jones Top Ten 2011 Season in Review

Welcome to the first annual Jones Top Ten season in review. What follows replaces the annual bowl preview, largely because the bowl season sucks. Outside of a handful of games, any given Saturday during the conference season is more compelling than the almost endless exhibition of 7-5 versus 6-6 that we watch during holiday parties. The NFL owners themselves couldn’t dream up a more effective scheme to make sure they have the better product during peak advertising season. Plus, I am out of one-liners about bowl season. I may have to hire a consultant.

Instead, here is a look back at my initial top ten and other predictions.

There are only two possible grades: RIGHT or WRONG. Let’s start at the top.

1. Oregon: I would worry about the off-field distractions hurting Oregon, but they simply don't care. And if they don't care, then why should I? Chip Kelly is Frank Nitti to Phil Knight's Al Capone. But the NCAA doesn't have Elliott Ness on the payroll. Auburn has also figured this out. But Auburn doesn't return the package of nuclear payload talent that the Ducks have in Darron Thomas and LaMichael James. The weapons don't end there. Oregon plays far better defense than anyone gave them credit for last year (pace matters in college football). Their secondary is excellent, albeit without Cliff Harris available for the opener against LSU, which, of course, could derail their title hopes before they start. The Ducks need at least one more player in their front seven to step up, but other than that, I think they have the fewest questions. I still maintain that the Ducks were the best team in the nation last year. A month layoff and a crappy playing surface is no way to decide a national champion.

WRONG. Not terribly wrong, Oregon may have had a better team this year than last. The key play of the early season was Tyrann Mathieu’s snatching of the muffed punt for an LSU TD late in the first half in the season opener. Oregon was knocked off their game; they continued to turn the ball over and LSU waltzed home with a "blocker" victory against the rest of the field. It turned out that LSU/Oregon was arguably the only non-conference result particularly relevant to the national title chase. Oregon climbed all the way back, but couldn’t overcome USC late in a surprising loss at Autzen. The Pac 12 championship was the consolation prize.

One relevant footnote: Harris, a player with skills comparable to Morris Claiborne as a DB and Tyrann Mathieu as a punt returner, was never a factor. He played four games for the Ducks and was eventually dismissed for good. He might have made a huge difference had he been handling the ball on special teams against LSU and playing in the secondary against USC. College football exists, of course, in the world that is, not in the world that oughtta be.

2. Alabama: The Tide deserve the number one spot, but I have no clue what kind of quarterback play they will get and their receivers are competent and experienced, as opposed to frightening. Trent Richardson still gets to run behind an outrageously good offensive line and the defense returns ten players and then adds a few ready-made JC linemen and the best freshman defensive back in the nation; because life is not fair and Nick Saban actually owns the compact with the devil that we all assume Les Miles has. At some point, won't ‘Bama have to complete a pass to win a football game? Maybe...but then again, the 2009 national champs barely had to and they had Julio Jones in the receiving corps. If A.J. McCarron (or Phillip Sims), a player with far more physical upside than Greg McElroy or John Parker Wilson, gains some confidence early, then this Alabama edition is an absolute home-wrecker.

RIGHT. Alabama’s quarterback play isn’t great, nor are their receivers. Defense and Trent Richardson got them into the title game anyway, even with a home loss to LSU. The one pass they had to complete in the first game with LSU was intercepted by Greg Reid on one of the season’s signature plays. Let the do-over commence.

3. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher's year two shapes us nicely if you are a fan of the pre-nepotism, dominating version of the Florida State Seminoles. Papa Bowden left and Fisher found that, hey, there are a hell of a lot of good football players on this campus. Then he went and added some, including the delightfully named JC stud Tank Carradine at defensive end, a genetic freak named Karlos Williams at safety and James Wilder redux at tailback, a YouTube favorite of the recruiting set. Meet the new State, same as the old State. And they are going to get better. If they beat the Sooners on September 17th, they might run all the way to the national title game.

