely to be a very good team, but 2011 will test how good they truly are without some key veteran players that stepped up big last year. The OOC schedule isn’t overwhelming at all, so this could be a ten win season if the Badgers overachieve a little bit.

But there probably won’t be another trip to the Rose Bowl this year.

23. NORTH CAROLINA STATE

The Wolfpack return a bunch of starters and most importantly get back Russell Wilson at quarterback. The out of conference schedule features three home game cupcakes and a trip to Cincinnati, plus they miss out on Virginia Tech and Miami in the ACC.

Add it up and I think this team inches close to a double-digit win season. A road battle in Tallahassee against Florida State will likely determine the Atlantic division winner…it should be a good one!

24. MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans are hovering around the 15 spot in most preseason rankings, but I think that is a little bit too high.

Michigan State returns a lot of its talent on offense, but can they get consistent play from Kirk Cousins? And for a team that is looking to compete for the Big Ten title, they sure are losing a ton of talent on defense.

Greg Jones, Eric Gordon, Colin Neely, and Chris L. Rucker are among the five starters the Spartans must replace on defense. There are three gimme’s in addition to the annual tilt against Notre Dame out of conference, but like Stanford, I don’t think Michigan State is going to finish with 10+ wins in back-to-back seasons.

25. VIRGINIA TECH

The Hokies might not have a great season next year, but I’m putting them here out of respect for their past and ability to simply win games. Seven straight seasons of 10 or more wins (and 10 out of the past 12 seasons) will tend to do that.

But Tyrod Taylor is gone at QB, as are two great running backs. When you factor in that the Hokies defense has been very un-Virginia Tech-like at times in the recent past, I don’t think there should be crazy high expectations in Blacksburg in 2011.

The out of conference schedule is easy (no Boise State or James Madison!) and they should compete in the ACC, but I don’t foresee another BCS bowl bid.

The next best: Georgia, Arizona State, Maryland, Tulsa, West Virginia, Air Force, and Miami.