Comment: The defending national champs lost a lot from their No. 2-rated defense and their game-changing special teams, but coach Nick Saban's offense should be dominant. Heisman Trophy-winning RB Mark Ingram (1,658 yards, 17 TDs) and RB Trent Richardson (751 yards, eight TDs) are back, as are WR Julio Jones, an NFL talent, and QB Greg McElroy, who merely wins.
Key game: vs. Florida, Oct. 2
2. Ohio State
Comment: The Buckeyes look poised for yet another run at the Bowl Championship Series finale thanks to what should be a staunch, veteran defense and an offense led by Heisman candidate Terrelle Pryor. The QB made a quantum leap in his play against Oregon in the Rose Bowl win — a career-high 266 yards passing, two TDs, and 72 yards rushing.
Key game: at Wisconsin, Oct. 16
3. Virginia Tech
Comment: It has been a while since an ACC team challenged for the national title, but the Hokies have a championship-caliber backfield with QB Tyrod Taylor and RBs Ryan Williams (1,655 yards, 21 TDs) and Darren Evans, who's back from a knee injury that cost him the 2009 season. The opener will tell us a lot about a retooled defense.
Key game: vs. Boise State, Monday
4. Boise State
Comment: The Broncos were undefeated last year and have all but two starters back. Leading the parade of returnees is junior QB Kellen Moore (3,536 yards on 64.3 percent passing, 39 TDs and three INTs), a legitimate Heisman contender. If the Broncos beat Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., and visiting Oregon State (Sept. 25), look for them to be undefeated again.
Key game: vs. Virginia Tech, Monday
Comment: Although it was a tough break that the Sooners were without Heisman-winning QB Sam Bradford much of last year, it provided an opportunity for freshman Landry Jones to develop. He's coming off a 418-yard passing performance against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. If the defense can overcome the loss of NT Gerald McCoy (Bucs' first-round pick), OU will be okay.
Key game: vs. Texas, Oct. 2
Comment: QB Garrett Gilbert was thrust into playing as a freshman in the BCS finale in place of the injured Colt McCoy and gave his team a chance to beat the Crimson Tide. He looks like a star in the making, and you can expect the Longhorns D, especially in the back seven, to keep the team winning big.
Key game: vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 2
Comment: QB John Brantley, a junior, has been waiting for his chance, and here it is; now just go out and make folks not miss Tim Tebow. Okay. That's not going to happen, but Brantley, more of a pocket passer than Tebow, has skill and speed around him and a veteran line for protection. The offense might look different, but the scoreboard might not.
Key game: at Alabama, Oct. 2
Comment: The Horned Frogs were undefeated before losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl and are poised to one-up that winning streak. Senior QB Andy Dalton is one of the nation's top dual threats (2,756 yards passing, 23 TDS, 512 yards rushing, three TDs). TCU led the nation in total D (239.7 ypg) and should be stout again.
Key game: vs. Oregon State, Saturday
Comment: Had the Ducks not lost their star dual-threat QB (Jeremiah Masoli) to suspension then transfer to Ole Miss, they would be a Top 5 pick. The reigning Pac-10 champs have that much back, including RB LaMichael James (1,546 yards), sack-machine DE Kenny Rowe and a slew of athletic DBs. Now if coach Chip Kelly can find an able QB.
Key game: at USC, Oct. 30
Comment: Coach Bo Pelini has 17 starters back from a team that was a second away from beating Texas to win the Big 12. The Huskers' strength was D (the nation's leader in points allowed at 10.4), and that began up front with Ndamukong Suh. He can't be replaced, but there's plenty left to remain dominant. And Nebraska gets Texas at home this year.
Key game: vs. Texas, Oct. 16
Comment: QB Ricky Stanzi had his share of moments last year with 17 TDs, but he must cut down on miscues (15 INTs). He has plenty of skill around him, provided a rebuilt OL gives him enough time. The Hawkeyes D, which was No. 10 last year, should again be the team strength with LB Jeremiha Hunter, S Tyler Sash and DT Karl Klug.
Key game: vs. Ohio State, Nov. 20
Comment: The Bearcats lost their coach (Brian Kelly) to Notre Dame and their top playmaker (Mardy Gilyard) and top passer (Tony Pike) to the NFL, but junior QB Zach Collaros can throw it and can run it exceptionally well, as he showed in four winning starts in place of Pike. The team will score, but new coach Butch Jones must get it to stop people.
Key game: vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 25
Comment: Coach Les Miles won a national championship not that long ago (2007), but when you go 0-6 against SEC rivals Alabama, UF and Ole Miss since then, well, you find yourself on the proverbial hot seat. QB Jordan Jefferson must improve, and the Tigers need to run for more than 122.8 ypg to take pressure off a fairly young defense.
