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Posted: Thursday September 1, 2011 11:08AM ; Updated: Thursday September 1, 2011 11:08AM
SI.com's 2011 Preseason Crystal Ball
SI.com college football contributors Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples, Holly Anderson, Austin Murphy, George Schroeder, Cory McCartney, Bill Trocchi and Mallory Rubin share their season predictions.
BCS Bowl Projections
 
Stewart Mandel
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Andy Staples
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Holly Anderson
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Austin Murphy
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
George Schroeder
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Cory McCartney
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Bill Trocchi
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
Mallory Rubin
  Title Game   Rose   Fiesta   Orange   Sugar  
  vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.   vs.  
 
National Champion
 
Mandel
This team is loaded with NFL talent, particularly on defense, where guys like Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick are potential first-round draft picks. And the Tide's SEC schedule is very favorable, with LSU and Arkansas coming to Tuscaloosa.
Staples
The Sooners will be tested this season in a top-heavy Big 12 and by a visit to Florida State in Week 3. Fortunately for Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Missouri have to come to Norman. And though Bedlam is in Stillwater, Oklahoma State still seems to have a mental block when it comes to the Sooners. In January, coach Bob Stoops will reclaim his Big Game Bob nickname as he leads the Sooners to the second national title of his tenure.
Anderson
The SEC West takes up residence in the lobster pot that used to contain the now-desiccated carcasses of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Nobody gets out with less than two losses and the conference's bid for a six-peat falls short. Into the void steps Oregon, which gets it right this time.
Murphy
Because Landry Jones -- who threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns last season (against just 12 picks) -- has stepped completely out of the shadow of Sam Bradford and is playing like a first-round NFL draft pick himself. Because the Sooners are the most complete team in the country and are loaded all over the field, including on special teams, where punter Tress Way is among the nation's finest. And because, someday, eventually, a representative from a conference other than the SEC has to win a national title. Right?
Schroeder
Bob Stoops has a national championship, but his teams have lost in their last three BCS title game appearances. Not this year. Led by Landry Jones, the Sooners end their drought and the SEC's run of dominance.
McCartney
They lost a number of stars on offense, but the Crimson Tide will still give the SEC its sixth straight championship. Alabama boasts one of the nation's best running backs in Trent Richardson, who's operating behind a veteran offensive line, and the Mark Barron-led defense is unparalleled.
Trocchi
The Seminoles will be heavy underdogs against Alabama, but E.J. Manuel and Co. will pull off the improbable upset, making Jimbo Fisher the fifth second-year coach in the last 12 years to win the national championship.
Rubin
It's pretty simple: Alabama is the best team in the best conference. The Tide are so good, in fact, that even a quarterback-by-committee has not deterred talking heads nationwide from ranking them No. 1 or 2 this preseason. There's a lot to like on offense, where one of the nation's best running backs (Trent Richardson) will play behind one of the nation's best offensive linemen (Barrett Jones). There's even more to like on defense, where Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower form the best linebacking tandem in the country.
 
