by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

1-OKLAHOMA...Now that the Sooners have the BCS bugaboo off of their back after thrashing UConn in the Fiesta Bowl, OU is poised to close the deal on the school’s first national title since 2000. Landry Jones has proven more than an adequate successor to Sam Bradford at QB, and if frosh RB Brandon Williams is as good as advertised, look out. Assuming OU survives an early test at Florida State, it should be full speed ahead to New Orleans.

2-BOISE STATE...Chris Petersen is a John Wooden-like 61-5 as Boise’s coach, and expect more of the same this fall as the Broncos move laterally from the WAC to the Mountain West. QB Kellen Moore (74 TDP and 9 picks the past two years!) and his Heisman candidacy are an extra perk this fall, and don’t forget about the Boise “D” that ranked second in the nation last year. But it’s essentially a 2-game season for he Broncos; the opener vs. Georgia in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Classic, and the Nov. 12 Mountain West showdown vs. TCU on the blue carpet. Win those two, and avoid banana peels elsewhere in a manageable slate, and Bosie should be BCS-bound. Then, can an undefeated Bronco team stay ahead of one-loss teams from BCS conferences in the title game queue and make it to New Orleans?

3-ALABAMA...The SEC West is a minefield again this season, but at least the Tide gets LSU and Arkansas in Tuscaloosa. Whoever emerges as Greg McElroy’s replacement at QB will still be able to hand the ball to RB Trent Richardson, a stealth Heisman candidate who proved no drop-off from Mark Ingram the past two years. The defense will be another Nick Saban special, and the Tide will be fueled all season by the memory of three bitter SEC losses a year ago.

4-WISCONSIN...The biggest question mark at Camp Randall Stadium turned into the biggest potential bonus in the offseason when former NC State QB Russell Wilson transferred to Madison. Now, it looks as if the Badgers could have a real upgrade at QB from the graduated Scott Tolzien, and as usual another earth-moving OL will pave the way for RBs James White & Montee Ball. The Big Ten also appears to be a soft landing spot this season, and if Wisconsin survives back-to-back late October trips to Michigan State & Ohio State, it will set itself up for a return BCS trip...maybe to New Orleans.

5-LSU...Don’t let anyone tell you the Tigers are ducking people this season. Two of their intersectional foes (Oregon and West Virginia) plus Alabama are all favored to win their conferences, and none of those games will be played at Tiger Stadium. But word from Baton Rouge is that new o.c. Steve Kragthorpe has been able to fine-tune erratic sr. QB Jordan Jefferson, and confidence is high after last year’s win over Bama and the Cotton Bowl romp past Texas A&M. Watch jr. WR Russell Shepard turn into a real game-breaker in the Kragthorpe offense.

6-OREGON...Offseason distractions aside, the Ducks are still loaded, especially on offense with RB LaMichael James a legit Heisman threat and QB Darron Thomas a perfect triggerman for Chip Kelly’s omnipotent spread. The Ducks will be the class of the Pac-12 once more, but Oregon will be in chase mode for a return to the BCS title game if it can’t beat LSU in a BCS-flavored lid-lifter at Jerry Jones Cowboys Stadium. The absence of key DB Cliff Harris (suspended for the LSU game) could hurt in the opener.

7-TCU...It will be odd seeing a new QB (Casey Pachall) for the Frogs instead of Andy Dalton, whose career at TCU seemed to stretch back to the Sammy Baugh era. Otherwise, everything else seems in pretty much in place from last year’s undefeated Rose Bowl winner, especially a nasty defense paced by spiritual leader LB Tank Carder. A return trip to the BCS likely hinges upon a date at Boise State on November 12 before the Frogs hop to the Big East next season.

8-VIRGINIA TECH...The Hokies have had all offseason to steam about their blowout loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl. The ACC, however, provides a clear path back to the BCS, and no one is accusing Frank Beamer of overscheduling the Hokies in their non-conference portion of the slate (App State, East Carolina, Arkansas State, and Marshall...but don't tell Beamer, who remembers what James MAdison did last season). 6'6 redshirt soph QB Logan Thomas (with more upside than departed starter Tyrod Taylor) is a potential monster, and along with another typical Bud Foster defense, VPI could be a BCS title game darkhorse.

