Preseason college football rankings fail when they shape the rest of the season. There's very little valuable evidence to suggest what a college football team will look like at the end of the season in October, much less August or January. Keep in mind that the teams in last night's BCS championship game, Auburn and Oregon, were ranked 21st and seventh, respectively, by the Associated Press entering this past season.
But this only ends up mattering to teams if college football poll voters end up with calcified logic by the time the season rolls around. A voter can put together a preseason top 25 or a preseason top 10 with the best intentions of predicting what teams will be good, but that same voter should be willing to ignore them entirely after the first week of the season, when he or she will be able to rate teams based on performance rather than ranking them based on prophecy.
So, with that said, here's a ridiculously premature 2011 college football preseason top 10 that I'm sure I will be reminded of repeatedly when everything I predict is proved wrong.
No team brings back quite as much as the Sooners do. Quarterback Landry Jones should be a Heisman Trophy candidate, and wide receiver Ryan Broyles will be a Biletnikoff Award favorite. A defense stocked with great talent that came together late in the year — holding four of the Sooners' last five opponents in 2010 to 24 points or fewer — will get a little bit better, as long as Travis Lewis and Frank Alexander continue to mature. Oklahoma will be the consensus 2011 preseason No. 1, and a BCS National Championship Game contender from the get-go, but Bob Stoops has seen that show before, and we've seen Stoops' teams flame out at inopportune moments time and again.
Pros:; Jones and Broyles could be the finest tandem in the nation, a fierce defense gets a little older and cycles in young talent, and the Big 12 schedule gets a little weaker.
The Ducks may get a chance to make up for their heartbreaking BCS National Championship Game loss by getting back to the game in 2011. Oregon loses Casey Matthews and Jeff Maehl, playmakers both, and will need to rebuild quickly on the offensive and defensive line. But Darron Thomas and LaMichael James both return as Heisman hopefuls, and most of Oregon's skill position players are back, which should keep Chip Kelly's blur offense whirring.
Pros: Thomas and James mean the Ducks will have America's most explosive backfield; Kelly's offense still seems virtually unstoppable in regular season contests; enormous 2010 youth movement may become deep 2011 roster.
Cons: Oregon won't get much bigger and could still be manhandled by a bowl opponent up front; the Ducks have to play at Stanford in 2011.
Naming the designated SEC beast of 2011 requires only a glance at the roster of the team that will be trying to get to another in-state BCS National Championship Game. LSU's losses — Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis, and Terrence Toliver, among others — may be made up for by another year of growth by Jordan Jefferson, who torched a very good Texas A&M defense in the Cotton Bowl. And while LSU has to travel to Tuscaloosa to face off with Alabama and play at West Virginia early, the Tigers get Florida, Auburn and Arkansas at home. Things set up nicely for LSU to carry the SEC standard in 2011.
Pros: Young playmakers could finally mature into consistent offense; defense was more than Peterson and Nevis in 2010.
Cons: Rugged SEC West will be tough; Les Miles' possible departure would send LSU tumbling to bottom of this top 10; Cotton Bowl performance could have been one-time flash.
Yes, the Cardinal will lose a fair bit on both sides of the ball, though a lot of that is thanks to what Owen Marecic provided to both units. Yes, the Cardinal don't have Jim Harbaugh, the coach that built them into a BCS contender. But no, I don't think there will be a player in America quite as good as Andrew Luck, and yes, I do think that counts for a lot. Luck should be the Heisman Trophy front-runner, and returning to school for a last hurrah might mean a lot to 2011's seniors, too. There's a lot of senior talent departing, but Stanford now knows what it takes to compete for the highest honors of the college football world.
Pros: You may have heard of this Andrew Luck fellow; underrated defense is losing less than you might think.
Cons: Harbaugh is a massive loss; Oregon's still in conference; Luck can't do it all.
The thrashing Alabama put on Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl is one of the few "whoa" results of the 2010 bowl season, and though 'Bama loses Mark Ingram, Greg McElroy, Marcell Dareus, and Julio Jones, insane recruiting leaves the Crimson Tide positioned for another run at another national championship. A.J. McCarron's maturation will have to be swift, however: Trent Richardson is great, and the defense should be fantastic, but McCarron will likely have to win at least one game through the air. Can he?
