- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Auburn won the 2011 BCS National Championship by beating Oregon 22-19 on a last-second field goal at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night.
The Tigers, who won their first national championship in more than a half-century, are the fifth straight SEC team to win a BCS title.
Will another SEC team be in contention for a BCS national title in 2011? Can Auburn and Oregon get back to New Orleans for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game?
It's never too early to take a look at the Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2011:
1. Oklahoma Sooners
After struggling in 2009 because of myriad injuries, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops seems to have his program back on track. The Sooners finished the 2010 season with a 12-2 record, won a Big 12 title for the seventh time in 11 seasons and ended their five-game losing streak in BCS games by blasting Connecticut 48-20 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Sooners might be the team to beat in 2011, with 14 players coming back who have starting experience on offense and 15 on defense. Quarterback Landry Jones gets back his favorite target, Ryan Broyles, who passed on entering the NFL draft to return to school, and all but one offensive lineman is expected back. The Sooners will have to replace leading rusher DeMarco Murray, along with a few key parts on defense -- end Jeremy Beal and safeties Jonathan Nelson and Quinton Carter. Two of OU's toughest Big 12 games (Texas A&M and Missouri) will be played at home and the Sooners will have to make difficult trips to Oklahoma State for the Bedlam Game and Florida State for a key nonconference contest.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama struggled at times in defending its 2010 BCS National Championship, but the Crimson Tide sure looked like one of the country's best teams when they routed Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl. Alabama's youth was overlooked this past season, as 22 of its players were first-time starters. The Tide will have to replace three juniors who entered the NFL draft -- tailback Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and defensive end Marcell Dareus. Quarterback Greg McElroy also is departing, and AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims will battle for the starting job this spring. Four starting offensive linemen are returning, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron should be better after battling injuries this past season. The Tide play a nonconference game at Penn State and they'll play two difficult SEC West games at home (Arkansas and LSU) and two on the road (Mississippi State and Auburn).
3. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks will have to replace a lot of talent on both sides of the ball in 2011, but they'll still have several key pieces back from the team that played Auburn in Monday night's Tostitos BCS National Championship Game. Coach Chip Kelly has installed a winning formula in Eugene, Ore., and quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James will give the Ducks a chance to outscore any opponent. Oregon will have to replace three starting offensive linemen, along with leading receivers Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis. The losses are heavy on defense, too, with tackles Brandon Bair and Zac Clark, end Kenny Rowe, linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger and cornerback Talmadge Jackson III departing. Oregon plays only four true road games in 2011, along with a much-anticipated neutral-site contest against LSU in Arlington, Texas.
4. LSU Tigers
Here's why Tigers coach Les Miles didn't leave LSU for Michigan: The Tigers might be really, really good in 2011. The Tigers, who have been the most consistent program in the SEC over the last 10 years with 102 victories, bring 10 starters back on offense and eight on defense. The losses on defense are still pretty significant, though, with tackles Lazarius Levingston and Drake Nevis and middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard leaving, and cornerback Patrick Peterson entering the NFL draft as a junior. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson played better down the stretch, but he'll be challenged by junior-college transfer Zach Mettenberger, who has a very strong arm. The Tigers play Oregon in Arlington, Texas, and also will play difficult SEC road games at Mississippi State and Alabama.
5. Boise State Broncos
The Boise State bus ran off a cliff at Nevada on Nov. 26, as the Broncos' 34-31 overtime loss to the Wolf Pack knocked them out of a BCS bowl game. But it's hard to ignore Boise State's consistency under coach Chris Petersen, who has guided the Broncos to 12 victories or more in each of the last three seasons. It would be a surprise if Boise State isn't a BCS contender again in 2011, its first season in the Mountain West Conference. Boise State will have to replace leading receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, which won't be easy after they combined to catch 142 passes for more than 2,100 yards with 19 touchdowns in 2010. But quarterback Kellen Moore and running back Doug Martin will be back to lead what should be another high-powered offense. There are also big losses on defense with end Ryan Winterswyk and safeties Jeron Johnson and Winston Venable departing. Boise State opens the 2011 season against Georgia in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, so it will have another opportunity to impress voters.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Fresh off its first 11-win season in school history, Oklahoma State seems poised for even more in 2011, as long as the Cowboys learn to keep their poise in big games. The key pieces from the Pokes' record-setting offense, which set school records for points scored (575) and total offense (6,763 yards) in 2010, are coming back, including quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. Tailback Kendall Hunter is a big loss on offense, along with offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left to become West Virginia's coach-in-waiting. Six defensive starters will have to be replaced, including leading tacklers Orie Lemon and Justin Gent. The Pokes play nonconference games against Arizona (home) and Tulsa (road) and play Big 12 road games at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri.
7. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles were pretty good in their first season in more than three decades without Bobby Bowden, as first-year coach Jimbo Fisher guided them to a 10-4 record, ACC Atlantic Division title and 26-17 victory over South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Seminoles are expected to bring back nine starters on both offense and defense, and many of their best players in 2010 were freshmen and sophomores. Quarterback Christian Ponder will be missed, but EJ Manuel has starting experience and is really talented. FSU's defense is only going to get better as young players such as cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid and linebackers Telvin Smith and Christian Jones continue to develop. The Seminoles will play Oklahoma at home in a key nonconference game, but they get a big scheduling break because they don't play Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Virginia Tech during the regular season.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks' 31-26 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl was a deflating way to end a breakthrough season, but coach Bobby Petrino has built an SEC West contender after three seasons. Quarterback Ryan Mallett will be missed, but backup Tyler Wilson might be another NFL prospect waiting to take over. Most of the Hogs' deep receiver corps will return, except for tight end D.J. Williams. Top receiver Greg Childs comes back after missing the last five games of the 2010 season with a knee injury, and tailback Knile Davis' strong running really made the Hogs balanced on offense down the stretch. The Hogs made strides on defense this past season and might be even better after losing only three starters. Arkansas will play only four true road games -- they play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas -- but they'll have to play at Alabama and LSU during SEC play.
9. Stanford Cardinal
Can the Cardinal duplicate their 2010 success without coach Jim Harbaugh, who left for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers? Harbaugh instilled a toughness and blue-collar work ethic that we hadn't seen in Stanford teams of the past. But with quarterback Andrew Luck bypassing a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to Stanford for his junior season, the Cardinal won't fall off the map. In fact, depending on who Stanford hires to replace Harbaugh, the Cardinal might have a chance to contend for another BCS bowl spot or even more in 2011. Stanford will have to replace a lot of key pieces, with seven starters leaving on offense and four on defense. Three starting offensive linemen and two-way star Owen Marecic will be particularly difficult to replace. Stanford plays seven home games in 2011, including contests against Oregon, California and Notre Dame, and travels to USC and Oregon State.
10. Ohio State Buckeyes
If the Buckeyes can survive the first five games of the season, in which they'll play without suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor, tailback Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas, they'll be favorites to win the Big Ten. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, their first four games aren't very arduous: home against Akron and Toledo, at Miami and home against Colorado. Pryor and the other four suspended players will miss the Big Ten opener against Michigan State at home. Nine starters are expected back on offense, but OSU will have to replace several key defensive stars, including end Cameron Heyward, linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa. OSU plays a Big Ten road game at Nebraska and also plays Wisconsin and Penn State at home.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks finally won their first SEC East title, but the 2010 season ended with two bad losses: 56-17 to Auburn in the SEC championship game and 26-17 to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Still, South Carolina has plenty of offensive firepower coming back with tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. USC coach Steve Spurrier says he'll open the quarterback competition this spring between Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw, after Garcia struggled down the stretch. South Carolina loses two key defensive linemen and two linebackers, and receiver Tori Gurley also entered the NFL draft. In 2011, the Gamecocks play potentially difficult SEC road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas and host Auburn and Florida. The Gamecocks still look like the best team in the SEC East.
12. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers' red-hot finish to the 2010 season ended with a dud, a 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. If the Badgers are going to contend for a Big Ten title again in 2011, they'll have to rebuild their mammoth offensive line and replace quarterback Scott Tolzien. Left tackle Gabe Carimi, the Outland Trophy winner as the country's top lineman, and All-America left guard John Moffitt will have to be replaced, along with tailback John Clay. But the Badgers bring back to capable runners in Montee Ball and James White, along with receiver Nick Toon. The defense loses star end J.J. Watt, two starting linebackers and two defensive backs. Linebacker Chris Borland, who missed most of the 2010 season after he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in '09, is expected to return. The Badgers play only four true road games, but two of them are at Michigan State and Ohio State.
13. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies' November to remember didn't extend into the postseason, as they were routed by LSU 41-24 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. But coach Mike Sherman's third season certainly ended better than his first two; the Aggies went 9-4 and defeated Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas during a six-game winning streak to end the regular season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's performance down the stretch -- he was 5-1 as a starter -- gives the Aggies plenty of hope for 2011. The Aggies should have back 10 starters on offense, including receiver Jeff Fuller and tailback Cyrus Gray. The offensive line should be better after the Aggies started two freshmen and two sophomores up front this past season. Nine starters are expected back on defense, but linebacker Von Miller is leaving. The Aggies should be better in their second season in defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme. The Aggies play only three games outside the state of Texas in 2011 (at Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State) and they play Oklahoma State and Texas at home.
14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
This finally might be the season the Irish break through, especially now that junior receiver Michael Floyd is returning to school. Notre Dame showed a lot of promise in Kelly's first season, ending 2010 with a four-game winning streak, including a 33-17 rout of Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. If Floyd returns, the Irish might have nine starters back on offense and eight on defense. There should be a pretty good quarterback battle in the spring between Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, who played well after Crist was hurt. The most promising development of Kelly's first season was the improvement on defense. Notre Dame's 2011 schedule features nine games against teams that played in bowl games in 2010.
15. Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans won a share of their first Big Ten championship in two decades, but the season was somewhat spoiled by their 42-point loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Coach Mark Dantonio will have to rebuild both sides of the ball, but he has a good nucleus coming back on offense with quarterback Kirk Cousins and running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. Replacing linebackers Eric Gordon and Greg Jones, a two-time All-American, will be a priority in the spring. There also might be a new direction on offense, after coordinator Don Treadwell left to become the new head coach at Miami (Ohio). The Spartans' 2011 fortunes might be decided during a four-game stretch in October: at Ohio State, home against Michigan and Wisconsin, and at Nebraska.
16. Missouri Tigers
The Tigers went only 3-3 in their last six games, including a 27-24 loss to Iowa in the Insight Bowl. Worse, Blaine Gabbert left Missouri a year early and might be the first quarterback selected in next spring's NFL draft. But the Tigers might still bring back 10 starters on offense and seven on defense. The Tigers are really excited about quarterback James Franklin, who is more mobile. He'll battle Gabbert's younger brother, Tyler Gabbert, and Ashton Glaser for the starting job. The Tigers will play at least three difficult road games: at Arizona State, at Oklahoma and at Texas A&M.
17. Auburn Tigers
We don't think the Tigers are going to completely fall off the map, but there have been few teams that were so reliant on one player as much as Auburn relied on Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton this past season. If Newton leaves for the NFL draft as expected, the Tigers are going to endure at least one rebuilding season. Four starters on the offensive line will have to be replaced, including All-America tackle Lee Ziemba and All-SEC center Ryan Pugh. The losses on defense will be even worse, especially if All-America tackle Nick Fairley enters the NFL draft as expected. Quarterback Barrett Trotter will get the first crack at replacing Newton this coming season. Auburn plays road games at South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, so it will certainly be difficult to match this past season's success.
18. TCU Horned Frogs
We're about to find out whether coach Gary Patterson built a great team or a great program at TCU. After beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, the Horned Frogs are losing a boatload of talent on both sides of the ball. Four offensive linemen will have to be replaced, along with Andy Dalton, who won more games than any other quarterback in TCU history. Receivers Jimmy Young and Jeremy Kerley also are big losses. On defense, three starters are gone in the secondary, along with two linemen. Casey Pachall and Yogi Gallegos will battle for the quarterback job as the Horned Frogs enter their final season in the MWC before joining the Big East in 2012. They'll play nonconference games at Baylor and home against Texas Tech and SMU.
