Commentary

SEC teams dominate early look at 2011

Originally Published: February 4, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Which college football teams signed the best recruiting classes on Wednesday?

Well, the recruiting class rankings look a lot like the second edition of the 2011 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 -- not to be confused with the first edition published back on Jan. 11.

SEC teams are littered throughout the recruiting class rankings and a whopping eight SEC teams are included in the preseason top 25.

Before you start calling me an SEC homer, remember the SEC has produced each of the past five BCS national champions. When another league wins a national title, you'll convince me that my preseason poll is too SEC-heavy.

There are no changes at the top: Oklahoma remains No.1 and Alabama is No. 2.

Florida State, which signed the country's No. 1 recruiting class, moves to No. 3 in the preseason top 25. Remember where you heard it first: If the Seminoles defeat the Sooners in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sept. 17, they might finish the regular season with a 12-0 record. No team has assembled a better crop of talent over the past two years than FSU.

Ohio State, Stanford and TCU also moved up; Arkansas, Boise State and Oklahoma State moved down.

If you don't like your favorite team's position (or exclusion), keep in mind the season doesn't start for another seven months.

It's never too early to take another look at the Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2011:

1. Oklahoma Sooners (Previous ranking: 1)
With quarterback Landry Jones, receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis coming back, the Sooners are the team to beat in 2011. OU coach Bob Stoops returns 29 players who have started games on either offense or defense, and the Sooners added a couple of key pieces in recruiting -- receiver Trey Metoyer and running back Brandon Williams -- who might be able to help immediately. An early Sept. 17 trip to Florida State will be a good indicator of how good the Sooners really are.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide (Previous ranking: 2)
The Crimson Tide lost a trio of stars to the NFL draft -- tailback Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and defensive lineman Marcel Dareus. But Tide coach Nick Saban has stockpiled talent over the past couple of seasons and just signed another top-five recruiting class. The Tide bring back 22 players who were first-time starters in 2010, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron should be better after battling injuries last season. AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims will battle for the starting quarterback job, but Alabama's system doesn't require a great passer.

3. Florida State Seminoles (Previous ranking: 7)
If FSU fans needed another indication that Jimbo Fisher has the Seminoles headed back toward the sport's upper crust, it was delivered on national signing day. FSU signed the country's No. 1 class and there's more help coming for an improved defense. Quarterback E.J. Manuel played well as an emergency starter in 2010, and nine starters are coming back on both offense and defense. FSU has a favorable schedule -- it doesn't play Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Virginia Tech during the regular season -- and if it can defeat Oklahoma at home on Sept. 17 it might be a serious contender to win the BCS national championship.

4. LSU Tigers (Previous ranking: 4)
The Tigers were pretty good in 2010 without much of a passing game. If new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe can get either juco transfer Zach Mettenberger or incumbent quarterback Jordan Jefferson to play well, LSU might be the team to beat in the rugged SEC West. LSU brings back 10 starters on offense and eight on defense. The losses on defense are pretty heavy, with tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and cornerback Patrick Peterson departing. LSU opens the season against Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the winner will remain in the BCS championship hunt.

5. Oregon Ducks (Previous ranking: 3)
The Ducks are going to score a ton of points again in 2011, with quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James coming back to school. If the Oregon offense is as explosive as it was last season, both James and Thomas will be Heisman Trophy contenders. Incoming freshman DeAnthony Thomas, who spurned USC for the Ducks, also might be a difference-maker on offense. But the Ducks will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and their top two receivers, along with several defensive stars. Oregon's opening test against LSU might put it right back in the BCS title chase if the Ducks win.

6. Ohio State Buckeyes (Previous ranking: 10)
If the Buckeyes can survive the first five games of 2011 without quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other starters who are suspended for accepting improper benefits, they'll have a great chance to win the Big Ten again. Four of OSU's first five games are at home, including the Big Ten opener against Michigan State on Oct. 1. Senior Joe Bauserman is the favorite to start under center while Pryor is out, but he'll have to hold off three other players, including highly regarded freshman Braxton Miller, who enrolled at OSU for winter quarter. The Buckeyes will have to replace several defensive stars, including end Cameron Heyward and linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.

