Its now only 39 days until the first Saturday in the College Football season kicks off, but its never to early to start looking forward to what should be, as always, another terrific college football season. Last year saw Auburn come from the depths of nowhere to win the BCS National Championship game, led by the dominance of transfer QB Cam Newton. Now, that title may be vacated in 5 years, but why start the process of previewing next season by raining on someone’s parade? So we’ll ignore that for now. Anyways, over the course of the next 5+ weeks, we’ll go through a series of topics, hoping to get you better prepared for September 3rd, the first Saturday of the College Football season. Continuing with the 9th part of the 12-part preview, we breakdown each conference in America and put them on a totem pole of sorts, ranking their place among the nation’s conferences. The following schedule is your guide as to what is to come and what has already been done that you can check out by clicking the link, with dates being a rough estimate given my tendency for procrastination. But here’s what you have to look forward to:
Part 1: Ten Teams on the Rise- April 20th
Part 2: Ten Teams due for a Fall- May 3rd
Part 3: New Coaching Faces- May 16th
Part 4: 10 Names to Learn (Replacements)- May 28th
Part 5: 5 Best Non-BCS teams (not named Boise St. or TCU)- June 8th
Part 6: Coaches Needing a Big Season- June 20th
Part 7: Storylines to Follow- July 2ndPart 8: 5 Days to Circle on Your Calendar- July 14thPart 9: Ranking the Conferences- July 26th
Part 10: 10 Heisman Candidates- August 8th
Part 11: Ten Games to Define NCG Race- August 20th
Part 12: Season Predictions- September 1st/September 2nd
Every year we hear the same old debates about where certain conferences rank in the pecking order of FBS college football. Some take great pride in knowing their conference is tough. Some don’t apologize at all for their weaker leagues. It’s 2011 and some things stay the same, some change. So lets take to the task and rank the 11 conferences this upcoming season. How do you judge a conference’s rank? For my list we’ll focus on a few main factors: 1) National Championship contenders, 2) Potential Top 25 teams, 3) Potential Bowl teams. You may not agree with the terms I use to rank conferences but that’s not a concern of mine at the moment. OOC games are a strong argument for conference power but as you’ll note in Part 12, we’ll save any predictions for then. So for now, we’re not judging what teams might do in OOC play. We’ll stick to the leagues. Disagreements are welcomed and expected. Here’s how I order the FBS conferences in 2011:
* I did not count the Independents as a conference. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no “Independent Conference Champ” so I don’t see why they’d be recognized as one.
11. Sun Belt Conference
National Title Contenders- None
Potential Top 25 teams- None
Potential Bowl teams- Troy, FIU, UL-Monroe
Game of the Year- October 25th – Troy at FIU
I’m not sure there’s any debate for the worst conference in America which the Sun Belt undoubtedly held the title for last year and looks to be the same in 2011. Troy will be tested right away to start the season at Clemson followed by at Arkansas and though they only return 12 starters, they will likely contend for the conference crown on the strength of a defense who returns 8 starters, most notably Jonathan Massaquoi who had a dominant 13.5 sack season a year ago. Their main challenger will likely be the same Florida International team who pushed them last season and brings back 7 starters on each side of the ball from the Little Caesar’s Bowl champs. None of the bottom teams from last year have the returning starters coming back to make me think they can take the leap from 2-3 wins up to the 6-7 needed for a bowl berth. Middle Tennessee has a ton of turnover on the defensive side of the ball and if they can’t squeeze out an OOC win over Purdue or GT could be looking at an 0-3 start with a trip to Troy in their 3rd game. Wildcard team for 2011? How about a Louisiana-Monroe team who put 3 brutal OOC games on their schedule to start the year with Florida State, TCU, and Iowa all on the road. They have a trip to Troy mixed in which means they’re likely looking at needing a 6-2 or 7-1 conference record to go bowling. But with 10 starters back on offense, and 8 on the defense, plus getting Florida International at home, its not impossible for them to get to the 6 wins. Still, as has been mentioned already, the Sun Belt should once again be the weak link of the FBS conferences this season.