9-NOTRE DAME...Did Notre Dame really turn the corner when closing with a rush last season? What we do know is that HC Brian Kelly enters this season with at least two proven QBs (Dayne Crist & Tommy Rees) after having none at this time a year ago, and now that WR Michael Floyd’s suspension has been lifted, the offense has a weapon to distort enemy defenses. We’re still not sure if the Irish “D” has enough foot speed to shut down quality attacks, but we’re not sure how many of those ND will see this fall in a challenging, but hardly overwhelming, schedule.

10-FLORIDA STATE...That wasn’t so bad, Seminole Nation! Bobby Bowden’s departure had turned into a soap opera and unneeded distraction in Tallahassee, and it only took new HC Jimbo Fisher one year to get the Noles back on track. It’s a toss-up between them and Virginia Tech for the ACC pilot seat, and FSU might have an edge if QB E.J. Manuel, who has fared well in past test runs, proves he can fill the shoes of graduated QB Christian Ponder. FSU can even start talking about the BCS title game if it can beat Oklahoma at Doak Campbell Stadium September 17.

11-NEBRASKA...The Huskers are excited about their move to the Big Ten and a chance to get away from the Texas-skewed Big XII, and are the solid choice to win their half, the pretentious-sounding Legends Division (not quite as pretentious-sounding as "Leaders" Division, however) of their expanded new league. Bo Pelini’s “D” should again be robust, but we’re still not sure about the durability of explosive QB Taylor Martinez, a flighty soph whose production dipped alarmingly late in 2010 after an ankle injury, and there is no experience behind him. Nebraska also looked tapped out late last season, especially in the Holiday Bowl loss to Washington.

12-OKLAHOMA STATE...Mike Gundy has not had any trouble attracting big-time offensive talent to Stillwater and the Boone Pickens-financed, state-of-the-art OSU faciltiies. And ex-minor league baseball player turned QB Brandon Weeden returns after throwing 34 TDP in his starting debut last season, with favorite target Justin Blackmon also retruning for an encore. But finding a few game-changers for the stop unit still remains a challenge for the Cowboy coaching staff.

13-STANFORD...We know Mel Kiper, Jr. has had Andrew Luck as his top-rated QB prospect for two years, and the Stanford pilot is the consensus early Heisman favorite. Here’s two reasons, however, why we expect the Cardinal to slip a bit from last year’s 12-1 Orange Bowl winner. No HC Jim Harbaugh. And no HC Jim Harbaugh. Sorry, we need convincing that replacement David Shaw can have Stanford playing on edge as it did for Harbaugh, who moved up the Bayshore Freeway to coach the NFL 49ers. Rebuilding along both lines also suggests Stanford could slip a bit from its 2010 perch.

14-ARKANSAS...It was a bad offseason for Arkansas RBS, with Knile Davis going down with an ankle injury and Broderick Green with an ACL, both likely lost for the season. But Bobby Petrino should be able to find a few capable runners, and word is that jr. QB Tyler Wilson will make the departure of Ryan Mallett much easier to take, not to mention ridding Petrino of an acknowledged head case and distraction. If Petrino’s “D” shows slight improvement, the Hogs will seriously challenge Bama and LSU in the SEC West.

15-WEST VIRGINIA...Somebody has to win the Big East and make it into the BCS, right? It might as well be the Mountaineers, who endured their own little soap opera in the offseason when HC Bill Stewart’s attempt to submarine successor Dana Holgorsen backfired. Now Holgorsen (who does like to visit casinos, by the way) runs the show, and QB Geno Smith looks a perfect fit to run the creative spreads that Holgorsen coordinated with style at Houston and Oklahoma State.

16-TEXAS A&M...The Ags made a nice turnaround in 2010 and in the process saved the job of HC Mike Sherman. Now, before A&M moves to the SEC (which we think will happen soon...stay tuned), it will look to block Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s path to the BCS behind QB Ryan Tannehill, who emerged as a difference-maker when finally crashing the starting lineup midway last season. Sherman’s best move last year, however, was hiring d.c. Tim DeRuyter away from Air Force, although the Aggie stop unit could miss impact LB Von Miller (second choice in NFL Draft by Denver) this fall.

