Athlon's Pre-Preseason Top 25: 11-20
How far can Marcus Lattimore carry South Carolina?
By: Steven Lassan | 1/20/11, 10:30 AM EST
The 2011 season is still eight months away and spring practice hasn't started, but here's an early glance at how the top 25 might look when Athlon's college football annuals hit newsstands in June.
11. Oklahoma State – The Cowboys are coming off their first double-digit win season since 1988 and caught a huge break when quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon decided to turn down the NFL for another year in Stillwater. If the Cowboys want to challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, they must find replacements for key defensive stalwarts at linebacker with Orie Lemon, defensive end Ugo Chinasa and cornerback Andrew McGee. The schedule isn’t kind to Oklahoma State in 2011, with road dates at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen is gone, but coach Mike Gundy should have no trouble keeping this offense among the best in the Big 12.
12. Nebraska – The Cornhuskers began 2010 with a lot of promise, but limped to a 1-3 finish in their final four games, including a disappointing showing in the Holiday Bowl against Washington. Nebraska didn’t catch a break with the schedule in its first Big Ten season, with road dates at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, along with home games against Ohio State and Michigan State. The defense should be strong once again, but the offense needs to settle on an identity and hope quarterback Taylor Martinez can stay healthy for a full season.
13. South Carolina – With Georgia and Florida still reloading next season, the Gamecocks should be the early SEC East favorite. The offense is loaded with talent, including running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Quarterback Stephen Garcia needs to be more consistent, especially if the Gamecocks want to challenge for a finish inside of the top 10 or knock off the SEC West champ in Atlanta.
14. Virginia Tech – Rebuilding the offense will be Frank Beamer’s top priority this offseason. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is gone, while running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams departed early to the NFL. David Wilson should star at running back this season, but the Hokies need quarterback Logan Thomas to grow up fast if they want to challenge Florida State for the ACC Championship. With a young offense, expect the Hokies to lean on their defense to win next season.
15. Michigan State – The Spartans have never posted back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins, but after winning 11 in 2010 and with a solid core returning for 2011, they should have a chance to break that streak. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is back, along with running back Edwin Baker and a solid receiving corps. The biggest question mark lies on defense, with the departure of linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon and cornerback Chris L. Rucker.
16. Wisconsin – Despite the losses of quarterback Scott Tolzien, running back John Clay and two standout offensive linemen, the Badgers should still boast of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks next season. The one-two punch of Montee Ball and James White will help ease Jon Budmayr or Curt Phillips into the starting quarterback spot. Replacing end J.J. Watt is the biggest question mark for the defense. Road games at Michigan State and Ohio State in late October could decide whether or not the Badgers can make another run at the Rose Bowl.
17. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs have shown steady improvement under Dan Mullen and could be poised for a finish among the top three in the SEC West next season. Quarterback Chris Relf played well at the end of 2010, tossing six touchdown passes in his final two games. The offense should have one of the best rushing attacks in the SEC, led by senior Vick Ballard and sophomore LaDarius Perkins. The offense must replace stalwart tackle Derrek Sherrod and the linebacking corps must be revamped, but there’s no reason to expect much of a step back in 2011.
18. TCU – It will be impossible for the Horned Frogs to match 2010’s 13-0 record with a Rose Bowl victory. With the departure of quarterback Andy Dalton and four offensive line starters, the TCU offense will likely take a step back. However, the defense will remain among the best in the nation. The Horned Frogs open the year at Baylor and host Boise State – arguably the two biggest obstacles to another undefeated season.
19. Arkansas – Ryan Mallett is off to the NFL, but the Razorbacks shouldn’t miss much of a beat on offense. Quarterback Tyler Wilson showed plenty of promise in a limited showing against Auburn and will be aided by a deep receiving corps and running back Knile Davis. Helping the Razorbacks will be a favorable schedule, catching swing games against South Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State at home.
20. Georgia – Mark Richt enters 2011 on the hot seat, and the Bulldogs likely need eight or nine wins to save his job. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray should be among the best in the SEC next season, but needs to find a new go-to weapon with receiver A.J. Green off to the NFL. The first two games of next season will be critical for this team, with an opening date in Atlanta against Boise State and a home date against South Carolina in Week 2.
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