10. Western Athletic Conference
National Title Contenders- None
Potential Top 25 teams- Nevada
Potential Bowl Teams- Nevada, Hawaii, Fresno St., Idaho
Game of the Year- November 12th – Hawaii at Nevada
Another conference that I don’t foresee having much change at the top or in the bowl season in 2011. The conference lost a lot of luster as a whole with the departure of Boise St. to the Mountain West. In a year where Hawaii and Nevada lose quite a bit of personnel, losing their perennial Top 25 team and occasional National title threat really damages their standing as a league. For the WAC in 2011, Nevada will look to replace the departure of QB Colin Kaepernick and RB Vai Taua and repeat as conference champs. They represent the closest thing to a potential Top 25 team in the league, but if they don’t win one of their 3 key OOC games against Oregon, Boise St., and Texas Tech then they will find it difficult breaking into the polls. Hawaii brings QB Bryant Moniz back and will deal with replacing just about everyone else on offense. The matchup between those two at Nevada will likely determine the league champ. Frenso St. under Pat Hill will once again challenge themselves out of league with Nebraska and Cal to open the year. With 7 starters back on offense, and 5 on D, it’s hard to count them out. The trips to both Hawaii and Nevada will make it a challenge to win the league outright and even a split title questionable. For the rest of the league I don’t see much movement at all. Idaho at 6-7 last season just missed out on bowl eligibility and with 4-5 projected “loss locks” they’d have to fare pretty well in their remaining 7-8 games to gain bowl eligibility. Louisiana Tech and Utah St. look like long shots with their schedules.
9. Mid American Conference
National Title Contenders- None
Potential Top 25 teams- Miami OH, Toledo
Potential Bowl teams- Miami OH, Toledo, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Temple, Kent St.
Game of the Year- November 1st, Northern Illinois at Toledo
The MAC had a respectable season last year as 4 teams punched bowl tickets and 2 ended up with double-digit wins. I’ve made clear in part 5 of my preview my opinions on the Miami Redhawks team and what they are capable of. Depending on how Kent St. and Ohio perform in league play, the league could improve on its 4 teams in postseason play last year, as Miami, Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Temple should all reach the 6 win plateau. Temple, excluded at 8-4 last year from a bowl game (the only team with a winning record to miss), has a schedule that should get them to 6-7 wins and I’d expect they wouldn’t be passed over two years in a row. Toledo has the potential to be every bit as good as Miami, OH but with a much tougher schedule overall it’s tough to envision them losing less than 3-4 games. Given that scenario, their potential to be a steady Top 25 team is admittedly low. Ball St. would likely need a strong performance in conference play to put themselves in the position late in the year to qualify for a bowl game. That’d be the sleeper team to keep track of in the MAC this year. With Northern Illinois missing Miami, OH in the cross-division games this year, that home game for Toledo becomes extra important as they’ll host Miami, OH before getting a bye week to prep for Northern Illinois. With the soft schedule Northern Illinois has in league play, Toledo almost has to win that game in order to set itself up for the right to claim any end of the season tiebreaker for the division title. With games against both Miami, OH and Temple in cross-division play, their odds of going 8-0 in league play are much less likely.
