SEC has quantity, but OU is top quality
Spring practice is over for most college football teams, but there are still plenty of storylines that will determine which teams will have the best chance at winning the BCS National Championship Game in 2011.
Will Jim Tressel be on the sideline at any point during Ohio State's upcoming season? Can Florida's defense survive without All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was kicked off the team last week? Will Stephen Garcia be under center when defending SEC East champion South Carolina kicks off the season? Will star receiver Michael Floyd play for Notre Dame in 2011?
Tressel's uncertain future at OSU, as a result of an ongoing NCAA investigation, means the Buckeyes were among a handful of teams that dropped in the third edition of the 2011 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 poll. (The first two editions were unveiled on Jan. 11 and Feb. 4.)
Florida, Notre Dame, South Carolina and TCU also slid. Defending BCS national champion Auburn, which was No. 17 in the last way-too-early poll, dropped out of this one. Before Auburn fans start filling my email inbox (and you know it well), the Tigers simply lost too much talent from last season to compete in college football's toughest division in 2011.
West Virginia, which was unranked in the last edition of the poll, checks in at No. 14 after coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen's offense looked explosive during spring practice. Texas A&M, Michigan State, Nebraska and Missouri also rose.
Here's the post-spring practice Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25 poll:
1. Oklahoma Sooners (Previous ranking: 1)
The Sooners probably have fewer areas of concern than any other team in the country, which is a big reason why they might be poised to appear in their fifth BCS Championship Game since 2000. Quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles are back to lead what should be a very prolific offense, albeit under new direction after former offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson left to become Indiana's head coach. It appears OU will use a tailback-by-committee approach to replace departed leading rusher DeMarco Murray, and converted tight end Lane Johnson might have to replace right tackle Jarvis Jones, who will miss several months with a knee injury. Another big concern: All-Big 12 cornerback Jamell Fleming isn't enrolled in classes after reportedly being suspended for academic misconduct. If Fleming doesn't return this fall, it will be a big blow to a thin OU secondary.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (Previous ranking: 2)
The Crimson Tide didn't settle on a new starting quarterback during spring practice, as AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims will continue the battle during preseason camp. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban hasn't ruled out using both quarterbacks during games this coming season. Despite losing 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, the Tide still appear to be stacked at running back. Trent Richardson might be a leading Heisman Trophy contender in 2011, and Eddie Lacy and freshman Dee Hart provide quality depth. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Mark Barron, who battled injuries last season, will lead a very good defense.
3. Florida State Seminoles (Previous ranking: 3)
Myriad injuries on the offensive line thwarted FSU's offense during the spring, but quarterback E.J. Manuel looked ready to replace departed starter Christian Ponder on a full-time basis. The Seminoles might also start reaping the rewards of back-to-back nationally ranked recruiting classes. Linebackers Telvin Smith, Christian Jones and Nigel Terrell and safety Lamarcus Joyner looked like big-time impact players on defense. FSU's conference schedule is favorable -- it doesn't play Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Virginia Tech during the regular season -- and a Sept. 17 home game against Oklahoma might determine whether it's a legitimate BCS title contender.
4. Oregon Ducks (Previous ranking: 5)
The Ducks are going to be very prolific on offense again in 2011, with quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James returning to the team. But Oregon will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and its top two receivers from last season. There are even more questions on defense, where the Ducks will have to replace three starting linemen and middle linebacker Casey Matthews. Ends Dion Jordan and Brandon Hanna and tackles Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi emerged as potential starters during spring practice. Kiko Alonso, who missed all of last season because of injuries and suspensions, was the top candidate to replace Matthews before he was arrested Sunday on burglary charges; Alonso has since been suspended indefinitely.
