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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

First preseason Top 25: SEC's other Tigers start at No. 1


There are dumber things than picking LSU preseason No. 1.

  Ticking off Nick Fairley.

Les Miles and his Tigers have a lot of factors in their favor entering 2011. (Getty Images)  
Les Miles and his Tigers have a lot of factors in their favor entering 2011. (Getty Images)  
  Trusting Cecil Newton to stay home.

  Celebrating a score in the presence of any Big Ten official.

So, no, picking LSU isn't outrageous. Different? Yes. Out of the box? Perhaps. But not dumb, not even close because of ...

The SEC. Start with five consecutive championships. LSU hasn't exactly been gravy training on that little run. Until some program actually steps up and, you know, beats the SEC champion, we're all wearing Mike Slive pajamas. Yes, an air of superiority exists from the coaches' booth to the student managers. It should. After 142 years of college football, the conference has bottled the formula for eternal life -- or at least how to smack down everyone else. LSU may not win the SEC but the Tigers are as good a bet as any. Take the Superior Everywhere Conference against the field. It won't be a longshot.

History. LSU is the only team to win a BCS title with two losses (2007). With a brutal schedule looming and SEC pedigree in place, the Tigers are going to be given every benefit of the doubt in the BCS.

Momentum. Les Miles saying no to Michigan is going to be a huge intangible going into 2011. Crazy Les turning down his alma mater for the second time pretty much makes him a lifer in Baton Rouge. There are now only two other possible outcomes for Miles -- retirement or firing. He's not close to the first. His next fourth-down gamble could get the grumbling going about the second. But the critics should be soothed knowing that, yes, he's Crazy Les but at least he's our Crazy Les.

Recruiting. If LSU recruiting were a pipeline, it would rupture. Miles has it going on and there is no end in sight. The 2011 class is rated in the top five and has at least 10 commits rated at least four stars by rivals.com.

Indecision. There is no clear-cut No. 1 going into 2011. Stanford, Oregon, Alabama and Oklahoma all have important core players returning. Pick any of them. It doesn't matter. I'll take the school that has won two titles in the last eight seasons, 62 games in the last six and has one, damn fine football coach.

1. LSU: The good -- Six experienced offensive linemen return, Spencer Ware looks like the next good one at tailback, the secondary will rock and quarterback is almost guaranteed to be upgraded. The bad -- three defensive stars are gone (Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis and Kelvin Sheppard).

The explanation: Even if the sometimes-shaky Jordan Jefferson remains the quarterback, it means he will have improved enough to beat out Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger. The kid with the Cam Newton-like dimensions (6-feet-5, 250 pounds) followed a similar Cam path -- from SEC school to junior college where he played in the juco championship game. The Tigers are OK at running back even with the possible NFL loss of Stevan Ridley. The schedule is brutal -- Oregon in the Jerry Dome to start the season, road trips to Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State. Because of its pedigree, LSU can absorb one loss and still be in the championship picture. Given history, it might be able to absorb two.

Other than that, it's a trust thing. Miles will be able to plug the holes.

2. Oklahoma: The returns of receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis were key. Landry Jones is developing into one of the nation's better quarterbacks. That's one of the reasons Josh Heupel was promoted from quarterbacks coach to co-offensive coordinator. He has one Heisman winner on his résumé (Sam Bradford); will he have another? Coming off a seventh Big 12 title in 11 years under Bob Stoops, the Sooners are loaded. Again.

3. Oregon: If you haven't noticed, the Ducks have arrived. You saw it in the BCS title game. Oregon played even with Auburn until the final gun. Chip Kelly proved his offense can play physical with the best. The defense is opportunistic. The key components -- Darron Thomas and LaMichael James -- are back. Quick tip: Watch for tailback Lache Seastrunk. We'll know more about the Ducks after the LSU game. Oregon also goes to Stanford.

4. Alabama: There might be a reason Nick Saban extended last year's A Day spring game. He wanted to get a look at the future. Quarterback A.J. McCarron threw a walk-off touchdown pass to Brandon Gibson. McCarron will battle Phillip Sims in the spring to replace Greg McElroy. Mark Ingram is gone to the NFL but that clears the way for talented Trent Richardson at tailback. The defense is inching back up to 2009 standards.

5. Stanford: Change coaches? No problem. Stanford went in-house in promoting offensive coordinator David Shaw to replace Jim Harbaugh. There are worse hires than getting the guy who coached the last two Heisman runner-ups (Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck). Shaw will have to rebuild the offensive line but he was going to have to do that anyway. This is a fairly seamless transition. The Cardinal have a chance to go back to a BCS game.

6. Ohio State: Will Buckeye Nation ever forgive Terrelle Pryor for selling his gold pants? To be determined. We do know Pryor, along with the rest of the Buckeye Five, will have to sit out the first five games of the season. That means a trip to Miami and the Big Ten opener against Michigan State will be affected. Every one of the B-5 contributed in the Sugar Bowl win. That has a bit to do with this ranking. They'll be back in time -- if there are no NFL defections -- to chase a seventh consecutive (at least a share of) Big Ten title for Ohio State.

7. Oklahoma State: The biggest news of this week is the biggest news of 2011 so far for the Cowboys. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon are staying in school following a record-setting 11-win season in 2010. The most significant loss might be offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen who went to West Virginia to be coach-in-waiting. Defense always seems to be an issue but the Pokes are at the stage where they can win 11 while trying to figure it out.