17-SOUTH CAROLINA...Can any SEC East team give an argument to the powerhouses in the Western half of the loop? Maybe South Carolina, as Steve Spurrier has capitalized on temporary downturns at Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee to emerge as the team-to-beat in the East. Soph RB Marcus Lattimore is already a peripheral Heisman candidate, and WR Alshon Jeffery remains a big-time target, but QB Stephen Garcia (reinstated after an offseason suspension) always seems one bad start away from being pulled by Spurrier.

18-SOUTHERN MISS...No CUSA team has ever been a BCS Buster, but if it is to happen, it might be this year’s USM. Playmaking QB Austin Davis (one TD pass away from breaking Brett Favre’s school record) returns from another Golden Eagle bowl team that lost 4 games by a total of 11 points a year ago. How well USM adapts to new d.c. Dan Disch’s revamped 4-2-5 looks could prove the difference in the close games, and the schedule sets up well for a possible run of the table.

19-MICHIGAN STATE...As you can tell, we’re not terribly overwhelmed by the prospects in this year’s Big Ten, and any thought that MSU’s 11-1 regular-season mark last season had the Spartans among the nation’s elite were dashed by the Capital One Bowl 49-7 blowout loss to Alabama. The “D” must replace five starters from last year’s resourceful platoon, but the “O” should be capable once more with clever QB Kirk Cousins still in the fold. Bowl-bound again, but just don’t make the mistake of believing the Spartans are a BCS-caliber outfit.

20-ARIZONA STATE...Dennis Erickson is on the hot seat in Tempe after three straight bowl-less campaigns and lots of bad luck a year ago when ASU lost four games by four points or fewer, including a pair it could easily have won vs. BCS Wisconsin and Stanford. Now, the Sun Devils are a chic pick to win the newly-created Pac-12 South, thanks in large part to a “D” (led by impact MLB Vontaze Burfict) has turned into a strength in the desert. Erickson is high on 6'8 jr. QB Brock Osweiler, although no experienced backup is on the roster.

21-MISSISSIPPI STATE...It’s too bad the Bulldogs have to deal with the SEC West, where they rate no better than fourth choice heading into the season. They would likely be favored to win the Eastern half of the loop and several other conferences; just ask Michigan, routed 52-14 in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day. Offensive stars QB Chris Relf and TD-machine RB Vick Ballard are back as are several impact defenders, plus rising star HC Dan Mullen, courted by a number of suitors in the offseason but remaining loyal (for the time being) to Starkville.

22-OHIO STATE...Not your normal offseason in Columbus, with scandal rocking the program, HC Jim Tressel forced out, and several players suspended or dismissed, including QB Terrelle Pryor. Big Ten sources say interim HC Luke Fickell is unlikely to land the job on a full-time basis, although the cupboard is hardly bare at the Big Horseshoe. Pryor’s departure fast-forwards the career of true frosh QB Braxton Miller, likely to take over the offense sometime in the fall, and there are still plenty of playmakers on both platoons. But residual issues resulting from the scandal figure to temporarily knock the Buckeyes off of their recent perch.

23-UTAH...The Utes have won 10 or more games the past three seasons and have won BCS bowls twice in the past seven campaigns. So the move to the Pac-12 should not be too much of a problem, especially with the South appearing to be the softer half of the loop this season. HC Kyle Whittingham now has the sage Norm Chow coordinating his offense, which should be fine as long as QB Jordan Wynn is fully recovered from last year’s shoulder injury. Meanwhile, the front seven on the Utes’ stop unit might be the league’s best.

24-GEORGIA...Talk about your hot seats! None are quite as sizzling as Mark Richt’s in Athens, and the Dawgs might have to do better than another minor bowl for the coaching staff to last into 2012. Soph QB Aaron Murray appears ready for a breakout campaign, and SEC sources say ballyhooed frosh RB Isaiah Crowell could have the same impact as Marcus Lattimore did last year at South Carolina. We’ll see, however, how much the “O” misses homerun WR A.J. Green, a first-round pick of the Bengals. And the “D” needs to improve several notches after springing too many leaks in 2010.

25-SOUTH FLORIDA...HC Skip Holtz remains a well-kept secret in the business, although his turn on the national stage will come if the Bulls can win at Notre Dame in the opener (papa Lou will be watching that one for sure). Besides the Irish, the schedule is hardly of the grueling variety, and the “O” could become feared if jr. QB B.J. Daniels begins to display a bit more consistency. The program is on the cusp...how many realize that the Bulls have qualified for five straight bowls?

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