5. LSU Tigers (Previous ranking: 4)
The Tigers exited spring practice feeling pretty confident about their quarterback situation, which had been a trouble spot during the past few seasons. Returning quarterback Jordan Jefferson picked up new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe's system pretty well, and JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger provided strong competition during the spring. Tailback Spencer Ware looked like a solid replacement for 2010 leading rusher Stevan Ridley, and Russell Shepard looked like a more polished receiver. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Craig Loston emerged as big playmakers in the secondary, but replacing linebacker Kelvin Sheppard remains a legitimate concern heading preseason camp. The Tigers also will have a new punter and kicker this coming season.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (Previous ranking: 10)
Even without former offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left to become West Virginia's coach-in-waiting, the Pokes figure to have one of the country's most explosive attacks in 2011. Record-setting quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon are back, and running backs Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle will share carries while replacing departed star Kendall Hunter. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken didn't revamp OSU's spread offense; he only applied a few adjustments, so expect a smooth transition. Just as important, the Pokes will bring back all five starting offensive linemen, including four seniors. In 13 games last season, OSU allowed only 10 quarterback sacks in 532 pass attempts. The Pokes will have to find depth at defensive tackle, but Shaun Lewis looks like a future star at middle linebacker. OSU's offense is good enough to lead it to a BCS bowl game, but its defense will have to continue to improve.
7. Boise State Broncos (Previous ranking: 8)
The Broncos bring back quarterback Kellen Moore, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and underrated tailback Doug Martin. But the Broncos must replace record-setting receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, and they'll be without former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who left for Texas. Receivers Geraldo Hiwat, a 6-foot-4 native of Amsterdam, and Kirby Moore, the quarterback's brother, emerged as potential playmakers during the spring. Tackle Charles Leno and guard Jake Broyles solidified the right side of the offensive line. Finding replacements for safety Jeron Johnson and end Ryan Winterswyk remains a concern heading into preseason camp. The Broncos open the season against Georgia in the Sept. 3 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Atlanta's Georgia Dome, which will be another chance for them to prove they're a national contender.
8. Stanford Cardinal (Previous ranking: 7)
The Cardinal must replace more than former coach Jim Harbaugh, who left Stanford for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. The Cardinal must also replace three starting offensive linemen, as well as receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen. On defense, linebackers Owen Marecic and Thomas Kaiser, cornerback Richard Sherman and tackle Sione Fua will be sorely missed, along with former coordinator Vic Fangio (who joined Harbaugh in the NFL). New coach David Shaw brings back quarterback Andrew Luck, who is a leading Heisman Trophy candidate heading into the season. Stanford's three-game stretch to close the regular season -- home against Oregon, California and Notre Dame -- will go a long way in determining whether it's back in a BCS bowl game in 2011.
9. Texas A&M Aggies (Previous ranking: 12)
If quarterback Ryan Tannehill picks up where he left off last season, the Aggies might end up being Oklahoma's biggest threat in the Big 12. Texas A&M brings back two productive running backs (Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael) and two big-play receivers (Jeff Fuller and Ryan Swope). Tannehill completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,638 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions after taking over the starting job, leading the Aggies to a 5-1 record. The Aggies should be better in their second season in defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, but they'll have to replace All-American linebacker Von Miller. Texas A&M plays only four true road games this coming season and gets Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas at home.
10. Michigan State Spartans (Previous ranking: 16)
With so much turmoil at Ohio State, the Spartans might enter the 2011 season as Big Ten favorites. Coach Mark Dantonio has led Michigan State to four consecutive bowl games, and the pieces seem to be in place for another run at a Big Ten title. Quarterback Kirk Cousins returns for his third season as a starter, along with tailbacks Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell. The Spartans must replace three starting offensive linemen, as well as star linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon and two starters in the secondary. MSU's schedule is much more difficult than a year ago, with road games at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks (Previous ranking: 11)
Bobby Petrino's offense will be very good again, even after quarterback Ryan Mallett left for the NFL draft. Quarterback Tyler Wilson completed 66.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns in limited playing time last season, and he'll work with perhaps the country's deepest receiver corps. Tailback Knile Davis comes back after rushing for 1,322 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2010, but the Hogs will have to replace both starting offensive tackles. Petrino believes his defense is finally an SEC-caliber unit, as the Razorbacks have more depth and speed on that side of the ball. The Hogs play Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, and also play SEC road games at Alabama and LSU.
12. Wisconsin Badgers (Previous ranking: 13)
The Badgers lost as much star power as any team in the country, with four All-Americans departing, including defensive end JJ Watt and offensive tackle Gabe Carimi. But with tailbacks Montee Ball and James White coming back, Wisconsin again figures to have one of the country's best running games. Junior Jon Budmayr left spring practice as the heir apparent to quarterback Scott Tolzien. Curt Phillips, who was battling Budmayr for the starting job, will miss all of the 2011 season after undergoing knee surgery for the third time. The Badgers play five of their first six games at home -- they'll face Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago -- and play Big Ten road games at Michigan State and Ohio State.