7. Stanford Cardinal (Previous ranking: 9)
Stanford will undergo a bit of a makeover after losing coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, but the Cardinal will have a chance to win every game with quarterback Andrew Luck returning to school. Former offensive coordinator David Shaw was promoted to head coach, so Harbaugh's blue-collar attitude will remain in place. Shaw was able to keep much of Stanford's recruiting class intact and signed a top-20 group. The Cardinal will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and seven defensive starters. The Cardinal play seven home games in 2011, including a Nov. 12 showdown against Pac-12 North rival Oregon.

8. Boise State Broncos (Previous ranking: 5)
The Broncos move to the Mountain West Conference in 2011, where life figures to be a little more difficult than it was while they played in the WAC. With quarterback Kellen Moore and tailback Doug Martin coming back, Boise State's offense should again be very potent. The Broncos' underrated defense has been a big reason for their success, but they'll have to replace departed end Ryan Winterswyk and safeties Jeron Johnson and Winston Venable. Boise State opens the season against Georgia in Atlanta's Georgia Dome and also hosts TCU in a key MWC game. If the Broncos win those two games, they'll be right back in the mix to play in a BCS bowl game.

9. TCU Horned Frogs (Previous ranking: 18)
If the Horned Frogs can beat Boise State on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium, they'll have a great chance of winning the Mountain West Conference in their last season in the league before moving to the Big East in 2012. TCU loses many of its star players from a team that defeated Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, including quarterback Andy Dalton and leading receivers Jimmy Young and Jeremy Kerley. But TCU always has a top-10 defense under coach Gary Patterson, and linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock are coming back to lead another strong unit. Tailback Ed Wesley should help new quarterback Casey Pachall ease into the job.

10. Oklahoma State Cowboys (Previous ranking: 6)
With receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden returning to school, the Cowboys will be as explosive on offense as any Big 12 team. Coach Mike Gundy still hasn't hired a replacement for offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left to become West Virginia's head coach-in-waiting. The Pokes will have to replace six defensive starters, as well as tailback Kendall Hunter. Incoming freshman Herschel Sims of Abilene, Texas, might get an immediate look at tailback. The Pokes will have to play well on the road, with key Big 12 games looming at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri.

11. Arkansas Razorbacks (Previous ranking: 8)
If the Razorbacks played in any other division in college football, they might be a dark-horse BCS title contender in 2011. But the Hogs will have to battle SEC West rivals Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State, and they'll have to do it without quarterback Ryan Mallett, who entered the NFL draft. New quarterback Tyler Wilson might be another NFL prospect waiting to take over and he'll have one of the country's best receiver corps to help him. Tailback Knile Davis returns to give Arkansas a very balanced attack, and the Hogs are bringing back eight starters from an improved defense. The Hogs play only four true road games -- they play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas -- but they'll have to play at Alabama and LSU.

12. Texas A&M Aggies (Previous ranking: 13)
If quarterback Ryan Tannehill plays as well as he did down the stretch in 2010, the Aggies might be capable of challenging Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12. The Aggies bring back 10 starters on offense, including leading receiver Jeff Fuller and tailback Cyrus Gray. Nine starters are coming back on defense, but they'll really miss linebacker Von Miller. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defense was a major upgrade in 2010, and the Aggies should be better in their second season in the system. Texas A&M plays only three games outside the state in 2011 (at Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State) and it plays Oklahoma State and Texas at home.

13. Wisconsin Badgers (Previous ranking: 12)
The Badgers were one of the country's hottest teams in 2010 before losing to TCU in the Rose Bowl. With tailbacks Montee Ball and James White coming back, Wisconsin will be a favorite to win the Big Ten again in 2011. Quarterback Scott Tolzien will have to be replaced, along with the heart and soul of the country's best offensive line. The Badgers also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who left to become Northern Illinois' coach, and coach Bret Bielema promoted Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge to co-defensive coordinators. The Badgers will miss end JJ Watt, but linebacker Chris Borland, the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, returns after missing all of last season with shoulder injuries. The Badgers play only four true road games in 2011, but two of them are at Michigan State and Ohio State.

