Friday, September 9, 2011

A (somewhat abridged) 2011 College Football Preview

The past week and a half of my life hasn't been real. Classes. Rain. No internet at home. No internet on here at school until yesterday evening. I simply haven't had the time and, in many cases, the ability to finish off the college football preview. I had a really fun "oddsmakers" gimmick lined up but it was way too much work that I just didn't have the time to put in. So here are some rough and dirty picks and analysis of each league:

Conference USA - Tulsa. They'll beat out Southern Mississippi for the title. They get Houston and SMU, the other two West contenders, at home and they miss the Golden Eagles and East Carolina, who are two of the three East favorites (UCF being the other.) Any of those six teams can win the conference but Houston and ECU have ATROCIOUS defenses, SMU goes to Houston, Tulsa and Southern Mississippi so they'll ring up too many losses to make the title game and UCF goes to SMU before a three game stretch of Tulsa, @Southern Mississippi and @East Carolina so they too will probably have too many check marks against them to win their division. The Golden Hurricane lose coach Todd Graham to Pitt but return ten starters to an offense that was 5th in total offense and 6th in scoring last season, including QB G.J. Kinne and do-it-all receiver Damaris Johnson.

MAC - Temple. Welcome to the hardest conference to predict in the country. The easy choice would be Northern Illinois, who will probably be the best all-around team in the conference again but they lost coach Jerry Kill, who completely rebuilt the program to what it was back in the days of Garrett Wolfe, to Minnesota; MAC player of the year Chad Spann and a host of stars on defense. Plus, they go to both Toledo and Central Michigan, their two closest challengers in the West and I'll take the Rockets, always a favorite of mine, to come out of the West.
As for the MAC East, it continues to be the most parity-filled division in college football and is women's tennis-like in that whoever screws up the least might just win it. The Owls lost coach Al Golden to Miami but Steve Addazio is a solid replacement who got a bum rap for one bad offensive year at Florida in the wake of Tim Tebow (and many others) leaving. Plus, Bernard Pierce is the kind of hard-nosed back who can carry a team to a conference title, particularly in one as weak as this one. Temple's knocked on the door for a while. This year they kick it down.

MWC - Boise State. Come on. Even before TCU's defense no mas'd against Robert Griffin, it was clear they were going to take a step back and besides, they have to go play on the blue turf. Forget it. San Diego State won't be the same without wundercoach Brady Hoke (now at Michigan) although Kevin O'Connell should continue to bomb away. Air Force (who also has to go to Bronco Stadium) should finish third or fourth like usual and with Utah and BYU gone, the rest of the conference is junk.

Sun Belt - Troy. FIU shockingly blew them out 52-35 in Alabama last year and ended up taking the title. It won't happen again. Corey Robinson's not a freshman anymore and he'll be the next great Troy QB to bomb away. The Golden Panthers could be a fixture in the upper division of the Sun Belt or they could be a flavor-of-the-week like rivals FAU, it's hard to say. As for the rest of the league, it's business as usual. Middle Tennessee (who I've got upsetting Georgia Tech tomorrow) will come up just short again, Arkansas State will be exciting and decent but not nearly good enough, the Louisianas might not win double digit games combined and while North Texas and Western Kentucky are getting better, they're still nailed to the bottom.

WAC - Nevada. It would be Hawai'i if the Warriors weren't such a bad road team and didn't have to travel to Reno. Bryant Moinz is a fantastic quarterback though. Fresno State will be in the hunt too but will disappoint as usual in league play, particularly considering it goes to both Honolulu and Reno. Those are the only three contenders and the Wolfpack get them both at home. Colin Kapernick's a brutal loss but the rest of the team remains loaded as this has become a rock solid mid major. If you're looking for a sleeper, it's Louisiana Tech and Sonny Dykes' Air Raid (think Texas Tech) attack.

And now to the big boys...

