File this under Adventures in Prognosticating. Due to print schedules, this list was compiled and submitted several days ago. It was printed — the special Sunday football section had an early run — the day LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard was suspended and the day before charges were brought against Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who was then himself suspended.
I supposed I could have changed the Top 25 for AJC.com purposes, but that way I’d inevitably wind up being wrong twice. Better to remain mulishly consistent, I say. (This time, anyway. Where mulish consistency is concerned, I’m sometimes inconsistent.) And besides: It would be just like LSU to win the BCS title without two key contributors. I mean, who among us doesn’t have great faith in Zach Mettenberger?
But enough. Here’s the Top 25, at least until somebody else gets arrested/suspended.
In keeping with the Les Miles Way of Football Coaching, this Top 25 will either be the smartest ever compiled — or the silliest. Which seems rather fitting, given whose team is ranked No. 1.
1. LSU: It’s unlikely the Tigers will go unbeaten — they play Oregon in Arlington, Texas; Mississippi State in Starkville; West Virginia in Morgantown and Alabama in Tuscaloosa — but an SEC school can win the BCS title with one loss. (LSU won it in 2007 with two losses.) And if any team can stand up to a demanding schedule, it’s this. Loony Les has all but guaranteed a windfall autumn, and now the investigation into a Baton Rouge brawl has left him spitting mad.
2. Oklahoma: The Sooners, by way of contrast, probably have to go undefeated to wind up in the BCS title game. With Texas in retreat and Nebraska in the Big Ten, the Big 12 (which has 10 members at the moment) is the least challenging of the major leagues. A loss to Florida State in Tallahassee on Sept. 17 could and the championship hopes of the team ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, and the loss of linebacker Travis Lewis to a broken foot augurs poorly.
3. Stanford: How much of the Cardinal’s rise was a function of Jim Harbaugh, and how much was the doing of Andrew Luck? The former is now coaching the San Francisco 49ers, and his fire will be missed. But his successor is David Shaw, who was Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator, and Shaw is sharp enough to realize that, in Luck, he has the nation’s best quarterback. The key game for Stanford comes Nov. 5 against Oregon, and it’s in Palo Alto.
4. Alabama: It’s a tribute to Nick Saban that his Crimson Tide, which lost four first-round draftees to the NFL and its starting quarterback to boot, is still the consensus pick to win the nation’s best conference. The Tide figures to be well coached, duh, and even more driven after its fourth-place finish in the SEC West. But without Mark Ingram and Julio Jones and Greg McElroy and Marcell Dareus, Alabama seems a year away from greater glory.
5. Florida State: Here’s another team that lost its quarterback — Christian Ponder was a first-round NFL pick — but might have upgraded at the position. E.J. Manuel was voted all-conference by the ACC media last month, which tells us much about his potential. (Also a bit about the blind faith of the ACC media.) The aforementioned date with Oklahoma has been circled in Tallahassee for months. The teams met last season in Norman, and the Sooners won 47-17.
6. Wisconsin: Who says college football doesn’t have a waiver wire? Grad student Russell Wilson, who passed for 3,653 yards last season, was released from his scholarship by North Carolina State but decided to end his dalliance with minor-league baseball and return for a final season of college football. He chose over the Badgers over Auburn, which has known some success with one-year quarterbacks, and immediately rendered Wisconsin a Rose Bowl favorite.
7. Oregon: The Ducks closed last season with an honorable at-the-horn loss to Auburn in the BCS title game. Next they get to try another SEC West opponent on another neutral field. Should Oregon beat LSU on Sept. 3, another run to the championship would be a real possibility. But the guess is that an offseason of scrutiny will take a toll on the program Nike built. If it’s any consolation, though, the Ducks still figure to win more games this year than Auburn.
8. Boise State: Should the Broncos beat Georgia here Sept. 3, we’ll be treated to another round of does-Boise-belong-in-the-title-game debate. Should Boise lose, we won’t hear another peep about its BCS chances. Let’s recall that the Broncos lost only one game last season — to Nevada in overtime — and fell from No. 3 in the polls to the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl. Pound for pound, this remains the best program in the land, but it’s still not ready for the heavyweight championship.
