- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Defending BCS national champion Auburn might start a freshman quarterback in 2011.
Ohio State, which played in six straight BCS bowl games under former coach Jim Tressel, also might turn to a rookie quarterback as it tries to pick up the pieces from a scandal that cost Tressel his job.
Oklahoma, which is No. 1 in the preseason USA Today coaches' poll, and rival Texas might be counting on freshman tailbacks this season.
And Georgia, which slipped to 6-7 under coach Mark Richt in 2010, is hoping its "Dream Team" of freshmen can help turn around its fortunes in the rugged SEC.
Perhaps never before have underclassmen faced such lofty expectations in college football. From coast to coast, first- and second-year players might be playing significant roles on teams that hope to contend for conference championships and lucrative BCS bowl games in 2011.
"I think you still try to play the best players and try to win every game, even if they are freshmen," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Last season, many of college football's most productive players were underclassmen. Three of the four Heisman Trophy finalists from 2010 are coming back to school this season, and winner Cameron Newton was a first-year starter at Auburn before leaving and becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Only 10 years earlier, FSU quarterback Chris Weinke defeated three other seniors in voting for the 2000 Heisman Trophy.
Oregon's LaMichael James, a sophomore in 2010, was a Heisman Trophy finalist, led the country in rushing with 1,731 yards and won the Doak Walker Award as the sport's best running back. Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, also a sophomore in 2010, led the country in receiving yards per game (148.5 yards) and won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the country's top receiver.
Two of college football's best defensive players last season were also second-year players. Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly led the country with 183 tackles, and Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley led Division I FBS players with nine interceptions.
Freshmen and sophomores might play even bigger roles in 2011, with juniors and seniors becoming much like dinosaurs as more and more upperclassmen leave early for the NFL draft.
"I think playing as a freshman is not an age issue; it is a skill and ability-to-learn issue," LSU coach Les Miles said.
As Richt tries to regain momentum in his 11th season at Georgia, he probably will turn to several freshmen to fill big holes. Running back Isaiah Crowell, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tight end Jay Rome might play significant roles on offense, and linebacker Ray Drew and cornerback Nick Marshall might be big contributors on defense.
"We don't really expect a freshman to come and carry our program," Richt said. "We expect him to come in and compete. We expect him to learn what to do. If they have the talent base [and] they're mature enough to be prepared to play, we'll play them. There is no question we will need help from our freshman class to become a championship team; I don't have any doubt about that."
If the Bulldogs' "Dream Team" of rookies doesn't contribute immediately, the 2011 season might turn into a nightmare at UGA.
"They're every bit as good as advertised," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw for 3,049 yards with 24 touchdowns as a freshman in 2010. "I'll be excited to see what they do in pads. There are seven or eight of them who could start this season."
Perhaps no freshmen will be under brighter spotlights in preseason camp than Auburn's Kiehl Frazier and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. A year ago, they were playing quarterback in high school. On the first Saturday of September, they might be playing in front of more than 90,000 fans apiece in their teams' openers.
Frazier might have a chance to succeed Newton this coming season, if he can wrestle the starting job away from Barrett Trotter or Clint Moseley during preseason camp. Frazier ran a version of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's spread offense at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark., where Malzahn coached for five years.
Miller, 18, also will have a legitimate chance at winning a starting job. He'll battle 25-year-old senior Joe Bauserman, a former minor league baseball player, for the Buckeyes' starting job, which was vacated when former starter Terrelle Pryor left OSU under a cloud of NCAA scrutiny to enter the NFL's supplemental draft.
"I think [Miller] has a lot of similar qualities [to Pryor] in what he can do as a football player," OSU interim coach Luke Fickell said. "We're excited. Obviously, we had him through the spring practice, but we're excited to see how he can continue to grow and how he can put our football team in the best position to win."
Some coaches believe that just because a freshman is physically and mentally ready to play doesn't mean it's the best thing for his long-term future.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said some freshmen, like Frazier and Miller, are more prepared to play immediately because they started focusing solely on football at a younger age. Indeed, Malzahn identified Frazier as a potential quarterback recruit when Frazier was in the seventh grade.
"I definitely think the high school coaching is at a higher level," Fitzgerald said. "I think kids are focusing specifically on football earlier. When we were younger, we played football, basketball and baseball. But if you go to the state of Texas now, fourth-graders are preparing for nothing but football."
Fitzgerald said high school coaches and parents have to be careful not to accelerate the learning curve too quickly. More and more, high school prospects are passing up the second semester of their senior years to enroll in college early and participate in spring practice.
"I'm really concerned about burnout," Fitzgerald said. "I really had a good time playing spring baseball and going to the prom and graduation parties. Kids want to be 21 before they're 18. I'm just not sure it's the best thing."
When Fitzgerald decides whether to redshirt or play a freshman, he evaluates five criteria:
1. Is the player suffering from homesickness?
2. Does the player have enough strength and conditioning to play?
3. Is the player picking up Northwestern's system quickly?
4. Does Northwestern need him to play?
5. Does the student-athlete want to play as a freshman?
"I don't tell a kid that he's going to come here and start," Fitzgerald said. "I don't tell them what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear."
Many coaches, including Nebraska's Bo Pelini, are still convinced that upperclassmen are the players who will lead their teams to championships.
"Kids are getting on campus earlier," Pelini said. "I don't know how many freshmen are making a real impact. At the end of the day, I think you still win with upperclassmen. You might have a freshman who adds something to what you're doing, but I think the guys who are having the biggest impact have been with you for a couple of years."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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