2011 CFN Preseason Rankings
Barrett Jones, William Vlachos, Trent Richardson
Barrett Jones, William Vlachos, Trent Richardson
Posted Aug 5, 2011

Who are the best teams going into the 2011 season? Alabama was the No. 1 team in last year's preseason rankings, but that was by default. This year, the Tide has all the makings of a national champion if some key parts can come together. These are the elite of the elite teams: The CFN Preseason Top Five.

Preview 2011 - Preseason Rankings

National Title Contenders - Top Five

2011 CFN Preseason Rankings  
Preview 2011 | 1 to 5 | 6 to 10 | 11 to 20 | 21 to 30 | 31 to 40 | 41 to 50
51 to 60 | 61 to 70 | 71 to 80 | 81 to 90 | 91 to 100 | 101 to 110 | 111 to 120 
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There's one very important distinction in the CFN preseason rankings: these are based on how good the teams are going into the season and NOT how they're going to finish. Some teams have easier schedules than others, some get tougher road games and some will need a little bit of time to jell meaning they might be better than their final record might indicate. Going into the year, these are how good the teams appear to be from No. 1 through 120.

5. Missouri Preview
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Missouri Should Be No. 1: Okay, fine, so we went out on a limb trying to sell a skeptical world on Georgia last season as a sleeper for the national title. This year, the team that appears to have it all to be special - whether it works out or not - is Missouri, with a solid quarterback situation even without Blaine Gabbert, a loaded receiving corps full of no-name stars, and some of the best lines in the Big 12. Had Gabbert and DE Aldon Smith returned, the Tigers would be a legitimate top three preseason threat. As is, they're still very, very good.

Why Missouri Isn't No. 1: It's Missouri. Even though this might be Gary Pinkel's best team yet, and even though it's a strong team across the board with no major weakness, with the possible exception of the secondary, this is still a program that can't help but come up with the bad clunker at the worst times. The quarterback situation appears to be fine, but it's still a question mark. The linebackers are good, but are they elite enough to handle the strongest Big 12 offenses? For all the talent, there's still a lot of Show Me in this Mizzou.

Relative Strengths: Receiver, Defensive Line
Relative Weaknesses: Running Back, Secondary

What to watch for on offense: A more efficient passing game. While new starting quarterback James Franklin isn't Blaine Gabbert, he has a veteran receiving corps, led by phenomenal midrange targets in T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew, and he has a strong line to work behind. What he doesn't have is a sure-thing, top-shelf deep threat to make the efficiency numbers go through the roof, but after the offense finished 64th in the nation in passing efficiency, the attack should be more consistent and more explosive with a little more time.

What to watch for on defense: A devastating pass rush – even without Aldon Smith. Mizzou finished ninth in the nation in sacks and 40th in tackles for loss, and the aggressiveness and the production could be even better with great prospects at all four spots, and superior pass rushing specialists like Kony Ealy to pick up Smith's slack. The key for the front four will be consistency against the run. Over the last few years the Tigers have been able to do the spectacular, but they haven't done enough against the power running teams. Nebraska and Iowa went wild.

Key Question: Besides the questions about the quarterback situation, will the run defense be stronger? Considering the pass rush was phenomenal, and makes the run defense stats look a bit better, the Tigers were surprisingly soft against most decent backs (hellooooo, Marcus Coker). Aldon Smith left early for the NFLO, but the rest of the defensive front is back and linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden are veterans. A trip to Oklahoma kicks off the Big 12 schedule, and the Tigers have three games to tighten up.

Fun Stat: Missouri Scoring By Quarter: 1st 108, 2nd 108, 3rd 108, 4th 64

4. Florida State Preview
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Florida State Should Be No. 1: The recruiting classes have started to build over the last few years, and the base is there for a phenomenal year. The secondary is loaded, the defensive line will be dominant, and the running backs should be outstanding. The weaknesses aren't really that bad, and the athleticism and skills are getting back to the old Florida State level. The good part? The program is just scratching the surface in the rebirth under Jimbo Fisher.

Why Florida State Isn't No. 1: The talent is there, but will it all translate to the field? The passing game wasn't exactly stellar, and that was with a first round talent at quarterback. Christian Ponder is gone, and while E.J. Manuel is a talent, the jury is still out on whether or not he can be steady. Yes, the secondary might be as talented as any outside of Alabama, but the production has to be there after allowing 225 yards per game. The O line has to be better in pass protection, the return game needs more pop, and there has to be a bit more overall improvement to be a legitimate top five squad.

Relative Strengths: Running Back, Secondary
Relative Weaknesses: Receiver, Linebacker

What to look for offense: The center of attention. The Seminoles plucked a gem out of the junior-college ranks in the winter, signing offensive lineman Jacob Fahrenkrug out of North Dakota State College of Science. He's made an immediate splash, taking control of the opening at center and allowing veteran David Spurlock to remain at guard. Fahrenkrug has been a revelation for a front wall that needs to replace Ryan McMahon. The tackles are outstanding. The guards will be stout. If the prized import plays as well as he did in the spring, Florida State will boast one of the ACC's toughest offensive lines.