WRONG. The Seminoles didn’t beat the Sooners on September 17th. James Wilder did not really emerge as a force; the FSU running game disappointed all year. They lost three games in a row starting with Oklahoma, rebounded nicely (especially on defense), but were upset by Virginia in November, their fourth loss. The computers still love them and their breakout may well come in 2012.

4. South Carolina: Last season, I noted that South Carolina was the most average team in the history of college football. South Carolina went 9-5, which put them four games above .500, lifetime. If the Gamecocks are ever going to have a season for the ages, then this is it. They have the best triplet in college football with tailback Marcus Lattimore, receiver Alshon Jeffrey and QB Stephen Garcia. Hmmm. Did I mention Lattimore and Jeffrey? When Garcia's head is right, this is a great offense. It's time for his Danny Wuerfful moment. On defense, they have an uber-talent freshman defensive end named Jadeveon Clowney, who may be the difference between a conference title and not. He's that good, allegedly.

WRONG. They had their chances. An injury to Lattimore halfway through the season didn’t help. Stephen Garcia’s head was not right, surprise, surprise. And, quite frankly, Steve Spurrier did a horrendous coaching job. The Gamecocks posted 10-2, but it was a pretty disappointing 10-2. The loss to Auburn was inexplicable. Clowney was great, but not as great as fellow defensive end Melvin Ingram, who was one of the best players in the SEC.

5. Oklahoma: Take Alabama; replace the unproven quarterback with a very good one and give him more talented receivers. Then take away Trent Richardson and give them a true freshman version of, well, Trent Richardson. Now you have Oklahoma. Along with Alabama, the Sooners have the fewest questions. They need better safety play and the untimely death of linebacker Austin Box was tragic. But this is Bob Stoops's best squad since 2008...or it was until the Sooner's best defensive player, Travis Lewis, broke his foot. If you think the Sooners can go to Tallahassee and win without him, then please feel free to swap them with number three. I don't, although the replacements for Box and Lewis (Tom Wort and Corey Nelson) are both pretty damn good football players.

RIGHT (AND WRONG). That’s charitable; let’s say "mostly" right because I never believed that OU would challenge for the national title. The Sooners did make all the late plays to post an early win in Tallahassee. The Sooners passing game was a thing of beauty, although not quite the same after losing Ryan Broyles. But they did need better safety play (don’t they always?); the lack of it cost them games against Texas Tech and Baylor. They were a shell of their best selves against Oklahoma State

6. LSU: No, seriously. Yes, THAT LSU. Why? Well, for starters, what kind of coach could possibly win fewer than eleven games with this roster? Hello? Hello? Are you still there?...(I really do think Jordan Jefferson will be a very good quarterback this year).

WRONG. The above cracks are aimed at Les Miles, but who’s laughing now? Miles couldn’t have coached this team any better. Yes, he had the best roster in the country, especially after Tyrann Mathieu served early notice (see Oregon, above) that Patrick Peterson was, indeed, replaceable. But the most talent doesn’t always win, especially when you have to navigate a last-minute quarterback controversy caused by Jordan Jefferson’s suspension. Miles handled it perfectly. Hat’s off to the Mad Hatter. There is always some bias in Coach of the Year voting (Miles won the Home Depot version) when someone has the most to work with. Silly me, I thought that was part of being a head coach, but what do I know? Miles does more, with more.

7. Arkansas: Four SEC teams in the top seven? Yes. It won't turn out that way because of Dixie cannibalism, but ranked on talent and potential before a game is played, I think I have it right. The Razorbacks are the seventh-best team in the country and the third-best team in the SEC West. My guess is that new Hog QB Tyler Wilson won't miss a beat. Bobby Petrino finally fields a full team of his own SEC-recruited athletes. Scary proposition.

RIGHT. Arkansas was not in LSU or Alabama’s class, but they beat everyone else, even if it wasn’t always pretty. Tyler Wilson didn’t miss a beat and Arkansas got better as the year progressed after some early injuries on defense could have derailed them.