8. Conference USA
National Title Contenders- None
Potential Top 25 teams- Tulsa, UCF, SMU
Potential Bowl Teams- Tulsa, UCF, SMU, Houston, So. Miss, East Carolina, UTEP, Tulane Game of The Year- October 29th, SMU at Tulsa
A league that maybe isn’t getting the notoriety it deserves heading into 2011, Conference USA will have a few non-AQ teams who figure to be very competitive in their early season OOC games vs BCS schools. The first that jumps out and that I’ve spoken highly of all offseason has been Tulsa. The opportunity for them to play BCS spoiler is there, but you have to wonder how much is too much. With Oklahoma, Boise St., and Oklahoma St. on the non-conference schedule, it may just be too daunting of a task to ask them to play BCS buster. The team I’m most intrigued by in the league coming into 2011 is defending conference champ UCF. With the depth in their backfield, they may not struggle as much as people think to replace the 11 lost starters from last season’s team. Houston will be coming off a disappointing 5-7 season but many may have forgotten the return of QB Case Keenum who was granted a 6th year of eligibility after tearing his ACL last season and sits just 3500 yards short of breaking Timmy Chang’s career passing yards mark. SMU will also return 18 starters to the fold this season and have to be considered among the favorites to win the conference in 2011. With Texas A&M and TCU on the non-conference slate to start the year, we’ll get an early idea of where they stand heading into conference play. UTEP will have quite a bit to replace with only 3 offensive starters back if they plan on making another bowl trip happen. Team to watch in 2011? How about the Tulane Green Wave, a team that may need a productive season to keep Bob Toledo employed. The Green Wave didn’t challenge themselves very much in out of conference and a decent showing in their OOC slate just might do enough to get them from 4 to 6 wins this year in order to have a shot at bowl eligibility.
7. Big East Conference
National Title Contenders- None
Potential Top 25 teams- West Virginia
Potential Bowl Teams- West Virginia, Syracuse, Uconn, Pittsburgh, South Florida, Cincinnati, Louisville
Game of the Year- November 25th, Pittsburgh at West Virginia
In an 8-team league, its very hard to compare them to larger conferences with 10-12 teams when ranking them. The Big East will once again likely be the weakest of the BCS conferences in 2011 with West Virginia being the only team I expect to be in poll consideration for the majority of the year. The Mountaineers under Dana Holgorsen have big potential on the offensive side of the ball given the talents of QB Geno Smith. Replacing the bulk of their defense will be the Mountaineers biggest concern. Last year’s conference champ Uconn should see a fall in league play this year with the loss of both head coach Randy Edsall and RB Jordan Todman. Coming off an 8-5 season, their soft OOC slate makes them a strong candidate to return to a bowl game but I’d anticipate a .500% record overall, maybe 7-5 heading into the postseason. Pittsburgh might be the biggest challenger to West Virginia for the league title in 2011 with bulk of their starters returning from last year. Their ability to replace the skill positions (namely Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin) will determine their ceiling. The Orangemen had a revival of sorts in 2010, winning 8 games capped off by a Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas St. They’ll be challenged out of conference in games against USC and Toledo but will likely be back in a bowl game in 2011 as long as the nation’s #7 defense last season can replace the departure of 6 defensive starters. South Florida is a trendy pick in 2011 to compete for the conference crown but with the turnover they’ll be experiencing and finishing 8-5 last year, a bowl game is what they should realistically be hoping for. Team to improve the most? How about the Cincinnati Bearcats. While the majority of the conference should see similar results to 2010, the Bearcats have the personnel coming back to make that jump to 6 wins, maybe 7 if they get some bounces, even despite a tough non-conference slate that sees them travel to both Tennessee and Miami, OH while hosting NC St. 7 bowl-caliber teams out of an 8-team league would lead one to believe this is a strong league. But the fact is, I don’t anticipate many 9-10 win bowl teams out of this league, just a lot of 6, 7, and 8 win teams taking part in mediocre bowls. That gets you the #7 spot on my list this year.
6. Mountain West Conference
National Title Contenders- Boise St.
Potential Top 25 teams- Boise St., TCU, San Diego St., Air Force
Potential Bowl Teams- Boise St., TCU, San Diego St., Air Force, Colorado State/Wyoming
Game of the Year- November 12th, TCU at Boise St.