ACC - Florida State. It has to be. Virginia Tech looked terrific in its opener as well and they should be the title game opponent but the Noles are just loaded on both sides of the ball and Jimbo Fisher has breathed new life in to the program in every single way. It's happening - Florida State is becoming FLORIDA STATE again. Clemson is the second best team in the Atlantic and gets the Noles at home but they have to go to VT, Georgia Tech, Maryland and N.C. State and also draws North Carolina from the Coastal, meaning it has about the worst possible interdivisional draw. The Terps have the best QB in the conference in Danny O'Brien but they're still a very flawed team as Monday's thrilling win over Miami showed and they've never won at Doak Campbell Stadium, which is where they play FSU this year. N.C. State has a relatively soft ACC schedule with Clemson, GT, Maryland and UNC all at home but they too have to traverse to Tallahassee. Boston College got ripped up by a backup Northwestern QB on its home field and has a nasty three game road swing at Clemson, Virginia Tech and Maryland that will more than eliminate it from division title contention (oh and FSU's their "homecoming" from that little trip.) Wake Forest remains far removed from 2006 and should bring up the cellar.
Over in the Coastal, North Carolina has a terrific defense but no offense and a green head coach after Butch Davis strangely stepped down just weeks before the season; Georgia Tech's rebuilding after losing most of its option attack from prior seasons and Miami is starting from scratch and obviously is having problems with turnovers, penalties and general comprehension of Al Golden's new power running offense. Virginia appears to be getting better under second year coach Mike London but still lags behind and Duke is Duke, as evidenced by its opening day loss to Richmond.

Big East - South Florida. I swear to God I called this even before the upset over Notre Dame. B.J. Daniels looks poised for a big bounceback year, there are multiple options in the backfield, the defense is stingy and Skip Holtz is one of the top young rising stars in coaching. If Will Muschamp turns out to be a bust, I wouldn't be shocked to see him take over at Florida in a few years. Pitt and West Virginia are the two favorites but both are making vast transitions to hurry up spread offenses. Okay, WVU's is far less vast seeing as how it's only four years removed from Rich Rodriguez but they don't have Pat White and Steve Slaton around anymore, either. The Panthers have to go to Morgantown where I predict they'll be knocked out of the title race...before West Virginia has to go to Tampa the following week where the Bulls will seize the throne and book their ticket to a BCS bowl. UConn should take a step back after a relatively fluky conference title last season as they lose their star coach and RB, among others. Cincinnati's an intriguing sleeper with perhaps the best "triplets" in the league in QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead and WR D.J. Woods but their five game run of @South Florida, @Pitt, West Virginia, @Rutgers and @Syracuse should knock them out. The Orange are an interesting team but Ryan Nassib needs to move the offense more and they're unlikely to have the same kind of shocking road success they did last year. Louisville and Rutgers are rebuilding - at least the Cards have a terrific young head coach and the Scarlet Knights have about the easiest possible Big East slate getting Pitt, WVU and USF all at home.

Big Ten - Wisconsin. This is probably the hardest BCS league in the country to call. The Leaders is a two man race between the Badgers and Ohio State. That game's in Columbus but even if Wisky loses it, they're the better team. OSU's shaky QB situation will come back to bite it in the ass at some point, perhaps in the season finale against rival Michigan. Penn State's a distant third and then Illinois, Indiana and Purdue round things out in some order.
The Legends race could be epic. Nebraska is the favorite but has a ridiculous schedule, having to play both Wisconsin and Penn State on the road and Ohio State at home in interdivisional play. Nonetheless, their top challengers in the division are Michigan State and Iowa and both have to enter the Sea of Red so we'll take the Huskers to win the title. Michigan's an interesting sleeper but probably still has too porous of a defense and while the Wolverines host Nebraska in the penultimate game of the season for both, they have to go to both Michigan State and Iowa. As for those Spartans and Hawkeyes, the former has WAY too nasty of a schedule (@Ohio State, Wisconsin, @Iowa, @Nebraska) and the latter missed its window to win the conference title and is rebuilding, although should still be a tough out (particularly in Iowa City.) Northwestern is another team who could make noise if Dan Persa can get healthy and rocking like he was before getting hurt last year but they don't have the overall firepower to take the division and Minnesota already looks to be far better under new boss Jerry Kill but they still might bring up the rear. So I've got a Big Red vs Grateful Red title game and I think the Badgers take it. Russell Wilson should more than make up for the loss of Scott Tolzien at QB and the backfield, led by Montee Ball, won't miss John Clay. The o-line and the defense are up to typical Badger snuff and Bret Bielma continues to be that one coach who's among the elite in the nation, even if nobody recognizes it.