8. Wisconsin: Russell Wilson transferred from NC State to Wisconsin and, all of a sudden, the Badgers had an experienced and highly athletic QB manning the controls of perhaps the best-coached offense in the country. The Wilson story runs relatively under-the-radar nationally—it might have helped publicity if a street agent was involved—but it will have a huge impact on the field. Already great on both lines, with Wilson, Wisky becomes the best team in the conference. I look forward to their match-up with Nebraska in the first big Leaders vs. Legends rivalry game. Then we'll all have a hootenanny in the big red barn! The Big Ten: So earnest, so easily mocked.

RIGHT. Wisconsin could have been even better. Two bizarre Hail Marys cost them a spot in the national title game; the one against Michigan State in the regular season was particularly cruel. They avenged that loss to earn a well-deserved Big Ten championship.

9. Notre Dame: I'll make this easy: Brian Kelly is not Charlie Weis. Congratulations, Irish, you finally got one right.

WRONG. I am actually right that Brian Kelly is not Charlie Weis and that he will be successful at Notre Dame. But not this year. ND gave away early games against South Florida and Denard Robinson Michigan. Even in victory, they always had a sort of 8-4 feel, which is where they finished after losses to USC and Stanford. The Irish high point was a September dismantling of Michigan State, but they never played that well again.

10. Texas A&M or Oklahoma State: Talk about a contract year: two highly experienced and formidable offenses trying to close the gap with Oklahoma and looking down at Texas, for the moment, in the revamped Big 12. Texas A&M has more upside, fielding better running backs and a more dependable defense. But remember, Oklahoma State is coming off a ten-win season already and they didn't get any worse in the past six months.

RIGHT AND WRONG…AND WRONG? I made this an either/or proposition and won: Oklahoma State soared, Texas A&M plummeted. So I was right on that count. Assuming A&M had the more dependable defense was a whiff and I certainly didn’t think either of these teams would finish 6-6. If anything, I underrated OSU.

Eleven: Stanford
If Jim Harbaugh were coaching this team, it would be tempting to swap them with Oregon, who the Cardinal host on November 12th. That's nothing against David Shaw. OK, it's something against David Shaw. The new head coach starts with (by far) the best quarterback in the country. Andrew Luck will have plenty of options, especially if a talented offensive line can gel. Stanford recruits better than you think, especially offensive linemen and linebackers. The d-line is OK and their corners aren't great. A good SEC team might maul Stanford. That keeps the Cardinal from the truly elite. They will be over-ranked in the preseason AP poll because writers like bright, shiny quarterbacks.

RIGHT. Stanford is ranked higher than eleven, but there isn’t anything written above that I would change. Oregon beat them easily and so would LSU or Alabama, in my opinion.

Very Close: Nebraska has all the pieces to challenge for the Big Ten title. But I can't tell if Bo Pelini actively hates his starting quarterback or is just a first-class churl. Not that those things are mutually exclusive.

WRONG. The starting quarterback had little to do with it. Nebraska didn’t challenge for the Big Ten because of an atrocious defense. I am, of course, right about Bo Pelini being a first-class churl.

Very Close: Virginia Tech's hopes depend on the maturation of an alleged Cam Newton-esque superhuman named Logan Thomas at quarterback. If he's great, then the Hokies may be great.

RIGHT. Maybe the Hokies aren’t "great," but they went 11-1 to make the ACC title game and their record was in direct correlation with Logan Thomas maturing as a player. Clemson completely pantsed them in the title game, however.

The Enigma: Georgia
If you described Georgia to anyone with even a passing interest in college football, almost everyone you briefed would assume the Bulldogs were a fixture in the top ten. This is getting ridiculous. Would you like to guess how many times in the last seven years Georgia has failed to sign a top ten recruiting class? Try none. My SBNation colleague, Paul Wadlington, annually puzzles over my over-ranking of the Georgia Bulldogs. I am not going to give him the satisfaction this season, although on paper, I should. They have the best QB in the conference, better personnel than all but a few teams in the country and Mark Richt, to my knowledge, has not forgotten how to coach (although Willie Martinez did for a stretch).

