An SEC team has won the national championship in each of the last four seasons. Why, you ask? The league is college football’s version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Because the conference is chock-full of future NFL players, SEC teams have their schemes—and their manhood—tested each week. The upside is that teams that are good enough to run the conference gauntlet have fared well in the one-game, winner-take-all setting of the BCS title game as LSU, Florida (twice) and Alabama have proven in recent years. Vegas Odds
That’s why Alabama, the SEC’s most complete team, is StatFox’s choice to become college football’s first repeat national champion since Nebraska in the mid-1990s.
Alabama is absolutely loaded on offense, thanks to the return of both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in the backfield and quarterback Greg McElroy, as well as proven good-hands people Julio Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks in the passing game. Ingram (1,658 rushing yards), of course, won the Heisman Trophy last season, but many believe that he might be the second-most talented running back on his own team, behind Richardson.
That kind of depth will allow head coach Nick Saban, a master motivator and one of the best X-and-O men in the college game, to fill the holes that he has on the defensive side of the ball and remain the class of the SEC—and the nation—again in 2010. Don’t believe us? Well, NFL scouts already know about some of Alabama’s replacements, most notably linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end Marcell Dareus.
If the Crimson Tide falters, then one of two teams with gifted signal-callers and bushels-full of returning starters—Ohio State and Boise State—are the best bets to win the whole enchilada. But right now, we believe that Alabama is the best team and that its fans will be chanting “Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer” (Alabama’s victory cigar song) late in the fourth quarter of the national title game come January.
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Strengths: Besides one of the nation’s best coaches in Saban, Alabama has quite a collecton of skill players, including an umatched one-two punch at tailback with Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, a proven leader under center in quarterback Greg McElroy, and a future first-round pick in wide receiver Julio Jones.
Nagging Questions: Does Alabama have enough answers in the secondary to cut off the pass? With the exception of junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC in interceptions, the Crimson Tide lost everybody from last year’s top-shelf defensive backfield. But sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential, and true freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton enrolled early and showed great promise during spring ball.
Make or break game: vs. Penn State, Sept. 11. Alabama will likely open the season at No. 1, although the defense returns only two starters and the schedule is a brute, starting with the Nittany Lions and followed by stiff early season SEC tests at Arkansas (Sept. 25) and versus Florida (Oct. 2).
2. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Strengths: Ten starters return on offense, including a Heisman candidate in quarterback Terrelle Pryor, nearly the entire line, the whole receiving corps and a game-changing tailback in Brandon Saine, a speed merchant poised to be a 1,000-yard rusher. Six starters return on defense, including All-American candidates at each level (tackle Cameron Heyward, linebacker Ross Homan and cornerback Chimdi Chekwa).
Nagging Questions: Is Ohio State a safety school? There’s some re-tooling to do on defense—most notably at safety, where Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell have both departed.
Make or break game: vs. Miami (Fla.), Sept. 11. An early season visit from head coach Randy Shannon’s Hurricanes is likely all that stands between Ohio State and a 6-0 start heading into a Big Ten showdown on Oct. 16 at Wisconsin.
3. BOISE STATE BRONCOS
Strengths: The Broncos return 23 of 24 players who started against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. Cornerback Kyle Wilson, a first-round pick in the NFL Draft by the Jets, was the only starter who departed. College football is a quarterback’s game and Boise State has a very accurate one in Kellen Moore, who finished second in the nation in passing efficiency a year ago when he threw for 3,536 yards, 39 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Nagging Questions: Can the Broncos, who many believe are college football’s version of Butler (a mid-major who reached the 2010 national title game before losing to Duke), make it out of the first month of the season undefeated with a Labor Day game versus Virginia Tech and a Sept. 25 game versus Oregon State?
Make or break game: vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 6. Sure, the Broncos haven’t lost a regular-season game in the two years that Moore has started at quarterback. But this “neutral site” Labor Day game with the Hokies is being played at FedEx Field, which is 2,400 miles from Boise and 290 miles from Blacksburg.
4. TEXAS LONGHORNS
Strengths: Despite losing quarterback Colt McCoy, super safety Earl Thomas and others from last year’s 13-1 squad, there’s still talent aplenty in Austin. For instance, head coach Mack Brown believes his secondary has three eventual NFL defensive backs in Chykie Brown, Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams.
