I've already made one pass at figuring out some preseason college football rankings. But now, with a bit more time and the insanity of National Signing Day behind us, we know more about what teams were winners and losers in the 2011 recruiting season will look like come August. And that means it's time for a do-over.
So we're unspooling our rankings in five parts, with five teams in each section. There's no overarching rationale here except a general "Who would beat whom on a neutral field?" eye test, and you are welcome — nay, encouraged — to call me an idiot in the comments.
But I'd also remind you that Auburn and Oregon were ranked 21st and seventh in the 2010 preseason AP Poll, which may make the "All college football rankings predictions are crapshoots" point better than I could with more words.
On The Outside Looking In
West Virginia, which could be very good if offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen can refine Geno Smith's substantial talents; South Florida, another Big East sleeper with a talented quarterback in B.J. Daniels; Miami, which makes up for what it lacks at quarterback with NFL-caliber players at a number of positions; Brigham Young, a team that will only get better as it figures out how to handle the Jake Heaps/Riley Nelson choice; Arizona State, which finished strong in 2010 and lost most of its games by single digits.
No team loses more than Auburn does: Cam Newton and Nick Fairley bolting for the NFL means that the Tigers may have to replace the most dominant offensive and defensive players in the country. But it's concerns up front, where three offensive linemen will have to be replaced, that sends the defending national champions tumbling in my estimation. And the concerns about Ted Roof's defense will resurface, while Gus Malzahn will have to retrofit his offense to a less celestial talent than Newton.
Pros: Young team still has talent all over, and Michael Dyer should be very, very good. A strong recruiting class might help break Auburn's fall.
Cons: The SEC West will be vicious in 2011, and Auburn cannot rely on singular talents like Newton and Fairley to rescue the team as they did, repeatedly, in 2010.
This ranking's contingent on Case Keenum being healthy in his sixth season for the Cougars, but it's worth noting that Houston recovered nicely after Keenum went out for the year in 2010. The Cougars finished 13th in scoring offense after their signal-caller went out in the third game of the year against UCLA and managed to cobble together a running attack that failed to gain more than 100 yards in just two of Houston's final nine games. Keenum gives the Cougars a chance to win shootouts the 2010 squad (which allowed 32.2 points per game) couldn't. And yes, I do think 2011 Houston with a healthy Keenum beats 2010 Auburn on a neutral field.
Pros: Keenum gives the Cougars arguably the nation's most polished passer, and one of the nation's most explosive offenses.
Cons: Young, unremarkable defense will be prone to repeated implosions.
Could the Knights be the non-Boise State/TCU mid-major darling of 2011? Quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey is already one of the five best dual-threat quarterbacks in college football, and has tons of upside if he can improve as a passer. UCF's young defense was impressively stingy (17.1 points allowed per game) in high-scoring Conference USA in 2010, and while it will have to replace outgoing seniors in the linebacking corps and secondary, a mean pass rush returns largely unchanged from last fall.
Pros: Godfrey could be class of C-USA at quarterback, and young program appears to have hit its stride under George O'Leary.
Cons: Godfrey will have to develop connections with new receivers; three seniors depart from the 2010 receiving corps.
There is much anxiety deep in the heart of Texas about whether the Longhorns can recover from a miserable 5-7 season in 2010, but it's hard not to expect the storehouse of talent Mack Brown has built to at least improve on that record. Garrett Gilbert should be better in his second year of full-time starting, and may have a new every-down back in Malcolm Brown to rely on. Texas' defense, burnt repeatedly in key situations and by turnover-caused short-field scenarios (the Longhorns were sixth in total defense, but 49th in scoring defense), should improve enough to make Texas a middling Big 12 team. And in an up year for the Big 12, that might not be a bad thing.
Pros: Deep recruiting class should be full of playmakers that might see the field sooner rather than later.
Cons: Coaching chaos may stymie natural development of players; switch from Will Muschamp's defense to Manny Diaz' system could produce growing pains.
Don't laugh: Lane Kiffin's squad still isn't as imposing as the cadre of talent Pete Carroll was able to put together year after year, but USC could be good to very good in 2011. The 2010 team's lack of consistency on offense and defense helped consign it to an underwhelming 8-5 mark; with an additional year in the Kiffins' systems (Monte's defense should be much improved from its 63rd mark in total defense in 2010), the talent that existed in Los Angeles after Carroll's departure and the skilled players Kiffin has been able to bring in should be better able to throw scares into the top tier of the Pac-12, and perhaps play spoiler for Oregon or Stanford in the national title race.
Pros: Matt Barkley has an impressive arsenal of young talent on his side of the ball and was developing well at the end of the 2010 season.
Cons: Kiffin's questionable coaching decisions may cost the Trojans a game or two, and shady recruiting may bring on NCAA shadow; very young team still needs players to develop to create depth.