Last week I gave you part one of my 2011-2012 Preseason Top 25 after Signing Day which ranked the #17-25 teams in all of College Football. Admittedly that was the hardest part of the rankings for me. The list of deserving teams ran low after about 19-20 and frankly, any disagreement with the bottom teams is welcomed and expected. But now? That’s not the case. In my opinion, these teams are without question the Top 16 teams in the country from this point forward, which is why I broke this up into 3 parts. Starting now, we’re on a different tier from the teams below them. Disagreements are still welcome, but I’m not as likely to agree. So with that said, let me quit babbling and lets jump into Part 2 of the Pre-Season top 25, the #9-16 teams in CFB heading into the 2011 season.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
2010 Record: 11-2 (Lost Rose Bowl to TCU)
Returning Staters: 4 offense, 6 defense
Key Games: 10/1 vs. Nebraska, 10/22 at Michigan State, 10/29 at Ohio St.
Synopsis: The Wisconsin offense that ran all over opponents towards the end of last year will have its work cut for itself if it hopes to repeat the same dominant ground game. Standout RB John Clay elected to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft, following O-Line All-Americans Gabe Camiri and John Moffit. Scott Tolzien, the efficient signal-caller also is gone leaving the Badgers in a position where they must replace a large percentage of the offense. Fortunately, in typical Wisconsin fashion, there’s two mainstays ready to take over the backfield role and pick up where they left off last season when Clay went down with injury. Montee Ball and James White return for Bret Bielema to spearhead what they expect to be another dominant ground game. White actually ended up the leading rusher last year with 1052 yards and 14 TD’s, with the “slacker” of the two James White, managed a pedestrian 996 yards and 18 TD’s. Any growing period for Jon Budmayr will come with the assistance of these two. The Badgers recruiting class wasn’t elite this season finishing 40th according to Rivals.com, while topping out with three 4-star recruits, focusing mostly on the skill positions and front 7 of the defense. Their 6 returning starters on defense will attempt to live up to the 19th ranked defense they held at last season, losing D-end JJ Watt to NFL entry. This team will contend for their division crown with the game at The Horseshoe going a long way to determining the winner, but don’t expect any national championship aspirations like they had a chance of this past season. They lost too much to be a Top 5 team again.
15. TCU Horned Frogs
2010 Record: 13-0 (Beat Wisconsin in Rose Bowl)
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 4 defense
Key Games: 9/3 at Baylor, TBD at Boise St., TBD at Air Force
Synopsis: TCU enters the 2011-2012 season fresh off one of the program’s biggest wins in over 50 years, a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin that saw TCU finish the year ranked 2nd in the AP poll. In the team’s last season in the Mountain West before leaving for the Big East, Gary Patterson will have his work cut out for him replacing 14 starters from last season, as well as breaking in new QB Casey Pachall who will only have the task of replacing one of the most successful QB’s in CFB history, Andy Dalton. Along with Dalton, TCU loses 3 of their top 4 WR’s including the dynamic Jeremy Kerley who led the Horned Frogs with 10 TD’s. The saving grace for any TCU fan is once again the defense. The unit which has finished 1st overall in total D in CFB 4 of the past 10 seasons, including 1st in total, passing, and scoring defense last year does lose 7 starters, most notably up front with 3 of the front 4 gone. Fortunaetly for D-coordinator Dick Bumpas, both linebackers in his 4-2-5 scheme return. Tank Carder and Tanner Brock were both 1st-team all-conference this past season with Carder also being named the Defensive POY. Their leadership will be vital to the Horned Frogs front 6, with backs like Ronnie Hillman and Asher Clark on the schedule. Ed Wesley will be the biggest threat they bring back offensively. The Horned Frogs brought in another respectable recruiting class, ranked 26th by Rivals.com this year. I’m lower on TCU than most, mainly because I have a ton of respect for Andy Dalton’s career and I want to see TCU overcome his loss before I put them higher. Realistically though, this team has Top 10 potential and their game vs. Boise could go a long way to solidifying either team’s chances for a BCS Bowl.