9. Nebraska: This proud program has a new home, and the Big Ten has, in the combustible Cornhusker Bo Pelini, the new Woody Hayes. Watching Pelini throw a sideline tantrum has become a guilty pleasure — is it any wonder he once worked for Les Miles? — but his new conference has every reason to fear the ranter. The past few seasons have done nothing to burnish the Big Ten’s reputation, and now there’s a real chance a transplant could be its champ.
10. Virginia Tech: The Hokies, as usual, stand to win the ACC Coastal. (They’ve done it four times in six seasons.) But the defense, traditionally tenacious under coordinator Bud Foster, will have to do even more heavy lifting. The offensive movers from last season, quarterback Tyrod Taylor among them, are gone. The schedule is almost a joke: The Hokies don’t face Florida State, and three ACC road games are against teams that won one league game apiece in 2010.
11. Georgia: This season’s boom-or-bust team. The Bulldogs can grab the nation’s attention in their first two games against Boise and South Carolina. Beyond that, the schedule is positively inviting. Then again, Georgia did lose seven games last season.
12. South Carolina: It’s possible the Gamecocks could have a much better team but fall short of repeating as SEC East champs. Like Georgia, Carolina doesn’t have to face LSU or Alabama. But it does have to play a road game in Athens, and that’s huge.
13. Texas A&M:What’s this? Three SEC teams in a row? (Sorry. Getting ahead of myself.) The Aggies’ tale, at least in 2011, figures to be told in a three-game stretch: Oklahoma State and Arkansas at home, Texas Tech away.
14. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy’s men — heh, heh; little joke — should be the third-best team in the defoliated Big 12. The reason the Cowboys won’t be among the top two is that they must face Texas A&M and Oklahoma on the road.
15. Mississippi State: Coach Dan Mullen’s face appears on billboards that bear the legend, “This Is Our State.” Which might be news to Houston Nutt, but we digress. Good team here. Good team in the wrong division.
16. Arkansas: Speaking of which, Bobby Petrino gushed — and Bobby P. isn’t much of a gusher — at SEC Media Days over his team’s speed. Then running back Knile Davis broke his ankle and was lost for the season.
17. Utah: To accommodate its increased membership, the Pac-12 has split into two divisions. It’s the Utes’ great good fortune to have plopped down in the one that doesn’t include Stanford or Oregon.
18. Penn State: Joe Paterno coaches the Nittany Lions. He has won 401 games and is 401 years old. (OK, so I exaggerate.) The big news this preseason was the night he spent in the hospital after getting trampled in practice.
19. TCU: This team went 13-0 last season. It figures to finish behind Boise State in the Mountain West this season. Next season the Horned Frogs might finish second in the Big East. That’s correct: Texas Christian to the Big East.
20. Notre Dame: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. “Notre Dame is always overrated.” But it’s not like I’m putting the Fighting Irish in the Top 10. And, apart from Stanford, Notre Dame doesn’t play a team that I’ve ranked above it.
21. West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen was supposed to be Bill Stewart’s coach-in-waiting, but Stewart was believed to have bad-mouthed Holgorsen and had to step down. Waiting time for the coach-in-waiting: Seven months to the day.
22. Michigan State: The Spartans went 11-2 last season, which sounds more impressive than it looked. Why? Because their losses — to Iowa and Alabama — came by an aggregate 73 points.
23. Ohio State: Jim Tressel doesn’t coach here anymore, and Terrell Pryor is gone, too. But this is still a program of vast resources, and we know from experience that the Big Ten is less tough than the SEC.
24. Houston: The class of Conference USA. (Other choices would be Southern Miss or Central Florida.) Quarterback Case Keenum was lost to a knee injury last season. He’s back now. He’s good, too.
25. Texas: There are two reasons the Longhorns shouldn’t be a losing team for long. One is freshman running back Malcolm Brown. The other is defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who worked wonders at Mississippi State.
By Mark Bradley