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Thursday, July 28, 2011
2011 College Pick 'em Preview

By Will Harris
Special to ESPN.com

College Pick 'em is a pick-the-winner game with a twist: Players must rank their picks in order of confidence. Log in to the College Pick 'em page on Mondays for the upcoming week's matchups and previews. We'll kick off the 2011 season with a look at my top 25 teams.

1. Alabama: The departure of quarterback Greg McElroy and wideout Julio Jones leave some big holes to fill on offense, but a defense that returns 18 of its top 20 tacklers will be the best in the nation. The Tide gets its two toughest SEC foes at home and should be considered the favorite to win its second title in three years.

2. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose 1,200-yard rusher DeMarco Murray, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and four of last year's top five tacklers, but are still loaded at every position and this year won't have to face the trial of a conference championship game.

3. Notre Dame: The Irish have managed just five winning seasons in the past 10 years, but are primed for a big step forward this year with a lineup that has good talent and experience in every position group. Brian Kelly is an elite coach and he will have the Irish in a BCS game for the first time since 2006.

4. Arkansas: Ryan Mallett is gone, but the Razorbacks are still in good hands at quarterback with capable junior Tyler Wilson. Arkansas also has what may be the nation's best receiving corps, the SEC's leading returning rusher in Knile Davis, and a steadily improving defense.

5. Oregon: Serious trouble with the NCAA is looming, but the Ducks remain the best team on the West Coast for now. Darron Thomas and LaMichael James return to spearhead the explosive ground game. Even with retooling needed in both trenches last year's national runner-up is the favorite to take the inaugural Pac-12 title.

6. Oklahoma State: Coordinator Dana Holgorsen and two-time All-America running back Kendall Hunter are gone, but the Cowboys are still loaded offensively. The defense will not be dominant, but should be solid enough opposite a very explosive offense to allow the Pokes to make some noise in the new-look Big 12.

7. Florida State: An inexperienced coaching staff could prevent the Seminoles from earning national honors, but this is easily the most talented team in the ACC. Gator Bowl hero E.J. Manuel inherits the reins to a capable attack from graduated quarterback Christian Ponder, but it is a potentially dominant defense that will carry this squad to double-digit wins.

8. Boise State: The Broncos suffer more coaching turnover, the loss of two NFL wideouts and a tougher schedule. A fourth undefeated regular season in Chris Peterson's six years as head coach may be too much to ask, but the Broncos should still end up atop the Mountain West.

9. Georgia: This is clearly a make-or-break season for Mark Richt's program, and the verdict will come in early as the Dogs open the season with Boise State and South Carolina. Aaron Murray was outstanding as a freshman and is now the SEC's leading returning quarterback. He'll lead an attack that still has plenty of weapons despite the loss of superstar receiver A.J. Green.

10. Penn State: Paterno has coaxed wayward triggerman Robert Bolden back into the fold, and if the talented sophomore can seize the unquestioned starter's role in camp, the Lions' offense will be potent enough opposite a much-improved defense to make this team a serious contender in the new-look Big Ten.

11. LSU: Talent abounds on both sides of the ball, but whether the Tigers can keep pace in the nation's toughest division will depend on whether new coordinator Steve Kragthorpe can develop stagnating quarterback Jordan Jefferson.

12. Texas A&M: This is an experienced team with plenty of explosive playmakers on offense and a defense that shapes up as the best in a decade. The Aggies join the Oklahoma schools in a trio of teams that are well ahead of the rest of the conference right now.

13. South Carolina: The key pieces of last season's East champion return, and the Gamecocks are well positioned to battle Georgia for divisional supremacy while Tennessee and Florida retool. Carolina, however, has the tougher slate of West foes and must play Georgia in Athens.

14. Michigan State: Quarterback Kirk Cousins and a host of capable skill players return to what will again be a 30-point-per-game attack. While the defense loses star linebacker Greg Jones and five other regulars, it still has the makings of a solid unit. The Spartans are the best team in the Legends Division, but must travel to Lincoln, Neb., and Columbus, Ohio.