Key game: vs. Alabama, Nov. 6
Comment: New coach Lane Kiffin has lost a lot already thanks to the fallout from an NCAA scandal. A couple of top-shelf signees have left, including heralded OL Seantrel Henderson, and the Trojans are banned from the postseason and they're not allowed to be in the coaches poll. But QB Matt Barkley might be the league's best, and USC should be playing with attitude.
Key game: at Stanford, Oct. 9
15. Florida State
Comment: Jimbo Fisher is replacing Bobby Bowden, one of the most successful coaches in college football history. He's excited about the chance and his challenge to re-establish the program. QB Christian Ponder is a Heisman candidate and the foundation, but Fisher needs FSU's defense to improve.
Key game: at Oklahoma, Sept. 11
Comment: QB Ryan Mallett (3,627 yards, 30 TDs, seven INTs), a Heisman Trophy candidate, could be the top QB taken in the 2011 NFL draft, and he has most of his wideouts and O-line back. No wonder offensive-minded coach Bobby Petrino is looking for a breakthrough year … provided the Razorbacks D is sharper.
Key game: vs. LSU, Nov. 27
Comment: The Badgers return 10 offensive starters, beginning with bruising 248-pound RB John Clay, the Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2009 after rumbling for 1,517 yards and 18 TDs. They must use the win against Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl as a confidence-builder in critical Big Ten games against Ohio State and Iowa.
Key game: vs. Ohio State, Oct. 16
Comment: If QB Jacory Harris throws fewer INTs and a RB emerges, the Hurricanes could be back. They should boast a stingy defense, led by CB Brandon Harris, DE Allen Bailey and LBs Colin McCarthy (CCC) and Sean Spence. But after FAMU to open, the 'Canes are at Ohio State, at Pittsburgh and at Clemson before hosting FSU. That stretch could make 'em or break 'em.
Key game: at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Comment: RB Dion Lewis (1,799 yards, 17 TDs) was the Big East offensive player of the year and was just a freshman. What's he going to do when he matures? We'll find out, but if teams focus too much on him, they might have an unpleasant view of WR Jonathan Baldwin … running toward the end zone for a TD.
Key game: at Cincinnati, Dec. 4
20. Georgia Tech
Comment: Coach Paul Johnson's triple option makes the Yellow Jackets a tough team to prepare for in a week's time (see their success during the season vs. the bowl losses the past two years). The ACC champs return QB Joshua Nesbitt, FB Anthony Allen (Jesuit High) looks ready to take over for star Jonathan Dwyer, and HB Roddy Jones is healthy, so look out. Again.
Key game: at Virginia Tech, Nov. 4
21. Oregon State
Comment: The Beavers will be turning to a new QB, but that player has the benefit of a Heisman-caliber RB in Jacquizz Rodgers (1,440 yards, 21 TDs) and Rodgers' older brother, James, a standout wideout (91 catches, 1,034 yards, nine TDs). Unfortunately for an inexperienced QB, the Beavers open against TCU in Texas and close the month at Boise State.
Key game: at Boise State, Sept. 25
22. Penn State
Comment: Coach Joe Paterno is closing in on career win No. 400 (he's at 394), but after successive 11-2 seasons, he could find the Ws a bit harder. He's breaking in a new QB, which is sure to put more on the shoulders of RB Evan Royster and a defense that should be strong in the secondary but inexperienced elsewhere.
Key game: at Alabama, Sept. 11
23. West Virginia
Comment: The Mountaineers return 19 starters, and the excitement begins with RB Noel Devine (1,465 yards, 13 TDs, 22 catches, 177 yards, one TD) and versatile WR Jock Sanders (72 catches, 688 yards, three TDs, 175 yards rushing) from St. Petersburg Catholic. They need to find a way to win on the road, where they were 2-4 last year, including a Gator Bowl loss to FSU.
Key game: at LSU, Sept. 25
24. North Carolina
Comment: The Tar Heels are either way too low or way too high here. On paper, it's the former; the defense is loaded with NFL-caliber players, but the team is facing way too much uncertainty with a pair of NCAA investigations (agents and academic misconduct) that could affect the eligibility of some of its differencemakers, including DT Marvin Austin.
Key game: vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 13
Comment: Coach Gene Chizik had a veteran team everywhere except at QB, but then he landed a transfer, former heralded Florida Gator Cameron Newton. After leaving UF following off-field issues, Newton went to Blinn College and led it to a juco national title. If he lives up to his hype and stays out of trouble, the Tigers could be scary good.
Key game: at Alabama, Nov. 26