14. Michigan State Spartans
2010 Record: 11-2 (Loss Capital One Bowl to Alabama)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Key Games: 9/17 at Notre Dame, 10/1 at Ohio St., 10/29 at Nebraska
Synopsis: Last year’s surprise contender, the Spartans came out of nowhere to split the Big Ten championship with Wisconsin and Ohio St. after putting themselves in the national championship race for a brief period. Question is, what happened in the Capital One Bowl? The Spartans were ripped in half by an Alabama team that many thought should have been contending for the National Championship. Still, sleeping on this team again wouldn’t be wise as the foundation of the offense returns with QB Kirk Cousins and the backfield combo of Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell. Sparty loses leading WR Mark Dell, but otherwise brings back most of Cousins receiving core. On the other side of the ball, they bring back 3/4′s of their front 4, but the middle of their defense takes a hit as linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon depart from a defensive unit that though wasn’t overwhelming in any particular facet still helped them win 11 games. The question for all Spartan fans will be how good is this team when they aren’t sneaking up on anyone. They have a plethora of difficult road games that they will have to navigate. Nebraska will be their main challenger in the “Legends” division of the Big Ten, but Northwestern and Iowa can be expected to be in the mix. The biggest game of theirs may be October 1st at The Horseshoe. With the Buckeyes 5 players still suspended, that becomes a steal-able game for them that would give them a leg up in the division race. Games against Wisconsin and Nebraska in Big Ten play will be their other games to see. I have Michigan State as the favorite to win their division now, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if this team ended up with 3-4 losses. It still remains to be seen whether the team that won 11 games or the one who was blown out in its bowl is the Sparty team we get this year.
13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2010 Record: 8-5 (Beat Miami in Sun Bowl)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Key Games: 9/17 vs. Michigan St., 10/22 vs. Southern Cal, 11/26 at Stanford
Synopsis: The Irish finished the 2010-2011 campaign strongly winning their last 4, including a blowout bowl win, to give Brian Kelly a ton of momentum heading into spring ball. With 17 returning starters, they have one of the highest returning starters rates in the country. Tommy Rees stepped in and played very well when starter Dayne Crist went down with injury but Crist is expected to return to his role when the season opens. The biggest surprise was the return of WR Michael Floyd who many figured would depart after his Junior season. Earning his degree and getting Notre Dame back to a BCS Bowl were the two biggest reasons given for his return. With Floyd back the Irish have the potential to be a potent aerial attack in the upcoming season. Every meaningful WR is back with him as well as 4 starting offensive linemen giving Coach Kelly an experienced, albeit, still pretty young group. On the defensive side, the Irish struggled a bit last season but over the course of the last 3 games plus their bowl game, the D held the opposition to totals of 3, 3, 16, and 17, despite playing offenses in Utah, USC, and Miami with NFL talent on its offense. They bring back the majority of their front 7 as well as part of their secondary. Though last year’s 5 losses look glaring, fact of the matter is with the exception of Navy and Michigan, they lost to very good football teams in Stanford, Michigan St., and Tulsa, each of whom is (or will be) ranked in my Top 25 heading into this year. Kelly hit a home run in his first recruiting class with the Irish with the 10th-ranked class according to Rivals, littered with 4 and 5 star talent, specifically on both sides of the trenches. The Irish once again have a challenging schedule with annual games against Stanford, Michigan State, Michigan, USC, and Boston College, but they could make a run in the polls this year easily and given their light requirements for a BCS Bowl, I expect them to be in contention for a BCS Bowl when they go to Stanford for the season finale.
