By Andy Staples
January 12, 2011

It's way too early to begin predicting where college football teams will finish a year from now, but we all need something to get us through the long, cold weeks between Wes Byrum's national title-winning field goal and National Signing Day. This Top 25 may not look so prescient come September, but it should help kick off the discussion for the 2011 season.

Obviously, several of these situations are fluid. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is later this week, so several game-changing players will decide their fates in the next few days. (I got caught by this when I wrote my Top 25 for this week's edition of the magazine. Because of print deadlines, I had to read the tea leaves on a few players. While I guessed correctly on most, LSU back Stevan Ridley may leave early and render my synopsis incorrect.)

On to the rankings...

NCAA Football Power Rankings
1 Oklahoma Sooners
Receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis are coming back to a team that already had plenty of firepower. Quarterback Landry Jones will play behind a line that returns four starters, and rising sophomore Roy Finch will lead a stable of young backs.
2 Oregon Ducks
This past season was not one of those lightning-in-a-bottle years. The Ducks aren't going anywhere. The construction started with Mike Bellotti, and it continues with Chip Kelly. Oregon is the Pac-12's premier program, and it looks as if that will continue to be the case for the next few years. Oregon will lose three offensive linemen and two linebackers, but the Ducks have recruited well. Leading rusher LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas are back. So is cornerback/return man Cliff Harris.
3 LSU Tigers
Cornerback Patrick Peterson and tailback Ridley may be gone, but LSU will still bring back nine starters on offense and seven on defense. As the Cotton Bowl win against Texas A&M proved, Spencer Ware can also carry the football a little. LSU's offense should improve this offseason. Combine that with its defense, and you have a national title contender.
4 Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide lost a lot. Tailback Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and defensive end Marcell Dareus have moved on to the NFL. Given the level of talent Coach Nick Saban has brought into the program, Alabama is going to have to deal with similar losses every season. Assuming safety Mark Barron returns, Alabama will bring back nine defensive starters. On offense, backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy should be able to replace Ingram's production. A.J. McCarron has the inside track to replace Greg McElroy at quarterback, but don't count out redshirt freshman Phillip Sims.
5 Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal lost a coach but kept a quarterback. Things could have been a lot worse. If Cam Newton leaves Auburn for the NFL, Luck will enter the season as college football's best player and the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite. Whether he stays that way will depend on an offensive line that must replace four starters.
6 Ohio St. Buckeyes
Yes, quarterback Terrelle Pryor has to sit out the first five games because of an NCAA suspension. But the Buckeyes always play good defense, and they have a stable of young tailbacks who can fill in for Boom Herron -- who is suspended for those five games but who also may turn pro. Remember the name Rod Smith. Smith is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound tailback from Fort Wayne, Ind., who redshirted in 2010. He is already earning comparisons to former Buckeye Beanie Wells, and that bodes well for the future of the offense.
7 Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies got thrashed by LSU in the Cotton Bowl, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that this is one of the most intriguing teams in the nation. Texas A&M languished in 2010 before Coach Mike Sherman moved Ryan Tannehill from receiver to quarterback. All of a sudden, the Aggies could beat anyone in the Big 12. As freshman, offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews provided a reason to believe the offense could be good for a while. On defense, coordinator Tim DeRuyter turned around a group that had been porous. Even without star pass rusher Von Miller, the Aggies should still get better on that side of the ball thanks to another offseason with DeRuyter.
8 TCU Horned Frogs
It's tough to believe now that in the spring of 2009, there were some who thought Andy Dalton might be unseated at quarterback by then-freshman Casey Pachall. Given Dalton's performance over the past two seasons, that must mean Pachall is pretty good. If he can keep the offense moving, linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock should ensure the Horned Frogs keep punishing opponents on defense in TCU's final season in a non-AQ conference.
9 South Carolina Gamecocks
Sorry, Gamecocks, but you get to be the trendy outside-the-power-structure SEC pick for this season. That didn't work so well for Ole Miss in 2009, but Arkansas ended up in the Sugar Bowl in 2010. It will be interesting to see how South Carolina handles lofty expectations. With tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery coming back, South Carolina should be picked to repeat as SEC East champion.
10 Florida St. Seminoles
Quarterback Christian Ponder and offensive linemen Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon are gone. Pretty much everyone else is back. The offense will be led by quarterback E.J. Manuel, who has had plenty of seasoning as Ponder's injury replacement in 2009 and 2010. On defense, FSU has a glut of talent at linebacker led by Nigel Bradham.
11 Boise St. Broncos
It only seems as if a vast majority of Boise State's roster has been playing since the Clinton administration because so many of these players started as freshmen. The Broncos still bring back seven starters from last year's defense, and quarterback Kellen Moore will be back for his fourth year as the starter. He won't have receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, but Moore will be able to lean on tailback Doug Martin.
12 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Defensive tackle Jared Crick gave Nebraska a huge boost when he elected to return for his senior season. When Ndamukong Suh made the same choice between the 2008 and 2009 seasons he was, like Crick, highly regarded but not a household name. We all know what happened after that. Crick and linebacker Lavonte David should lead a group that might be the Big Ten's best defense.
13 Missouri Tigers
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert's early departure to the NFL will pave the way for the start of the James Franklin era in Columbia. Like the transition from Chase Daniel to Gabbert, the move from Gabbert to Franklin should go smoothly. The change shouldn't cause Tigers fans to start sweating on their slices of Shakespeare's Pizza.
14 Auburn Tigers
Because this is the Internet, I'm covered here. If quarterback Cam Newton shocks the world and announces he'll return for another year in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, I'll adjust these rankings and move Auburn into the top five. Newton is that good. Which is also why the Tigers will end up down here if he turns pro. Tailback Michael Dyer should be a star, but it's tough to believe the offense will be anywhere near as dynamic without Newton.
15 Wisconsin Badgers
Backs James White and Montee Ball return along with three-fifths of a bulldozing offensive line, but the losses of defensive end J.J. Watt and quarterback Scott Tolzein will be tough to overcome. Now, we'll see how good of a program builder Coach Bret Bielema is.
16 Michigan St. Spartans
Quarterback Kirk Cousins and tailback Edwin Baker lead a large group of returning starters that should keep the Spartans competing for the Big Ten title. After laying an egg against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, Michigan State has a lot to prove in the first season of the new-look Big Ten.
17 Arkansas Razorbacks
Quarterback Ryan Mallett is gone to the NFL, but consider this: We learned by season's end that Auburn's defense was quite good. In relief of Mallett at Jordan-Hare Stadium, heir apparent Tyler Wilson torched the Tigers for 332 passing yards and four touchdowns. Wilson is ready, and he'll go into the season knowing tailback Knile Davis can carry the load on the ground.
18 Oklahoma St. Cowboys
Coach Mike Gundy is waiting on the NFL decisions of receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden before he hires a new offensive coordinator. Gundy should know the answer in the next few days, and we'll also know whether the Cowboys belong this low or if they should be bumped up because of the return of their two offensive stars.

