By Kevin Heitz
Where to begin … the Big Ten now has 12 teams, the Big 12 sports 10, the Pac-10 is now the Pac-12 (because they respect accurate arithmetic), the WAC lost Boise State to the Mountain West and BYU inexplicably went independent. All these changes, but still no playoffs, meaning preseason polls still carry weight, like it or not. That said, here is
's top 15 teams heading into the season.
1. Oklahoma (Last year 12-2)
The Boomer Sooner wagon is loaded for a national championship trek, with 17 returning starters from a squad that won a BCS bowl (albeit against Big East default champion UConn). QB Landry Jones leads a stacked offense, and could have many in Oklahoma asking, "Sam Bradford Who?" While that may be a stretch, Jones threw for 38 touchdowns and 4,718 yards last season -- just three shy of Bradford's season record. And oh yeah, the defense has seven returning starters, including the entire two-deep linebacking corps.
2. Alabama (10-3)
Wait a minute, the Crimson Tide loses its top three playmakers from last season -- QB Greg McElroy, RB Mark Ingram and WR Julio Jones -- and still is going to contend for a title? It seems that way. Ingram's backup the past two years, Trent Richardson, will carry the load behind a solid line as Alabama breaks in a new quarterback. Meanwhile, the defense, led by nine returning starters, will help the Tide avenge a three-point loss to LSU and a one-point loss to eventual national champion Auburn on its way to the title game.
3. LSU (11-2)
On paper, it may not make sense that LSU is ranked so high -- what with a quarterback in Jordan Jefferson who threw just four touchdowns and nine interceptions during the regular season, and just six starters returning on defense. But LSU's depth is never a question, and Florida, Auburn and Arkansas all must visit Baton Rouge, which doesn't hurt. Alas, it could all go up in flames Sept. 3 as the Tigers kick off the season against Oregon.
4. Oregon (12-1)
To say the Ducks want a little revenge on the SEC -- after falling to Auburn in the national championship game, thanks to Tigers RB Michael Dyer's crazy tackled-or-not run late during the game -- would be an understatement. A win against LSU to start the season would go a long way in Oregon's quest to return to the title game, as the Ducks' only other true tests on the schedule don't come until November -- Stanford Nov. 12 and Oregon State Nov. 26.
5. Florida State (10-4)
The Seminoles are back in the top five -- what is this, the '90s? First-year coach Jimbo Fisher delivered 10 wins to Tallahassee for the first time since 2003, and this year he hopes to bring the tomahawk choppers their first ACC title since 1995. Eight starters return on a defense that improved as the season progressed, but the offense rests on the shoulders of QB E.J. Manuel, who has big shoes to fill after Christian Ponder was the 12th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
6. Stanford (8-1)
A 21-point loss to Oregon was the only blemish in the Cardinal's dream season. And with coach Jim Harbaugh jumping to the 49ers, QB Andrew Luck's return to Palo Alto saved the offseason from being a nightmare. Luck has a loaded backfield and two of the best linemen in the country -- and Stanford hosts Oregon this time around.
7. Oklahoma State (11-2)
A darkhorse candidate to win the 10-team Big 12, the Cowboys have nine returning starters on an offense that averaged 44.2 points per game. QB Brandon Weeden threw for 4,277 yards and 34 touchdowns, and he again has his favorite target, Justin Blackmon, who had 111 receptions for 1,782 yards and 20 scores.
8. Boise State (12-1)
QB Kellen Moore returns for his senior season after tossing 74 touchdowns during the past two seasons, but he is one of just six returning starters on offense (after the Broncos started 2011 with 21 returning starters). Boise should easily win its new conference, but a Sept. 3 game against Georgia could derail its BCS train before it leaves the station.
9. Nebraska (10-4)
Nebraska lands in the Big Ten following consecutive 10-win seasons (and consecutive near-misses in the Big 12 title game). The defense is national championship caliber; the Huskers' chance for major success this season rests on the offense -- most notably QB Taylor Martinez and new offensive coordinator Tim Beck. And hey, at least they won't lose to Texas this year.
10. Arkansas (10-3)
The Razorbacks made their first BCS appearance last season. Bobby Petrino seems to have turned things around in Fayetteville, but this year must replace QB Ryan Mallett and both offensive tackles if he wants to take advantage of one of the nation's best receiving corps.
11. Wisconsin (11-2)
Wisconsin actually climbed a preseason poll before a game was played when N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson transferred in June, eligible to play for the Badgers this season. With Ohio State reeling, Wisconsin looks to claim the Leaders Division for a battle with that new red team in the conference. As Rick Reilly said in a July 20 column on ESPN.com, "I'm afraid Wisconsin is you, Nebraska, only with much better parties and more wins."
12. TCU (13-0)
The Horned Frogs want nothing less than a conference title during their final season in the Mountain West Conference (before joining the Big East in 2012). But there might be a couple snags in that plan -- QB Andy Dalton is gone, and blue-field Boise State is now an MWC rival.
13. South Carolina (9-5)
It looks as if the undisciplined Stephen Garcia, who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season, will be back under center after getting suspended during the spring. With Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery, the Old Ball Coach's offense is in good hands. But the defense must improve on its average 23 points and 241 yards passing given up last year.
14. Texas A&M (9-4)
The Aggies look to build off a 6-1 finish to 2010 that included wins against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas, and they'll do it with 21 returning starters. QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Cyrus Gray lead an offense that averaged more than 440 yards last season.
15. Virginia Tech (11-3)
Remember that embarrassing loss to James Madison that put Virginia Tech at 0-2 to start the season? The Hokies did their best to help fans forget, reeling off 11-straight wins and claiming the ACC championship -- before losing to Stanford in the Orange Bowl. Even with QB Tyrod Taylor's departure, Tech should still challenge for a conference title.
For the entire Top 25, check out the College Football Report.
Issue 164: August 2011