A very early Top 5 for 2011

An incredibly early NFP Top 25 for 2011? That seemed a little too insane, even for my love of college football. So what I decided to do was take a look at what the top five could look like when all is said and done in 2011. While national champion Auburn should be solid, Gene Chizik and Co. may want to enjoy being the king of the mountain while they can. Because there will be a new squad atop the final rankings in 2011.

Note: These rankings are definitely subject to change.

Roy FinchICONRB Roy Finch will be asked to carry a heavy load with DeMarco Murray moving on.

1. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops and the Sooners have had quite the offseason already, as receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis elected to bypass the NFL Draft and return for their senior seasons. They will join quarterback Landry Jones and 14 other returning starters to give Sooners fans hope for a BCS title game run. OU does have to find a replacement for tailback DeMarco Murray, but sophomore Roy Finch started to carry a heavier load as this past season progressed, and the Sooners have plenty of backfield depth behind him. I like the fact that the offensive line returns four starters, and I think the defense will be ready to start fast at the beginning of the year — unlike this past season.

Game to Watch: at Florida State, Sept. 17

2. Oregon: Because they were overmatched in the trenches during the national championship game against Auburn, much of the conversation regarding Chip Kelly’s squad will be how the Ducks deal with their next physical test. Well, we’ll find out what adjustments they’ve made when the high-powered, up-tempo offense matches up with John Chavis’ LSU defense at Cowboys Stadium in the season opener. Quarterback Darron Thomas and Heisman finalist tailback LaMichael James lead a strong group of returnees who were three points away from winning the national title — no matter how much Auburn may have dictated the tempo. Kelly and the Ducks will remain a top contender because he knows how to recruit, and they could be well-positioned for a repeat run if they can get past the SEC’s other Tigers and a road date with Andrew Luck and Stanford.

Game to Watch: at Stanford, Nov. 12

3. Ohio State: Even if quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey and Co. do not have their suspensions reduced from five games, the Buckeyes are deep and talented enough to be able to withstand those losses early in the year. They’ll open up with home games against Akron and Toledo before traveling to Miami (FLA). No matter who is under center, Ohio State always plays sound defense, and the running back depth is outstanding behind Herron. Home games with Colorado and Michigan State follow the game with the Hurricanes before the Buckeyes travel to Lincoln for a star-studded tilt with Nebraska. And that’s the biggest question facing Jim Tressel’s squad — how will Pryor fare on the road in his first start of the season? Based on the Sugar Bowl performance against Arkansas, the Buckeyes have proven that they can deal with adversity.

Game to Watch: at Nebraska, Oct. 8

4. LSU: With Les Miles deciding to stay in Baton Rouge for a little while — until he gets run out of town by frenzied fans and local media — the future is bright for the Bayou Bengals. Running back Stevan Ridley may be going pro, but the backfield depth in Baton Rouge is always great, and Spencer Ware showed in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M that he could be ready to carry a full load. Even with losing stud cornerback Patrick Peterson, as well, the Tigers bring back 16 starters and will have a new offensive coordinator calling the plays. Of course, quarterback Jordan Jefferson must be able to replicate his Cotton Bowl performance on a more consistent basis.

Game to Watch: at Alabama, Nov. 5

Doug MartinICONRB Doug Martin will return to give QB Kellen Moore a star backfield mate.

5. Boise State: The Broncos’ schedule is currently in flux because of their transition into the Mountain West Conference, but it won’t matter — Kellen Moore’s return trumps all of the question marks. Head coach Chris Petersen loses receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, but fourth-year starting quarterback Moore will still have running back Doug Martin in the same backfield, and the Broncos bring back seven starters on defense — the real overlooked aspect of their program. It will be interesting to see where voters place Boise in the first preseason poll. Opening up against Georgia in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome will be huge for the team to get off to a good start and capture national attention once again, but it won’t have as much of an impact as the Labor Day showdown with Virginia Tech this past season.

Game to Watch: at TCU, date TBD

Hell, I can’t help it. Here’s No. 6-10:

6. Florida State: The Seminoles return 17 starters, so this could be the best team in Tallahassee in a decade. Jimbo Fisher is primed to bring in a top 5 recruiting class and the team will look to build off of its Chick-fil-A Bowl win over South Carolina. The close losses this season scared me off of the ‘Noles, but they should coast through the ACC if they play better in close contests. E.J. Manuel is ready to perform under center and the ‘Noles should rely on the rushing duo of Jermaine Thomas and Chris Thompson.

7. Nebraska: In many ways it was a disappointing 2010 for the Cornhuskers. But the team should be reinvigorated with the move to the Big Ten. Quarterback Taylor Martinez will have to rediscover his “T-Magic” ways, and he should be able to with a full offseason to get healthy. Defensive tackle Jared Crick returns, but the secondary must come together fast as the Cornhuskers lose their two standout cornerbacks.

8. Texas A&M: Despite the loss to LSU in the Cotton Bowl, it was a great season for Mike Sherman and the Aggies. After turning to quarterback Ryan Tannehill and leaning on running back Cyrus Gray, A&M finished the 2010 regular season with a bang. Linebacker Von Miller departs, but the defense should continue to improve with Tim DeRuyter in his second season as coordinator.

Stephen GarciaICONIs QB Stephen Garcia primed to lead the Gamecocks to another SEC East title?

9. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks have a bear of a schedule — and I debated slotting either Arkansas or Mississippi State here — but isn’t every SEC team’s slate consistently difficult? In the end, I’m banking on Spurrier’s group being a little more consistent in 2011. Veteran quarterback Stephen Garcia returns for what seems like his eighth season, and sophomore Marcus Lattimore could be the best running back in the nation. Oh, and there’s also receiver Alshon Jeffery coming back. Can the Gamecocks repeat as SEC East champion? I know, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

10. TCU: No Andy Dalton, no problem. Well, maybe. Dalton was the winningest quarterback in the FBS, so his loss is the most glaring. But we’ve heard good things about Casey Pachall, w ho will take over for Dalton under center. He’ll have running back Ed Wesley returning, and the Horned Frogs make their biggest mark on defense anyway. And as long as Gary Patterson is in Fort Worth, that will remain the case.

Stanford fans: I have your Cardinal at No. 11. I think the loss of head coach Jim Harbaugh — even with the return of quarterback Andrew Luck — is worth two losses. As of now, I have Stanford falling to Oregon and USC. The team loses three offensive linemen, its top two receivers, Owen Marecic and part of the defensive front.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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