RIGHT. Incomplete, actually. Georgia did rebound nicely to 10-2, but it is a pretty soft 10-2. Aaron Murray was the best quarterback in the SEC, with apologies to Tyler Wilson, who had more to work with.

Discounted: Texas
You can buy Texas futures for cheap. The question is, after last year's 5-7 disaster, is this the beginning of the end for Mack Brown, or is it a leeching of bad blood from a program grown entitled and complacent? Coin flip, although Mack's choice of young, aggressive and innovative new assistants does not suggest a Fulmer-like slide. Texas has serious quarterback questions, very unproven tackles, inexperienced cornerbacks and almost no skill position players, other than a few freshmen, who scare anyone. The plusses? The Horns are two years removed from a national championship appearance and the last two recruiting classes were double top shelf, like where they lock up the single malt.

I didn’t really make any predictions here. I was certainly right about the serious quarterback questions. I didn’t expect Texas to set the world on fire and they didn’t. But damned if they didn’t provide some great highlights along the way. It certainly was not 2010 redux.

This Year's Texas (traditional power most likely to implode): Ohio State
Don't think you can go 5-7, Buckeyes? It is staring you in the face. Yes, this is a deep and talented team, capable of some fierce football. But this will be a disaster. Just like with Mack Brown, there are some serious deficiencies hidden by great talent over the course of the Tressel regime, starting with offensive strategy. Whatever poor SOB has to start at quarterback for the Bucks will slowly reveal them, locker room dissension and alumni meltdown to follow.

RIGHT. This prediction was taking candy from a baby. I’m amazed this team was ranked in every pre-season poll. To be fair, the Buckeyes actually went 6-6, found a decent quarterback and hired Urban Meyer. So the story does have a happy ending.

I'm Confused: Florida
The Gators were almost Texas in 2010. Supersized expectations built on the back of an iconic quarterback's remarkable string of success? Check. Disengaged coach ambivalent about the start of a new season? Check. Big time five-star quarterback not quite ready to take the reins and done in by a horrendous offensive scheme and his own poor decision making? Check. Talented defense that was never quite great? Check. The Gators weren't Texas bad, but Lord they weren't good. Naturally they hire the Texas coach-in-waiting to right the ship. I kid. Many argued that Will Muschamp was the brightest young coaching prospect in the nation, although not all the Florida fans agreed. So to whom does Will turn to re-invigorate the dynamic Florida offense? Would you believe Charlie Weis? I'm sorry, but this isn't going to work. This squad is less talented than any in the Urban Meyer era and the schedule is murder.

RIGHT. It didn’t work. Early injuries to John Brantley and Jeff Demps didn’t help matters, but the Gators regressed as the season went along. Charlie Weis is not a popular man in Gainesville, which matters not one whit to the good people of…Lawrence, Kansas?????

Back to the Gators, the 21-7 end-of-season loss to Florida State was the low point. Somehow Florida lost a football game and held their opponent to 95 yards of total offense. Wow. That doesn’t say "schematic advantage." I am assuming the Kansas AD did not watch the game tape.

The Dark Horse: USC
USC's front line talent is as good as anyone's in the country from 1-22. Last year, the Trojans suffered mightily from attrition and scholarship reductions. Not having an extra 20 good players around can be the difference between 11 wins and 8 wins, which is how many Troy managed. But Lane Kiffin is not stupid. He signed a 31-member recruiting class (so much for sanctions), including four ready-made junior college transfers and five more guys who came to spring practice, not including the nation's number one receiving prospect. Now there is that tiny detail of ‘SC being ineligible to play for any championships. The world is an imperfect place.

RIGHT. USC ended the season as one of the best ten teams in the nation…with nothing to play for. I saw this coming.

The Really Dark Horse: Mississippi
Somehow Houston Nutt has assembled the best offensive line outside of Tuscaloosa, even without Ed Orgeron or the Tuohy family lending a hand. Nutt may be the idiot-savant of the college football world. Some folks just opt for the first part in describing him. He would have made a great basketball coach, with the five-on-five symmetry. Once you get to eleven players, he has to take off one shoe to truly strategize. But he certainly knows what to do in this situation, especially when he has stashed away a great JC quarterback and has a workhorse back like Brandon Bolden. You don't want Nutt coaching your national title contender, but an under-the-radar team with some upside in a major conference? That's his wheelhouse.