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Previous ranking: 14)
Brian Kelly's first season at Notre Dame has to be regarded as a success, after he led the Irish to a four-game winning streak to close the 2010 campaign and then signed a top-10 recruiting class. Kelly's maiden season at Notre Dame nearly derailed after quarterback Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending knee injury. Crist is expected back before the start of the 2011 season, and receiver Michael Floyd surprised nearly everyone when he decided to return to school. The Irish will return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. Notre Dame's recruiting class focused on defensive linemen, which should help an improved unit. The Irish will play nine games against teams that played in bowl games in 2010 (plus USC), so there won't be much margin for error.

15. South Carolina Gamecocks (Previous ranking: 11)
The Gamecocks would probably feel better about their chances of repeating as SEC East champions if they hadn't finished the 2010 season so poorly, losing badly to Auburn in the SEC championship game and Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But USC returns plenty of firepower on offense, led by receiver Alshon Jeffery and tailback Marcus Lattimore. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier still doesn't seem thrilled with quarterback Stephen Garcia, who will have to hold off Connor Shaw to keep the starting job. Spurrier brought in a pretty deep recruiting class, which will get much better if No. 1 prospect Jadeveon Clowney chooses USC when he announces his decision on Feb. 14. The Gamecocks play SEC road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas and host Auburn and Florida.

16. Michigan State Spartans (Previous ranking: 15)
Michigan State was playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten until it was blasted by Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl. The Spartans still can't be overlooked in the Big Ten race, though, with quarterback Kirk Cousins and running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell returning. Offensive line coach Dan Roushar was promoted to replace offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, who was named head coach at Miami (Ohio). MSU will have to replace star linebackers Eric Gordon and Greg Jones, a two-time All-American. Incoming freshmen Lawrence Thomas and Darien Harris might get an early look at linebacker. The Spartans face a very difficult four-game stretch in October: at Ohio State, home against Michigan and Wisconsin, and at Nebraska.

17. Auburn Tigers (Previous ranking: 17)
There's no question the Tigers will miss Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton and All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who led them to their first national championship in 50 years. But Auburn also will sorely miss four starting offensive linemen, including All-American left tackle Lee Ziemba and All-SEC center Ryan Pugh. The good news: There's plenty of help coming from a recruiting class that ranked No. 3 in the country, especially on the offensive line. Quarterback Barrett Trotter will get the first crack at replacing Newton, but incoming freshman Kiehl Frazier also figures to get a strong look. With a young quarterback under center, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn figures to rely on tailback Michael Dyer even more. Auburn plays SEC road games at South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, so defending its BCS championship figures to be arduous.

18. Georgia Bulldogs (Previous ranking: NR)
The Bulldogs are coming off a 6-7 season, and coach Mark Richt seemed to be losing all momentum before signing one of the country's best recruiting classes. UGA addressed one of its biggest recruiting needs by signing No. 1 running back prospect Isaiah Crowell of Columbus, Ga., who will be given a chance to start right away. Quarterback Aaron Murray ranked No. 14 nationally in pass efficiency in his first season as a starter and should only get better. UGA returns four starters on the offensive line, but receiver A.J. Green will be sorely missed. UGA's defense struggled in its first season in a 3-4 scheme and it won't help that star linebacker Justin Houston entered the NFL draft as a junior. The Bulldogs remain in the hunt for juco defensive tackle Jonathan Jenkins, who will sign with either UGA or Florida on Saturday and could be the key to coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme. Georgia plays only four true road games (at Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech) and plays Boise State in Atlanta and Florida in Jacksonville, Fla.

19. Texas Longhorns (Previous ranking: 22)
After limping through his first losing season at Texas, Mack Brown basically blew up his program. He brought in six new assistant coaches, including coordinators on both sides of the ball. He hired a new strength and conditioning coach and promises the days of entitlement in Austin are over. Texas won't return to being a BCS contender overnight, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Brown hired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz of Mississippi State and co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin of Boise State, two of the hottest assistants in the country. The Longhorns signed another top-five recruiting class, which they seem to do every year. Incoming freshman Malcolm Brown might be the every-down tailback the Longhorns have sorely needed during the past few seasons and there's plenty of help coming on defense, too. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert should be better in his second season as a starter, as long as UT's young group of receivers performs and the offensive line does a better job of protecting him.