Nagging Questions: Will quarterback Garrett Gilbert live up to the hype? After McCoy injured his shoulder in last January’s national title game loss to Alabama, Gilbert performed admirably after an understandable case of the jitters early. Gilbert followed that up with a strong spring. Making his transition a little easier is the fact that the Longhorns have two proven tailbacks—Tre’ Newton and Fozzy Whittaker—to ease the pressure on Gilbert.
Make or break game: vs. UCLA, Sept. 25. This interesting intersectional battle begins a rugged three games in a four-week stretch for head coach Bob Stoops and Co.—versus UCLA (Sept. 25), Oklahoma (Oct. 2) and at Nebraska (Oct. 16).
5. IOWA HAWKEYES
Strengths: With 16 starters back from last year’s 11-win Orange Bowl champion, Iowa has all the ingredients necessary to be a top 10 fixture in the national polls and to really push Ohio State for Big Ten Conference supremacy. The Hawkeyes feature a star-studded defense (led by All-America end Adrian Clayborn), a veteran quarterback (Ricky Stanzi), a deep stable of running backs and a very good head coach in Kirk Ferentz.
Nagging Questions: Can Ferentz, a proven offensive line builder, work his magic yet again? The Hawkeyes must replace four starting linemen, including left tackle Bryan Bulaga, an NFL first-rounder. Riley Reiff, who started games at both guard and tackle, will man Bulaga’s old spot and looks like a future star, but there’s a lot of new faces up front.
Make or break game: at Arizona, Sept. 18. Iowa has a pretty favorable schedule. Its toughest non-conference game is this trip to Arizona and it plays all three of the other expected Big Ten heavyweights—Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State—at home.
6. OREGON DUCKS
Strengths: With Pete Carroll now wearing Seattle Seahawks’ garb, it appears that there’s a new Pac-10 sheriff in town—Oregon. Sure, head coach Chip Kelly suspended starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for the season, but 19 starters are back from a 10-3 squad—including all five starting offensive linemen, a future pro tailback in LaMichael James and a pair of All-Pac-10-caliber linebackers in Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews.
Nagging Questions: Can either senior Nate Costa or sophomore Darron Thomas do an adequate job of replacing Masoli, a guy who could beat opposing defenses with both his arm and feet?
Make or break game: at Tennessee, Sept. 11. The defending Pac-10 champs won’t have to wait long to learn about themselves. Sure, the Vols are in rebuilding mode under first-year head coach Derek Dooley, but a trip to the heart of SEC country in Week 2 is no picnic.
7. FLORIDA GATORS
Strengths: There’s no truth to the rumor that Florida is dropping football because Tim Tebow has graduated. In fact, Florida’s offense will be very good once again. New quarterback John Brantley has an NFL arm and four starters return from a very good offensive line. The Gators are loaded at receiver as Andre Debose and Carl Moore return from injuries.
Nagging Questions: Can the defense overcome the losses? Five starters from the stop unit, which finished fourth nationally (252.6 yards per game), were taken in the NFL Draft. Linebacker Ryan Stamper, who led the team in tackles with 78, has also moved on. Also gone is coordinator Charlie Strong, now the head coach at Louisville. That’s a lot of talent to replace—even in Gainesville.
Make or break game: at Alabama, Oct. 2. With games against Miami (Ohio), South Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky to begin the year, the new-look Gators should be 4-0 heading into this rematch of last year’s SEC title game. They’ll be hard-pressed to go 5-0, though.
8. TCU HORNED FROGS
Strengths: The Horned Frogs have a loaded backfield, as quarterback Andy Dalton and running backs Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley are all back in the fold.
Nagging Questions: Do the Frogs have enough playmakers on defense? TCU lost three game-changers from its stingy stop unit in linebacker Daryl Washington, end Jerry Hughes and cornerback Rafael Priest. And with a game versus a Pac-10 team—Oregon State—right off the bat, their replacements will receive a baptism by fire.
Make or break game: vs. Oregon State, Sept. 4. TCU must survive this tough opener against Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium, as well as Mountain West Conference tests against BYU at home on Oct. 16 and at Utah on Nov. 6, to match last season’s success.
9. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Strengths: Frank Beamer, one of the best head coaches in the college ranks, has an embarrassment of riches at tailback. Sophomore Ryan Williams became the first freshman to ever lead the ACC in rushing (1,655 yards) and scoring (22 touchdowns). He was an All-ACC running back and was easily the choice for the conference rookie of the year. But the reason Williams got a shot last season was that Darren Evans, the 2008 Rookie of the Year, was injured and sat out the season. Now both are back.