13. Nebraska Cornhuskers (Previous ranking: 24)
The Cornhuskers fizzled down the stretch in their last season in the Big 12, losing three of their last four games, including an ugly 19-7 loss to Washington in the Bridgeport Education Holiday Bowl. Coach Bo Pelini made adjustments to jump-start his team heading into their first season in the Big Ten. Running backs coach Tim Beck was promoted to offensive coordinator, and he'll try to get the Cornhuskers to play at a faster pace. Keeping quarterback Taylor Martinez healthy and restoring his confidence will be paramount. Replacing cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Eric Hagg are big concerns 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.
14. West Virginia Mountaineers (Previous ranking: NR)
On the field, West Virginia's transition to coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen's spread offense seemed to be pretty seamless during the spring. Quarterback Geno Smith threw for 388 yards with four touchdowns in Friday night's spring game (albeit against the No. 2 defense), and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey looked like big-play weapons. Whether WVU's progress carries over into the 2011 season might depend on what happens behind closed doors. Can Holgorsen coexist with Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart, who wasn't exactly ready to retire after the 2011 season? WVU must still find a No. 1 tailback and replace seven starters on defense. The Mountaineers are going to score a ton of points on offense with Holgorsen at the controls, which will probably be enough to send Stewart out with a Big East title.
15. Ohio State Buckeyes (Previous ranking: 6)
There are so many off-field distractions at Ohio State that it's hard to imagine them not becoming an issue this coming season. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel is suspended for the first five games of the season and might face even more punishment from the NCAA for witholding information concerning allegations that his players sold memorabilia to the owner of a tattoo parlor. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell will coach the Buckeyes during Tressel's absence. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor, receiver DeVier Posey, running back Dan Herron and two other starters also are suspended for the first five games for selling memorabilia. Senior Joe Bauserman will probably start at quarterback until Pryor is eligible to return at Nebraska on Oct. 8, although freshman Braxton Miller was OSU's most exciting quarterback during spring practice.
16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Previous ranking: 14)
The Fighting Irish left spring practice without a starting quarterback. Coach Brian Kelly probably won't name a starting quarterback until shortly before the Sept. 3 opener against USF, as senior Dayne Crist, sophomores Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson will continue battling for the starting job during preseason camp. Kelly said he'll probably use more than one quarterback this season. Star receiver Michael Floyd's status will the team also remains uncertain after he was arrested on DUI charges this spring. Kelly believes his second Notre Dame team will be better than his first because the Irish will be better on defense. 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.
17. Georgia Bulldogs (Previous ranking: 18)
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt probably isn't on the hot seat, but his program definitely needs to regain momentum in 2011. Georgia lost star receiver A.J. Green to the NFL draft, and then starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant suffered a season-ending knee injury during spring practice. Quarterback Aaron Murray returns for his second season as a starter, but the Bulldogs left spring practice still searching for a No. 1 tailback. Incoming freshman Isaiah Crowell will have a chance to win the job during preseason camp. The Bulldogs should be better in Year 2 of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, especially if JUCO nose tackle Jonathan Jenkins is as a good as advertised. Tackle Kwame Geathers' improvement during the spring was a big surprise. 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.
18. Missouri Tigers (Previous ranking: 21)
Gary Pinkel guided Missouri to 40 victories over the past four seasons with high-octane offenses built around quarterbacks like Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. If Missouri is going to be a legitimate contender in 2011, its defense might have to carry the load. The Tigers are going to have one of the league's best defensive lines, even after losing NFL first-rounder Aldon Smith. Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith are solid pass rushers, and Kony Ealy had an outstanding spring. James Franklin held off Tyler Gabbert (Blaine's younger brother) for the No. 1 quarterback spot in spring practice, but the battle probably won't be decided until preseason camp. The Tigers will play at least three difficult road games: at Arizona State, at Oklahoma and at Texas A&M.
