Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Way Too Early College Football Top 10's: Top 10 Teams

Now that the NFL Draft has concluded, and assuming that the NFL Labor talks eventually allow undrafted rookies and veteran free agents to sign, there’s really not too much in the way of actual college football now that most spring games have concluded. Having watched bits of several spring games, I thought it might be time to take a look at some teams on the college gridiron and how they’ll fare this fall.

I saw a segment on ESPNU a few weeks ago with Mark Schlabach’s “Way Too Early Top 25”. In it, there were times that had a ton of talent coming back like Oklahoma, who had 14 offensive players and 15 defensive players with starting experience. Oregon falls into that category as well with Darron Thomas and LaMichael James expected back, but they lost three starting offensive linemen and their top two leading receivers. You have your perennial SEC powers in Alabama and LSU up there, and upstarts Arkansas and South Carolina, though both will have new starting quarterbacks this fall. Stanford got a gift as Andrew Luck, otherwise known as “Football Jesus” returned to Palo Alto. Terrelle Pryor returned under different circumstances for the Ohio State Buckeyes who might’ve gone through the toughest offseason despite losing just three players to the NFL Draft. Then you’ve got some programs that generally aren’t considered powerhouses knocking on the door in Oklahoma State and Michigan State, and perennial BCS party-crashers Boise State and TCU all hovering out there.

All these teams with the potential to be so good almost make me feel like it’s college basketball again where you can have a VCU and Butler make it to the Final Four and Championship Game respectively. I just hope it’s more entertaining to watch. With that in mind, I thought I would take a look at some College Football Top 10s, despite it being way too early. I’ll give you my Top 10 Teams, players, and games as we head into the 2011 College Football Season.

My predicted Top 10, is as follows:

1. Alabama
2. Oklahoma
3. LSU
4. Oregon
5. Stanford
6. Boise State
7. South Carolina
8. Oklahoma State
9. Florida State
10. Ohio State

Let’s take a closer look at each team, and why I think they’ll be slotted in that ranking.

1) Alabama Crimson Tide
Say what you want about Nick Saban, but the man is a top 5 football coach regardless of level. Yes, this coming from a Dolphins fan. Yeah, he left under bad circumstances, but he didn't want to be in the NFL - and I can't blame him. He's outstanding at the college level, having never compiled a season worse than 6-6. He had success at Toledo, Michigan State, won a national title at LSU, turned around a decrepit Miami Dolphins team in a year, and won a national title at Alabama.

Alabama is losing some talent - Marcel Dareus, Julio Jones, James Carpenter, Mark Ingram, and Greg McElroy - but they have a ton coming back. RB Trent Richardson might be the best player in college football. He's already got NFL size and speed, and having watched 'Bama's spring game, he looks better than the 2009 version of Mark Ingram - yes the Mark Ingram that won the Heisman. Quarterback A.J. McCarron is a tall pocket passer who has some nice touch on the deep ball. Obviously he'll have some growing pains, but with a heavy does of Richardson, they shouldn't be felt too much. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks will return at receiver and Brad Smelley and Michael Williams give them some good options at H-Back and tight end respectively. The O-line is solid, anchored by C William Vlachos and enormous RT D.J. Fluker.

Defensively with Dont'a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson, Mark Barron, and Dre Kilpatrick, the back seven should be outstanding. Hightower, in my opinion, might be even better than Rolando McClain was a few years ago. Also, keep an eye on freshman Trey Depriest, as he could be a player for now, and will be one for the future. Saban's scheme is very much like an NFL defense that puts an emphasis on trick blitzes, stunts, and overloads that not many teams see. Dont'a Hightower is the key here. The 6'4" 260lbs middle linebacker can play inside, outside, and put his hand on the ground and rush. He's like a coach on the field and is a solid player who rarely misses tackles.

While 'Bama has talent, they have a tough schedule. A tricky week two matchup at Penn State is the first obstacle before SEC play. The Tide does get Arkansas and LSU at home, but they will visit the Swamp, Mississippi State, and Auburn to close the season. However, they won't have to face every team that's coming off a bye week this year, which should help them. If they can get through the early road games against Penn State and Florida, I like them to come out of the SEC and return to the National Championship Game. A lot rests on A.J. McCarron's development, but 'Bama has a multitude of weapons, and perhaps another Heisman winner in the backfield in Trent Richardson, to help the young QB.

2) Oklahoma Sooners
Is this the year "Big Game Bob" Stoops finally gets the Sooners to go undefeated? Well, they've got a darn good shot. Quarterback Landry Jones and WR Ryan Broyles will both be back to lead a talented offense that will be missing DeMarco Murray at RB. Roy Finch will get first crack at replacing Murray, having totaled 398 yards on 85 carries and 2 scores in 2010. Broyles (131 rec. 1622yds. 14 TDs), Kenny Stills (61 - 786 - 5) and TE James Hanna (18 - 292 - 7) give Landry Jones some excellent targets to look for.