Nagging Questions: Can coordinator Bud Foster rebuild the defense? He must replace six starters, including both ends (Jason Worilds, Nekos Brown), a really good outside linebacker in Cody Grimm, and a free safety (Kam Chancellor) who started 41 career games and was basically the quarterback of the stop unit. Also, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, an absolute blur as a runner, must become a better passer or foes will simply overload the box in hopes of stopping Virginia Tech’s star-studded ground attack.
Make or break game: vs. Boise State, Sept. 6. We’d have the Hokies ranked higher, but they open with Boise State, a consensus top five pick in the preseason. They also have back-to-back-to-back games with Georgia Tech (Nov. 4), at North Carolina (Nov. 13), and at Miami (Fla.) (Nov. 20). That’s tough!
10. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Strengths: Sixteen starters—nine on offense, seven on defense—are back for head coach Bobby Petrino, including an All-American candidate in quarterback Ryan Mallet. A second-team All-SEC performer, Mallett threw for 3,642 yards and 30 touchdowns and has the weapons to easily best those numbers.
Nagging Questions: Can the defense improve just a little bit? If it does, then Arkansas, which led the SEC in scoring offense (36.0 points per game) but was last in the league in total defense (401.2 yards per game), has a chance to push Alabama in the SEC West.
Make or break game: vs. Alabama, Sept. 25. It won’t take us long to find out if Arkansas is for real. The Razorbacks’ first four conference games are at Georgia (Sept. 18), home against defending national champion Alabama (Sept. 25), at Auburn (Oct. 16) and at home against Mississippi (Oct. 23).
11. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
Strengths: The Panthers’ two deep is littered with future NFL players, including offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, defensive end Greg Romeus, running back Dion Lewis and wideout Jonathan Baldwin.
Nagging Questions: Can Tino be the man? Quarterback Bill Stull has graduated—leaving sophomore Tino Sunseri, the son of the Panthers’ former All-America linebacker Sal Sunseri, as the heir apparent under center.
Make or break game: at Utah, Sept. 2. A tough first college start for Sunseri, who will no doubt try to lean heavily on Lewis (1,799 rushing yards). But the Utes are never easy to run the ball against. Betting Lines
12. USC TROJANS
Strengths: Quarterback Matt Barkley slimmed down during the offseason, which he hopes will make him more mobile and confident throwing on the run. Ronald Johnson and Brice Butler are good enough to replace departed star receiver Damian Williams, but the offensive line has to play better for the Trojans to get the scoring juice back into their offense.
Nagging Questions: Did USC athletic director Mike Garrett hire the right man? Pete Carroll will be a tough act for Lane Kiffin to follow. The knee injury that Christian Tupou, USC’s starting nose tackle, suffered during spring ball adds yet another question mark to a defense that must replace its entire secondary.
Make or break game: vs. Washington, Oct. 2. Two former Carroll lieutenants—Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian—will do battle in this game. The matchup begins a tough string of league contests for USC.
13. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
Strengths: Seventeen starters—10 on offense and seven “Blackshirts” on defense—are back for head coach Bo Pelini. Quarterback Zac Lee must be more consistent if the Cornhuskers are to improve a unit that was 99th nationally in total offense. Otherwise, Lee will lose his starting gig to either sophomore Cody Green or redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez.
Nagging Questions: Is there life after Suh? Everybody’s All-American, tackle Ndamukong Suh, is now a very rich young man, but his week-in, week-out dominance will be missed. There are a lot of familiar faces back on offense, but Lee must be able to complete enough passes in order for Nebraska to strike a more healthy balance on offense.
Make or break game: at Washington, Sept. 18. Nebraska’s non-conference schedule is as soft as a 20-year-old mattress with one exception, a trip to Washington—where future NFL millionaire quarterback Jake Locker will put the Cornhuskers’ re-tooled defense to the test.
14. WISCONSIN BADGERS
Strengths: Tough-to-tackle tailback John Clay (1,517 yards rushing, 18 scores) and vastly improved quarterback Scott Tolzien (2,705 yards, 16 touchdowns) are just two of 10 returning starters from an offense that figures to score points galore.
Nagging Questions: What about the front seven? Head coach Brett Bielema has some significant holes to plug in his front seven, but the early season schedule is favorable—road game at UNLV and home games versus San Jose State, Arizona State and Austin Peay—and should allow him time to get the puzzle pieces in place.