19. Nebraska Cornhuskers
There's no question the Cornhuskers are better under coach Bo Pelini than they were under former coach Bill Callahan, but Pelini can't be too excited about the way Nebraska's last season in the Big 12 ended. Nebraska lost three of its last four games, including a 19-7 loss to Washington in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl. The Cornhuskers scored three offensive touchdowns in their four losses this season. Before Nebraska begins its first season in the Big Ten, Pelini has to restore quarterback Taylor Martinez's confidence and replace Roy Helu Jr.'s production. There are also a couple of big losses on defense, with cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Eric Hagg departing. Nebraska's first Big Ten schedule includes home games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa and road games at Wisconsin and Penn State.
20. Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech did a stellar job of rebuilding its defense in each of the past few seasons, and now it will have to reload its offense if it's going to repeat as ACC champions in 2011. The Hokies will be without quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams, who both left school early to enter the NFL draft. All told, five starters are leaving on offense and four on defense. Four seniors will return on the offensive line, along with tailback David Wilson. Logan Thomas, a converted tight end, is the top candidate to replace Taylor. The Hokies' nonconference schedule isn't as arduous as it has been in past seasons and they play ACC foes Miami and North Carolina at home.
21. Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils came painfully close to qualifying for a bowl game this past season, finishing 6-6 with two victories over FCS foes. The Sun Devils, who lost four games by a combined nine points in 2010, might be favorites in the Pac-12 South this coming season. They're expected to bring back 10 starters on offense and nine on defense. Coach Dennis Erickson's biggest problem the last couple of seasons was not having a consistent quarterback, but Brock Osweiler played well while starting the last couple of games in '10. Osweiler should also be more comfortable in his second season in coordinator Noel Mazzone's hurry-up offense. The Sun Devils play a handful of challenging road games in 2011, against Illinois, Utah and Oregon.
22. Texas Longhorns
After the Longhorns' string of nine consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories ended with a 5-7 record in 2010, coach Mack Brown revamped his coaching staff. After letting three assistant coaches go, defensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp also left to become Florida's coach. Brown hired Mississippi State's Manny Diaz to replace Muschamp, and Boise State's Bryan Harsin and running backs coach Major Applewhite were named co-offensive coordinators. Texas is expected to bring back six starters on offense and eight on defense. With so many changes, the Longhorns' fortunes won't change overnight. But Texas won't be as bad again as it was this past season, either.
23. Florida Gators
The Gators also figure to undergo a face-lift after Muschamp was hired to replace coach Urban Meyer, who resigned for the second time in as many seasons. Like Texas, the Gators have too much talent to be down for very long. Muschamp made a couple of interesting hires with his coaching staff, bringing in former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis to direct the offense and Seattle Seahawks assistant Dan Quinn to guide the defense. Florida will lose at least five starters on each side of the ball, but the Gators received good news when cornerback Janoris Jenkins passed on entering the NFL draft. Weis will have to figure out which of three quarterbacks -- John Brantley, Jordan Reed or Trey Burton -- will be the starter in his pro-style offense. Muschamp will open his Florida career with four of the first five games being played at home, and the Gators will play SEC road games at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.
24. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs had a breakthrough finish in coach Dan Mullen's second season in 2010, finishing 9-4 after blasting Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs are expected to bring back seven starters on both sides of the ball, but they'll have to replace their best offensive lineman (left tackle Derek Sherrod) and best defensive lineman (end Pernell McPhee). State also loses center J.C. Brignone and three starting linebackers, along with kicker Sean Brauchle and punter Heath Hutchins. Mullen promoted defensive line coach Chris Wilson to defensive coordinator after Diaz left for Texas. State plays three of its first six games on the road in 2011, including SEC games at Auburn and Georgia. The Bulldogs also play LSU and Alabama at home.
25. West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers will have to overhaul their defense after losing eight starters from 2010. But their offense should be more consistent with the addition of former Oklahoma State coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who was named coach-in-waiting. The losses on defense are especially heavy, with linemen Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, linebackers Anthony Leonard and J.T. Thomas and safeties Sidney Glover and Robert Sands departing. Top playmakers Noel Devine and Jock Sanders also are leaving. Quarterback Geno Smith will have to carry much of the load on offense in 2011. The Mountaineers play nonconference home games against Marshall and LSU at home and Maryland on the road.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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