Big XII - Oklahoma. Here's the easiest BCS league to call. They're # 1 for a reason - the defending champs return most of last year's team. They have arguably the best offense in the country and a loaded defense, even with all the linebackers they lost in the offseason. Texas A&M is a flop waiting to happen, achieving a top 10 preseason rank on the back of an upset over the Sooners and a hot close to the season (and, of course, the piper's paid with a trip to Norman this season. Hopefully they perform a little bit better than the last time the Sooners were avenging a loss from a season ago.) Oklahoma State actually might have a better offense than its in-state rivals, particularly with the emergence of Joseph Randle filling Kendall Hunter's shoes, but it has to go to Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri AND Texas Tech (who's weaker than the other three but the home team almost always wins in that series) before hosting the Sooners in the season finale. Missouri should make a little noise but most of the key parts from its terrific offense, including Blaine Gabbert, are gone. And then there's Texas. Someone who just started following college football this summer would assume that the Longhorns have the best team in the country with all the attention they got for their network and everything else. And yes, they'll be much better than last year's 5-7 outfit (whose record was a bit misleading as the team clearly quit down the stretch. No, Kansas State wasn't really 37-0 better than them) and could be a factor in the race, but unless Garrett Gilbert is night-and-day (actually more like pitch-black-midnight-and-break-of-dawn) better, they won't sniff the crown. The other five teams are the league's second division, although Baylor could be feisty if Robert Griffin keeps doing THAT and Texas Tech could continue to cause problems with that offense. Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State all struggled with FCS opposition in the opening weekend, which tells you all you need to know about them.

Pac-12 - Oregon. You know how in certain states, the Democratic or Republican primary is the de facto general election because the other party has so little support? That's kind of like what the brand new Pac-12 is. Whoever wins the Oregon/Stanford "primary" in the North shouldn't have a problem in the "general election" that is the conference title game. The Ducks have to go to Palo Alto, which seemingly gives the edge to the Cardinal...but Stanford has to go to both Arizona and USC, two of the best teams in the South. They also have trips to Oregon State (late in the year when the Beavers always get hot - and when they'll be far better than the outfit that gagged to Sacramento State) and what looks to be a much-improved Washington State. Plus there's the fact that their architect is gone. Andrew Luck's still there but as good as he is, he wasn't the one that got that team playing up to and above its capability - that was Jim Harbaugh. Seeing as how he's one of the great coaching minds in pro or college football, it seems inevitable that Stanford takes a step back without him. Meanwhile, the Ducks have a trip to Arizona as well but get USC at home and its only two other road trips besides the Wildcats and Cardinal are to minnow Colorado and a Washington team that's rebuilding after heart-and-soul Jake Locker graduated (also, the Ducks OWN their border rivals, having not lost to them since 2003.) California should probably beat out the rest of the division for third and looked impressive against a tough Fresno State squad on Saturday. Oregon State likely will rebound like it always does from early season turmoil, leaving the Washingtons to battle for fifth.
As for the South, the best team in the division is likely USC but they're ineligible to win the division because of punishments from the Reggie Bush scandal. That means it'll likely come down to the Arizona schools. I can't resist Arizona State, always a favorite of mine in the Andrew Walter days. They return almost everybody and I like Brock Osweiler bombing away at QB and Vontaze Burfict being the kind of dominating presence at linebacker one normally sees at Big Ten schools. Arizona's in BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG trouble with no Juron Criner for one or both of their big home games against Stanford and Oregon and even with him, last night showed that they have a long way to go on defense. Utah's the wild card in the race but capitulated down the stretch last season and will probably have a tougher time with no Wyomings or New Mexicos to beat up on...other than Colorado, who got ripped apart by Bryant Moniz and Hawai'i late last Saturday night and who is transitioning from the calamity that was the Dan Hawkins era. UCLA also will struggle as they have a mess at quarterback for the millionth year in a row and Rick Neuheisel is almost assuredly a lame duck coach.