20. Florida Gators (Previous ranking: 23)
It was hard to figure out what plagued the Gators while they limped through an 8-5 campaign in Urban Meyer's final season as coach. Was it lack of leadership? Was it lack of an offensive identity? It's hard to imagine it was lack of talent, given the way Meyer recruited at Florida. New coach Will Muschamp, a former Texas defensive coordinator, has all the pieces in place to produce a quick turnaround. Muschamp hired former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator, and Weis will try to resurrect quarterback John Brantley's confidence heading into his senior season. Incoming freshman Jeff Driskel also figures to get a strong look. The Gators play four of their first five games at home, so Muschamp's maiden voyage as a head coach might get off to a fast start.

21. Missouri Tigers (Previous ranking: 16)
Missouri brings back 10 starters on offense and seven on defense, but star quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn't among them. James Franklin, who is very mobile, will battle Gabbert's younger brother, Tyler Gabbert, and Ashton Glaser for the starting job. Incoming freshman Corbin Berkstresser joins the competition this summer. Four senior starters are coming back on the offensive line, while tight end Michael Egnew and receiver T.J. Moe emerged as big playmakers. Missouri's defense might get immediate help from juco defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who also had scholarship offers from Florida, Miami, Arkansas and Southern California. The Tigers will have to replace defensive end Aldon Smith and cornerbacks Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, who helped stabilize a once-porous secondary. The Tigers will play at least three difficult road games: at Arizona State, at Oklahoma and at Texas A&M.

22. Virginia Tech Hokies (Previous ranking: 20)
The Hokies will have to replace most of their offensive firepower from 2010, after quarterback Tyrod Taylor departed and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams entered the NFL draft early. But Hokies coach Frank Beamer rebuilds teams as well as anyone, which is why his squads have won four ACC championships in the past seven seasons. Beamer will have a good nucleus with four seniors coming back on the offensive line and seven starters returning on defense. Logan Thomas, a converted tight end, will get the first chance at replacing Taylor. David Wilson, a dangerous kick returner, takes over at tailback. The Hokies' nonconference schedule isn't as demanding as it usually is and they play ACC foes Miami and North Carolina at home.

23. Arizona State Sun Devils (Previous ranking: 21)
While it might be hard to imagine Arizona State going from a 6-6 team to Pac-10 South favorites, the Sun Devils might be one of the country's biggest sleepers in 2011. If ASU doesn't play up to its potential, Dennis Erickson's tenure in the desert might come to an end. ASU lost four games by a combined nine points in 2010, and 10 starters are coming back on offense and nine on defense. Quarterback Brock Osweiler was more consistent down the stretch, which was the team's Achilles' heel during the past few seasons. ASU plays a handful of challenging road games, at Illinois, Utah and Oregon.

24. Nebraska Cornhuskers (Previous ranking: 19)
The Cornhuskers are about to find out whether life was easier in the Big 12 than the Big Ten. Nebraska seemed to lose all its steam in its final season in the Big 12 in 2010, losing three of its last four games, including an ugly 19-7 loss to Washington in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl. Nebraska's offense has to get better, and coach Bo Pelini has to restore quarterback Taylor Martinez's confidence, after he struggled down the stretch last season. Losing tailback Roy Helu Jr. won't help the offense, and cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Eric Hagg are big losses on defense. Nebraska's first Big Ten slate includes home games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa and road contests at Wisconsin and Penn State.

25. Mississippi State Bulldogs (Previous ranking: 24)
Can Dan Mullen do it two seasons in a row? The Bulldogs came out of nowhere last season to finish 9-4, after blasting Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs are bringing 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). Worse, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz left to take the same position at Texas after directing an MSU unit that ranked No. 15 nationally in run defense (119.0 yards per game) and No. 21 in scoring defense (19.8 points). Co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson will take over play-calling duties in 2011. MSU plays SEC West rivals LSU and Alabama at home, but faces SEC road games at Auburn, Georgia and Arkansas.

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 schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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