Update: Blackmon and Weeden are returning in 2011
19 Virginia Tech Hokies
Linebacker Bruce Taylor and cornerback Jayron Hosley should lead coordinator Bud Foster's always-solid defense. The questions will be on offense, where Logan Thomas will take over at quarterback for Tyrod Taylor and backs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans have left early for the NFL. The good news is that the Hokies return four starting offensive linemen, including All-ACC selections Jaymes Brooks and Blake DeChristopher.
20 West Virginia Mountaineers
Quarterback Geno Smith should benefit most from the arrival of offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. Thanks to Smith's arm and a stable of fast young receivers, the Mountaineers may transition to more of an air-it-out offense. On defense, coordinator Jeff Casteel will have to replace a lot, but he will have freakishly fast defensive end Bruce Irvin rushing the opposing quarterback.
21 Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs have got to begin climbing back toward the top of the rankings, or the administration's patience with Coach Mark Richt will evaporate. The Bulldogs simply have too much talent to keep foundering. If Newton doesn't come back to Auburn, the Bulldogs' Aaron Murray might be the best returning starter at quarterback in the SEC. Even if linebacker Justin Houston decides to turn pro, Georgia returns most of its defense. The Bulldogs have got to be good this year.
22 Mississippi St. Bulldogs
Mississippi State lost Manny Diaz to Texas, but co-defensive coordinator Chris Wilson should have plenty of tools. The Bulldogs bring back their starting secondary and defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd. On offense, Coach Dan Mullen will have some continuity. Quarterback Chris Relf is back after a marked improvement in 2010, and tailback Vick Ballard should give the Bulldogs a legitimate ground threat.
23 Arizona St. Sun Devils
Arizona State brings back a whopping 20 starters from a team that was a play or two away from wins against Wisconsin, USC and Stanford. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will have to choose between Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler at quarterback, but both are good options.
24 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
On paper, the Fighting Irish look loaded -- especially after receiver Michael Floyd announced Wednesday that he would return for his senior season. But Notre Dame has not lived up to preseason promise for a long time, so we'll keep the expectations low. Still, don't be shocked if Coach Brian Kelly keeps the momentum going from a strong finish in 2010.
25 Utah Utes
The Pac-12 South division is going to be wide-open in 2011, and the Utes will bring plenty of talent into their new conference. Quarterback Jordan Wynn should fit right into a league known for excellent signal-callers.

Next five: Texas, Florida, Connecticut, Central Florida, Penn State

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