SEC - Alabama. As good as LSU looked on Saturday, I'm still not sure about their QB situation and they have to go to Tuscaloosa (and have a tricky game in Starkville against Mississippi State next Thursday) which is the tiebreaker for me. Arkansas, too, has to go to Bryant-Denny and their SEC West title dreams ended when Knile Davis was lost for the season. Defending (mythical) national champion Auburn is obviously taking a step back and neither Mississippi school has anywhere near enough talent to challenge the big boys, although the Bulldogs are good and have a bright young head coach. If nothing else, they'll test the top teams.
Moving to the East, South Carolina's the favorite but they too have major problems at quarterback that have already reared their ugly head. They also have a brutal four game stretch from mid October to mid November - @Mississippi State, @Tennessee (who won't contend but will be a problem in Knoxville), @Arkansas and then what might be the East title game for the second year in a row against Florida. Of course, the Gators can laugh at that four game stretch because this is what their October looks like: Alabama, @LSU, @Auburn, Georgia (in Jacksonville.) Add in the fact that Will Muschamp has entered in to an entirely new world, having not ever been a head coach before and now he's got Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer's old job and I'm not taking the Gators out of the East either. I'm taking Georgia. The Bulldogs were thoroughly outplayed by Boise State in the Georgia Dome but I think they upset South Carolina tomorrow and then after that, their remaining conference road games are against Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt - arguably the three worst teams in the conference (maybe sub Kentucky in for the Vols.) Aaron Murray should continue to develop, particularly if Orson Charles can continue to terrorize opposing cornerbacks, and I like the Dawgs to come up with the season they need to save Mark Richt's job.

Heisman - Trent Richardson. I don't have a clue why he's not getting more Heisman pub. He's the star running back on the best team in the country and he rang up three TD's on just 13 carries in Alabama's opening day domination of Kent State. He'll beat out Andrew Luck and LaMichael James (who will most likely split votes, particularly in the west, if both make it to New York and James might face competition from his teammate, QB Darron Thomas), Landry Jones and Brandon Weeden (ditto but obviously in Big 12 country) and every other serious Heisman candidate (no, Robert Griffin is not one unless he puts up video game numbers every week.) This is always a next-to-impossible call - NO ONE had Cam Newton as their choice before October of last year - but Richardson seems like the most logical guess. Neither A.J. McCarron nor Phillip Sims will be in the hunt and Alabama doesn't have any Julio Jones' for them to throw to anyway.

5 Points

National Champion - Alabama. They're quite simply the best team in the country. Trent Richardson will shine even more without Mark Ingram. Greg McElroy and Julio Jones are gone but the Tide honestly won't even need a passing game with Richardson and, especially, the defense. Dont'a Hightower leads what is head-and-shoulders the best defense in the country. Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw are all superstars and this team has the perfect combination of talent, schedule, motivation and hunger from last year's "flop" of a season (not being able to stop South Carolina, blowing the LSU game and then "The Comeback") and the inspiration of a town needing something to feel good about after the tornadoes from earlier this year wrecked so much havoc. Well, I think they'll get it. The Tide take down Oklahoma in what is a boring but hopefully intelligent (mythical) national title prediction.


1) Trent Richardson
2) Landy Jones
3) Taylor Martinez
4) LaMichael James
5) Kellen Moore

BCS Bowls

Rose - Wisconsin over Oregon
Fiesta - Nebraska over South Florida
Sugar - LSU over Oklahoma State
Orange - Boise State over Florida State
National Championship - Alabama over Oklahoma

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