Surprise Team
 
Mandel
Skip Holtz is the real deal. The Bulls won five of their last seven in his first season as coach and should be very strong on defense this year. They will contend with West Virginia for the Big East title.
Staples
The Mountaineers might not only be good for a Big East team. They might be just plain good. If first-year coach Dana Holgorsen can do for West Virginia's offense in 2011 what he did for Oklahoma State's in 2010, the Mountaineers will be tough to stop. With out-of-conference games against sneaky-good Maryland and always-talented LSU, we should get a strong idea how the Mountaineers stack up against the rest of the nation.
Anderson
UTEP will flounder in the absence of Trevor Vittatoe, but will pull off at least one what-the-hell upset over a team that might otherwise have played in the C-USA championship game. It's UTEP! Mike Price carries a pickaxe! You never know!
Murphy
San Diego State lost four games by a combined 15 points in 2010 and returns most of its key players, including stud sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman (1,532 rushing yards, 17 TDs last season) and starting quarterback Ryan Lindley (3,830 yards, 28 TDs). Will Rocky Long adequately replace departed head coach Brady Hoch? Of course he will. Long won at New Mexico, for goodness' sake.
Schroeder
The Bulldogs aren't getting much attention, with good reason; the SEC West is loaded. But senior quarterback Chris Relf leads 15 returning starters. With Alabama, LSU and South Carolina coming to Starkville, don't be surprised if an upset -- or two -- results.
McCartney
The Bulls already have a stout defense. If quarterback B.J. Daniels finds some consistency and former five-star running back Darrell Scott starts living up to the hype, USF can take advantage of a schedule lacking any teams that finished 2010 ranked.
Trocchi
Norm Chow joins the Utes' staff and has an experienced quarterback to work with in Jordan Wynn. The defensive front seven is strong and the Utes don't have to play Oregon or Stanford, leaving open the possibility of Utah winning the Pac-12 South title in Year One.
Rubin
The Hawkeyes tend to perform to the opposite of expectations, which are low this year after an 8-5 campaign. Only nine starters return, but few reserves are as seasoned as running back Marcus Coker and quarterback James Vandenberg. Those two will benefit from playing behind one of the nation's best offensive lines, anchored by likely NFL first-rounder Riley Reiff. The schedule is favorable to boot: Iowa misses Ohio State and Wisconsin and gets divisional foes Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern at home.
 
Flop Team
 
Mandel
Even before Jordan Jefferson's arrest and Russell Shepard's suspension, this team was set up to fail. Les Miles needed a lot of breaks to fall his way to win 11 games last season, and the schedule this year is brutal.
Staples
The Cowboys may have the best returning quarterback-receiver combo in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, but their schedule is brutal. They face Arizona at home out of conference, and a game at Tulsa is no cakewalk. Oklahoma State then must play Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech on the road before finishing the season at home against an Oklahoma team that might be playing for a shot at the BCS title game.
Anderson
"Flop" is a strong word, but LSU was a sure bet to lose two games even before the suspensions. A top five ranking is a hilarious stretch. Conversely, the Tigers could lose 20 players to the NCAA or injury and still win 10 games. It's LSU. It's what the Tigers do.
Murphy
With 15 starters gone from a year ago -- including NFL first-rounders Cam (Entertainer and Icon) Newton and Nick Fairley -- Auburn will board a downward escalator. In October alone, the Tigers must visit Arkansas, South Carolina and LSU, while hosting Florida. Music City Bowl, anyone?
Schroeder
The Aggies dominated August with their nasty divorce from Texas -- we mean, the Big 12. But after a hot finish in 2010, they've been a trending topic for 2011. Sorry, but if this is A&M's last season in the Big 12, it won't be as satisfying as the folks in College Station would like.
McCartney
Ryan Mallett and D.J. Williams are gone and the Hogs lost the SEC's top returning rusher, Knile Davis, to an ankle injury. Plus, the schedule is daunting with Alabama and LSU on the road and dates with Texas A&M and South Carolina.
Trocchi
Preseason arrests, uncertainty at quarterback, two killer nonconference games (Oregon, at West Virginia), a trip to Tuscaloosa and the odds that the Mad Hatter's luck finally runs out make this preseason top 10 squad vulnerable to the flop. There is tons of talent, but this is the year the ball fails to bounce the right way, the opponent only sends 11 men onto the field and the clock actually runs out before LSU scores the winning touchdown.
Rubin
Unlike surprise pick Iowa, Michigan State faces a daunting schedule that includes dates with Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern -- all on the road. (The Spartans must also face Michigan and Wisconsin at home.) Even if this squad is better than last year's 11-1 group, it'd be hard-pressed to survive that gauntlet with a BCS-worthy record intact.
 