2010 Record: 11-2 (Beat Arizona in Alamo Bowl)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 5 defense
Key Games: 9/24 at Texas A&M, 10/15 at Texas, 11/26 vs. Oklahoma
Synopsis: Again, another team you will see higher on other people’s polls and clearly there’s going to be some teams I’m higher on than most with these teams slipping. Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are a toss-up with another QB/WR combo upcoming for best duo in the land. Blackmon is a Heisman Trophy candidate and the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner who had 12 straight games to end the year last season with 100 yards and a TD. Clearly this team has the offensive prowess to beat a lot of football teams. Even with the graduation of Kendall Hunter, Joseph Randle, Jeremy Smith, or incoming freshman Herschel Sims should be able to step in and provide the balance necessary to make their spread system work. Dana Holgorsen who left to go to West Virginia where he will serve as O-Coordinator for a year before taking over at head coach, left the recipe for success in the offensive-happy Big 12 conference. As is the common concern most Big 12 teams, the defense of Oklahoma St. will be the determining factor in whether this team competes for a BCS Bowl or just another 3rd-4th place finish in conference. They have to replace 6 defensive starters from a unit that was a poor 86th in the land last year, especially bad against the pass which was never more evident than their loss to Oklahoma where they gave up what seemed like a TD every minute. Despite having the 28th-ranked class according to Rivals, their only two 4-star recruits come on the offensive side of the ball at RB and QB. So the defense will have to make it work with incoming freshman that aren’t highly regarded or find players ready to step in from last season. Their road games could prove to be their downfall as they must travel this season to Missouri, A&M, and Texas in a 5-week stretch. If they can navigate that stretch without a blemish (a tall task), then the Bedlam Series to end the year could decide the Big 12. They are an offensively gifted football team but the reason I’m keeping them out of the Top 10 is the very reasons listed. Poor defense + tough road slates should amount to anywhere from 2 to 4 losses by regular season’s end. I’d be stunned if they won the Big 12, never mind make the BCS Championship Game.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
2010 Record: 9-5 (Lost to Florida State in Chick-Fil-A Bowl)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Key Games: 9/10 at Georgia, 10/15 at Mississippi St., 11/5 at Arkansas
Synopsis: Went back and forth with the Gamecocks and Oklahoma St. at least 5-6 times. Ultimately Clowney’s signing and me buying the hype is the difference. South Carolina also has a ton of offensive talent coming back and much like the story of last year, it will come down to the QB and whether they can keep everything under control. Stephen Garcia is still the favorite to be the starter but he often ended up in Spurrier’s doghouse last year with his inconsistencies and tendency for turnovers. Conor Shaw could beat him out in Spring Ball. The weight of the offense will be split between sophomore RB Marcus Lattimore who just might be the best RB in CFB this season and standout WR Alshon Jeffrey who burst onto the scene last year with big games against Alabama and Auburn, eventually qualifying as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. 3 offensive linemen return as starters as well giving the Gamecocks a potent offense that won’t be one-dimensional and easy to stop. Defensively is where people question this team and probably why they are lower in many other people’s rankings. I understand the concern as this group was only 45th ranked last year and was bullied by Auburn and FSU in the SECCG and their bowl. The secondary is back almost intact but one has to wonder if that is a positive as that was the weakness of South Carolina last year. It remains to be seen what another year of experience will do. The biggest loss is up front where their talented front 7 was depleted this offseason leaving them with a variety of holes to fill. Jadeveon Clowney (who spurned my Tigers) is suppose to be the real deal, called “unblockable” by his HS coach and is expected to start immediately opposite Devin Taylor giving SC two talented pass rushers. Their Achilles Heel will be the defense and they may find themselves in a few shootouts but as dishonorable as it is for a Clemson student to rank them this favorably, I feel strongly that they will be a very good SEC team who has to be the favorite to return to the SEC Championship Game from their division.