8. Texas A&M: Despite the Cotton Bowl loss to LSU, there are reasons to like the Aggies. Things finally clicked under Mike Sherman, who changed quarterbacks and won six straight down the stretch. Eighteen starters return for a group that plays nine of 12 games in the state of Texas.

9. Michigan State: Think of the Spartans who won a share of the Big Ten title, not the Spartans who didn't show up against Alabama in the bowl. Quarterback Kirk Cousins as well as running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker are back. That's a good place to start. The defense takes a hit as Mark Dantonio loses linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Offensive coordinator Don Treadwell left for Miami (Ohio).

10. Wisconsin: How loaded were the Badgers at the end of the season? Doak Walker (best running back) finalist John Clay was essentially third string. That was him tearing up TCU on Wisconsin's final scoring drive. The offense won't suffer much with the return of tailbacks Montee Ball and James White. There are some holes on the offensive line but in life you can count on death, taxes and a Wisconsin line bigger than a house.

11. Florida State: A 10-win debut by Jimbo Fisher doesn't stink. The 'Noles are expected to take off in '11 with a dual-threat quarterback (E.J. Manuel) and a young defense. If they beat Oklahoma in Tallahassee on Sept. 17, this could be a really special season.

12. Arkansas: No Mallett? No problem. Then-backup Tyler Wilson proved his worth in the Auburn game, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns when Mallett was injured. Tailback Knile Davis gives Arkansas some offensive balance. Let's give Bobby Petrino credit for sticking around -- three whole years! -- and turning the Hogs around quickly.

13. Boise State: Nothing has changed as far as Boise's championship hopes. The Broncos know they'll most likely have to win them all to have a chance in their first year in the Mountain West. They tumbled all the way to the Las Vegas Bowl after the crushing Nevada loss. The thing is, Boise has a chance to win them all with quarterback Kellen Moore and running back Doug Martin returning.

14. Nebraska: The Big Ten did the Huskers no favors. In their first season, they play seven Big Ten bowl teams from 2010. Their first two conference games are at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State. That being said, Nebraska might be favored to win the -- ugh, still hard to write this -- Legends Division. Which Taylor Martinez will we see -- the Heisman-worthy star of early 2010 or the injured shadow of himself later in the season?

15. Auburn: This is based on Newton going pro and the assumption Fairley is gone to the NFL. Rising star Michael Dyer will have to run behind a reconfigured offensive line. There will be a lot of payback waiting in the SEC but the Tigers are up to it. This looks like an eight- or nine-win team.

16. TCU: Gary Patterson must deal with massive losses in the Frogs' last season in the Mountain West. We're guessing TCU is going to get by somehow, having won 66 games the last six years. Some things don't change, though. TCU's defense will run and it will tackle. Ask Wisconsin.

17. South Carolina: The Gamecocks won the SEC East in a down year. The same thing might happen this year. Tailback Marcus Lattimore is getting ready to take off. The quarterback play has to get better -- doesn't it? -- with another year behind Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw.

18. Virginia Tech: Pencil in the Hokies for at least nine wins. Assume they will compete for the division title. Then don't be surprised if the surpass expectations. Play-making quarterback Tyrod Taylor is the biggest loss.

19. Notre Dame: Four straight wins to end the season, a spanking of Miami in the bowl game, then to top it off the best offensive player returns. When receiver Michael Floyd decided to come back for 2011, it only added to the optimism. Could the Irish actually be turning the corner?

20. Mississippi State: Despite the loss of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, there is genuine momentum in Starkville. A new set of linebackers have to be found but after winning nine games and spanking Michigan, how do you not feel good about the future?

21. Georgia: The 2010 season was affected by A.J. Green's suspension. The clouds are clearing for 2011. Quarterback Aaron Murray looks like one of the better SEC quarterbacks. Nine starters return on defense. After the first losing season since 1996, the guess here is that the Dawgs are on the upswing.

22. Arizona State: Remember the Sun Devils? They haven't been a player on the national scene for awhile. They do have an intimidating presence if linebacker Vontaze Burfict can clean up his personal fouls. Check out the new Pac-12 South. Arizona State could be favored to win it.

23. Texas: The 'Horns can't be that bad again, can they? Coach Mack Brown hit a home run in hiring coordinators Diaz (defense) and Bryan Harsin (offense). Now it's a question of finding a running game, coaching up quarterback Garrett Gilbert and erasing that sense of entitlement.

24. Northwestern: Give me Dan Persa and Pat Fitzgerald and I'll give you another dangerous edition of the plucky Wildcats. Persa, a top 10 passer in 2010, is recovering from a ruptured Achilles. Fitzgerald stayed loyal to the Wildcats after some reported interest from Michigan.

25. (tie) Florida/UCF: Is there more indignity than the Gators barely in the Top 25, tied with Central Florida? Consider this spot a meeting place as Florida tries to return under Will Muschamp and the Knights keep rising under George O'Leary. Stellar defensive end Bruce Miller is gone for UCF but Conference USA freshman of the year, QB Jeff Godfrey is the next star. If Florida quarterback John Brantley can't thrive under new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, he has no excuse. There aren't many times you can say this, but the programs do have one significant thing in common: They both beat the Georgia Bulldogs this past season.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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