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February 15, 2011

Buchanan: Eight that could slide in 2011

After championships are won, bowls are played and bonuses to coaches are paid, the down side of success comes.

Key players graduate or complete eligibility. Star underclassmen opt for early entry into the NFL. Coaches leave for other opportunities.

Then comes the realization that -- without those players and coaches -- close games won one season can become losses the next. Sustaining success isn't easy. The breaks may swing the other way. A year without major injuries could be followed by one in which several key players are sidelined. Championship seasons may be followed by a disastrous one; just look at Texas in 2010 as an example.

But that doesn't mean that great -- or even good -- teams in 2010 are doomed to failure in 2011. Heck, Ohio State has won or shared six consecutive Big Ten championships despite frequently losing star players. But not every team can restock as easily as the Buckeyes.

Numerous teams from last season will struggle to duplicate their success this season. For some, that may only mean an extra loss or two. Others have major rebuilding projects.

Here's a look at eight teams that figure to decline to some degree in 2011.

2010 record: 14-0
Close wins: Mississippi State 17-14, South Carolina 35-27, Clemson 27-24 OT, Kentucky 37-34, LSU 24-17, Alabama 28-27, Oregon 22-19
Returning starters: 3 offense, 4 defense
The buzz: OK, this is easy. After an undefeated national championship season, the Tigers have nowhere to go but down. The question: How fall will they drop? Last season, everything seemed to work out for the Tigers, whether it was a late dropped pass by a Mississippi State receiver, a rash of South Carolina turnovers in the fourth quarter or an Alabama fumble into the end zone that prevented the Tide from taking a 31-point lead. This fall, the Tigers won't have Heisman-winning QB Cam Newton, dominating DT Nick Fairley, explosive WR Darvin Adams, LB Josh Byrnes, OT Lee Ziemba or three other starters from a powerful offensive line. There is a reason no team has won back-to-back BCS championships.
2010 record: 10-4
Close wins: Eastern Michigan 28-21, Kent State 27-21, Central Michigan 27-20, Bowling Green 24-21, Akron 19-14, Northern Illinois 26-21
Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense
The buzz: Though plenty of starters return, the MAC champion RedHawks won't have 2010 leading rusher Thomas Merriweather or leading receiver Armand Robinson. They also won't have coach Michael Haywood, who left for Pittsburgh before being fired there in the aftermath of a domestic violence arrest. There should be apprehension, too, about the way Miami won last season. The RedHawks needed a 71-yard pass in the final minute to beat 3-9 Central Michigan. They beat 2-10 Bowling Green on a last-play field goal. They recovered a late fumble inside their 20 to hold off 1-11 Akron. They rallied in the fourth quarter to beat 5-7 Kent State. The law of averages figures to catch up to Miami.
2010 record: 11-2
Close wins: Arizona State 20-19, Iowa 31-30
Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
The buzz: All-Big Ten QB Scott Tolzien completed his eligibility. His likely replacement, Jon Budmayr, attempted just 10 passes last season, so that has to be a point of concern. The eternal optimist will counter that Wisconsin is a running team anyway and RBs James White and Montee Ball, who combined for more than 2,000 yards last season, return. That's a good point, but the Badgers won't have All-America T Gabe Carimi or G John Moffitt opening holes. In addition, subtract TE Lance Kendricks, WR/KR David Gilreath and All-Big Ten DE J.J. Watt, who declared for the NFL draft. This fall's schedule projects to be much more challenging than last season's, which included seven opponents that did not have a winning record.
2010 record: 13-0
Close wins: San Diego State 40-35, Wisconsin 21-19
Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
The buzz: Some felt the Horned Frogs could have won the national championship last season if given a shot. They've posted at least 11 wins in six of the past seven seasons, but it will be difficult to maintain that level even in a weakened Mountain West. TCU always plays sound defense, and LBs Tank Carder and Tanner Brock return. Still, all the talent that TCU lost cannot be ignored. The Frogs lose nine players who earned All-Mountain West Conference recognition last season. That includes Andy Dalton, the winningest quarterback in school history. Ed Wesley is back, and he heads a deep group of tailbacks. But All-America C Jake Kirkpatrick and All-MWC T Marcus Cannon are gone.
2010 record: 9-4
Close wins: Georgia Southern 13-7, Wake Forest 28-27, SMU 28-21, Central Michigan 38-37
Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
The buzz: The Midshipmen have posted at least eight victories in each of the past eight seasons, but keeping that streak intact won't be easy. The graduation of QB Ricky Dobbs leaves Navy without its best player and with a void that won't easily be filled. Dobbs led the Middies with nearly 1,000 rushing yards last season and also provided a passing threat Navy doesn't often have. Even with Dobbs leading the way, Navy needed a last-minute touchdown pass to beat 3-9 Wake Forest, scored in the final two minutes to topple SMU and struggled with 3-9 Central Michigan. Defense is just as much an issue. The Middies must make significant progress against the pass because there are a few teams on the '11 schedule that are adept at throwing the football.
2010 record: 9-4
Close wins: Navy 17-14, Duke 21-16, Boston College 24-21, NC State 38-31
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
The buzz: Maryland has been an up-and-down program the past eight seasons. In '03, the Terps were 10-3, but they went 5-6 in each of the next two seasons. They posted nine wins in '06 but followed that with a six-victory season in '07. They won eight games in '08, then just two in '09. Now, they're coming off a nine-win season, so trends indicate another dip is coming. Maryland may become more consistent under new coach Randy Edsall, but he'll have a tough task replacing the production of leading receiver Torrey Smith, who declared for the NFL draft. Edsall also has to bolster a lackluster pass defense that ranked 78th in the nation last season and replace All-ACC LB Alex Wujciak.
2010 record: 11-2
Close wins: Notre Dame 34-31 (OT), Northwestern 35-27, Purdue 35-31, Penn State 28-22
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
The buzz: The Spartans still have solid talent on hand -- QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR B.J. Cunningham, CB Johnny Adams and FS Trenton Robinson. Thus, don't count on the Spartans going into the tank. But matching last season's 11-win total seems unlikely without All-America LB Greg Jones, OT D.J. Young, LB Eric Gordon, CB Chris Rucker and leading receiver Mark Dell. Last season, Michigan State beat Notre Dame with a fake field goal, had a big special-teams play in the win over Northwestern and rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Purdue. The bounces aren't likely to be as fortuitous this fall.
2010 record: 9-4
Close wins: Florida 10-7, UAB 29-24, Kentucky 24-17, Ole Miss 31-23
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
The buzz: The previous two times Mississippi State produced a winning record, the Bulldogs crumpled the next season. They may break that trend in 2011, but matching the nine wins posted in 2010 would appear to be a stretch. All-America OT Derek Sherrod is gone. So are All-SEC DE Pernell McPhee and LB Chris White. Also gone is C J.C. Brignone and the other two starting linebackers. With QB Chris Relf improving, RB Vick Ballard returning and experience in the secondary, the Bulldogs figure to remain a tough opponent. Still, they went 3-0 against the SEC East last season, including wins over Florida and Georgia. The odds on that happening again aren't good.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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