Defensively, losing Jeremy Beal and Quinton Carter will hurt, but the Sooners have a lot of experience on defense to team with Freshman All-American LB Tom Wort, a British phenom, check out his story here. Travis Lewis and Austin Box should help anchor the linebacking corp. Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander will supply plenty of pressure from the DE spots. Alexander had 7 sacks in 2010. The Sooners have been known to produce solid defensive backs and CBs Jammell Fleming and Demontre Hurst might be one of, if not the bests duos in all of college football. Replacing Quinton Carter will be the toughest job of the secondary this season.

Schedule-wise, Oklahoma has two big road trips - against Florida State in week 2, and against Oklahoma State to close out the season. A trick opener against Tulsa should be a good measuring stick as the Golden Hurricane can score points in bunches. If Oklahoma survives Tallahassee and Stillwater, I expect to see them in the BCS Championship Game.

3) LSU Tigers
Les Miles had good reason to stay in Baton Rouge instead of going back to Ann Arbor. The Bayou Bengals should be loaded this year despite losing several talented defenders in Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard, Lazarius Levingston, and Terrance Tolliver. Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee will handle the QB duties, though Jefferson looked very good in their spring game. The offense should get a shot in the arm with Spencer Ware, a 190lbs high school quarterback turned 225lbs running back (and pride of Cincinnati's Princeton high school!). Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard should do well enough to make Tiger fans forget about Tolliver. Two tight ends in Deangelo Peterson and Chase Blackwell should also help along with an experienced offensive line anchored by senior center P.J. Lonergan.

Defensively, the Tigers always seem to put together a good unit even when they lose talent. And man, did they lose talent in the Draft. A trio of good DEs should help pressure the passer - Ken Adams, Sam Montgomery, and Keke Mingo - as well helping out Michael Brockers and Josh Downs in the interior. Sophomore Kevin Minter should get the first shot at stepping in for Kelvin Shepard at middle linebacker, but Karnell Hatcher and Ryan Baker should expedite his development. There's not much experience in the secondary, but LSU has produced some good players there in the last few years.

The Tigers schedule is brutal. They open against the Oregon Ducks in Dallas, Texas in week one. They have a short week to prepare for a Thursday-nighter at Mississippi State in week 3 and have to travel to West Virginia the week after. October to November presents an absolutely terrifying four-game stretch of Florida, at Tennessee, Auburn, and at Alabama. They close the season on another short week with a Friday home game against Arkansas. If the Tigers can navigate the Ducks in Dallas and the trips to Starkville and Morgantown, they should be alright by the time the thick of the SEC schedule swings into high gear.

4) Oregon Ducks
Despite rolling out an uglier set of uniforms ever year (I mean, what in the world were the Ducks wearing in the BCS Title Game?). Despite the wardrobe questions, Oregon's offense looks really good. LaMichael James might be the most electric player in the country, and QB Darron Thomas will have an extra year of experience under his belt. Top target Jeff Maehl won't be back, but Kenjon Barner will receive more balls this year. Justin Hoffman, Keanon Lowe, Lavasier Tuinei should team to give Thomas a nice set of WRs. Oregon's offense is a quick-tempo one that doesn't allow much opportunity for oppenents to put much pressure on the QB, so the average O-line shouldn't be too much of a problem for the Ducks.

Defensively, they won't be producing players on the level of Jarius Byrd and Walter Thurmond III any time soon. Gone is the overrated Clay Matthews along with DT Brandon Bair, but the Ducks have some solid players in Dion Jordan, Michael Clay, and Cliff Harris on that side of the ball. The Ducks better hope their defense tightens up over the summer as they travel to Dallas to take on the LSU Tigers in their first game of the season.

After that, it's somewhat smooth sailing with only trips to Arizona and Colorado looming before their final 3 games, which form the toughest stretch of the season. Stanford will be out for blood when the Ducks come to town in early November. Oregon gets to finish the season with two home games against USC and Oregon State. I'm guessing they'll be making an appearance in the Pac 10 Championship Game (yeah, it was weird typing that). I don't think they'll get past the Tigers the first week of the season, and I expect they'll lose another in Pac 10 play, so I don't think we'll get to see a new awful uniform in the BCS Championship Game this year.

5) Stanford Cardinal
Andrew Luck returns for his redshirt junior season...Cardinal fans were rejoicing that, but coach Jim Harbaugh left to coach the San Francisco 49ers. David Shaw takes of the reins after coordinating the Stanford offense since 2007. There really shouldn't be a whole ot of difference, and Andrew Luck's experience should help set the tone. One of Luck's targets, Ryan Whalen, was drafted, Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, and Griff Whalen return to give luck targets. Stanford will lean on their deep running game as well with Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson. Ricky Seale was impressive in their spring game and figures to get some touches as well.