If there’s a wider gap from top to bottom in any conference in America I would love to see it. The Mountain West possesses four of the top non-AQ teams in the land, two of whom will likely start the year in the preseason Top 25 (both probably top 20), and then four teams who won a combined 9 games in 2010. The first conference I’m willing to give a legitimate national title contender to, the Boise St. Broncos will turn to senior QB Kellen Moore and their defense to overcome the loss of playmakes Titus Young and Austin Pettis. The Broncos once again will take on some early season tests against Georgia, Toledo, and Tulsa. Should the Broncos run through that trio unbeaten, a step up in competition to the Mountain West may just be what they need to make a run at a national title. TCU comes off a Rose Bowl win and has a ton of personnel to replace on each side of the ball. The biggest concern to me will be how Casey Pachall handles replacing Andy Dalton, one of the winningest QBs in CFB history. The defense is always a strong suit of TCU football and despite the massive overhaul, Gary Patterson should be able to right that ship. After those two you get to San Diego State and Air Force. Both teams possess very strong run games and either is entirely capable of knocking off the two heavyweights if they can control the clock. San Diego State stands the more formidable of the two with one of the nation’s top RB’s in Ronnie Hillman. With both TCU and Boise traveling to SDST, if they can pull one of those upsets off and then hope for the team they beat to win their H2H matchup with the other, they could potentially be looking at a split title. After that Colorado State or Wyoming would likely be the 5th bowl team but either is a long shot at this point. Neither team really challenged themselves much in the non-conference slate with the exception of Wyoming’s game against Nebraska. Still with potentially 4 top 25 teams in a Non-AQ league, the bottom of the league can only drag them down so far. It is a stronger conference than the Big East heading into 2011.
5. Pacific 12 Conference
National Title Contenders- Oregon, Stanford
Potential Top 25 teams- Oregon, Stanford, Arizona St., Utah
Potential Bowl Teams- Oregon, Stanford, Arizona St., Utah, Oregon St., Arizona, Washington
Game of the Year- November 12th, Oregon at Stanford
*For the purpose of this conference ranking, Southern Cal is not considered as a potential Top 25 team due to their sanctions, even though they can be ranked in the polls.
With the addition of Utah and Colorado to the Pacific 12, the conference turns to the two division format used in the SEC and now Big Ten. The conference is very unbalanced in that for 2011 they will have two heavyweights up top and then not much else. The Oregon Ducks and Stanford Cardinal both bring back their offensive stars and will be among the early list of favorites for teams competing for the national championship. In fact their matchup at Stanford this year on November 12th in all likelihood will determine the PAC-12 North champ and probably the conference champ. Beyond that you’ll have a few fringe Top 25 teams but probably none that will have sustained periods of poll placement. Utah’s season will likely be determined by how they handle the front part of their schedule with Southern Cal, BYU, Pitt, and Arizona St. in their first 6 games. They dodge Oregon and Stanford in cross-division play. Arizona St. should be improved from last year’s 6-6 team with pretty much everyone back from last year’s starters. Beyond that you’re likely looking at teams falling off. Washington will lean heavily on RB Chris Polk now that Jake Locker is playing on Sundays and odds are they may once again be playing for a potential bowl bid in the last week or two of the season. Arizona despite bringing Nick Foles and Juron Criner back on the offense, has a lot of holes they need to plug in and with a brutal front of the season schedule featuring 3 consecutive games with no bye weeks against Oklahoma St., Stanford and Oregon, the Wildcats will likely struggle mightily out of the gates and face the strong possibility of 3 losses before October even begins. The Beavers of Oregon St. lost one Rodgers brother but gain another with the return of James at WR. Like Washington, they too will probably be fighting for a bowl spot in the final weeks of the season. The rest of the PAC-12 doesn’t look promising in 2011 and we’ll see what shape USC is in come next season whether or not the PAC-12 can get back to elite status on a national level.
