15. Arkansas - The Hogs were knocking on the door of my Top 10, but they lost points when the SEC’s leading returning rusher, Knile Davis, was lost for the season in pre-season practice. They lost a few more points in my poll because it’s hard to take any program, whose fan base wears fake hog snouts to games and chants “Woo Pig Sooey!”, seriously.
Luckily for head coach Bobby Petrino, Davis wasn’t the only good running back he had coming back. Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson may not be Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, but they aren’t too bad, and new quarterback Tyler Wilson will have some of the best receivers in the nation to throw to. As the defense continues to improve, Arkansas is a darkhorse to win the SEC West.
14. Michigan State - With Ohio State dealing with player suspensions due to TattooGate, and the rest of the Big Ten simply not being all that good, the Spartans have a legitimate shot to make it to the Rose Bowl come January. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is the best in the conference, Edwin Baker is the conference’s leading returning rusher, there’s talent at receiver and a more-than-serviceable offensive line.
Look for a breakout year from junior defensive lineman Jerel Worthy. The linebacking corps is solid, as is the secondary, and kicker Dan Conroy is one of the best in the country and coming off a 2010 season that saw him go 14-for-15 with a long of 50 yards. The schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk, but if the new offensive linemen mesh quickly enough, look out.
13. South Carolina - It’s taken seven years, but Steve Spurrier has finally gotten South Carolina to a level that Gamecock fans have dreamed of for years - just past mediocre. Of course, the Gamecocks still have yet to win a really big game with The Visor patrolling the sideline (on a semi-related note, Auburn just scored...again), but they do bring back two of the biggest offensive weapons in the SEC in tailback Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Still, nagging questions linger around quarterback Stephen Garcia (who has been suspended and reinstated four times since you starting reading this column), a less-than-experienced offensive line, and a defense that lost a ton of talent. Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top prep prospect in the country last year, will likely begin the season as a starter. The punting and kicking game are two more big question marks.
12. Nebraska – Ah, the Cornhuskers. The Big Red. The big block “N”. The Big Ten??? Yep, the Huskers are ready for their first go-around in the new-look Big Ten conference, and they should fit right in with a solid running game, a solid defense and an anemic passing game.
The offense, which is being re-tooled for quarterback Tyler Martinez, suffered greatly when he went down with an ankle injury midway through last season. But running back Rex Burkhead returns, as does two offensive line starters. The defense has standouts and depth at every position and the Huskers should battle Michigan State for the division title and the Big Ten championship game berth that comes with it.
11. Virginia Tech – It’s hard to determine what was more sickening for Hokies fans last fall, those God-awful uniforms they had to wear in their loss to Boise State, or their upset loss to James Madison the week after. Either way, you have to give head coach Frank Beamer a lot of credit for righting the ship as the Hokies won 11 straight after that before losing in the Orange Bowl.
Tyrod Taylor and Darren Evans are gone, but capable backups are in place, and Tech brings back Jarrett Boykin, who will likely own most VT receiving records by the time the season ends. The schedule is a dream. Barring injury, the Hokies should be favored in all 12 of their games, but is it a strong enough schedule to merit a BCS National Championship Game berth?
Scott Herpst is Sports Editor of the Walker County Messenger.