Defensively, Stanford lost some players to graduation, but they play very disciplined football and shouldn't drop off too much. One of the few teams that runs a true 3-4, Shayne Skov, who had a nice Orange Bowl, will take over for Owen Marecic to anchor the defense at ILB. Bringing pressure off the edges will be Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy who will have to replace Thomas Keiser. In the secondary, the Cardinal have three seniors and a sophomore. Johnson Bedamosi leads the way at CB, but opposite him will be that sophomore, Barry Browning. Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will roam the back end at the safety spots.

Of the top 10 teams, Stanford's got one of the "easier" schedules. There's really no outstangind out of conference games, but they do have back to back road games at USC and Oregon State before a home game against Oregon in early November. Notre Dame comes to Palo Alto to close out the year in a fun rivalry game. In one interesting game, Stanford will travel to Duke in week two for what I'm going to dub the "Academic Bowl". Stanford should win big.

6) Boise State Broncos
Cinderella stays in the top ten as the smurf turf gang refuses to die. Head coach Chris Petersen just keeps on churning out wins for the Broncos. Offensively, they should be outstanding yet again as QB Kellen Moore and RB Doug Martin return. However, replacing Titus Young and Austin Pettis will be tough for the Broncos. Tyler Shoemaker and Geraldo Hiwat will get the first crack at it with slot man Chris Potter. TE Kyle Efaw will help to open holes for Martin with a decent offensive line. Boise State's offensive creativity and the powerful running of Martin should help take away some of the sting of the losses of Young and Pettis, but they'll have to get some production out of the new receivers.

Defensively, Jaron Johnson graduated and went undrafted - he was their best player. Ryan Winterswyk, the best pass-rusher, is also gone this year. Byron Hout, better known as LaGarrette Blount's punching bag, will call the defense from the MLB position. Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins will hold down the corner positions while George Iloka and Cedric Febis will try to replace Jaron Johnson deep in the secondary.

The Broncos should make another strong run at going undefeated this year. They'll start off with their toughest test with an opening game trip to Atlanta, Georgia to take on the Georgia Bulldogs - a pseudo-rivalry going back a few years - to open the season. The only other real strong test this year in the Mountain West comes in late November as the Broncos travel to San Diego to take on the Aztecs of San Diego State and super quarterback Ryan Lindley. If you're not a fan of the BCS part crashers, you better root for the Bulldogs or Aztecs, because I don't see the Broncos losing anywhere else on their schedule.

7) South Carolina Gamecocks
Stephen Garcia, subject of our first "Daily Rant", and his future are still up in the air for the Gamecocks, despite being listed as a "co-starter" after Connor Shaw's ipressive showing in the spring game. But not all is bad news in Columbia as the Gamecocks could have their best team in quite some time. The Gamecocks have two absolute studs on offense in huge running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore, a sophomore, rushed for 1,197 yards and 12 TDs as a freshman, in the SEC. He's big at 6'0" and 231lbs, and should get even better this year. Jeffery set single-season South Carolina for catches (88) and yards (1,517) to go with his 9 touchdowns. Shaw, or Garcia, should make this offense go as Jason Barnes and D.L. Moore provide good targets to throw to as well. South Carolina's O-line is very talented, but not very deep. At all. If injuries occur here, they could be in trouble.

Defensively, while there's no Eric Norwood on the roster, Jadeveon Clowney, the number 1 recruit in college football, figures to get thrown into the fire at DE right away. Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram should help him find his groove. The Gamecocks are loaded up front at the DT position as well with a nice rotation of Travian Robertson, Alderick Fordham, and Kelcy Quarles. Shaq Wilson leads the defense, but needs to stay healthy at MLB. Stephon Gilmore, an All-American candidate at CB will anchor a relatively weak secondary that gave up too many big plays last year.

The Gamecocks received a gift from the football gods as they avoid having to play both Alabama and LSU this year and get Auburn, Florida, and Clemson at home. However, as punishment, the Gamecocks do have three straight road games against Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas in late October/early November. A week two trip to Georgia should be a good early test for the Gamecocks.

8) Oklahoma State Cowboys
If there's one receiver that can stake a claim to be better than Alshon Jeffery, it's the Cowboys' Justin Blackmon. Better than Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon and QB Brandon Weeden surprisingly came back for another year in Stillwater. Weeden, a former baseball prospect (1st overall pick in the 2002 draft by the Yankees) will be 29 midway through the season. Blackmon hauled in 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20TDs last year. He'll have to keep up that production as the Cowboys look to replace running back Kendall Hunter. Sophomores Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith should form a nice tandem to replace Hunter. The line boasts four seniors and a junior, and should be solid again.