Pros: Deep roster, headed by Richardson, should be solid; Nick Saban returns with a Gene Chizik-sized chip on his shoulder.
Cons: Loss of veterans on both sides of the ball creates leadership vacuum; McElroy, Ingram, and Jones leave huge holes to fill.
6. Florida State
The Seminoles may have 2011's best defense, especially if Nigel Bradham elects to come back to school. It's young and fast and hungry all over, and could wreak havoc in the ACC. That should cover for E.J. Manuel's first season as the full-time starter, and for an underachieving offense that has been putting together pieces for years.
Pros: All-American candidates abound on loaded defense; superb recruiting class could add further depth.
Cons: Manuel needs to step up; familiar consistency woes may dog 'Noles.
With Ohio State in flux, it may be time for a new red-shirted team with quarterback questions and a ferocious defense to rule the Big Ten. Roy Helu's exit leaves Nebraska without an established bellcow at running back, and Prince Amukamara must be replaced in the secondary, but the Taylor Martinez-led option attack could be special against Big Ten defenses, and the Huskers' mean defensive 11 instantly becomes no worse than the conference's second best crew.
Pros: Martinez should improve on an occasionally awesome 2010; Jared Crick leads a loaded defensive front seven.
Cons: No Niles Paul means Nebraska needs a playmaker on offense; without Alex Henery, the Huskers have uncertainty at kicker for the first time in years.
8. South Carolina
Stephen Garcia is back, and so are Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, meaning that Garcia has, at the very least, offensive weapons in the form of two of the nation's best at their positions. A defense that did enough to limit Auburn and down Alabama in 2010 returns most of its core, and the Gamecocks are playing in the SEC's junior varsity.
Pros: Lattimore and Jeffery are the best RB-WR combo in college football; Garcia provides stability of a sort; defense should be quite good.
Cons: Stephen Garcia is likely to continue his Stephen Garcia-like career; offensive line and linebacking corps will be looking for depth.
9. Texas A&M
The Big 12's toughest team returns almost everyone but Von Miller from a defense that clamped down on a high-scoring conference, and the Ryan Tannehill-Cyrus Gray backfield will be solid. But can the run-first Aggies win a shootout with Oklahoma if necessary, and can a team coached by Mike Sherman overcome being coached by Mike Sherman?
Pros: Tannehill could be a star; Gray already is; unsung defense could be special in 2011.
Cons: Aggies' loss to LSU in Cotton Bowl leaves nagging concerns about ready-for-primetime status; Miller's departure could cripple pass rush.
10. Michigan State
The Big Ten's most balanced team returns enough on offense (Kirk Cousins, Edwin Baker) to carry momentum from great 2010 while defense figures out how to replace Greg Jones. But the Spartans must use a Capital One Bowl beatdown at Alabama's hands as motivation — and must get to top speed early, with dates at Notre Dame in September and Ohio State in October. A trip to Lincoln looms, too.
Pros: Cousins and Baker are a nice tandem; deep defense should find a way to replace Jones.
Cons: Lightning is hard to bottle, and Sparty's 2011 schedule is far less kind than 2010 slate was.
On The Outside Looking In
Oklahoma State (offense will miss Kendall Hunter, Dana Holgorsen, but Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon return); TCU (losing Andy Dalton and some others hurts, but system produces results); Boise State (ditto for Broncos, who lose Kellen Moore's favorite targets); Ohio State (suspensions and/or departures mean too much uncertainty and set up for disappointment despite terrific defense); Auburn (Cam Newton should go pro and Nick Fairley will; Michael Dyer can't make up for both); Notre Dame (if defense improves, Brian Kelly could win 10 games); Arkansas (Ryan Mallett leaves, but Knile Davis should help Tyler Wilson acclimate to the SEC); Virginia Tech (Hokies look forgettable on paper, might roll off 10 wins again in weak ACC Coastal Division).
West Virginia (offense loses Noel Devine, but gains Holgorsen, and defense could be excellent); USC (former Pac-10 sovereign has youth movement that could play spoiler in Pac-12, though Trojans can't go bowling); Florida (less chaos, better offense could do wonders for Gators); UCF (tough Conference USA squad will go where Jeffrey Godfrey takes them); South Florida (young team has bright future if quarterback play is strong).