2011 Preview Roundtable: National Champion

Can running back Trent Richardson lead Alabama to a second title in three years?

Now that TWB has an actual staff of writers, we’ve decided to expand our preview content to take advantage of the variety of opinions among the three of us. This is the fifth in a series of roundtable posts previewing the 2011 season. Today, we each throw out our early pick for 2011 national champion.

Previously: Breakout Player, Impact Freshman, Big Ten Favorite, The Running Back Situation

Ace: Nearly everyone is picking either Alabama or Oklahoma to win this year’s title, and there’s good reason: ‘Bama is once again ridiculously talented, and running back Trent Richardson should be a Heisman contender, and the Sooners should light up scoreboards with regularity thanks to their own Heisman hopeful, quarterback Landry Jones, and an explosive offense that returns eight starters.

But the national title isn’t won on pure talent — scheduling, like it or not, plays a huge role. Alabama must navigate a murderer’s row of a schedule, with away games at Penn State, Florida, and an emerging Mississippi State squad and home contests against Arkansas, Tennessee, and a nearly-as-talented LSU team. Oklahoma must hit the road to play Florida State in September and Oklahoma State in December, two games against likely preseason top ten teams that could easily trip up their run to the title game. Throw in difficult matchups with Missouri, Texas (if they can bounce back from last year’s disaster), and Texas A&M, and this year’s clear-cut favorite will be hard-pressed to finish the season undefeated.

There is a team out there, however, that has both the talent and the schedule to make an unexpected run at the national championship this year, emerging from a period of non-relevance much like Auburn last season. Florida State returns 15 starters from a team that finished 10-4 last season, and new starting QB E.J. Manuel should be a more-than-capable replacement for the departed Christian Ponder. Even with the unexpected loss of wideout Taiwan Easterling to a professional baseball career, the Seminoles have great talent at the skill positions, and their offensive line should be one of the best in the country thanks to a talented returning group that boasts a combined 112 career starts. The defense should be strong as well, with eight returning starters bolstered by an influx of former blue-chip recruits like DE Tank Carradine and LBs Christian Jones and Jeff Luc.

As for the ‘Noles’s schedule, they don’t have it easy — the aforementioned Sept. 17 home game against Oklahoma will obviously be a huge test — but it isn’t exactly killer, either, thanks to a relatively-weak ACC. I think FSU should be able to dominate an in-conference schedule that sees them miss a matchup with fellow powerhouse Virginia Tech unless they meet in the ACC title game (a distinct possibility), and a season-ending road game at Florida looks far less daunting than usual after the Gators’s 8-5 season in 2010. I think we’re in for another surprise national champion this season, and the Seminoles are my bet to be the squad that pulls it off.

Alex: Just like last year, this year really doesn’t have a bona fide preseason national championship favorite. In last year’s preseason AP poll, the top five read as follows: Alabama (10-3), Ohio State (12-1 0-13), Boise State (12-1), Florida (8-5), Texas (5-7). Oregon was ranked 11th, and eventual national champion Auburn started the season just inside the top 25 at #22. While I highly doubt that this year’s consensus top five will be as off-base as last years, and while I doubt that a team will move from outside of the top 20 into the national championship game, I wouldn’t be surprised if an off-the-radar team won a national title this year.

I think it’s best to look at all of the legitimate national title contenders from each BCS Conference (and Boise State, TCU, and uh, Notre Dame of course) to whittle down the list a little bit.

SEC — Since the SEC has won the last 5 national championships, I think it’s best to start in the Southeast to look for the national championship favorites. The SEC East — much like last year — will be much weaker than usual; Georgia and South Carolina are the tentative favorites, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see either team lose a couple games before the SEC title game (although Georgia only draws Auburn, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State from the West, easily the best possible draw.) The West however, is stacked. There are two consensus top five teams, Alabama and LSU, a fringe top ten team, Arkansas, an up-and-coming Mississippi State team, and the defending national champions, Auburn. Heck, Auburn might even finish behind a rebuilding Ole Miss team. Out of those three top SEC West teams, I think one will make it to the national title game (even with one loss) and for my money, I’ll take Alabama. They get LSU and Arkansas at home, and their toughest road games are at Mississippi State, Florida, and Penn State — not exactly a murderers row. Plus, LSU and Arkansas face Oregon and Texas A&M in the non-conference slate respectively, and both should be at least top 15 teams. I’m picking Alabama for one national championship game slot: if they can get their quarterback situation settled, the combination of Trent Richardson, the best offensive line in college football, and a bunch of blue chipper multi-year starters on defense coached by Nick Saban should push them into the #1 slot.

Big XII — Much like the SEC, there are two or three teams that could contend for a national championship. Oklahoma has maybe the most talented team in the country, and the years of consistently impressive recruiting have paid off. They have explosiveness on offense with Landry Jones at quarterback, a few blue chip running backs filling the shoes of DeMarco Murray, and an excellent receiving corps lead by Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills, as well as a very solid defense, headed by star LB Travis Lewis. The Sooners face Florida State and Oklahoma State on the road, and while those are two top ten teams, I still think Oklahoma will win both (and could even survive a loss from Florida State) to make it to the national championship game. Oklahoma State is breaking in a new offensive coordinator, but the Weeden-to-Blackmon combination is the most lethal in all of college football. Until OSU wins a big game though, I’m hesitant to say that this will be the year they break through. Texas A&M is a darkhorse contender, but I’ll be surprised if they beat Oklahoma on the road or Arkansas at a neutral site.