What to look for on defense: A mess of game-changing plays from the secondary. In safety Lamarcus Joyner and corners Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid, the Noles are harboring three incendiary athletes in the secondary. Each of them brings speed, explosiveness, and an extra helping of swagger to the defensive backfield. They've got a knack for breaking quickly on throws, jumping the route, and getting their hands on the ball. A nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators, they'll be good for around 35 passes defended and 10 picks this fall.

Key Question: Is QB E.J. Manuel ready to lead the offense? Christian Ponder is gone, so the job is unequivocally Manuel's this fall. At 6-4 and 235 pounds, with a huge arm, he looks as if he came right out of central casting. However, he still has to prove that he can lead the team, make good decisions, and begin fulfilling the enormous expectations that accompanied his arrival in 2008. While no one doubts that he has all the tools for success, the folks around Tallahassee hope he can maximize that talent as soon as possible.

Fun Stat: Sacks: Florida State 48 - Opponents 27

3. Oregon Preview
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart 

Why Oregon Should Be No. 1: Who's going to stop the running game? All the problems with turnover on both sides of the ball might be masked by a high-octane ground attack that'll bludgeon teams into submission with its raw speed. LaMichael James should be in the hunt for 2,000 yards, and Darron Thomas should grow even more as a top decision-making passer as well as a runner. Yes, there are plenty of losses, but the recruiting classes appear to have restocked the shelves. The special teams should be among the best in America, and the secondary will make teams pay for trying to keep up the pace.

Why Oregon Isn't No. 1: Willie Lyles. Even if everything turns out fine for the Ducks - and it appears that they won't get hammered - the Lyles issue will be a distraction. While the offensive backfield will be dominant, the loss of WR Jeff Maehl, and most of the key parts of the lines, will hurt. Remember, Oregon beat Stanford last year, and that was about it. The offense looked great against a lot of mediocre teams, and the supposedly unstoppable running game hit a brick wall in the national title game against a defense with experience and athleticism. The gimmick attack might be great to a point, but there also might be a hard ceiling on what it can do.

Relative Strengths: Running Back, Quarterback
Relative Weaknesses: Receiver, Defensive Line

What to watch for on offense: Shocking defenses with a tazer. How does Oregon become even more dangerous in 2011? By getting another lethal playmaker on the field. While speedy Kenjon Barner is the backup to LaMichael James, the coaching staff is looking to get both backs on the field at the same time. The plan calls for Barner to either line up in the backfield or slide out to the slot. The junior's jets are always operating at fill power, giving opposing defenses one more gamebreaker to be concerned about.

What to watch for on defense: The rebuilding of the D-line. The secondary has plenty of returning talent. The linebackers are going to be underrated. The line, however, remains a mystery, with three starters needing to be replaced. End Terrell Turner is the lone returning starter, but needs to be much more productive than in 2010. Joining him will be some combination of Dion Jordan and Brandon Hanna on the outside, and Zac Clark, Wade Keliikipi, and Ricky Heimuli on the inside. Together, they have to get penetration and take some heat off the back seven.

Key Question: Can the Ducks maintain their intensity now that they're clearly the hunted in the Pac-12? Back-to-back conference championships have put Oregon in the unique position of looking down at the rest of the field. However, can it play with the same drive and passion that it required to get to this spot? Chip Kelly and the rest of the staff know the team is loaded again on offense, but will have to pay special attention to keeping the Ducks focused and even-keeled throughout the year.

Fun Stat: Points per game: Oregon 47.0 – Opponents 18.7

2. Oklahoma Preview
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart

Why Oklahoma Should Be No. 1: Everything is in place for a national title run. Ryan Broyles leads an unstoppable receiving corps, the O line is just good enough to give everyone time to work, the running backs are quick and talented, and Landry Jones is the best NFL quarterback who isn't being treated like an NFL quarterback. The defense doesn't have any major weakness led by a great linebacking corps - even with star Travis Lewis out for at least two months injured - and with a defensive front that should be a brick wall. It'll be a shocker if the Sooners don't at least win the Big 12 title.

Why Oklahoma Isn't No. 1: Is Oklahoma going to be able to win firefight after firefight? Missouri, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State are all good enough to beat the Sooners, and that doesn't even take into account Texas Tech and a Texas team that'll be far better. The O line might be better, but it's not going to be the  killer of a few years ago. No, there aren't any major problems across the board and the talent level is excellent, but this isn't Bob Stoops' best team. It's not the 2008 OU, and that team couldn't win the national title.

