1 ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide enters the year with uncertainty at quarterback, but they won’t have to score too much because of a fearsome collection of defensive talent led by an unbelievable linebacking corps. They’ll drop Oklahoma for a second title in three years.
2 OKLAHOMA: With quarterback Landry Jones throwing to All-America receiver Ryan Broyles and company, the Sooners have the pieces in place to post eye-popping numbers on offense and reach the BCS title game. However, they haven’t fared too well against SEC teams once they got there.
3 OREGON: Despite the controversy swirling around the Ducks related to alleged recruiting violations, Oregon returns most of the firepower from last year’s explosive national runner-up including quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James. Expect them to remain in the hunt this year.
4 FLORIDA STATE: Jimbo Fisher stepped on the accelerator in rebuilding the Seminoles’ depth, assembling a recruiting class regarded in some circles as the nation’s best. A Sept. 17 meeting with Oklahoma in Tallahassee will reveal whether the on-field product has experienced a similar renaissance.
5 WISCONSIN: The Badgers scored a recruiting coup this summer when former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson announced plans to transfer to Wisconsin for his final season. He’ll bring another threat to the Badgers’ offense and help them remain among the Big Ten’s top programs.
6 NEBRASKA: Speaking of the Big Ten’s top programs, Nebraska has the chance to contend for a conference title right away, but draws road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan and a home date against Ohio State. It will be a grind, but the Cornhuskers have a nasty defense and quarterback Taylor Martinez could be one of the league’s better offensive players.
7 VIRGINIA TECH: Frank Beamer’s Hokies always seem to be lurking around this position in the polls, and this season is no different. They lost quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was the heart and soul of last year’s offense, but have a 6-foot-6, 245-pound monster under center in Logan Thomas, who is already drawing comparisons to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
8 BOISE STATE: The Broncos consistently face criticism for beating up on weaker opponents – they’re 61-5 in Chris Petersen’s six years as head coach – but they’ve also fared well against major-conference opposition, beating Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Oregon in recent years. Up next is next Saturday’s opener against a reinvigorated Georgia program.
9 ARKANSAS: It will hurt losing quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL and running back Knile Davis to injury, but Arkansas’ offense returns an explosive receiving corps and has a talented young quarterback in Tyler Wilson. If the defense improves as expected, Arkansas could be Alabama’s biggest threat in the SEC race.
10 SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina has arguably the top two offensive players in the SEC in running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. That duo carried the Gamecocks to their first SEC East title last year — and coach Steve Spurrier says this team might be even better.
11 OKLAHOMA STATE: Receiver Justin Blackmon was a one-man wrecking crew last year and he’s back to help quarterback Brandon Weeden put up even more ridiculous numbers in 2011. They’ll put points on the board, but the defense has to improve for Oklahoma State to contend with its in-state rival for a Big 12 title.
12 TEXAS A&M: The Aggies’ collection of offensive skill talent stacks up with anybody’s, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill, receiver Jeff Fuller and running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael will help A&M post enormous point totals. This might be the Aggies’ last year in the Big 12 — and they very well may contend for the league title on their way out the door.
13 STANFORD: Jim Harbaugh did a phenomenal job putting Stanford back on the map, but he left the Cardinal for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers after last season. However, he left behind possibly the most NFL-ready quarterback in college football in Heisman Trophy runner-up Andrew Luck. Stanford’s offense remains in good hands.
14 GEORGIA: Mark Richt’s Bulldogs play the most demanding first two games of any program in the country, which is a potential recipe for disaster for a program coming off its first losing season in 14 years. If Georgia makes it through the Boise State-South Carolina opening unscathed, this could be a huge season in Athens.
15 WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offseason seemed to come straight out of “Days of Our Lives,” as head coach Bill Stewart’s attempt to undermine head coach in waiting Dana Holgorsen blew up in his face, resulting in Holgorsen’s ascension into the big job a year early. Now it’s time for Holgorsen and his high-powered offensive scheme to show why he was worth all the trouble.
16 NOTRE DAME: It has been five years since the Fighting Irish appeared in a BCS bowl, but this could be the year that streak ends. Notre Dame’s schedule is not particularly demanding and Brian Kelly’s club seems to be improving on both sides of the ball. If the Irish make it to 10 wins, they’ll be back in the BCS.
17 MISSISSIPPI STATE: Perhaps no SEC team is a greater mystery this year than Mississippi State. Quarterback Chris Relf looked like a Heisman contender when the Bulldogs waxed Michigan in a bowl game last year, but it’s easy to overreact to that performance. Dan Mullen clearly has his program on the rise, but State plays in the most demanding division in college football.
18 OHIO STATE: Ohio State would be a national title contender were it not for the NCAA scandal that resulted in coach Jim Tressel’s ouster, quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s departure for the NFL and the suspension of multiple players. Those problems rocked the program, but the Buckeyes will still figure into the Big Ten title chase before it’s all said and done.
19 TEXAS: Without quarterback Colt McCoy carrying the offense, the Longhorns imploded last year when Garrett Gilbert proved himself unable of filling the job. Gilbert appears to have won the competition for the starting gig, so Texas’ reversal of fortune may depend on his ability to move past last year’s struggles and lead the offense capably.
20 TCU: With its trademark feisty defense and a veteran quarterback in Andy Dalton, the Horned Frogs ranked among the absolute best in college football in 2010. Now Dalton’s gone to the NFL and the Horned Frogs will likely take a step back from last year’s undefeated campaign — although they won’t fall too far back.
21 FLORIDA: If Mississippi State is the SEC’s most mysterious team, Florida isn’t too far behind. Following Urban Meyer’s second abrupt resignation, the Gators brought in defensive-minded Will Muschamp as head coach and former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator. The cupboard is far from bare in Gainesville, but it will be interesting to see how the Muschamp-Weis dynamic works out for Florida.
22 USC: NCAA probation will prevent the Trojans from appearing in the postseason, but they should still be a formidable opponent under second-year coach Lane Kiffin. With Matt Barkley under center, the Trojans will have one of the nation’s better quarterbacks at their disposal. Challenging the Stanfords and Oregons of the world will be a tall order, however.
23 MISSOURI: Watch out for Missouri, which replaces an NFL first-round pick at quarterback in Blaine Gabbert with the talented James Franklin. He won’t fill the pure passer role the way Gabbert did, but Franklin will bring a dangerous run-pass element to the Tigers’ offense that could make them one of the darkhorses in the Big 12 race.
24 MICHIGAN STATE: The 2010 season got off to a magical start for Michigan State, with an 8-0 start while coach Mark Dantonio dealt with heart issues creating one of the season’s feel-good stories. It ended with a resounding thud, however, with Alabama humiliating the Spartans in a bowl game and showing where they realistically rank on the national scene.
25 ARIZONA STATE: The Sun Devils have two of the Pac-12′s more talked-about players in quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict and they have a highly manageable schedule. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Arizona State add a couple of victories to last year’s six-win total and make some noise in the conference race. –David Ching