Throughout the season, I'll post my vote each week on TigerSportsDigest.com. Here's my pre-season poll, with a blurb on each team.
1. Oklahoma: Loads of returning talent on both sides of the ball, anchored by QB Landry Jones are the reason the Sooners get my No. 1 vote for a second straight year. A tough schedule out of the gate – and LB Travis Lewis' injury – could puncture their national championship hopes pretty quickly, though.
2. Florida State: Not many teams are as experienced (17 returning starters) as the Seminoles in year two under Jimbo Fisher, and the schedule sets up for a nice season-long run, particularly if FSU can prevail in week three when OU visits Tallahassee. If the 'Noles find a way to win that one, competing for the national crown is a strong possibility.
3. Oregon: There are some holes to fill for the Ducks, but it's more about who returns on their high-octane offense that earns them this spot – namely QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James. Keeping Oregon under 37 points, which happened only twice in 2010, will be a challenge and that translates to a lot of wins. The season opener won't necessarily define the Ducks' season and could wind up as chapter one against LSU.
4. LSU: The Tigers might be the most anonymous top-five team in the last 10 years, especially on defense where they have to replace three of the best players at their positions in the SEC. The most recognizable LSU player – quarterback Jordan Jefferson – holds the key to the season and my hunch is that he will play well and that's why the Tigers get the cleanup spot.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide are just as talented as ever, but Alabama has the same problem LSU had in 2008-09 – an unproven quarterback. That might matter less with the potentially nasty defense Alabama will trot out, but road trips to Penn State and Florida in the first five weeks loom as tricky obstacles for a new QB to navigate.
6. Boise State: The Broncos will get a lot of attention early with Kellen Moore back on offense and a road trip to Georgia to kick off the season, and then the discussion will again turn into folks debating about why Boise belongs in the national championship decision.
7. Virginia Tech: Defense will be the backbone for the Hokies and that's when they've had their best teams. Should Tech avoid an upset in week 1 vs. Appalachian State, the schedule sets up nicely with the toughest ACC games – Clemson and Miami – at home.
8. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are in a new league and arrive with a potentially dominant defense and a game-changing quarterback in Taylor Martinez. That's a good recipe to win the Big Ten in year one and stay in the national championship hunt with the right victories.
9. Stanford: With the country's top returning quarterback in Andrew Luck, first-year coach David Shaw doesn't have to work any magic to keep the Cardinal competitive. He just needs to make sure Luck is healthy and happy and Stanford figures to battle Oregon in the new-look Pac-12.
10. Oklahoma State: Defense is what keeps the Cowboys from ranking higher, just like it kept them from finishing stronger last season. OSU will produce plenty of offense with QB Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon back, but there will be some Big 12 shootouts they'll lose.
11. Texas A&M: Last season's Cotton Bowl aside, the Aggies took major strides last season and have a ton of talent back from that team, including nine starters on offense and everybody of impact except Von Miller back on defense. That could add up to a nice swan-song season for A&M in the Big 12.
12. South Carolina: No team has as potentially good an offensive trio as the Gamecocks, assuming Stephen Garcia can stay on the field and out of Steve Spurrier's doghouse. Defense will determine how much of a chance Carolina has in the SEC East, which it is the favorite win for a second straight year.
13. Ohio State: Even in NCAA disarray, the Buckeyes are too talented to completely write off this season, no matter who starts the first five games. The Ohio State defense has a ton of reloading to do before it can claim a spot as a Big Ten contender.
14. Georgia: The Bulldogs' offense and coach Mark Richt are pinning their hopes on a sophomore quarterback, a freshman running back and a loaded returning secondary. Is that enough? In the SEC East, it could be if Carolina crumbles up pressure.
15. TCU: Not many teams lost as much talent as the Horned Frogs, nor did many teams take as big a head of steam into the offseason. Gary Patterson is one of the top coaches in the country and this season will be his chance to prove it.
16. Florida: The new-look Gators have one familiar resource back in abundance – talent. Last season was a rollercoaster as Florida won its fewest games since it began the stretch of success that included national crowns in 2006 and 2008. Unless the Gators' defense tightens up, there could be more up-and-down sledding this season.
17. West Virginia: The Mountaineers seemed to have survived a messy off-season divorce from former coach Bill Stewart and enter the season as the Big East favorite. QB Geno Smith is a year older and will give WVU a nice anchor, but the major question will be if the defense can maintain the form of last season when it allowed more than 20 points only once in the regular season.
18. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen has restored confidence in the Bulldogs nation – and has billboards to prove it. Now it's time for State to take make a statement, as in beating Auburn, LSU or Georgia in the first five weeks. Tough task, but that could be the catapult the 'Dogs need.
19. Michigan State: No team's season ended with more of a thud than the Spartans when they got mud hole-stomped by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl. Was that aberration or reality? A four-game grinder October to start Big Ten play – Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska – will provide that answer this fall.
20. Missouri: With experience at every position but quarterback, Missouri may be the best Big 12 team not in Oklahoma or Texas – which could mean a fifth-place finish. The Tigers have a brutal road schedule, with trips to Arizona State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but don't leave the Show-Me State the last three weeks.
21. Notre Dame: A four-game winning streak to end last season, anchored by wins over Southern Cal and Miami have generated a wave of optimism in South Bend. But as always, the Irish have to back up their hype with performance against their annual tough-as-nails schedule.
22. Wisconsin: The arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson from N.C. State is a major boost for the Badgers, who already have two 1,000-yard type backs in James White and Montee Ball. Wisconsin's defense held up well a year ago to complement a high-flying offense, and may have to carry more of the load in 2011.
23. Arkansas: Had this vote been turned in a week ago, the Razorbacks would've been much higher. But losing tailback Knile Davis to a broken ankle puts a huge dent in Arkansas' hopes and puts a lot more pressure on QB Tyler Wilson. The loss of Davis and a three-week stretch at Alabama, vs. Texas A&M in Dallas and at home against Auburn could turn out to be knockout blows.
24. Texas: The Longhorns' dropoff from national runner-up to 5-7 last season was staggering and Mack Brown didn't sit still, shaking up his staff and opening up competition for every spot on the field. The talent is still there, but it may take this season to gain back an edge.
25. Auburn: Cam Newton and Nick Fairley aren't coming back and losing those two alone creates a major ripple effect on the Tigers' chances this season. There's still plenty of talent for AU to compete – just not enough to be a factor nationally, let alone in the rugged SEC West.