HORRIFICALLY, COMICALLY, DEPRESSINGLY WRONG. Where to begin? Houston Nutt couldn’t have done a worse job for the 2-10 Rebels, the worst BCS conference team in the nation. It’s possible I have never been this wrong in 17 years of writing about college football. I am still shocked at Ole Miss’s lack of competitiveness.

The best player you haven't heard of is Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Of course, if Ron Zook does for Scheelhaase what he did for Juice Williams, then you will continue to not hear of him.

RIGHT. Poor Nathan Scheelhaase got Zooked. Illinois started 6-0, then lost their last six. Scheelhaase was a shell of his former self by the time it was all through. But Lord would he look good in a Texas uniform…

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, if a team in red doesn't win the title, it will be either Michigan State and the underappreciated Kirk Cousins, or it will be...wait for it...Penn State and the youthful vigor of Joe Paterno. I have no idea what Michigan is capable of.

MOSTLY RIGHT. Michigan State did contend for the title but lost the re-match to Wisconsin. Penn State surprisingly won nine games (no one could have predicted what would have happened off the field). Michigan’s future looks bright, although at points their season could have gone the other way. Brady Hoke did a very good job.

The year of the freshman tailback? Four of them in particular could be the over-the-top factor for aspiring contenders: James Wilder at Florida State, Isaiah Crowell at Georgia, Brandon Williams at Oklahoma and, maybe, Malcolm Brown at Texas.

WRONG, RIGHT, WRONG, WRONG. Wilder barely touched the ball. Crowell was a difference-maker in Georgia’s season and helped them win the SEC East. Williams was never OU’s first option. Brown was brilliant at times, but suffered from nagging turf toe and then knee injuries and was not the dynamic force he could have been for Texas down the stretch.

Wither Miami? Can Al Golden maximize what Randy Shannon could not? The Hurricanes are the only real threat to FSU and Va Tech in the ACC.

WRONG. No they weren’t. Clemson was.

Auburn is ill-prepared to defend a national title. The Tigers are roughly the seventh-best team in the SEC, maybe eighth.

RIGHT. But anyone with half a brain would have gotten this one right. Gene Chizik did a hell of a job, considering. Auburn had no business beating either South Carolina or Mississippi State.

There are some Texas Tech fans who will never forgive their school for firing Mike Leach. Fine. But Tommy Tuberville is a better head coach and the talent level in Lubbock is rising.

WRONG. So far, Tuberville is not a better coach than Leach was at Tech. The complete collapse of a Tuberville-coached defense is something I never would have predicted.

Case Keenum is back at Houston, where he will throw for a million yards or so.

RIGHT. Duh.

Brigham Young plays as an independent for the first time. They could win ten games, even with a pretty rough schedule.

WRONG. Although they did win nine, surprisingly. It was mostly ugly football against what turned out to be a paper thin schedule.

The best team I haven't mentioned is Missouri, followed by Oregon State.

WRONG. The best team I didn’t mention turned out to be Kansas State. It may have been Bill Snyder’s best coaching job, which is saying something.

Andrew Luck will win the Heisman Trophy; LaMichael James and Trent Richardson will give chase.

WRONG. Robert Griffin III was the right choice, but I am astonished that he won. RGIII outplayed Luck by any statistical measure. The compelling argument for "best player in college football" was the case for Tyrann Mathieu. Putting aside the comical assertion that Mathieu is clearly the better player than Griffin, if the Heisman is truly for "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity," then Griffin’s body of work and lack of suspension for smoking synthetic weed should quite obviously carry the day. It did. While we are at it, did anyone notice that Baylor fields two top ten basketball teams? How, exactly, is the University of Texas making my life better as a fan?

So what does everyone else got, BC?

Where were you right? Where were you wrong? And what about the season was just flat out puzzling?

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