Best Bet to Bust the BCS
 
Mandel
But even Kellen Moore and the Broncos may stumble this year while moving to a tougher conference, so I'm predicting no BCS busters this year.
Staples
With TCU reloading in its final season in the Mountain West, Boise State could reap the benefits in its first season in the league. If the Broncos can survive opening night against Georgia in Atlanta, they'll have the inside track on another BCS at-large berth.
Anderson
Boise State and TCU don't even count as "busters" anymore. Case Keenum has to put together a healthy season eventually, and a Week 1 revenge date with UCLA sets the stage for a deep run over a favorable schedule.
Murphy
Another way to pose question: Who wins the Mountain West? TCU, sans Andy Dalton, must go to the blue rug on Nov. 12 to face its newest conference foe. Led by four-year starter Kellen Moore, whose 182.6 passer rating led the nation last season, Boise will prevail. Plus, Chris Petersen's charges will get extra love from computers for a season-opening win over Georgia in Atlanta.
Schroeder
Until further notice -- until, say, Chris Petersen is finally lured away, which might be never -- Boise State is always the best bet to bust the BCS. The Broncos lost some playmakers, but they bring back Kellen Moore, who might be college football's best clutch quarterback, and they're poised to win the Mountain West in their first season in the league.
McCartney
Kellen Moore is back along with 13 other starters from last season's 12-1 team. If the Broncos can get through an opener against Georgia, a home date with TCU could be all that separates them from a chance to become the first non-AQ team in the title game.
Trocchi
The offseason concern seems to be the wide receivers that have departed. Since when have wide receivers determined a team's fate? I'll take an elite, experienced quarterback (Kellen Moore), a productive senior running back (Doug Martin) and a dominating defense any day. Get by Georgia on opening night and it's smooth sailing for the Broncos.
Rubin
The Broncos get TCU on the smurf turf in the teams' lone season as conference rivals. And while the Horned Frogs must replace the winningest quarterback in school history, the Broncos will go to battle with the potential winningest quarterback in NCAA history. All-America candidates dot both Boise lines, and running back Doug Martin is one of the most underrated players in the FBS.
 
Heisman Trophy Winner
 
QB Andrew Luck :: Steve Mitchell/US PRESSWIRE
Mandel
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama. Even as Mark Ingram's backup, Richardson showed he's an elite player who's both insanely strong and elusive. If 'Bama contends for a title it will be because Richardson has a Heisman-type season.

Staples
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma. Because the Heisman has become an award for the top quarterback or tailback on a national title contender, and Jones should put up huge numbers.

Anderson
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford. Everybody loves a quarterback, and December 2011 will bring an end to the two-year streak of breathless reporting on what poor life choices led the eventual trophy winner's father to miss the ceremony -- unless Oliver Luck gets busted for moonshinin' in the meantime, and don't act like that couldn't happen.

Murphy
Luck. Last year's runner-up is in an optimal position: He's got strong name recognition but isn't over exposed (think Tim Tebow in 2008). His numbers last season were great -- 3,338 yards, 32 TDs - but not so great that he can't improve on them in 2011. Nor will his backstory -- the once-and-future first-round NFL draft pick returning to school to get his degree in architectural design -- hurt.

Schroeder
Luck. Yeah, it's the easy answer. But the returning Heisman runner-up turned down NFL millions to come back for one more season. After the turbulent offseason -- heck, after last year's hold-your-nose Heisman pick -- college football is waiting to embrace a feel-good story.

McCartney
Luck. The previous year's runner-up hasn't won since Herschel Walker in 1982, but Luck is the best player at a position that has won 28 times and he figures to keep the Cardinal in the mix for a BCS berth. Turning down NFL millions to stay in school doesn't hurt his case.

Trocchi
Luck. Usually this award goes to the best player on the best team, but Luck has so much preseason buzz as the potential No. 1 draft pick, he can win the Heisman without having to go undefeated. And he's the best player in college football.

Rubin
Richardson. This pick isn't a knock on Luck, who is the best player in college football and will likely deliver an outstanding season worthy of Heisman consideration. It's an acknowledgment of an undeniable trend: The Heisman winner comes from a team in the BCS title hunt, which makes Richardson or Oklahoma's Landry Jones safer bets than Luck. That's not to say Richardson won't truly deserve the honor. He was the best 'Bama back even when Mark Ingram was on the roster, and he'll carry the Tide to the SEC and national titles now that he's in a feature role.
 
First Player to Fall Out of Heisman Race
 
QB Denard Robinson :: Eric Bronson/Icon SMI
Mandel
QB Denard Robinson, Michigan. Sholeace's staggering rushing numbers (1,702 yards last year) will likely decrease significantly in Brady Hoke's West Coast offense, and he may struggle at times with the new passing game.

