While some questions remain unanswered—Will Cam Newton and Nick Fairley return to the Plains? Who will be the coach at Stanford?—it's not too early to rate the teams that are in the best position to challenge for next season's BCS championship
This is an article from the Jan. 17, 2011 issue
1. Oklahoma (12--2 in 2010)
Quarterback Landry Jones, wide receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis return, and running back Roy Finch could be the Sooners' next breakout star.
2. Oregon (12--1)
Losing three offensive linemen and two linebackers is cause for concern. But given the quality of the Ducks' recruiting in recent years, Oregon might have even more team speed in 2011.
3. LSU (11--2)
With or without corner Patrick Peterson, the Tigers will be loaded, with 10 starters back on offense and at least seven on D.
4. Alabama (10--3)
Running back Mark Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and defensive end Marcell Dareus are leaving early, but the Tide's backlog of blue-chippers includes quarterback Phillip Sims.
5. Stanford (12--1)
Quarterback Andrew Luck will begin the season as the Heisman front-runner, but he'll have to overcome the loss of coach Jim Harbaugh and three O-linemen.
6. Ohio State (12--1)
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has to sit out the first five games for accepting improper benefits, but a veteran D should keep the Bucks unbeaten until he returns.
7. Texas A&M (9--4)
The Aggies took off in 2010 after moving Ryan Tannehill from receiver to quarterback. In '11 Tannehill will have a full off-season under center, and the A&M defense will be even better.
8. TCU (13--0)
Linebackers Tank Carder and Tanner Brock will lead a punishing D, while running back Ed Wesley should help ease the transition to Casey Pachall at quarterback.
9. South Carolina (9--5)
Thanks to running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks will be a trendy SEC pick.
10. Florida State (10--4)
E.J. Manuel will take over for quarterback Christian Ponder, and corner Xavier Rhodes and linebacker Christian Jones should become major contributors.
11. Boise State (12--1)
The Broncos bring back most of a defense that ranked second in the nation in points allowed, as well as quarterback Kellen Moore and running back Doug Martin.
12. Nebraska (10--4)
The Cornhuskers will enter their first Big Ten season unsettled at quarterback if Taylor Martinez transfers, but their D, led by linebacker Lavonte David, won't miss a beat.
13. Missouri (10--3)
Blaine Gabbert is going to the NFL, but coach Gary Pinkel is adept at replacing one top QB with another. Up next: James Franklin.
14. Auburn (14--0)
The Tigers' ranking will skyrocket if Cam Newton returns, but with running back Michael Dyer, they'll be formidable even if the Heisman winner walks.
15. Wisconsin (11--2)
The Badgers will be tough to stop with running backs Montee Ball and James White, but they'll also have a hard time stopping anyone without defensive end J.J. Watt, who left early for the NFL.
16. Michigan State (11--2)
Quarterback Kirk Cousins and Edwin Baker, who rushed for 1,201 yards in '10, lead a veteran group.
17. Arkansas (10--3)
Quarterback Ryan Mallett left early for the NFL, but if Tyler Wilson's relief appearance against Auburn (332 passing yards, four TDs) is any indication, the offense is in good hands.
18. Oklahoma State (11--2)
Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon have not announced whether they'll stay in Stillwater. If both return, this ranking will be too low.
19. Virginia Tech (11--3)
The heir apparent to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, 6'6", 242-pound Logan Thomas, will have his work cut out for him after running backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams turned pro.
20. West Virginia (9--4)
New offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen inherits a gem in quarterback Geno Smith.
21. Georgia (6--7)
Coach Mark Richt has too much talent to continue his run of mediocrity. Aaron Murray ranked behind only three SEC signal-callers in passing efficiency.
22. Mississippi State (9--4)
The entire starting secondary will be back in Starkville, along with a pair of stud defensive linemen in Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox.
23. Arizona State (6--6)
The Sun Devils expect to have 21 starters back from a team that was often a play or two from a breakthrough win.
24. Notre Dame (8--5)
The Fighting Irish surged at the end of coach Brian Kelly's first year. A healthy Dayne Crist at quarterback will direct the attack, and linebacker Manti Te'o will anchor an improved D.
25. Utah (10--3)
Led by quarterback Jordan Wynn, the Utes could win the Pac-12 South.