4. Atlantic Coast Conference
National Title Contenders- Florida State
Potential Top 25 teams- FSU, Virginia Tech, Miami, UNC, Maryland
Potential Bowl Teams- Everyone except Duke and Wake Forest
Game of the Year- November 12th, Miami FL at Florida State
For years now the ACC has had the reputation of possessing a lot of “good-very good” teams and yet no great or elite teams. The last known great teams were the early 2000 Florida State and Miami’s of the CFB world. The Seminoles believe they can get back to that point this upcoming season and the early indications are the media and CFB analysts agree. The Seminoles return 8 starters on each side of the ball and will have one of the better defenses in all of the ACC. The biggest hurdle for them will be a rematch with Oklahoma from last season at home this year. Should the Seminoles escape there, then their matchup with Miami in mid-November might be all that stands between them and an unbeaten regular season. The Hokies have had a stranglehold on the ACC for the past few years, regularly finding themselves near the top of the conference standings. In 2011, they face the losses of their entire core backfield last year, as well as Tyrod Taylor. With a new offensive regime taking the field, they’ll need big things from Bud Foster’s defense if they hope to repeat as Coastal Division champs. With no Florida State on the schedule during the season and no challenging OOC games, if they can avoid a James Madison-type loss this season, they could be a darkhorse to run the table in the regular season, though I certainly expect them to drop a game or two. Beyond that is a jumbled mess. Miami, Maryland, UNC, Clemson, Boston College and NCST all make up the next year and its anyone’s guess entering the season how to rank the 3-8 teams. Miami seems to be the popular choice but with all their challenging road games (especially in conference play), I have a hard time getting behind them. Every other team has their own issues. The Terrapins have concerns on the O-line and secondary. Clemson has to replace 4 starters from their defense and has a new offensive system in place. Boston College has a very difficult road slate in ACC play. NCST has to replace Russell Wilson and UNC has a ton of turnover on its offense. Even Virginia and Georgia Tech are bowl potential teams as Mike London’s group at UVA would be the most likely improved team in 2011 with a very manageable schedule. However they’d be best served getting to the 6-win mark before the end of the season as their last two finish up at Florida State and home vs rival Virginia Tech. Duke and Wake Forest may be improved from 2011 but I wouldn’t expect either to go bowling this postseason.
3. Big Ten Conference
National Title Contenders- Nebraska, Wisconsin
Potential Top 25 teams- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Penn State
Potential Bowl Teams- Everyone except Indiana and Minnesota
Game of the Year- October 29th, Michigan State at Nebraska
Easily the toughest choice between two conferences the whole list. The Big Ten finished in 3rd due to the caliber of their top teams vs. the next conference on this list. When Ohio State lost Terrell Pryor and 4 other starters to suspension for 5 games, it put a damper on their 2011 season. But the eventual outcome that cost Jim Tressel his job and Terrell Pryor to leave the program voided the Big Ten of a national title contender. Heading into their initial season with two divisions and a conference championship game, the Badgers have to be a heavy favorite to win the Leaders division. They became favorites when the Ohio St. mess unfolded and the addition of Russell Wilson at QB made that even stronger. It will be interesting in his one year at the school what the ceiling for their potential is. Their OOC slate is pretty manageable with Northern Illinois possibly being the biggest challenger. But in conference games against Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio St. and Penn St. will be potential landmines. The other major player in the Big Ten will be the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Coming over from the Big 12, they return Taylor Martinez as well as 4 All-Conference defenders but will need to address question marks on the O-line. For a team who is heavily reliant on the run, replacing 3 big guys up front will be priority #1 for Bo Pelini. Could the Nebraska-Wisconsin game on October 1st be potentially just the appetizer to a CCG rematch? Well that may very well be determined by Nebraska’s October 29th game against Michigan State. The Spartans were the surprise story if 2010 coming from out of nowhere to earn a split title in the Big Ten. They return their holy trinity in 2011 with Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell all back in the fold. Losing their top two tacklers last season from their defense, LBs Greg Jones and Eric Gordan will be tall tasks to replace and the month of October as a whole will be what all Spartans fans circle to see where they likely sit at the season’s end in the Legends race. They’ll take on Ohio State (down the 5 starters) and Nebraska on the road with rival Michigan and Wisconsin coming to East Lansing. Any chance they have of playing for the conference championship ride heavily on those 4 games, and potentially none bigger than the trip to Nebraska. What you get after those 4 is very ACC-like. Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern will likely all be bowl teams and could put a dent into the projected conference standings if any put together an upset or two. I’ve learned no matter what I do I can never figure the Iowa Hawkeyes out and the fact I haven’t mentioned them until now probably means they’ll play in the Rose Bowl. The dack is stacked pretty high against Minnesota doing much and Illinois can ill-afford a loss on the road to the likes of Indiana or Minnesota if they have any intentions of bowling. Coming off a tie for 4th last year, the Illini may be the team to take a slide this year. With 16 starters back and the majority of their tough games on the back end of their slate, the Purdue Boilermakers will make or break their bowl chances in the first 8 weeks.