15. BYU: The Cougars' first season as an independent will be a successful one, thanks to an offense that returns 10 starters and a defense that was vastly improved after head coach Bronco Mendenhall reclaimed coordinator duties in October. BYU has a tough road slate but will still be strong enough to contend for double-digit wins.

16. Wisconsin: The graduation of triggerman Scott Tolzien left the team with no experience under center, but the Badgers landed the coup of the offseason with the transfer of NC State star Russell Wilson. Personnel losses are not insignificant on both sides of the ball, but Wilson is a huge upgrade and will make Wisky a factor in the Leaders Division race.

17. Stanford: Heisman finalist Andrew Luck returns, but the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh and 11 starters will prevent another top-five finish. The Cardinal shouldn't slip to non-contender status, though, and North Division favorite Oregon must travel to Palo Alto.

18. Air Force: Fifth-year coach Troy Calhoun immediately resurrected Air Force from the doldrums of the three straight losing seasons that closed the otherwise highly successful Fisher DeBerry era. The Falcons have won 34 games in Calhoun's four years and this is his best team yet. Drawing Boise State on the blue turf will probably preclude the Force from winning a league title, but this will be a ranked team this season.

19. South Florida: The defense carried the team to Big East contention and a bowl triumph last season and will again be strong. Quarterback B.J. Daniels should be far more comfortable in his second year under Skip Holtz and his longtime coordinator Todd Fitch, and what was a 20-point, 318-yard per game offense should take a step forward. The Bulls are one of the favorites in what is again a wide-open Big East.

20. Arizona State: The Sun Devils have an experienced team that finished strong in 2010 despite missing the postseason. They are the favorite in a weak Pac-12 South Division that features a USC team on probation, two newcomers to the league in Utah and Colorado, an Arizona squad that rates among the most lightly experienced in the nation and a UCLA team that hasn't managed a winning season since 2006.

21. Virginia Tech: First-year starting quarterback Logan Thomas will operate with an experienced supporting cast, and the defense figures to be far stronger than last year's substandard unit. This is far from Frank Beamer's best team, but Miami and North Carolina are in coaching transition while Georgia Tech must replace heart-and-soul signal-caller Josh Nesbitt. The Hokies are the clear favorite in the ACC's Coastal Division.

22. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return 16 starters from a team that lost only to SEC West juggernauts Auburn, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. The offense is loaded with upperclassmen who are mostly entering their third year in coach Dan Mullen's system, and the Dogs could reach 30 points per game for the first time since 2000. The defense will miss its top two tacklers and departed coordinator Manny Diaz, but there is still plenty of talent on hand.

23. Utah: The Utes must learn the ways of a new set of league foes and have some significant personnel losses on each side of the ball. This will be the weakest Utah team since 2007. However, Utah already boasts a strong resume versus Pac-12 schools and there is still enough talent and experience to call this a solid group. The Utes draw a very favorable schedule, landing five Pac-12 home games and avoiding Oregon and Stanford from the North Division. This year's edition will be eager to measure up in its first season and will not be overmatched in the South Division.

24. SMU: The Mustangs return 18 starters from last year's Conference USA West champs. Triggerman Kyle Padron threw for 3,800 yards and 31 TDs, while Zach Line rumbled for 1,500 yards. That team, though, scored just 25 points per game; this year the real fun begins for June Jones' offense. Beating a Case Keenum-led Houston team on the road will be a tall order, but the Ponies are the most complete team in the division and will do better than minus-12 in turnovers this year.

25. Clemson: The Tigers managed just 335 yards per game last year but will fare better in 2011 with a veteran offensive line, one of the most improved receiving corps in the country and a healthy bell cow in Andre Ellington. The defense loses a handful of draft picks but is still well-stocked with talent. There is certainly a sense of urgency in the Clemson program and this year's edition has the horses to take a step forward from last year's 6-7 disappointment.

Will Harris is a college football analyst for ESPN.com.