By Casey Keefe
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College football season is back and not a moment too soon! The offseason was filled with scandals—none bigger or more damaging than the sickening Penn State saga. Thankfully, we can start to turn our attention to storylines on the field rather than off of it.
Without further ado, let’s dive right into my top 10 rankings, BCS and Heisman predictions…
KEEFE’S TOP 10
#1. Alabama (2011: 12-1, National Champs)
The Tide put on one of the most impressive performances in college football history when they dominated LSU 21-0 to win the national championship in January. They were the best team last year, and they’re the best team this year.
Quarterback AJ McCarron has grown by leaps and bounds and is now an unquestioned leader with a national title under his belt. The offensive line is deep and the backfield is as dangerous as ever with Eddie Lacy and incoming freshman T.J. Yeldon. My main concern is with all the youth and inexperience on the defensive side of the ball where the Tide only return four starters—but you have to keep in mind Alabama’s backups are better than 90% of starters on other teams. Inexperience is a question, but certainly not talent.
We’ll get a pretty good idea just how good the Tide really are early on. They kick off the season this Saturday night against a very good Michigan team in Dallas—and will make the trek to Arkansas in week three to take on the loaded Razorbacks.
#2. USC (2011: 10-2, Ineligible for Postseason)
Lane Kiffin got the best Christmas present one could get at the end of last season when Matt Barkley informed him that he’d be returning for his senior season. The Heisman favorite leads an explosive Trojan offense which returns eight starters including the dynamite wide receiver duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee who combined for 2,435 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. The defense led by senior safety T.J. McDonald will be top tier despite losing three starters along the line. Throw the Trojans cupcake schedule into the mix and what you have is a team destined for Miami.
#3. LSU (2011: 13-1, Lost National Championship Game)
The Tigers are a lot of people’s favorites to win the national championship and I just don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong, they’re my #3 team for a reason, but there’s no way they’re in the same class as Alabama or USC. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu getting kicked out of the program is a huge blow to the Tigers. The defense is ultra-talented but won’t be what they would’ve been with Mathieu. JUCO transfer Zach Mettenberger takes over the quarterback reigns and no one knows quite what to expect. The offensive line will be solid, as will the running game—but how will Mettenberger respond when the pressure is on?
#4. Wisconsin (2011: 11-3, Lost Rose Bowl)
I really like this Badger team. They only return 11 starters total but I love their depth and believe they will be phenomenal on both sides of the ball. We know all about running back Montee Ball who is coming off of one of the best seasons in college football history. The offensive line will be as dominant as ever and I expect the transition to be smooth for Maryland transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien. The defense will be improved and must avoid having the untimely letdowns that last year’s D had—If they can do that they’ll find themselves right back in the Rose Bowl.
#5. Oregon (2011: 12-2, Won Rose Bowl)
The Ducks offense is going to look very different personal wise without LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, but the style is going to stay the same. The running back duo of Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas will be downright explosive. I’m a little worried about the defense and freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota—but their weak early schedule will give them some time to find themselves and settle in. Expect them to stand at 8-0 when they travel to USC for the Armageddon-esque showdown against the Trojans on November 3rd.
#6. South Carolina (2011: 11-2, Won Capital One Bowl)
Steve Spurrier has done a hell of a job with this program over the past few seasons. This 2012 Gamecock club should be his best yet. I expect big time production from running back Marcus Lattimore who is back healthy after tearing his ACL a year ago. Quarterback Connor Shaw gives the offense a dangerous dynamic. He’s one of the best, if not the best, dual-threat quarterbacks in the country and I expect his arm and legs to both put up big numbers. We know the defense will be just fine, especially with their stellar line anchored by Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney.
#7. Georgia (2011: 10-4, Lost Outback Bowl)
The race to the SEC East crown will be a fascinating one. Georgia and South Carolina will be neck and neck and it’s no secret their October 6th showdown in Columbia will go a long way towards deciding who represents the East in the SEC Championship game. Running back Isaiah Crowell getting kicked out of school is a blow, no doubt—but I’ll take any offense that is quarterbacked by Aaron Murray and have a smile on my face. The defense returns 10 starters but will have to suffer through some early season suspensions. All in all, this is a deep and balanced team who will definitely have their say in the SEC race.
#8. Oklahoma (2011: 10-3, Won Insight Bowl)
The biggest reason why the Sooners are a threat in the national landscape is because of quarterback Landry Jones who decided to return for his senior season. There are major concerns with his receiving core though. Gone is the all-world Ryan Broyles. You have junior Kenny Stills and then a whole lot of question marks. Jones is the real deal and might have a shot at the Heisman—but which receivers besides Stills will step up? How well will his offensive line protect him?—these are major questions that need to be answered. Not to mention the defense which was disgraceful a year ago… Talent, yes—but a lot of questions for sure.
#9. Michigan (2011: 11-2, Won Sugar Bowl)
Brady Hoke had a tremendous first season in Ann Arbor. Now he looks to build off that which won’t be easy in the always-tough Big 10—but he’s got a team that has a hell of a shot at the conference title and a Rose Bowl spot. Dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson is an absolute gamebreaker. I’m interested to see if he’s ironed out some of the many flaws of his game. The defense while losing two stars along the line is still a strong unit. The schedule does pose quite the challenge though with their opener against Alabama in Dallas this Saturday to go along with road tests at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Nebraska, plus a huge in-state showdown at home in the Big House against Michigan State. Wherever Michigan goes this year, they’re going to earn their way.
#10. Arkansas (2011: 11-2, Won Cotton Bowl)
Bobby Petrino lost his job in the offseason after it was revealed he was carrying on an extramarital affair with a young female member of his football program. If Petrino was still the head coach I’d feel a lot better about the Razorbacks, but they are still talented enough to warrant the #10 spot in my rankings. John Smith takes over the head coaching reigns for this win now, win big team that has BCS aspirations. Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson is a Heisman dark horse and has plenty of weapons at his disposal. I expect wide receiver Cobi Hamilton to have a huge year along with the running back duo of Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson. It’s a major advantage that Arkansas gets to play both Alabama and LSU at home. The big question is will Paul Haynes’ defense play up to par?
National Championship Game: Alabama vs. USC – Alabama wins
Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. South Carolina – South Carolina wins
Sugar Bowl: LSU vs. Michigan – Michigan wins
Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Connecticut – Connecticut wins
Rose Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Oregon – Wisconsin wins
#1. Matt Barkley, Sr, QB, USC: My favorite to win the Heisman. Smart, determined, ultra-talented and plays for one of the two best teams in the country… What’s not to like?
#2. Montee Ball, Sr, RB, Wisconsin: It’ll be hard for Ball to top last year’s output (1,923 yards, 39 TD’s), but he’ll still be in serious contention for the hardware even if he doesn’t.
#3. Geno Smith, Sr, QB, West Virginia: Smith has grown leaps and bounds under head coach Dana Holgorsen and has weapons galore—plus the luxury of playing against crappy Big 12 defenses.
#4. Landry Jones, Sr, QB, Oklahoma: Landry is a gunslinger and has been through his share of wars. His receiving core is shaky but his o-line isn’t—he’ll find a way to put up huge numbers for sure.
#5. Denard Robinson, Sr, QB, Michigan: Robinson is one of the best dual-threat quarterback in the nation. The big question is has his decision making and accuracy improved?
Follow Casey Keefe on Twitter: @CaseyKeefeWFAN
If any team can beat Alabama, it’s _________. Calling all college football fanatics — fill in the blank…