2. Big 12 Conference
National Title Contenders- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State
Potential Top 25 teams- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas
Potential Bowl Teams- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech
Game of the Year- December 3rd, Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
With arguably (and my #1) the best team in college football at the top, the Big 12 already had an early edge. Add in 2 other potential top 10 teams and 4 top 20 teams in my opinion and you have the second best conference in the country heading into 2011. The real question is will this Oklahoma team live up to its early season accolades? We’ve seen this act time and time again from the Sooners and perhaps nothing will be more telling about them than how they handle a September 17th travel to Tallahassee to take on the Florida State Seminoles. With Landry Jones and just about the entire receiving core back intact, the Sooners offense should be explosive in 2011 per usual. The wild card game that should be a big note in the 2011 Big 12 season is the September 24th matchup in College Station between the Aggies and Oklahoma State. As the likely two biggest challengers to Oklahoma in Big 12 play, the winner of that game comes out as priority #1 for the Sooners when that matchup presents itself. The Cowboys lost Dana Holgorsen to West Virginia but not much else off the offense as 10 starters are back (though Kendall Hunter is not an easy “1 starter” to replace) to try and duplicate a potent offensive machine that torched defenses throughout 2010. For the Aggies it’s Ryan Tannehill’s team from Day 1 as the mid-season swap at QB last year jolted the Texas A&M bunch to a strong finish including an upset of Oklahoma and Nebraska. With 18 total starters back, the Aggies are probably the closest omission I made to any team who could be a national title contender but I didn’t make one. Their OOC slate with Arkansas and SMU on top of the Big 12 slate makes things tough on them to be players in the NCG race late in the season. The team many seem to be down on that I’m surprised at is the Missouri Tigers. Though Blaine Gabbert departed to the NFL, they return the majority of their offensive weapons giving James Franklin all the help he needs in his first year as a starter to make the transition as smooth as possible. The road slate for 2011 will challenge the Tigers but they should be a steady Top 25 team and a Top 20 team to start the season without question. The major story of 2010 was the downfall of the Texas Longhorns. Usually competing for national titles, Mack Brown’s bunch found themselves fighting for their bowl lives in 2010 and for the first time in over a decade didn’t participate in the bowl season after finishing 5-7. Almost all concerns for Texas lie on the offensive side of the ball where a roller-coaster QB competition and an offensive line that needs a major progression if they expect any difference in results this year will highlight the most attention for them in 2011. They take to the road to UCLA this year to finish a home and home and welcome BYU in the 2nd week, a BYU team who many project to be among the best Non-AQs in the country. Barring any major injuries, one has to think this team can’t possibly miss the bowl season again. But it’s hard to imagine this bunch jumping back into conference title contention again. Baylor and Texas Tech will likely challenge Texas for the 5th spot in the conference and both should be bowling come December. Baylor welcomes back Robert Griffin III but will deal with an overhaul on their defense. The Red Raiders lose QB Taylor Potts but return 8 starters from a defense that will need to be significantly better than the one in 2010 whose secondary couldn’t stop a Pop Warner team. Kansas State I don’t see 6 wins on their schedule and with semi-decent turnover on both sides of the ball may miss out on the bowling season. Iowa St. and Kansas remain long shots to get to a bowl game. Both have the same problem……they’re just nowhere near as talented as the rest of the conference.