Big Ten — I don’t think any team will be a national title contender. Ohio State could have been before the Pryor and Tressel fiasco and I’m not mourning that one. People think Wisconsin could contend now that Wilson is there, but it will probably be a few games before he jells with the team and Wisconsin reaches its potential.

ACC — Ever since the ACC raided the Big East of its bell cows (Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College) the mighty ACC has sent a grand total of zero teams to the BCS title game, and no team has really even sniffed an undefeated season. Fortunately for the conference, it looks like two teams could contend for the national championship, and they’re actually in different divisions. Florida State’s toughest game is against Oklahoma, and if they win this game, they’ll probably be 12-0 heading into the ACC Championship game. Virginia Tech gas won the ACC in 3 out of the past 4 seasons and while they haven’t lost fewer than three games in each of those seasons, I still think that this could be the year for the Hokies. If hyped quarterback Logan Thomas can step in for Tyrod Taylor, the schedule is a breeze and VT could easily take an undefeated season into the championship game, where I think they’ll lose to FSU. If Florida State beats Oklahoma, I think they’ll go 13-0, but that’s a huge if.

PAC-12 — The PAC-12 has two elite teams once again in Oregon and Stanford, it’s just that they’re in the same division. Oregon faces LSU in Dallas (without their best defensive player Cliff Harris, he of the 119 mph joyride) and Stanford on the road, plus they lose most of their solid defense and offensive line from a year ago. Stanford has a better shot of running the table in my opinion, but until David Shaw proves that he can keep the Cardinal at Jim Harbuagh’s level, I don’t think that it would be wise to pick Stanford to make it into the national title game.

Big East — hahahah

Non-BCS — I don’t think the country is ready to put Boise State in the national championship game, and while I think they’ll go undefeated with wins over Georgia in Atlanta and TCU at home, they’ll still be kept out of the title game. Notre Dame is more interesting, as they have a schedule loaded with decent but not great teams. The game against Stanford out west is probably their toughest game, but I figure that they’ll slip up a few times before then.

In no particular order:

Darkhorses:

TCU
Boise State
Arkansas
Wisconsin
Nebraska
Virginia Tech
Stanford
Notre Dame

Contenders:

LSU
Florida State
Oregon
Oklahoma State

National Title game:

Oklahoma def. Alabama

Jack: I’ve heard a number of teams suggested for as the ‘most explosive’, ‘most complete’, ‘most experienced’, etc, since the end of the season. But ultimately, I think this question was relatively easy to answer. There are about 6-8 teams that I personally believe have a legitimate shot at going all the way this year, but there’s only one with no holes, no caveats, no strings attached. What do I mean? Well, let’s look at LSU first. They’re a “ok-we-can-win-as-long-as-Jordan-Jefferson-plays-well” team. The talent’s there, but Jefferson has only flashed real leadership and consistently dependable decision making ability. Oregon has always been known as an offensive power-house, and could be without star CB Cliff Harris (easily their best defensive playmaker) for the opener against the aforementioned LSU. Take away experienced defensive bastions like DEs Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair, LBs Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews, as well as CB Talmadge Jackson III, all of whom graduated last year, and add on the turmoil surrounding the program right now, and they’re in a precarious position right now. Perennial powerhouse Alabama has to break in a new QB. I could go on and on, but the point is, only one school doesn’t show a glaring weakness.

For years and years, Oklahoma has been one little mistake, one bad game, one poor call away from a National Title. But this year, the red carpet has been laid out in front of them. A weak Big 12 (or whatever they’re calling it now) combined with a comfortable schedule gives them a great opportunity to put Bob Stoops and the Sooners back over the hump. RS JR Landry Jones returns to quarterback one of the most explosive, up-tempo offenses in the country. Although he struggled some with interceptions last year (most notably 3 against OK State..a game they only won by 6 points) he started looking more and more comfortable stepping out of Sam Bradford’s shadow at the end of the year. And it would be hard not to succeed with the weapons he has around him, including All-American WR Ryan Broyles (short, but quick as they come), the short-but-speedy Roy Finch, who looks to break out with Demarco Murray now gone, and a line that returns 4 starters. While they only return 5-6 starters defensively, the unit will be bolstered by experienced veterans like LB Travis Lewis (future 1st round talent), DE Frank Alexander, and MLB Tom Wort. Young players like LB/S Tony Jefferson (Freshman All American), LB Corey Nelson (who tore up the offseason), CB Gabe Lynn (Scout’s #1 CB in 2008), and DT Jamarkus McFarland (former 5*) could all ignite a spark in the defense as well.

At the risk of sounding callous, it’s also important to note the binding inspiration that may well drive this team. Over the offseason, LB Austin Box met a tragic end to his young life. I would imagine that this season will be dedicated to Box, who was going into his senior season and would likely have started. May he rest in peace.

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