I'm a bit of an Eastern Football homer, having grown up within eyesight of the Empire State Building. But I'll try not to make Rutgers sound like they're the next Oklahoma, or Virginia the next Alabama. Mind you, I said I'll try not to do that. But I can't guarantee anything.
Follow me below the jump for deliciousness you won't find anywhere but east of the Mississippi... well, until TCU comes in next year and effs up the whole geography thing.
Big East Conference
Let's start in the Big East: The "Hey, Let's Form Up Just to Piss Off JoePa" Conference. The teams are listed in the order that I think they'll finish the season.
Really? Ugh. The Panthers didn't like that Dave Wannstedt only won 27 games in three years, so they fired him. Not sure what's up with that, but it's now on to the OMGAWFENSE! era of Todd Graham. Graham lucks out, as Pitt returns the best defense in the Big East (hold the chuckles till the end, please), and enough on offense to make him look good in year one. Pitt should win the title and the BCS berth, but not if this next team has anything to say about it.
USF has more talent (y'know, ESS-EEE-SEE country and all that jazz) than Pitt, but draws the tougher schedule, traveling to Pitt early and then having only three Big East home games. Skip Holtz is a good coach. If he could win games against BCS teams (VT, NC St) at East Carolina, he'll do it without problem in Tampa. Quarterback B.J. Daniels (no relation to: B.J. Hunnicut , MD) was hurt often last year, but played well. He'll have a decent defense, particularly the back seven, to help out the offense in 2011.
WVU is another team that brings in a new head coach, Dana Holgorsen, with a background in high-flying offenses. I'm not a fan of this approach when looking for a new coach, but I'm not an AD, so it doesn't matter. In 2010, the defense was actually fantastic, while the offense made just enough mistakes to choke away an outright Big East title. With QB Geno Smith and 8 other offensive starters returning (only 4 on D), the 'Neers could surprise. But they have to face Pitt then USF 6 days apart.
Man, it only took me four teams to fall back into homer-mode. RU returns 9 starters on offense, including 4/5 of the offensive line. The O-line is a big part of this breakdown, as QB Chas Dodd and true frosh RB Savon Huggins (remember him?) will be surrounded by talent. If the defense can get enough out of the returning 5 on defense, with maybe some help from a breakout player or two, this RU team could really surprise people in 2011.
After going 33-7 from '07-'09, it was inevitable this team would crash. But no one expected it to crash and burn in 2010, winning only 4 games. Butch Davis has always been overshadowed by his mentor Brian Kelly, but this is more Davis' team this year than Kelly's, and returns 15 starters. Ten of those starters are on defense, but QB Zach Collaros and RB Isaiah Pead are both good enough together to carry the offense for a while. The Bearcats must travel to Tennessee, Pitt and USF this year, which isn't exactly helpful.
As much as I want to pick Syracuse here, the Huskies have a much better shot at finishing this year higher in the standings. UConn lucked out at WVU in the virtual Big East title game (WVU fumbled inside UC 1 in OT), backing into the Orange Bowl. I'm strongly skeptical it'll happen again this year, even though this 2011 edition of UConn is more experienced and talented. Nine defensive and 7 offensive starters return, including the entire DL and secondary, and all the recievers.
Sadly, my bleeding Northeast heart is at it again. The Orange(men?) return 8 on offense, including QB Ryan Nassib and 4/5 offensive linemen. The five returning on defense are okay, but not great. Remember, this is still the No. 7 spot in the conference. Doug Marone was a great hire here, turning the program into something resembling a football squad. The 2010 bowl team was the first Syracuse team in a decade to win more than 7 games and win a bowl game. The schedule screams 5-7, but just one or two upsets could get 'Cuse to another bowl.
Charlie Strong is definitely helping UL recover from the Steve Kragthorpe disaster, getting the Cardinals to a bowl last year. But with only 3 returning starters on offense, it could be tough to score enough points, even against Big East defenses. The D should be better, as this is Strong's background (DC @ Florida), with 7 returning. 2011 will feature many low-scoring games. Traveling to North Carolina, Kentucky, Cincinnati, West Virginia and USF has the potential to keep Louisville home for the holidays.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Now for the ACC: The "How Come Our Southern Speed Doesn't Work Like the SEC's Southern Speed?" Conference. The teams are listed in the order that I think they'll finish the season.