Staples
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama. Because my campaign to make Heisman voters recognize Crimson Tide lineman Barrett Jones will siphon votes away from Richardson. Won't it?

Anderson
QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska. It will have something to do with a public hissy fit on the part of either a Pelini brother, Martinez's father or Martinez himself.

Murphy
Robinson. Yes, he is a dazzling, explosive playmaker, but Shoelace will see his numbers drop significantly in the more buttoned-down, pro-type attack preferred by new OC Al Borges. Moreover, superb coach though he is, Brady Hoke will not get this program turned around in one year. Unless you play for Notre Dame, it's hard to win the Heisman with a losing record.

Schroeder
Robinson. Shoelace was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and finished sixth in the Heisman voting in 2010. He was electrifying -- but that was in Rich Rodriguez's shotgun spread option. Brady Hoke wants a dropback passer in a traditional offense. Robinson seems ill-fitted for the new style.

McCartney
Robinson. He's the game's top dual-threat quarterback, but it's unrealistic to think he can get anywhere near last season's numbers, when he ranked second in the FBS in rushing and had six games with at least 345 yards of offense.

Trocchi
Robinson. There are going to be system issues with new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Word is Michigan wants to be more of a power-running, pro-syle passing attack. Robinson is a spread-option maestro. Michigan might be better this year, especially on defense, but the eye-popping numbers from Robinson may be a thing of the past.

Rubin
Robinson. He'll still be fun to watch and he'll still be an MVP-type player, but he won't be as fun or as valuable in an offense ill-suited to his skill set. The flip side: Piloting a pro-style attack will limit Robinson's rushing opportunities, but it should also keep him healthier, and thus on the field more.
 
Next Household Name
 
RB Marcus Coker :: Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
Mandel
RB Marcus Coker, Iowa. If you watched last year's Insight Bowl, in which the then-freshman ran for 219 yards against Missouri, you already know Coker well. The rest of the country will take notice when he leads the Big Ten in rushing this season.

Staples
DE Jesse Williams, Alabama. Remember how juco transfer Terrence Cody took college football by storm in 2008? Another JUCO transfer defensive lineman is about to have the same impact. What makes the 6-foot-4, 319-pound Williams even more fun? He's Australian.

Anderson
WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee. The sophomore drew comparisons to former Georgia star A.J. Green as a true freshman. His mind-meld with the maddening Tyler Bray will be the lone bright spot in a dim season on Rocky Top.

Murphy
RB De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon. Yes, we know, Lache Seastrunk left Eugene because he was worried about his ailing grandmother. It's also likely he read the writing on the wall: He was going to be buried on the depth chart beneath not just LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but the electrifying Thomas. Buzz out of Ducks camp is that the freshman from Crenshaw, whom Oregon poached from USC at the 11th hour, has looked so good that Chip Kelly won't be able to keep him off the field.

Schroeder
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas. If you watched Auburn-Arkansas last year, you know why Ryan Mallett's successor could become a star in a hurry. When Mallett was knocked out of the game, Wilson torched the Tigers in a wild contest that wasn't decided until the fourth quarter. Now he takes the reins in Bobby Petrino's potent attack.

McCartney
RB Bryce Brown, Kansas State. He's no unknown after an NCAA investigation into his recruitment and his exit from Tennessee after a season, but Brown can make a name for himself in Manhattan with the departure of Daniel Thomas. The Big 12 media is taking notice, naming Brown to the preseason all-conference team.

Trocchi
RB Isaiah Crowell, Georgia. The true freshman has an opportunity to be the feature back on a team that should be in contention for the SEC East title. Crowell gets a national stage in his debut, taking on Boise State in the Georgia Dome. The Georgia faithful are hoping Crowell can have the same impact Marcus Lattimore had last year at South Carolina.

Rubin
WR Jaxon Shipley, Texas. Colt McCoy's younger brother didn't snag a starting job with the Longhorns, but Jordan Shipley's younger brother did. Scouts say the four-star stud is more polished than his older brother was at the same age. He'll have a chance to contribute immediately on an offense desperate for an explosive threat.
 
