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jones Top Ten 2011 Season Preview

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Take a packet of salt. From a fast food restaurant I mean. Ever look at the ingredients? You would think "salt" right? Not quite.

Well, salt and dextrose. And calcium sulfate, maybe even throw in a little yellow prussiate. Or some sodium silicoaluminate or potassium iodide, like mother used to make.

I had no idea. I feel that way about college football lately. All off-seasons have their additives, but this one has been ridiculous. Jim Tressel, Cecil Newton, North Carolina, the Iowa State crime wave (Iowa State? Who do they think they are? The U?), the always entertaining Dana Holgorsen, with a side of armed robbery from West Virginia linebacker Branko Busick, our two last participants in the national title game jointly giving the middle finger of Christian friendship to the NCAA, the endless churn of conference realignment, all this and if I have to read the name “Will Lyles” one more time I will go all street on my computer screen. I do admit to a secret admiration of Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris re-enacting the Cannonball Run in a rental car through the rural Northwest (118 miles per hour, what the hell did he rent?). It had a certain “cattle rustling through the Vatican” cachet.

Nevertheless, I am ready for the sideshow to close and the games to begin.

I really just want the salt.

This will be the saltiest season in a long while. Cam Newton aside, pretty tough for me to recall a recent season that returned more electrifying, jaw-dropping talent than this one. Maximizing it, or stopping it, will be the key to the crystal football. My best guess follows.

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 (notwithstanding LSU’s own problems). 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.

2. Alabama: The Tide may 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.

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.

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.

5. Oklahoma: Take Alabama; replace the unproven quarterback with a very good one and give him far more talented receivers. Then take away Trent Richardson and give them a true freshman version of, well, Trent Richardson. Now you have Oklahoma. They need better safety play and the untimely death of linebacker Austin Box was tragic. But this is Bob Stoops’ best squad since 2008…or it was until the Sooners' 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.

6. LSU: No, seriously. What could possibly go wrong?

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.

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.

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

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.

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 are over-ranked in the preseason AP poll because writers like bright, shiny quarterbacks.

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. 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.

With each recruiting class, TCU plays more and more like a major conference power. The Frogs will be very good again, but I can’t put them in the top ten without Andy Dalton pulling the trigger. Can they beat Boise State? (I can’t put the Broncos in the top ten without Titus Young and Austin Pettis catching balls). The two play their only conference game on November 12th. Then TCU moves to the Big East and Boise State stays behind in a dilapidated MWC with no Utah, no BYU, no TCU and no hope for a better tomorrow. It’s like Chris Peterson bought into a nice gentrifying neighborhood and a sewage treatment plant broke ground next door.

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. Scipio 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).

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 pluses? 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 (I’m sure the recent arrest is much ado about nothing…) 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.

Other Thoughts:

Couldn’t North Carolina have fired Butch Davis months ago, as opposed to a few hours before the season starts?

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.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, if a team in red doesn’t win the title, it will be either Michigan State and the under-appreciated 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.

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.

Wither Miami? Can Al Golden maximize what Randy Shannon could not? No Nevin Shapiro jokes, please. The Hurricanes are the only real threat to FSU and Va Tech in the ACC.

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

Almost every team in the SEC has something to recommend it. Even Vanderbilt returns every offensive starter. They are the same eleven guys who managed about a touchdown a game against the SEC last year, but still.

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.

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

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

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

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