Relative Strengths: Receiver, Quarterback
Relative Weakness: Offensive Line

What to watch for on offense: The maturation of Landry Jones. He has thrown too many picks and he hasn't been quite as effective as he needed to be in a few key games, but Jones has also proven to be calm, steady, and very, very good. This might be the year junior quarterback steps out of the shadow of Sam Bradford and becomes a special, Heisman-caliber playmaker who spreads the ball around well enough to get the high-octane, up-tempo offense going even faster and more effectively. With a veteran line that'll keep him clean, and with Ryan Broyles leading a loaded receiving corps, Jones should go ballistic. Can he be 2008 Bradford? That might be a stretch, but he might do something Bradford couldn't and win a national title.

What to watch for on defense: The lightning fast linebacking corps. From a straight football standpoint, the tragic death of Austin Box hurts, but there's more than enough talent and athleticism to make linebacker a strength. Travis Lewis is a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year type of playmaker, and he'll show why when he comes back healthy over the final month of the year, Tom Wort is a sound veteran who can step in and shine in the middle, and Corey Nelson had a tremendous offseason and is bursting to become a major factor. Even when OU goes to five defensive backs, Tony Jefferson is like a really fast outside linebacker. The front four will get the job done when it comes to getting into the backfield, and the linebacking corps will be turned loose to wreak havoc, even without Box as a leader for the inside.

Key Question: Will the offense have any more balance? The secondary might be a big of a concern with corner Jamell Fleming getting booted for academic issues, and another pass-rushing terror has to be unearthed to replace Jeremy Beal and to help Frank Alexander, but the spotlight will be on Roy Finch, the speedy and tough true sophomore who had some strong moments last year and should be ready to handle more of the rushing workload this season. Landry Jones and the passing game can carry the workload against just about everyone on the schedule, but more offensive balance could be a must to win the national title.

Fun Stat: Penalties: Opponents 102 for 851 yards – Oklahoma 72 for 592 yards

1. Alabama Preview
Offense | Defense | Depth Chart 

Why Alabama Is No. 1: Last year there was a huge concern about a defense that was talented, but had to replace almost all the key parts. Instead of being a problem, the Tide finished first in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense, allowing just 286 yards and 13.5 points per game. Almost everyone is back, while the offense should be more than fine with Trent Richardson leading a loaded backfield that'll opperate behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. On sheer talent, Bama is simply better than everyone else.

Why Alabama Shouldn't Be No. 1: You don't get better by losing a quarterback like Greg McElroy, a running back like Mark Ingram, and a receiver like Julio Jones. It also doesn't help to lose a first round NFL offensive tackle like James Carpenter. Oh sure, the Tide has more than enough talent returning to come up with a solid offensive season, but the quarterback situation is still iffy and it's asking a lot for Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks to pick up the slack for the receiving corps.

Relative Strengths: Secondary, Linebacker
Relative Weaknesses: Quarterback, Receiver

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback play. If a veteran like Greg McElroy was under center, Alabama would be the no question, no doubt No. 1 team in America. Everything else is in place for a phenomenal season, but there are still doubts about whether or not A.J. McCarron and/or Phillip Sims can handle the workload and the pressure. They're both bombers and they're both premier passers, but they have to be efficient. McElroy might not have been Tom Brady, but the Tide passing game was the fifth most efficient in the nation. Handing it off to Trent Richardson will only go so far; McCarron, the likely starter, will be tested early and he'll have to stretch the field. Remember, though, that the big question in 2009 was whether or not McElroy could step in and shine in place of John Parker Wilson, and everything turned out fine.

What to watch for on defense: The tremendous back seven … or eight. Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are ultra-active, ultra-talented linebackers who should be all over the field and should crank out huge numbers as the cleaners for the run defense, while hybrid Courtney Upshaw is a dominant pass rusher who can work like an end or a fourth linebacker. The secondary is even more loaded with stars led by safety Mark Barron and corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who might be first round draft picks next year and could each be the best in the nation at their respective positions. Safety Robert Lester led the team with eight picks, the corner combination of DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner will be fantastic on the other side of Kirkpatrick, and top safety recruit Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix could be the team's most talented defensive back when he first walks on to the field.

Key Question:  Can the defensive front get into the backfield? As good as the Tide defenses have been, end even with a top NFL draft pick like Marcell Dareus working at one end, the pass rush has been a bit weak. Bama finished sixth in the SEC, and 54th in the nation, in sacks last season and was 11th in the league in tackles for loss. The 2009 national title team was second in the SEC in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks, and now the call has gone out to start getting to the quarterback on a regular basis. LB Courtney Upshaw led the team with seven sacks, but getting more from all three spots up front would be nice. The veteran secondary doesn't exactly need a ton of help, but with all four starters returning, a pass rush could make the pass defense phenomenal.

Fun Stat:
Rushing Touchdowns: Alabama 30 – Opponents 6
2011 CFN Preseason Rankings  
Preview 2011 | 1 to 5 | 6 to 10 | 11 to 20 | 21 to 30 | 31 to 40 | 41 to 50
51 to 60 | 61 to 70 | 71 to 80 | 81 to 90 | 91 to 100 | 101 to 110 | 111 to 120