Make or break game: vs. Ohio State, Oct. 16. Both teams could be ranked among the top 10 in the land when the man in the sweater vest (Jim Tressel) brings his troops to Camp Randall Stadium.
15. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Strengths: Life goes on without Bobby Bowden, the No. 2 all-time winner in Division I-A football, who was nudged out the door after decades at the helm. Quarterback Christian Ponder, a future pro, was playing as well as anybody in the country, (2,717 yards passing, 14 touchdowns), when he was knocked out (shoulder) in the ninth game against Clemson. Ponder is back and will be protected by an offensive line, led by stud guard Rodney Hudson, that will be the best that Florida State has put on the field since the glory days of the 1990s. All five starters return and collectively they have started 142 games for the Seminoles.
Nagging Questions: Can the Florida State defense improve just enough to be okay? A big chunk of spring ball was spent breathing life into a defense that finished last in the ACC (434.6 yards per game). If it can blossom into a middle-of-the-pack ACC stop unit, then the offense is good enough to lead the Seminoles to the ACC championship game.
Make or break game: at Oklahoma, Sept. 11. The school that first brought you the Bowden Bowls now presents the Stoops series. Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, has replaced veteran Mickey Andrews as Florida State’s defensive coordinator. It’ll be interesting to see these two brothers match wits.
16. N CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Strengths: The Tar Heels are loaded with NFL players on defense (tackle Marvin Austin, safety Deunta Williams, linebacker Quan Sturdivant, end Robert Quinn). Nine starters return from a unit that led the ACC in total defense (269.6 yards per game) and intercepted 19 passes and returned them for 508 yards—an ACC record. Seven of the returning nine players have started 22 or more games in their careers.
Nagging Questions: Can quarterback T.J. Yates hold on to his job? Yates, a senior, has started 31 games at North Carolina but the last two seasons have been marked by injury and inconsistency. He came under significant criticism when he threw for 2,136 yards with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions a year ago.
Make or break game: vs. LSU, Sept. 4. This Chick-fil-A Game pits two teams with ultra-athletic defenses and questions under center. The winner will jumpstart its season, while the loser faces scrutiny.
17. OKLAHOMA SOONERS
Strengths: The lethal pass-catch combo of Landry Jones (3,198 yards passing) and Ryan Broyles (1,120 receiving yards) are back to lead a talent-laden offense.
Nagging Questions: Can the Sooners stay healthy? Injuries turned them from a national title contender into an eight-win team. And will the rebuilt defense—a unit with seven new starters—hold up against a rugged schedule?
Make or break game: vs. Florida State, Sept. 11. By the time the final gun sounds versus Texas on Oct. 2, the Sooners will have already faced Florida State, Cincinnati and Texas. Wow, what a schedule!
18. AUBURN TIGERS
Strengths: Eight starters are back on defense, led by molar-jarring linebacker Josh Bynes (104 tackles). And with Cameron Newton, a 6-6, 247-pound junior-college gem at quarterback, Auburn fans will now see the complete version of coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense. Newton can threaten opposing defenses with both his running and passing skills.
Nagging Questions: Will Mario Fannin step up at running back? Ben Tate had a monster senior season (1,362 yards rushing) in this offense and became the sixth running back taken in the NFL Draft. Now the position goes to Fannin, a senior who ran for 285 yards and caught 42 passes from the H-back position last season.
Make or break game: vs. Arkansas, Oct. 16. Arguably the two best SEC West teams not named Alabama will do battle in this one. Ryan Mallett will test a Tiger stop unit that finished 11th in the SEC in total defense (374.1 yards per game).
19. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Strengths: With 10 starters back on offfense, Washaun Ealey (717 yards rushing) must stay healthy and run the ball consistently to take the pressure off Aaron Murray, the redshirt freshman quarterback.
Nagging Questions: Besides an unproven quarterback in Murray, who is as green as Al Gore, the big question in Athens is—Will the new 3-4 defense create more turnovers? Last season, Georgia was 118th nationally in turnover margin (minus-16). By contrast, Alabama was plus-19 in turnovers.
Make or break game: vs. Arkansas, Sept. 18. The scoreboard could light up like a pinball machine in this one as both Georgia and Arkansas’ defenses have more questions than a five-year-old boy.
20. PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
Strengths: Head coach Joe Paterno needs six wins to reach 400 victories in his Hall-of-Fame career. He figures to have a terrific ground game with Evan Royster running behind a proven offensive line.