19. South Carolina Gamecocks (Previous ranking: 15)
The Gamecocks have enough talent to repeat as SEC East champions, but it's unclear whether they'll have an experienced quarterback to lead them back to Atlanta. Fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia was suspended from the team indefinitely during spring practice -- the fifth time he has been suspended by coach Steve Spurrier -- and his future at South Carolina is uncertain. If Garcia isn't back this fall, sophomore Connor Shaw will get the starting job. The Gamecocks have two of the country's best skill players -- tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery -- but Garcia might be the key to winning an SEC championship. South Carolina's defense might get a boost from incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 recruit in the country. The Gamecocks play SEC road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas and host Auburn and Florida.
20. Texas Longhorns (Previous ranking: 19)
The Longhorns have five new coaches, including both coordinators, and still haven't settled on a starting quarterback after spring practice. But it's just hard to imagine Texas limping through another losing season in 2011. Four players were battling for the starting quarterback job during spring practice, including 2010 starter Garrett Gilbert and Case McCoy, the younger brother of former UT star Colt McCoy. More than anything, the Longhorns need an every-down running back, which is why incoming freshman Malcolm Brown will get a long look during preseason camp. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will have to rebuild UT's secondary while installing his aggressive scheme.
21. Arizona State Sun Devils (Previous ranking: 23)
The Sun Devils haven't recorded a winning season since coach Dennis Erickson's first season in 2007, but there's a lot of optimism in the desert heading into 2011. The Sun Devils bring back all five starters on the offensive line, their top six rushers and four of their top six receivers. Quarterback Brock Osweiler threw for 647 yards with five touchdowns in victories over UCLA and Arizona at the end of the 2010 season and then threw five touchdowns in this year's spring game. The Sun Devils did suffer two big blows during spring practice: All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden and starting receiver T.J. Simpson suffered torn ACLs, which will sideline them until at least midseason. ASU plays a handful of challenging road games, at Illinois, Utah and Oregon.
22. TCU Horned Frogs (Previous ranking: 9)
The Horned Frogs will have a difficult time duplicating last season's success, after they finished 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country to end the 2010 season. TCU lost 26 seniors, including quarterback Andy Dalton and center Jake Kirkpatrick, one of four departing starters from the offensive line. Sophomore Casey Pachall is ahead of redshirt freshman Matt Brown in the race to replace Dalton. Tailback Ed Wesley is back after running for 1,078 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010. All-America linebacker Tank Carder, the Rose Bowl defensive MVP, leads a rebuilt defense. The Horned Frogs open their final season in the Mountain West Conference (they're moving to the Big East in 2012) with consecutive road games at Baylor and Air Force and play at MWC newcomer Boise State on Nov. 12.
23. Virginia Tech Hokies (Previous ranking: 22)
The Hokies will have a new look on offense in 2011, with Logan Thomas replacing Tyrod Taylor, the winningest quarterback in school history. Coach Frank Beamer also shook up his staff, giving play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain. Thomas, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, had a good spring. Dynamic kick returner David Wilson takes over at tailback, after Darren Evans and Ryan Williams entered the NFL draft. The Hokies bring back four starting offensive linemen and most of their top receivers. The defense returns seven starters, but much of the line will have to be replaced. The Hokies' nonconference schedule isn't as demanding as it usually is and they play ACC Coastal foes Miami and North Carolina at home.
24. Florida Gators (Previous ranking: 20)
If Will Muschamp is going to build an SEC contender in his first season as a head coach, the Gators will have to find playmakers on offense. Quarterback John Brantley had mixed results during spring practice, but the Gators were excited about tailback Chris Rainey's work in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' pro-style attack. Former quarterbacks Trey Burton and Jordan Reed also adjusted well to their new roles on offense. The Gators suffered a big blow on defense when All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins was dismissed from the team last week following his arrest on marijuana charges. Jenkins was arguably the Gators' best player on defense and top NFL prospect.
25. Mississippi State Bulldogs (Previous ranking: 25)
The Bulldogs not only enter 2011 trying to chase Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West, but they have to replace their two best offensive linemen and top three players on defense. With quarterback Chris Relf and tailback Vick Ballard coming back, the Bulldogs will have some firepower on offense. But coach Dan Mullen must find replacements for center J.C. Brignone and left tackle Derek Sherrod. On defense, MSU must replace end Pernell McPhee and linebackers K.J. Wright and Chris White. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was the architect of MSU's much-improved unit in 2010, left for Texas. 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. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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