Coach on the Hottest Seat
 
Rick Neuheisel :: Keith Birmingham/ZUMAPRESS
Mandel
Rick Neuheisel, UCLA. Neuheisel has recruited well, but all he has to show for it so far is a 15-22 record. He desperately needs improved quarterback play to avoid another mediocre season and likely pink slip.

Staples
Mark Richt, Georgia. Georgia must be better than it has been the past two years. Given the Bulldogs' tradition, facilities, resources and the fact that they dominate a state that produces a ton of talent annually, Georgia should be in the national title conversation every other year. Richt already has proven himself a fantastic coach, but if he can't bring the Bulldogs back to championship level, they'll find someone who will.

Anderson
Mack Brown, Texas. If the Longhorns don't turn it around, Brown will be fired by ESPN on live air rather than by the university, all in the name of securing a ratings bump for the LHN.

Murphy
Neuheisel. Bruins fans don't really care that Houston is quarterbacked by a dark-horse Heisman candidate. They just know the Cougars play in Conference USA, and if UCLA can't beat them in the opener, the roar for Neuheisel's golden scalp will only get louder. As it should. With a record of 15-22 since taking over in 2008, Neuheisel has failed to gain ground on scandal-compromised USC. No wonder his AD said recently, "Rick knows there is maybe one shot to straighten this thing out."

Schroeder
Neuheisel. There are others -- Mark Richt, for example -- but Neuheisel hasn't gotten it done at his alma mater, even with the decline of crosstown rival USC. If the Bruins aren't significantly better this season, Neuheisel is done.

McCartney
Mike Locksley, New Mexico. He's won just two out of 22 games since taking over the Lobos, has been involved in two off-field scandals and has seen his buyout reduced from a little over a million to $450,000. This is probably a make-or-break year for Locksley.

Trocchi
Locksley. Locksley, 2-22 in two years with some embarrassing off-the-field episodes, just signed a revised contract that will require the school to pay him less if it dismisses him. Not good.

Rubin
Neuheisel. Usually when your AD says you only have one more shot, you only have one more shot. With a muddy quarterback situation and early nonconference matchups with Houston and Texas looming, that shot may be over long before the season.
 
A Bold Prediction
 
TCU's Rose Bowl celebration :: Paul Moseley/Landov
Mandel
Newly independent BYU will storm up the rankings after opening the season with wins at Ole Miss, at Texas and against Utah. The Cougars will head into the final week with a BCS at-large shot before falling at Hawaii.

Staples
Boise State's move to the Mountain West combined with a reloading year at TCU combined with the continued improvement at San Diego State will leave zero undefeated teams from non-AQ leagues. As a result, that group will be shut out of the BCS for the first time since the 2005 season, the last year before the BCS introduced the double-hosting model and opened two additional slots.

Anderson
South Carolina as SEC champ sounds crazy, but think what delirious fun it would be to watch Steve Spurrier attain the mountaintop of a conference championship once more, grim joy playing with grim resignation on his face as he comes to terms with the fact that his success came thanks to a quarterback he openly despises. This is assuming Spurrier doesn't start Connor Shaw all season out of spite; don't put it past him.

Murphy
After turning over a new leaf -- and going to traffic school -- Oregon Ducks cornerback and punt returner Cliff Harris leads the nation in interceptions and punt returns (despite missing the team's opener) and is named a Heisman finalist, thus earning a trip to New York City, where he ... takes taxis, rather than drives himself.

Schroeder
Utah wins the Pac-12 South and plays in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship. The problem there is, the Utes will play Oregon -- after missing the Ducks and fellow Pac-12 power Stanford in the regular season. Sorry, the trip to the Rose Bowl will have to wait, but it's still a huge debut for the AQ-league newbies.

McCartney
TCU's defense will become the first to rank No. 1 in the nation in four straight seasons. Its top two tacklers are gone, but it has star power with linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock and a schedule with two teams whose offenses were better than 36th in scoring in 2010.

Trocchi
After another undefeated regular season, Chris Petersen accepts the job at UCLA but still coaches Boise State in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame.

Rubin
One year after zero Big East teams finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25, three of the conference's finest -- West Virginia, South Florida and Pitt -- will grace the rankings when the 2011 campaign concludes.
 

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