The 'Noles are back y'all! Well, mostly. It remains to be seen if the top-10 FSU of 2011 can meet the lofty preseason expectations of fans, media and the team itself. The loss of QB Christian Ponder will hurt, but FSU does return 8 starters on EACH side of the ball. QB E.J. Manuel has been around for a few years now, and hit 7-of-7 in the bowl win over South Carolina, including the game-winning drive. Jimbo Fisher--yes, FSU's head coach is named Jimbo--has the tools, now he just has to get them working in tandem for what should be a great year in Tallahassee. The tests will come early and often, as No. 1 Oklahoma rolls into Doak-Campbell on Sept. 17.
Clemson would be 2011's hot pick in the ACC-A if FSU wasn't already holding that honor. The nation will see very quickly whether this TIgers team is legit, with Auburn and FSU coming into Memorial Stadium in back-to-back weeks in September. Clemson then has to go to Blacksburg a week later. By Oct. 2, the Tigers will either be in the top-10, or unranked. Still, 9 starters return on offense, but not at QB, where highly-touted sophomore Tajh Boyd takes over. The defense loses NFL'er Da'Quan Bowers (15.5 sacks LY), but does have enough at the right positions to be a serviceable unit.
This was supposed to be Boston College here, but the Eagles have issues we'll get to in a minute. NC State definitely overachieved last year, but that's not surprising with Tom O'Brien as head coach. O'Brien has a good track record with quarterbacks, so new starter Mike Glennon (Jr.) should be fine. Three of the top 4 receivers are gone, though the O-line looks very good. NC State has no reason to expect a start worse than 5-1, since 2 of those opponents are FCS programs.
BC is going to be a pretty good football team this year. But... the schedule and one big injury will really kill their record. RB Montel Harris will miss the first game, maybe the first 2. That sucks because the Eagles face 2 very tricky-good teams in Northwestern and at Central Florida. With Harris, those were likely wins. Without him, who knows? The rest of the schedule, My God. This could be the best team in college football with a losing record this year.
You've got to like Randy Edsall. He made UConn resemble a real college football team. Maryland is another story, mostly due to the conference strength. The pieces are there in College Park to build this program back into a consistent winner, something Edsall does quite well. But like BC, it's that damn schedule that'll kill this team in 2011.
Re-read the Maryland preview, but change the uniform colors to black and gold. Okay, so it's not exactly like UMD. But Wake Forest will have to come up big in a few games if it wants to make any noise in this ACC race.
How many times have we been burned writing off the Hokies by mid-September, only to see VT run the table and finish in a major bowl game? Too many times for this fella. Virginia Tech returns only 12 starters this year, but Frank Beamer is one of the best coaches in college football. With Clemson, Miami and North Carolina all in the friendly confines of Lane Stadium, there really isn't a game on the schedule VT shouldn't win.
UNC was all the rage last year before the suspensions decimated the depth chart. But this year many of the same great players do return, including a defensive line that would give the Redskins trouble. Off-the-field issues came to a surprising head when Butch Davis was sacked by the administration after fall camp had already started. So we'll see how the team handles it.
The talent is still likely to stay on the field, unless the infractions people move quickly to shut things down in the next week or so. Sophomore QB Stephen Morris will have the offense all to himself after starting a few last year, as the 2010 incumbent Jacory Harris will be ineligible for 2011. With USF, Ohio State, and trips to VT, UNC and Florida St. on the schedule, Miami will have to play flawless football to finish north of 8 wins.
Virginia will win the ACC Championship... in 2013. Second-year head coach Mike London is tearing up the recruiting trail, while this team returns 18 starters (10 on defense) for 2011. The depth just isn't there, however, meaning a serious run at the division title is pretty much out of the question right now. As per usual, UVA will beat one good team it shouldn't, then lose to a terrible team it should have crushed.
If last seasons' 6-7 record was disappointing, this year won't be much better for Georgia Tech fans. With the NCAA breathing down its neck, GT brings back only 12 starters. The Jackets should start 3-0, but finishing with a winning record will take an upset somewhere.
It's Duke. But Penn State fans should actually kind of bite their tongue, because the Blue Devils actually scored more against Alabama (13 pts). This is supposedly head coach David Cutcliffe's best team in Durham, but that could mean they don't look pathetic in their customary 8 losses.
Now let's see some effin' football already!