We're nearing the end of my second shot at the preseason college football rankings, and getting closer and closer to No. 1. Consider this segment of the rankings the head of the peloton: teams that got better on National Signing Day, but didn't need tons of help in the 2011 recruiting season, are teams that could challenge for national championships if the cards fall right.
Previously: First Preseason Rankings | 25-21 | 20-16 | 15-11
No other team has Andrew Luck. And while football doesn't lend itself to statements like Geno Auriemma's oft-appropriated quote about Diana Taurasi ("We've got Diana and you don't"), Luck may (should?) win some games for the Cardinal this fall with his phenomenal play. He's that good, and is clearly the Heisman favorite. Luck will have to break in new starters at receiver, but underrated running back Stepfan Taylor should open some eyes in 2011, and it would be surprising if Luck's passing didn't make a star of at least one flanker by October. A defense that went unheralded in 2010 will likely do the same in 2011, but Shayne Skov should bolster a unit that could be strong despite losing Owen Marecic.
Pros: Hungry program tasted all but the sweetest success in 2010; Luck gives Stanford a puncher's chance in every matchup. And the game against Oregon is in Palo Alto: if you believe Stanford fans can maximize The Farm's volume in this millennium, it would happen then.
Cons: Luck likes him, but can David Shaw be as effective as Jim Harbaugh was without even hoping to match his force of will?
7. Boise State
I could write "Kellen Moore and Chris Petersen" 50 times here and it would mean about as much as any substantive analysis on the Broncos. Boise State has one of the nation's singularly challenging environments for home games (and gets TCU on the Smurf Turf), the player who would have been the prohibitive Heisman favorite if not for the guy on the team right ahead of his, and a lot of defensive playmakers that will probably help replace Winston Venable. Toss in Doug Martin — think of him as a mid-major Ray Rice — and the Broncos should be just fine.
Pros: ...Kellen Moore and Chris Petersen.
Cons: Replacing Moore's favorite wideouts (Titus Young and Austin Pettis) for the last two years is tough; so is replacing Venable.
8. Ohio State
The Buckeyes' true talent level is probably nearer to sixth or fifth, but no other team in the top 10 has the cloud Ohio State will have hovering above in 2011. Whether Terrelle Pryor and Co. will return from their suspensions resulting from ill-gotten ink with their starting jobs or the team's chemistry intact is up in the air, and though no head coach is more level-headed than Jim Tressel, managing a team that has that unique scenario before it might prove too tall a task. Then again: Pryor is one of the five most talented quarterbacks in the nation, and DeVier Posey and Dan "Boom" Herron are special players at their respective positions. If Ohio State can navigate its first five games with Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller at quarterback, expect another 10-win season for the Buckeyes.
Pros: Plenty of talent on both sides of the ball in Columbus.
Cons: Outgoing senior class leaves many holes that will need to be caulked by younger, less experienced defenders.
For most teams, losing a quarterback with a howitzer for an arm would be problematic. But the early buzz on Tyler Wilson, Ryan Mallett's successor, is that he might be as good as Mallett was — if not better. Knile Davis gives Arkansas a go-to runner that the Razorbacks have lacked since the Houston Nutt regime (remember when we called Darren McFadden Run-DMC?), and despite the loss of reliable tight end D.J. Williams, the receiving corps is very, very deep. If Arkansas' defense can shake its rep as a perpetually anonymous and nebulously "improving" unit, watch out for the Razorbacks as an SEC and BCS sleeper.
Pros: Depth on offense and experience on defense.
Cons: Eensy-weensy schedule issue: Arkansas travels to both Alabama and LSU. And Wilson's not definitely the real deal just yet.
10. Texas A&M
Believing in Texas A&M used to require hoping that Mike Sherman could make something of the scant talent he had in College Station; now, I wonder if he'll screw up the development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Cyrus Gray. Tannehill, a converted wide receiver, displayed a command of the Aggies' passing attack that surpassed Jerrod Johnson's in 2010, and Johnson was certainly no slouch. Gray was and will be a thumper who can run through contact. And the Aggies allowed fewer points per game than any team in the Big 12 that will be returning to the Big 12 in 2010. (Hi, Nebraska!) Some of that is attributable to Von Miller's marvelous season, but there's plenty of reason to optimism among Aggies fans: for the first time in a long time, their squad may be Texas' best.
Pros: Tannehill and Gray are both young and good and have room to improve.
Cons: Replacing Miller is likely a fool's errand.