1. Southeastern Conference
National Title Contenders- Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina
Potential Top 25 teams- Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi St., Auburn
Potential Bowl Teams- Everyone except Ole Miss and Vanderbilt
Game of the Year- September 24th, Arkansas at Alabama
Anyone who is surprised or expected differently when it comes to the nation’s best conference hasn’t been paying much attention to college football recently. The conference that has claimed the last 5 BCS national titles stands as likely as ever to claim another with 4 teams that have a chance to win the title, though South Carolina is likely a long shot. In the East divison, the Gamecocks will rely heavily on their big 3 of Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey to be the catalysts to another SEC East title. As we know, you can rarely ever count the SEC champ out of the BCS NCG talks, but South Carolina could possibly be the exception if they get there as 3-4 losses is probably likely. On their heels in the SEC East will be Georgia and Florida. Two young teams, the Bulldogs face a massive offensive change as A.J Green departed to the NFL and both featured backs from last year Washaun Ealey and Caleb King won’t be back in 2011 due to a transfer for Ealey and academic issues for King. So instead they’ll rely on sophomore Aaron Murray who many expect elite things from and a true freshman Isaiah Crowell to carry the offensive burden. The x-factor in Georgia’s favor will be getting South Carolina at home in week 2 and dodging the “Big 3″ in the SEC West in cross-division games. For Florida it’s a new era with Will Muschamp at the helm and Charlie Weis in as offensive coordinator. The post-Tim Tebow era was anything but smooth for the Gators who despite a 9th ranked national defense could only muster a 4-4 SEC record with 5 losses overall, mostly due to the ineffectiveness of the offense. The schedule makers did them no favors by handing them a 4 game stretch in October with games against Auburn, LSU, Alabama, and Georgia. Tennessee fans should note that 2010 consisted of no wins over quality opponents and look at 2011 with concern as the Vols draw the 3 toughest teams from the west division plus their normal SEC East slate with a trip to the Swamp tossed in. Given how hard it is to pick them to win any cross-division games, they may need 3 SEC East wins to feel good about their chances of going bowling. In the SEC West, the deck is stacked against any team who feels it can duplicate the last two BCS national champions Auburn and Alabama, who ran the table and won the national title unbeaten. Alabama was named the media pick in large part because of a defense that returns 9 starters and is expected to be the dominant defensive unit in the SEC. A.J McCarron will take over the signal calling and Trent Richardson will get a chance to wear the Batman gear for the season as the premier back in the backfield. Getting LSU and Arkansas at Bryant-Denny is a huge advantage in the SEC West race. The Razorbacks lost Ryan Mallett and D.J Williams yet will likely still be the premier offense in the conference. Their WR core may be 2nd to none in CFB and Kniles Davis returns as the conference’s leading rusher in 2010. Tyler Wilson looks more than ready to direct this ship and I look at them as the darkhorse to win the conference in 2011. LSU made it clear to all with their 2011 schedule that if they are to compete for a national title, it won’t be because of a lack of quality opponents. Despite the gauntlet the SEC West presents, the Tigers have matchups with West Virgina and Oregon to open the season in the non-conference part of their schedule that will put this team at the frontline or playing catchup right away. Jordan Jefferson has been a never-ending nightmare for LSU fans for years and yet Les Miles continues to stick by the senior and his confidence in him has rarely wavered. Jefferson’s ability to make plays in the air could be crucial to the Tigers chances of winning the SEC West. A trip to Alabama on November 5th looms large but unlike some other national title contenders, they really don’t have the luxury of looking ahead with all the landmines they have to dodge beforehand. Auburn and Mississippi St. despite both being Top 25 teams preseason and talented football squads will likely battle it out for 4th and 5th in the SEC West and should be bowl teams at season’s end. Ole Miss? They may be looking at road trips to Kentucky and Vanderbilt as their only chance at conference wins. If Kentucky can get to 3 wins in SEC play, they’ll stand a strong shot at returning to a bowl game. Vanderbilt should have the cellar of the SEC East to themselves unless they knock Kentucky off at home, and even that might not be enough.
Disagree? Let me hear about it. Check back in the coming weeks as we finish the offseason preview with a look at Ten Heisman candidates, ten games that define the national championship race, and finally conference predictions.