The defense will be the key to the Cowboys season. There's not much experience there, but they have some talent. Christian Littlehead is a massive DT and only a redshirt freshman. Richetti Jones and Blatnick give the Cowboys some size at the DE position which will protect their very undersized linebackers. Shaun Lewis may be the best of the bunch there, but he stands a paltry 5'11" and 214lbs. The secondary is a little more experienced with Devin Hedgepeth and Markelle Martin leading the way.

The Cowboys have an easy schedule this year. Arizona and QB Nick Foles come to town early on and that might be their toughest game before closing out the year against Oklahoma. Even back-to-back roadies against Texas and Missouri don't seem all that daunting. However, Oklahoma State is always known as a choker team and they seemingly give away a game once a year. If they can avoid getting upset (hello trip to Tulsa in week 3), they have a legitmate shot to unseat the Sooners atop the Big 12.

9) Florida State Seminoles
Renegade, Chief Osceola, and the War Chant are going to be happy this year (watch the whole video, but turn down your volume a bit). Christian Ponder went in the first round of the draft, but thrived in Jimbo Fisher's pro-style attack in Tallahassee. E.J. Manuel will take over at QB, and while he's got experience, he'll lean heavily on FSU's trio of backs in Chris Thompson, Jermaine Thompson, and Ty Jones. Taiwan Easterling should lead the receiving corp and the O-line remains solid despite losing Rodney Hudson with Andrew Datko, Zebrie "C'mon Man" Sanders, and David Spurlock all returning.

Defensively, Bjoern Werner at DE, Jeff Luc and Nigel Bradham at LB, and Xavier Rhodes at CB will lead the defense. The 'Noles expect to get significant contributions from Everett Dawkins, Brandon Jenkins, and Greg Reid as well. The Noles defense was solid last year and should be even better this year.

Florida State's got a pretty smooth schedule after the Oklahoma Sooners come to town. Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern probably won't provide them great warm-ups either. Traveling to Clemson a week after the Sooners will be tough, but that's the only "big" game until the Noles travel to the Swamp to close out the season against the Gators.

10) Ohio State Buckeyes
No team has had a more tumultuous offseason than the Buckeyes. Jim Tressel's already in hot water, and now there's a probe being launched about car deals. Quite honestly, I'm surprised it's taken them this long to investigate this matter as I know one player personally who told me he received a "free" car back in 2002. Either way, with 5 players suspended along with Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes still have a ton of talent.

Braxton Miller or Joe Bauserman figures to get the first shot to replace Terrelle Pryor for the first five games. My money is on the freshman Miller to be quite honest as Bauserman has never looked impressive, although all the QBs were quite unimpressive during OSU's spring game. Any army of runningbacks will keep up steady proudction while Dan "Boom" Herron sits out, and they'll be led by Jamal Berry, Jordan Hall, and Rod Smith. Losing Dane Sanzenbacher hurts as DeVier Posey will be suspsended, but I was impressed with Verlon Reed and T.Y. Washington in the spring game. TE Jake Stoneburner will need to up his production as well. The offensive line should be strong with J.B. Shugarts and Michael Brewster holding down the RT and C spots until LT Mike Adams returns from suspension.

Defensively, the Buckeyes bring a lot more back to the table despite losing Cameron Heyward to the NFL Draft. Nathan Williams, and Andrew Sweat will look to lead the front seven along with John Simon, Jonathan Hankins, Storm Klein, and Etienne Sabino. I'd like to give a shoutout to one of my brother's former teammates in high school, reserve linebacker Chris Maxwell, who may get a look on some special teams this year. The secondary has a lot of new faces on the field this year to go with Travis Howard. Dominic Clark, Ohrian Johnson, and C.J. Barnett should fill out the other three spots in the secondary.

The Buckeyes have four of their first five games at home, so that will help soften the suspsensions of Tressel and the players. However, the one road game is a trip to Miami Gardens to take on the Hurricanes, which could be tricky, but Miami isn't even as good as last year, and has a first year coach in Al Golden. Michigan State should be a very tough test, and traveling to Nebraska the following week should serve as a rough welcome back gift to the sweater vest, should his suspension only be 5 games. The Buckeyes get Wisconsin and Penn State both at home, so they've certainly got a chance to make it to the Big 10 Championship Game. Terrelle Pryor's return should give them a nice boost for Big 10 play.

Hopefully that's gotten you ready for some football that won't be played in the courtroom, except potentially in Ohio State's case. In my next installment of the "Way Too Early College football Top 10's" I'll look at the 10 best players, and close it out with the 10 best games of the year.

If your team wasn't on the list now, perhaps they will be come October, as this year's college crop doesn't seem to have that one, clear-cut top team as there's been in the past with Alabama, Florida, and USC.

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