Nagging Questionss: Paterno lost serious star power from this past season’s 11-win team as linebacker Navarro Bowman and defensive tackle Jared Odrick are both goners. Quarterback Daryll Clark left State College too, leaving three young pups—Kevin Newsome, Matt McGloin and Paul Jones—to battle for the No. 1 signal-caller spot.
Make or break game: at Alabama, Sept. 11. This trip to the defending national champs in Week 2 seems like it’ll be too much, too soon for the Nittany Lions’ young quarterbacks. It’s one of three rough road trips for the Nittany Lions—the others being tilts on the road against Iowa and Ohio State. Sports Scores
21. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Strengths: Georgia Tech now has a defensive identity, thanks to the arrival of new coordinator Al Groh, who has been the head coach at Wake Forest, Virginia and the New York Jets. Groh installed a 3-4 defense that will allow Georgia Tech to be more aggressive.
Nagging Questions: Georgia Tech lost four difference makers—running back Jonathan Dwyer, defensive end Derrick Morgan, safety Morgan Burnette and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas—to the NFL Draft. Can the Yellow Jackets replace that big-play potential? Morgan and Thomas were taken in the first round. Dwyer, the 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, fell to the sixth round but has first- or second-round talent.
Make or break game: at North Carolina, Sept. 18. Georgia Tech’s schedule is more difficult than last season’s as the Yellow Jackets play road games at Kansas, North Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia.
22. HOUSTON COUGARS
Strengths: Houston’s high-octane offense—with quarterback Case Keenum (5,449 yards, 43 touchdowns and only nine picks—should continue to hum along. That’s because eight other starters are back on the attack for the Cougars (10-4), a team that led the nation in scoring (44 points per game).
Nagging Questions: Can Brian Stewart, a former NFL assistant coach for the Eagles, Cowboys, Chargers and Texans, fix the Cougars’ leaky defense?
Make or break game: at UCLA, Sept. 18. A trip to the West Coast to face the Bruins will tell us a great deal about the Cougars.
23. STANFORD CARDINAL
Strengths: Quarterback Andrew Luck, the son of former NFL signal-caller Oliver Luck, is one of the nation’s best signal-callers and will operate behind a top-shelf offensive line. Plus, seven starters are back on defense and Jim Harbaugh is a big-time head coach.
Nagging Questions: Touchdown-making machine Toby Gerhart, a 2009 Heisman finalist, will be sorely missed. Is physical incoming freshman Anthony Wilkerson (43 scores as a high school senior) going to be the answer to replacing “Touchdown Toby?”
Make or break game: at Notre Dame, Sept. 25. This last dress rehearsal before the start of Pac-10 play is an intriguing matchup. It starts a brutal three-week stretch of games for the Cardinal as Harbaugh’s squad follows the game versus the Fighting Irish by heading to Oregon (Oct. 2) and then hosting USC (Oct. 9).
24. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Strengths: The Aggies’ offense will again light up scoreboards with quarterback Jerrod Johnson (3,579 yards passing) and running backs Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray coming back. Nine starters return on defense, including end Von Miller, who led the country in sacks with 17.
Nagging Questions: Texas A&M surrendered far too many big plays last season, so the question is—Will new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and his aggressive 3-4 scheme reverse that curse?
Make or break game: at Oklahoma State, Sept. 30. After ingesting three creampuffs to start the season—Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Florida International—the Aggies really step up in weight class when they face Oklahoma State on the road. It’ll be a good barometer for a team that needs to solidify the stop unit in order to move up the Big 12 Conference charts.
25. TEMPLE OWLS
Strengths: Nope, you’re not hallucinating. After winning nine games, recording their first winning season since 1990 and going to the Eagle Bank Bowl (the program’s first bowl trip in three decades), the Owls figure to be the class of the MAC—thanks to an excellent young head coach (Al Golden), the program’s best running back since Paul Palmer in Bernard Pierce, and the fact that Temple possesses perhaps the biggest and most physical offensive line in the league.
Nagging Questions: Can Chester Stewart grow into a serviceable quarterback? Opponents will put everyone, and their third cousin, in the box against Temple in hopes of slowing down Pierce, so Stewart will need to complete enough throws to keep opposing defenses honest.
Make or break game: vs. Villanova, Sept. 3. If the Owls hope to be a top 25 fixture, then they need to beat neighborhood rival Villanova, the reigning Division I-AA national champion, in the annual Mayor’s Cup game to start the season.
** Bill Dougherty provided this analysis for StatFox and Football Action’s 2010 College Preview Annual.