10. Boise St. Broncos
2010 Record:12-1 (Beat Utah in Maaco Bowl)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Key Games: 9/3 at Georgia (Atlanta), 9/24 vs. Tulsa, TBD vs. TCU
Synopsis: The Gonzaga of College Football this decade, the Broncos were Rose Bowl bound before kicker Kyle Brotzman went all Bill Buckner on FG’s and they lost to Nevada. The biggest news for Boise fans is the return of QB Kellen Moore, a Heisman finalist who chose to return for his senior year, Boise’s first in the Mountain West. Doug Martin in the backfield is the other big offensive weapon returning for Boise who will look to replace the two key WRs from this past season, Austin Pettis and Titus Young. The offense will still put up points in the Mountain West but the defense is what will likely emerge as the team’s true strength. On the other side of the ball, Boise returns 7 starters, most notably up front. The 2nd ranked overall defense of a year ago will rely on Byron Hout and Billy Winn for veteran leadership and has the ability to lock up offenses in game where the Boise offense may struggle. Boise didn’t register a Top 50 recruiting class this year in Rivals opinion, but that seems to be the trend the last few years and yet they win 10-11 games every year, so take that for what it’s worth. The MWC will offer an upgrade in competition with games against TCU and Air Force. They are once again opening the season on the road vs. a power program, this year Georgia in Atlanta. Last time they faced the Bulldogs was in 2005 when they lost by 5 TD’s so you can imagine the level of excitement for them to open the season. If they escape that game, really all that stand between them and a strong shot to go unbeaten will be two games: the first vs. Tulsa whose prolific offense will come to the blue turf and though Boise will certainly be favored, Tulsa could pose a challenge. After that it’s the BCS-Buster game vs. TCU. Winner of that likely will be the MWC champ and stands the best chance to make a BCS Bowl if both enter unbeaten.
9. Ohio St. Buckeyes
2010 Record: 12-1 (Beat Arkansas in Sugar Bowl)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 4 defense
Key Games: 9/17 at Miami, 10/1 vs. Michigan State, 10/29 vs. Wisconsin
Synopsis: Call me Debbie Downer but I’m not sold the Buckeyes get through their first 5 games unblemished. By now everyone knows about the suspensions handed down to 5 players, most notably Terrell Pryor. The others include Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, and Soloman Thomas. With Dane Sanzenbacher having graduated, the Buckeyes will be down their starting QB, leading rusher, top 2 WR’s (Sanzenbacher one), and an O-linemen. Joe Bauserman will be asked to QB the Buckeyes in their first 5 games and get them to the October 8th game at Nebraska unbeaten. Miami is a program who isn’t back yet, but down in Miami, I don’t think you can just chalk that up to a win. The Hurricanes still have Jacory Harris who though he is a ticking time-bomb, is always capable of a big game. Even if they escape there, Michigan State in game 5, even at home will be a tall task. The Spartans have the ground game to control the clock and Cousins if he takes care of the ball will keep Sparty in the game. Michigan State’s biggest problem last year was playing good teams from behind. If OSU can’t get up on them, they just may drop that one. Defensively the Buckeyes lost a lot. But like Gary Patterson, Jim Tressell seems to always rebuild his defense and I see no reason to assume they wouldn’t be a formidable 11 next year again. Their one 5-star recruit is a LB and a good amount of their 4-stars are defensive players too so the “rebuilding” may not be as drastic as it would be at other schools. Their 11th-ranked recruiting class will have to develop fast if the Buckeyes have any aspirations of playing for the title come January. Walking into Nebraska for their first game back, and an always tough Wisconsin team at home in late October, the task may be too tall for the Buckeyes to overcome. Frankly I felt they should have been suspended for the Sugar Bowl last year, but this may end up paying a bigger price as the suspensions could derail a team that would have been a popular national championship game pick for many if there were no suspensions. They have the best team in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin’s ability to replace Tolzien will go a long way towards determining the conference winner, but I’m not high on the Big Ten’s chances of landing any NCG spot. The Buckeyes I expect to slip up at least once next season.
Update: Naturally the news of Tressell and Pryor would change this ranking a bit as they aren’t much of a national championship threat anymore. But perhaps not as bad as most think. I’d project them around low 20′s to maybe on the edge of the top 25. They still won’t fall off the map but they no longer are close to a Top 10 team.
Check back early this weekend or early next week for the Top 8 teams in my pre-season poll for 2011-2012.